Miami Heat player LeBron James hoists the championship trophy as team mate Dwyane Wade looks on stage at a rally in Miami, Florida

NBA Season Preview: Miami Heat


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.

Kobe Bryant went from DeMar DeRozan’s idol to his friend

Kobe Bryant, DeMar DeRozan
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TORONTO (AP) — DeMar DeRozan was 16 when he was invited to Kobe Bryant‘s camp for the top 25 American high school shooting guards.

A friendship grew between the youngster who would become an All-Star for the Toronto Raptors and the player who would become the third-leading scorer in NBA history.

DeRozan talked at length Sunday night about Bryant, who announced on The Players’ Tribune that he’ll retire after the season, capping a 20-year NBA career.

“The knowledge that he tended to give me every time I got the chance to be around him, especially at a young age, carrying over to the league, it was definitely an honor,” DeRozan said after the Raptors’ 107-102 loss Sunday night to Phoenix. “I tried to listen as much as possible, soak in as much as I could all of the time. It’s crazy how much time flies.”

Bryant was DeRozan’s favorite player while growing up in Compton, Calif.

“I’ve tried to emulate and learn so much from him ever since I was a kid, watching every single game growing up in Los Angeles, having a chance to get with him and learn from him, from conversations even when I was in high school from playing against him, completing against him, being in big games with him,” said DeRozan, who scored 29 points in Sunday’s loss. “It’s definitely a sad, sad day, but he’s been in the game a long time.”

Bryant’s announcement came just before the Lakers’ game against the visiting Indiana Pacers. Fans at the game received a letter of thanks from the 37-year-old player in a black envelope embossed with gold.

Bryant has struggled mightily with injuries the past several years, and is shooting a career-worst 32 percent this season.

“It don’t matter. That man has five rings, 17 all-stars, MVP,” DeRozan said. “There’s nothing he hasn’t done. It’s just father time catching up with him, injuries catching up with him this past year. People will appreciate it when he’s away from the game.”

DeRozan has his favorite Kobe memory – Bryant scoring 81 points against Toronto in 2006. DeRozan, who would join the Raptors as a rookie three years later, said he felt as if he was playing a video game watching the high-scoring spectacle unfold on TV.

DeRozan is in his seventh season with Toronto. He can’t imagine playing 20 years.

“Especially playing at a high level, doing the things he was doing … people don’t understand how hard that is,” DeRozan said. “Even now, a lot of us find ourselves tired (on) back-to-backs. It’s tough. It’s really tough. To do it 20 years at a high level, you have to give that man every credit in the world.”

Hornets’ Al Jefferson out 2-3 weeks with strained calf

Al Jefferson
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The Hornets have been playing well of late, going 7-3 in their last 10 and outscoring opponents by 6.3 points per 100 possessions. They are solidly in the playoff picture out East, in the six slot right now.

This is not going to help matters.

The team announced that an MRI confirmed center Al Jefferson will be out two to three weeks with a strained left calf muscle, suffered during Charlotte’s 87-82 win over Milwaukee on Sunday.

Jefferson missing a few weeks due to injury at some point during the season is an annual event, like the Rose Parade or the Head of the Charles Regatta — but this year the Hornets are better prepared to deal with it. This is the deepest Charlotte team in recent memory.

Tyler Hansbrough, Cody Zeller, and Frank Kaminsky will get more run — plus Spencer Hawes may be back in the rotation — and if they can step up the Hornets will not slow down much.

This season the Hornets defense has been downright stingy when Jefferson is on the bench, giving up 94.2 points per 100 possessions (which is 10 better than when he is on the court). However, the Hornet offense and rebounding efforts are stronger when he plays.

PBT Extra: How did Thunder, Pacers move up in PBT Power Rankings?

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As they do every Monday during the season, the PBT Power Rankings came out and while the top three remained the same there were some climbers.

Specifically, the Thunder at No. 4 and the Pacers at No. 5.

Why they are there is the latest PBT Extra topic with Jenna Corrado. The simple answer is they are both excellent teams. Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and Paul George are all playing like Top 10 players.

PBT Podcast: We’re back talking Kobe, 76ers, Warriors, Pistons, more

Kobe Bryant
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The ProBasketballTalk NBA podcast is back.

Sure we’re a month into the season, but we’re going to get this podcast rolling again and you can expect us on each Monday and Thursday, with a variety of guests talking everything around the NBA.

Today NBC’s own Dan Feldman joins Kurt Helin to talk Kobe Bryant‘s retirement announcement, and what that means both for the Lakers going forward this season and beyond, but also what that could mean for Byron Scott’s future as the Lakers’ coach.

We also delve into the “showdown” between the Lakers and Sixers on Thursday, talk about the job Brett Brown is doing there as coach (a good one), we talk some Warriors, some Draymond Green, Pistons, Spurs and Pacers to round it all out.

Listen to the podcast below or you can listen and subscribe via iTunes.