ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Miami Heat

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Last season: The Heat won their second straight championship in an epic seven-game battle against a Spurs team that had every chance to take home the title instead. On their way, Miami flirted with history by stringing together a 27-game winning streak that lasted late into March, and finished the season by winning an incredible 53 of its last 61 games. LeBron James took home both the regular season and Finals MVP awards.

Signature highlight from last season: Miami was on the verge of losing Game 6 of the Finals, and a championship right along with it. After trailing by five points with 28 seconds remaining, the Heat had cut it to three and had possession of the ball. LeBron missed a three that would have tied it, but Chris Bosh fought for the rebound and kicked it to Ray Allen, who stepped back behind the three-point line and delivered the season-saving dagger that will go down as one of the biggest shots in NBA history.

Key player changes: Miami didn’t do anything too drastic in terms of shaking up its roster, which is to be expected from a team looking to win its third straight title. But they did say goodbye to a key veteran piece, and rolled the dice on two players that have been busts everywhere else.

  • IN: Greg Oden is the only player who’s been added on a guaranteed deal for the upcoming season. Michael Beasley is in camp on a non-guaranteed deal, as is Roger Mason Jr. Miami has 13 players on guaranteed deals; it’s unlikely they’d guarantee two more to max out their roster before seeing who might be available later in the season.
  • OUT: Mike Miller was waived using the amnesty provision, saving the team a total of $17 million in what was purely a cost-cutting measure.

Keys to the Heat’s season:

1) The health of Dwyane Wade: The Heat were able to win the title even with Wade playing at far less than 100 percent. He had offseason shock treatment to try to rejuvenate his ailing knee, which is something he’s done in the past that provided successful results.

Managing Wade’s health throughout the season so that he’s as ready as possible for the playoffs may be the single most important factor in whether or not Miami can make its fourth straight trip to the Finals — a feat which hasn’t been accomplished since the Boston Celtics did it during the 1984-87 seasons.

2) Pace yourself: For Miami to be playing deep into June once again, the team will need to carefully manage the minutes of not only its star players, but its aging crop of reserves, as well. Guys like Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier, and Ray Allen are becoming ancient by league standards, and while Allen and Battier seem to come through with big shots when it matters most, the reality is that they both have declining overall skill sets.

The good news is that the Heat seemed to do this to perfection last year — not so much in terms of limiting guys’ minutes, but the team coasted a bit through the first part of the season. On February 1, Miami had a rather pedestrian record of 29-14. Five teams in the West had better records at the time, and two others had notched the name number of victories to that point in the season’s schedule. It was only then that Miami flipped the switch and reeled off that huge winning streak which propelled them into the postseason.

If they can similarly conserve effort during the first few months while winning enough to stay with the pack, the Heat will be poised to make yet another late-season run.

3) Will standing pat be enough against a reloaded Eastern Conference?: This is perhaps the ultimate question.

A cursory glance around the East shows that at least three teams — Brooklyn, Indiana, and Chicago — should all be vastly improved this season. The Nets added Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, the Pacers shored up their bench unit by bringing in guys like Luis Scola, Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson, plus they’ll see a healthy Danny Granger return to the lineup to boost the team’s offense. Derrick Rose is back for the Bulls, and by all accounts will be at full strength for the start of the season.

Those teams all got markedly better on paper, and we haven’t even mentioned the Knicks yet, who added Metta World Peace, Andrea Bargnani, and Beno Udrih to a team that finished last year with the second best record in the East.

Miami didn’t make any splashy additions in free agency, and preferred instead to return with the majority of last season’s roster intact. They may need either the Beasley or the Oden gamble to pay off to bolster the second unit, and both of those players are long shots at best given their respective career histories.

Why you should watch the Heat: LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world, and he’s in the prime of his career.

Prediction: 58-24, and a top-three seed in the East. Miami will be strong again this season, and while a third straight title given the way the top teams have improved certainly isn’t impossible, it does seem like a stretch. It may be foolish to count out LeBron at this stage of his career, but I see the Heat getting no further than the Eastern Conference Finals.

Jeff Hornacek on Joakim Noah: “We’ve moved on. He’s ready to move on”

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Not that anyone actually thought Joakim Noah would be back with the Knicks this season — not after Noah and coach Jeff Hornacek got into an argument that ended with Noah shoving his coach.

But if anyone thought with Kristaps Porzingis out for the season with a torn ACL the Knicks might turn to Porzingis for a little boost, think again. Via Al Iannazzone at Newsday as the Knicks got back to post All-Star practice.

“There’s really nothing more to say about it, update it. We’ve moved on. He’s ready to move on and maybe have an opportunity somewhere else. That’s really our focus to go play Orlando. We have 23 games left. We’re trying to get our young guys to step it up. That’s kind of old story and all done with as far as I’m concerned.”

The Knicks would love to trade Noah, but he has the most untradable contract in the NBA — two years, $37.8 million left after this season. It would take the Knicks attaching a couple of first-round picks and taking back some dead salary to make it happen. The Knicks may eventually buy him out, but the more likely option is they keep him through the summer (in case he is needed as salary in a trade), and possibly into next season (depending upon how big a discount he would give the team to be bought out and move on).

Trail Blazers hope for another post-All-Star break revival

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — The Trail Blazers have enjoyed post-All-Star break revivals the past two seasons.

Those late-season rallies will no doubt be an ongoing theme in the congested Western Conference playoff race once Portland resumes play on Friday in Utah.

“I mean, I think that’s in the back of our minds. We know that we’re usually a better team in the second half of the season,” Portland guard Damian Lillard said. “We can’t just go into it saying, `All right, we’re always good at this part of the season.’ I think mentally we have to understand how close of a race it is and that we’ve got to be sharp all the way through.”

Portland is 32-26 at the break, tied for sixth in the West, which is better off than it was last season at the same point.

But the Blazers are one of five teams in the West with 26 losses. The Warriors and Houston Rockets sit comfortably atop the standings with the next eight teams jostling for position.

The Blazers headed into the All-Star Game with a 123-117 victory over Golden State, snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Warriors. Lillard had 44 points, his third straight game with 39 or more and the best scoring stretch of his career. His 133 points over the last three games is the best such run in franchise history.

Afterward, Lillard sounded like he was taking it upon himself to improve the Blazers’ playoff position.

“Each season, it’s always a few teams that fall by the wayside and we’ve just got to make sure we’re not one of them,” he said. “As a leader, I’ve got to be the guy to lead that charge.”

In 2015-16, Portland was 27-27 at the All-Star break after winning eight of nine games going into it. The Blazers finished the regular season 44-38 and in fifth place in the West. They got past the Clippers in the first round of the playoffs before falling to the Warriors in the conference semifinals.

Last season, Portland lost three straight games to go into the break at 23-33. Shortly thereafter, an overtime loss at Detroit put them 11 games under .500.

But in March, Portland caught fire and went 13-3, best in the NBA. Lillard was named the conference’s Player of the Month, averaging 29.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 1.4 steals in 16 games. Terry Stotts was named Coach of the Month.

Center Jusuf Nurkic, who came to Portland in a trade a handful of days before the All-Star break, went on to average 15.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 1.9 blocks in 20 games with the Blazers. Portland was 14-5 with the 7-footer in the starting lineup.

Portland made the playoffs for the fourth straight season, but fell in the opening round to the Warriors.

This season, Portland is in the thick of the race. Lillard leads the team with 26.1 points per game, sixth in the league, while also averaging 6.6 assists. Backcourt teammate CJ McCollum is averaging 21.7 points, and Nurkic is at 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds.

Stotts was asked just before the break whether he was happy with the team’s position.

“We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’ve got a lot of teams out there fighting for playoff spots,” the coach said. “It’s not about where we are. It’s about where we’re headed.”

 

Karl Malone pranks Anthony Davis in new Redbull video

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Karl Malone still has a few moves left.

Not so much on the court, but the Hall of Famer and one of the greatest power forwards ever was disguised as “Sam the Maintenance Man” where he would disrupt a video shoot by New Orleans Pelicans All-Star Anthony Davis (who thought he was making a basketball video for redbull.com). Malone was decked out in a traditional janitor onesie, a wig of dreadlocks, glasses and extra padding around his gut, and he had fun in his role.

At the end of the clip, you see Malone asking the cameras to cut so he could talk shop with AD on the left block, where Malone was near unstoppable. Check it out.

 

Statement defending self by former Mavs employee makes things sound worse

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In the argument that owner Mark Cuban must have known about the “Animal House” style sexual predatory environment on the business side of the Dallas Mavericks, a statement from a former Mavericks’ employee defending himself is now the best evidence. And it’s pretty damning.

One of the people mentioned directly in the bombshell Sports Illustrated story is former Mavs.com writer Earl K. Sneed. He was involved in a domestic dispute where he beat his then-girlfriend his first season with the Mavericks, then a few months later was arrested — at the Mavericks facility — for assault. He pled guilty to that and went through court-mandated anger management classes. He reportedly had another dispute in 2014 hitting a female co-worker which led to more counseling (this ordered by the team), and as a result of the court issues, he legally was not able to follow the team when it went into Canada to play the Raptors.

Sneed issued this statement to the Dallas Morning News defending himself.

“While both instances described in the report are damning and language used is not accurate, the two relationships described in the report are not something I am proud to have been a part of. I underwent much counseling after both situations, under the direction of [Mavs vice president of human resources] Buddy Pittman, and I feel like I grew from that counseling. I also signed a contract stating that I would not have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees after the inaccurately described incident with my female co-worker, who was a live-in girlfriend. I abided by the details of that contract for four years, and received counseling during that period to avoid future instances. I thank Buddy Pittman for helping me to grow during that time, and I thank Mark Cuban for his willingness to help facilitate that growth.”

So let me get this right: Sneed was hauled out of the Mavericks facility in handcuffs, then signed a new contract to stay on employed by the team (for four more years) where he could not do his job if the team went to Canada, and could not “have one-on-one contact or fraternize with female employees” — and Cuban didn’t know about any of this? That strains belief. Sneed’s statement sparked outrage on social media, as it should.

That Sneed stayed employed by the team speaks to the issues in the Mavericks human resources department and the team culture. Both Sneed and the head of HR have been fired in the wake of these stories.

The report says there are no incidents with Cuban, nor any members of the Mavericks basketball team, behaving inappropriately toward women.

Dallas and Cuban have hired an independent investigator to look into the claims and the workplace environment with the Mavericks. When that is done, expect NBA Commissioner Adam Silver to come down hard on the franchise, both to send a message to other franchises (there are rumors the Mavs are not the only one facing issues) and because this all is a big blow to the image of a league that paints itself as progressive.