Winderman: Is a Back to the Future 2006 Heat vs. Mavs finals ahead?

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With the Mavericks playing from a position of strength against the Lakers and the Heat in early control against the Celtics, in many ways it’s as if it’s 2006 all over again.

While a Heat-Mavericks NBA Finals this time would have the Heat as the home team (because of what previously seemed like an innocuous 35-point performance by Eddie House on the final night of the regular season in Toronto, as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade looked on from the bench), the question on South Beach is whether this would represent something closer to a genuine champion.

For those who forget, the Heat won the 2006 title coming off a relatively benign 52-30 regular season.

It was a championship achieved with the likes of Antoine Walker starting at small forward, Jason Williams at point guard, Michael Doleac as the backup center most of the season and Gary Payton on his last cussin’ legs.

Yet when viewed beyond the Big Three, as has been well chronicled these past six months, this Heat team is full of the type of warts that leave James Jones as the most reliable wing, Mario Chalmers and Mike Bibby as the middling point guard rotation, and Joel Anthony as the valued sixth man, despite the reality that he can neither catch the ball or put it through the large orange circle.

The Mavericks we know are better because, thanks to the presence of Tyson Chandler and Shawn Marion, they actually play defense this time around, no longer left to the whims of enigmatic Josh Howard.

But 2011 Heat vs. 2006 Heat?

Yes, the presence of LeBron ends most debates. Chris Bosh can do more than Dirk-stopping Udonis Haslem did in 2006, at least as a two-way presence. And in many ways, Wade is a more mature presence these days, less likely to gamble for the homerun play on defense.

But the 2006 Heat did eventually close with Shaquille O’Neal and Alonzo Mourning in the middle, which certainly trumps (several times over) the current trifecta of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Erick Dampier and Jamaal Magloire.

And there was a legitimate perimeter stopper off the bench in James Posey. With James and Wade finding no relief in that aspect this season, left to deal with Paul Pierce and Ray Allen on their own.

The reality is that if the Heat win another championship, it again will be with a flawed roster.

A champion, nonetheless. But hardly a complete champion.

Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/IraHeatBeat.

Report: 76ers rookie Zhaire Smith expected to return around Christmas

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76ers first-rounder Zhaire Smith suffered a Jones fracture in his left foot last month, leaving plenty of uncertainty about when he’d return.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

The 76ers expect injured rookie Zhaire Smith to be available to play in a game around Christmas, league sources say.

A rookie on a team with legitimate aspirations of deep-playoff advancement, Smith was already unlikely to crack Philadelphia’s rotation this season. All this lost developmental time makes it even less likely.

But the sooner Smith returns, the better for him and Philadelphia. The No. 16 pick impresses with his athleticism and motor, but he needs time to develop his perimeter skills.

Kevin Love launches “Love Fund” to bring more focus to mental health issues

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The NBA is not shying away from the issue of the mental health of its players.

In the wake of All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kevin Love coming forward about their mental health challenges, the league and the players’ union combined to tell players to speak out on the issue and take advantage of the services offered.

Kevin Love is doing more than just that, he has formed the Kevin Love Fund to help change the stigma around mental health issues. The fund has partners such as Headspace, with the focus being on prioritizing mental health awareness. He went on the Today Show on NBC to talk about it.

Love has become a leader and spokesman around the issue. Love came forward near the end of last season to talk about his battles with anxiety and depression. That opened the door for others around the NBA to step forward as well, such as Kelly Oubre and Paul Pierce.

Sixers hire Elton Brand as new General Manager

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Filling the 76ers vacant general manager position dragged out all summer for one main reason:

They liked what they already had in-house. The Sixers were an especially collegial and collaborative group with their decision making, and if they brought in a big name from the outside — former Cavaliers’ GM David Griffin, or the two guys who went deep into the interview process Utah assistant GM Justin Zanik on Rockets VP Gersson Rosas — it would change that dynamic.

Which is why they have decided to keep this in the family, and will promote Elton Brand from vice president of basketball operations to general manager. It’s a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and confirmed by NBC Sports Philadelphia’s John Clark.

Brand, a former Philadelphia player, was the general manager of their G-League team, the Delaware Blue Coats, before becoming the VP of basketball operations. He will replace Bryan Colangelo, who was forced out following a Twitter scandal involving his wife.

There were other title changes within the organization as well.

What this means on the ground is don’t expect any significant changes with the Sixers’ plans — nor should there be. They are banking on Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Markelle Fultz — now with a functional jump shot, they hope — to be at the core of a contending team, then next summer they will go big game hunting again for an elite free agent. (There is more pressure to get a deal done this summer before the big extensions for those young stars start to really kick in.) That said, this is a team poised on the brink of a great run.

And if things are going well, why make a dramatic change? Brand can help them on the course already set.

Pat Riley: Dion Waiters not recovered for start of training camp, “unlikely” for start of season

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This is a setback.

When Dion Waiters had ankle surgery 30 games into last season, the hope was that he would be healthy for the start of this season and return to the post All-Star form of 2017, when his hot play (15.6 points per game, 41 percent from three and carrying a heavy offensive load) led the Heat to offer him a four-year contract.

Turns out, that’s not going to happen.

It was Pat Riley who made the announcement, speaking to the media.

Waiters was not healthy last season, and while he averaged 14.3 points a game he was not nearly as efficient — 30.6 percent from three, shooting 39.8 percent overall, a PER of 10.5.

This could move Dwyane Wade into the starting lineup to open the season. Beyond that, the Heat have the guard depth to survive this with Wade and Wayne Ellington at the two, plus Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson, Malik Newman, and Briante Weber heading into camp.

Waiters being out also is bad news for the player but could save the franchise money on another front: Waiters receives a $1.1 million bonus if he plays in 70 games this season. If he misses the start of the season, he becomes far less likely to make that threshold.