NBA Season Preview: Miami Heat

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Last season: It was not flawless, but it was superb. It was not easy, but it was rewarding. And it was not what they thought it would be, but it was spectacular.

The Miami Heat accomplished all of their goals in the 2012 season, that being the only goal they had: win the title. They vanquished Boston after going down 3-2, they overcame injuries to Dwane Wade and Chris Bosh, and maybe most notably, LeBron James silenced every critic of his game with arguably the best seven games of his career.

So yeah, it was a pretty good year.

Miami still had to make adjustments along the way. They discovered that instead of a steady diet of the Big 3, LeBron James needed the ball to start every possession. They found that smallball was their best attack, because it emphasized their speed. And they found that their defense was at its best when it was forcing turnovers. They had moments where they looked overwhelmed, a shell of what they were supposed to be, particularly Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

But they rose, again and again, on the back of James who went to the post and played point-forward-center, controlling the offense, scoring for himself and creating. There was nothing anyone could do when he got into that mode.

The Heat are a long way from the “not six, not seven…” standard they set for themselves. But it was validation of all the criticism they suffered, and a certification of their team concept. Now they just have to go out and do it again.

And again. And again…

Key Departures: No one. The core of the team is intact. James-Wade-Bosh-Battier-Chalmers-Haslem-Anthony-Cole-Miller-Jones are all back. Ronny Turiaf departed but by the end, the Heat had largely abandoned the concept of a center anyway.

Key Additions: Oh, you know, only arguably the best three-point shooter in history, Ray Allen. That guy.

They also added Rashard Lewis as another veteran perimeter threat.

Three keys to the Heat season:
1) Can age sustain the velocity? Erik Spoelstra went to Pat Riley last year and advocated for an approach to use speed and athleticism to push the Heat to a new level. It worked out brilliantly, despite Riley’s hesitance towards going away from traditional big men.

This year, the Heat have pledged to be faster than ever, and Chris Bosh says he’s accepted his role at center. Dwyane Wade is recovering from surgery, Ray Allen’s admitted that his ankle isn’t 100 percent, and much of the roster is getting up there in years. Is a fast way to play going to be conducive to keeping them healthy? Even with a move away from physicality and grinding and more into a wide-open style, there’s still the essential problem of contact and impact at high velocity.

It remains to be seen if the Heat’s best approach can be sustained by a roster that doesn’t feature many spring chickens.

2) LeBron keeping his edge. He’s reached the top of Olympus, took King Arthur’s sword and took control of the Matrix. Will James have the same edge he did at the last year, playing desperately?

Bear in mind that there’s often a slide-back after you win a title because you recognize that you’re playing for June now. The regular season become less important due to the comfort that you know how to accomplish your goal. Will James want to pursue that bruising inside game for even half the season? And if he abandons the post for his perimeter game to save is body, will he be able to slide right back into it?

Most important is if James stays hungry. He’s accomplished it all. He’s on top of the NBA globe right now, only his road to a repeat is that much harder with the Lakers and an ever-developing Thunder. Will be be able to keep his mind focused on getting better and staying on top or will he coast on his laurels. We’ve seen that the Heat go as LeBron does.

So how will LeBron go?

3) Can the shooters stay hot? Shane Battier has never been a great three-point shooter, and yet he absolutely killed both Boston and Oklahoma City in the playoffs, enough for fans to grumble a bit about flukes. Mike Miller has been falling apart for years, physically, and yet nailed enough threes to destroy OKC.

Their four primary shooters, Battier, Miller, Allen, and Rashard Lewis are all well over 30. Allen and Miller have injury issues. Lewis hasn’t been effective since 2009. And Battier’s never been reliable from deep. Do they have enough balance? Mario Chalmers is likely to keep improving, but when those shots don’t fall and the defense packs the paint to deter James and Wade’s driving, the offense stalls.

For the Heat to be in the elite offensive category, they need those guys to keep shooting well. And that’s a tall order when you look at their age, despite their career accomplishments.

What Heat fans should fear: Injury, injury, injury.

Dwyane Wade still isn’t 100 percent and may never be… again, ever. Chris Bosh is recovering. Mike Miller feels good enough to play, because he didn’t get back surgery that he needed. Ray Allen says his ankle is an ongoing problem. The list goes on and on. The Heat are always one major injury from falling way behind, and just because they managed to survive last year on the back of LeBron doesn’t mean it’ll be enough this year with a tougher slate than ever.

Every team worries about injuries, but the Heat worry about them a little bit more.

How it likely works out: The Heat have not gotten the top overall seed in the Triad era. This may be their best chance with the Bulls without Derrick Rose. They don’t need it, though, and will be more likely to coast for long stretches and rest players. But for all the questions of their longevity and sustainability, this is still the established team in the league, the defending champions with the best player in the league.

There is no reason to think the Heat will not win the Eastern Conference for the third year in a row. What happens after that is an entirely more complicated question, and one we’ll need to address throughout the year as it evolves.

Prediction: 60-22: The Heat finally crack the 60-mark in the Triad era, but don’t do anything outlandish. A great team, but one still with flaws whose stars miss too many games to win it all. Their offense still stagnates and their bench never gives them enough of a boost to overcome a bad night from the starters. But a small step forward for the best team in the East behind a kinder schedule and the addition of Allen.

Timberwolves working on (max?) extension for Andrew Wiggins

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Andrew Wiggins is eligible for a contract extension that projects to be worth $148 million over five years. The Timberwolves could even include a clause that increases Wiggins’ compensation up to a projected $153 if he makes an All-NBA team or wins Defensive Player of the Year next season.

Jerry Zgoda of the StarTribune:

The Wolves have until October to complete a negotiation that shouldn’t take all that much negotiating if Wiggins accepts a contract that’s expected to approach $150 million.

Timberwolves president/coach Tom Thibodeau appears to be talking just generally about an extension. Zgoda brings up a max offer. It’s unclear whether Zgoda is reporting or supposing Minnesota has offered/plans to offer that much.

I’d hesitate to offer Wiggins the full max.

He’s a high-volume scorer with below-average efficiency (carrying enough of a load where that tradeoff is helpful). But his rebounding and defense lag WAY behind where his athleticism suggests those skills should be. For someone who dominated the ball, he’s not much of a distributor.

On the other hand, Wiggins is just 22 and possesses the physical tools to grow into a complete player. It’s reasonable to bet on him getting there, and an extension should be based on what Wiggins will do in future seasons, not what he has done already.

Plus, a max salary is the only allowable rate for a five-year extension. Offer any less, and the Timberwolves would be limited to a four-year extension. Do they really want to face his unrestricted free agency – in the midst of his prime – a year sooner.

It’s not as if they’d lose him now by forgoing an extension, though. Wiggins would be a restricted free agent next summer, and Minnesota could always extend a maximum qualifying offer, which would mean any offer sheet must be for three or four years (not including option years). The Timberwolves would also have a five-year max contract on the table (which would carry the same terms as a five-year max extension signed this offseason). Wiggins could accepted the $9,846,619 one-year qualifying offer and become an unrestricted free agent in 2019, but that would be an unprecedented risk with so much money on the table.

Minnesota can all but guarantee locking him up for the next four seasons (including the final year of his rookie-scale contract this year). A max extension would secure him for the five (six if it doesn’t include a player option).

Ultimately, I’d lean toward offering Wiggins less than a max extension. It’s a tight market with the salary-cap stagnating in coming years, and a max offer sheet might not be available to him in restricted free agency. The Timberwolves could evaluate him another season and offer Wiggins the max next summer if he deserves it. If Wiggins wants security now, he can take a slight discount. That might come with complications down the road, but so would overpaying a one-dimensional player. A five-year max extension wouldn’t be terrible – if Minnesota doesn’t grant a player or early termination option.

By the way, don’t worry about another Kevin LoveRicky Rubio situation. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement allows teams to sign two designated-player rookie-scale extensions, so the Timberwolves could still offer Karl-Anthony Towns (who more clearly deserves it) one after giving Wiggins one.

Celtics add toughness with Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris

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WALTHAM, Mass. (AP) Aron Baynes and Marcus Morris are happy to be coming to Boston at the same time, if only so they don’t have to play against each other.

Baynes signed with the Celtics as a free agent on Wednesday, and he already has a familiar face in the team’s locker room: Morris, who was acquired in a trade for Avery Bradley on July 7. Baynes said Morris “brings a lot of toughness” to the court, and Celtics assistant general manager Mike Zarren said the 6-foot-10 Australian can do the same.

“Red Auerbach said, `Get the instigators, not the retaliators,”‘ Zarren said before introducing Baynes to the media. “He’s definitely an instigator.”

The two former Pistons shared the day, with the Celtics announcing Baynes’ signing an hour before a media call with Morris. Bradley, the longest-tenured member of the team and the only remnant from the New Big Three era, needed to go to clear the salary cap space for prize free agent catch Gordon Hayward.

Baynes and Morris join a team that earned the No. 1 seed in the East last season but lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals in five games. Baynes, who averaged 15.5 minutes last season for a team that missed the playoffs, said coming to Boston was “a basketball decision.”

“Hopefully, I’m a piece that helps them bring the puzzle together,” he said. “You always want to be able to play more. I didn’t see myself having much bigger a role than I’ve had the past two years.”

An undrafted free agent who won an NBA title with the Spurs in 2014, Baynes averaged 5.2 points and 4.1 rebounds in his five-year career. He played in 75 games last year for the Pistons, starting two, averaging 4.9 points and 4.4 rebounds.

After working out at the team’s facility in the morning, Baynes came out to greet children at a basketball camp taking place on the practice court. A noted BBQ enthusiast who tweeted out a request for recommendations in the area, Baynes said he hadn’t tried the local offerings yet.

“There’s a few lobster rolls around here,” he said.

Morris averaged 14 points last season in Detroit, where he was a mainstay in the starting lineup. He saw the Celtics up close while watching his twin brother, Markieff, play for the Wizards in a seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal series against Boston last year.

Morris said coming to Boston cushioned the blow of being traded.

“How can I be upset about being a Boston Celtic?” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m a competitor. I want to play against the best. I want to play for championships.”

Morris said he reached out to longtime Celtics star Paul Pierce after learning he was traded.

“He said I’m going to love it,” said Morris, who like Pierce went to Kansas. “That’s all I needed to hear.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Adam Silver on sports gambling: “My sense is the law will change in the next few years”

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This isn’t new ground for NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. He has called legalized sports gambling in the United States “inevitable” and advocated in the New York Times for the federal government to put in a framework to control it. He’s not been shy about telling the heads of the other major sports leagues what he sees coming. Mark Cuban has Silver’s back on this one.

The commissioners of the four major sports were all on hand for a panel called “GameChangers: Creating the Future of Sports” in New York on Wednesday, and Silver’s position hasn’t changed, reports ESPN.

“My sense is the law will change in the next few years in the United States,” Silver said when asked about gambling.

He also stressed the importance of in-game wagering to fan engagement, noting, “People want to bet throughout the game … It results in enormous additional engagement with the fans.”

I’m not sure about “the next few years” timeline. I would rather be forced to watch The Emoji Movie than try to predict what the current Congress will do, but with its current conservative makeup legalizing sports betting seems unlikely.

But in the next decade or two… it feels like Silver may be right. The Supreme Court is taking up the case of whether the federal government can block states — in this case, New Jersey specifically — from allowing sports gambling. That could open the door for other states to follow.  Governments state and federal will not see it as a moral issue so much as a new revenue generator — they can tax it. So it will happen. Eventually.

With that Silver is right, professional sports leagues need to be prepared for that reality. The NBA seems to be out in front of that, ready to ride the wave when it crests. For now, they are just paddling around waiting for the right wave to ride.

Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis: “My prediction is John Wall will sign his extension”

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John Wall is one of the handful of NBA players who qualifies for the new designated veteran “super max” contract extension — and the Wizards want to give it to him. A four-year, $170 million extension of his current deal is on the table (it would kick in after the two years, $37 million on his current contract).

Wall has yet to sign it. He said at the time it was offered he wanted to talk about it with his family and see what the Wizards did this offseason. He’s not unhappy, he just wants to be sure before he locks himself in with Washington through his prime.

Washington owner Ted Leonsis told Candace Buckner of the Washington Post he thinks Wall will sign.

Maybe, but there’s not a lot of motivation for Wall to sign right now. Wall can bet on himself that he will make the All-NBA team again next year — there’s a deep class of guards but if he stays healthy he stands a good chance — at which time he’s still eligible for a designated veteran “super max” contract extension that would be five-years, roughly $200 million (and would kick in after the one year on his current deal).

That delay would also keep pressure on the Wizards to find ways to improve the roster. Washington is largely capped out and didn’t make any major moves this summer other than re-signing Otto Porter to a max extension (they matched a Brooklyn offer sheet). Washington is good, likely the third or fourth best team in the East, but a notch below Cleveland and Boston right now. Wall wants to push them to get another star and help Washington move up into contender status — he pushed for the Wizards to chase Paul George and have him replace Porter (a deal that was never going to happen, but you can see what Wall is thinking about being one star player short).

Ultimately, I think Leonsis is right, Wall will sign. It’s just a matter of when. Does he take this deal now, or wait until next summer and do it?