NBA Season Preview: Miami Heat

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Last season: 58-24, second seed in the East. We all know how this turned out — Miami made it to the NBA Finals in its first season with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, but lost the title to Dallas in six games.

Head Coach: Erik Spoelstra, who interestingly enough has not yet been offered a contract extension, and will be coaching this season in the final year of his current deal.

Key Departures: Mike Bibby, who shared the starting point guard duties with Mario Chalmers, went to the Knicks as a free agent.

Key Additions: Shane Battier, who chose to to ring-chase as a free agent instead of re-signing with the up and coming Grizzlies, should help in several areas, especially with Mike Miller sidelined for a couple of months due to injury. Eddy Curry is in training camp, although it may be premature to call him a key addition just yet.

Best case scenario: The Heat are the favorites this season to win the NBA title, but it may be more due to changes in the other contenders than to any improvements the team made to its roster. While contending teams like the Mavericks, Lakers, Bulls, and Thunder either underwent major changes, got worse on paper, or simply stood pat to this point in free agency, Miami retained its core of James, Wade, and Bosh, and added Battier for some veteran leadership, on-ball defensive help, and semi-reliable spot-up shooting.

Wade and James reportedly showed up to camp in tremendous physical shape, as did Bosh, who added significant bulk to his frame. And the fact that the team is virtually the same may be an advantage for the Heat as the league is forced to play a compressed and shortened 66-game schedule. A trip to the Finals is certainly within reach once again for this Miami team, and the experience gained a season ago may be enough to get them over the top this time.

For that to happen: The regular season shouldn’t pose much of a problem for this talented Heat squad. And, with a healthy Udonis Haslem in the fold — a player who understands his role and how to fit in on both ends of the floor — Miami will be a little deeper on its front line than last season. It’s all about preparing for the postseason run, and for the Heat to reach their ultimate goal of a championship, the team will need to figure out its late-game, crunch time identity, and then stick with it as the postseason rolls on.

As you may have heard ad nauseam, the Heat struggled mightily to produce points down the stretch of tight games. LeBron James in particular seemed to defer more than observers would have liked late in fourth quarters, and the numbers substantiate what we all thought we were seeing.

The best teams in the league tend to have a Plan A in crunch time — Dallas with Dirk Nowitzki, the Lakers with Kobe Bryant, the Bulls with the ball in the hands of Derrick Rose. The Heat seem to go back and forth between Wade and James, and James seemed too hesitant, and even uncertain at times about his role and whether or not he should take it upon himself to produce when Wade was with him on the floor. If James and Wade can clearly define exactly who is Option One and who is Option Two when the game’s on the line (and it should be Wade and James, in that order), that will make it easier to perform late with that decision already removed from the equation.

More likely the Heat will: Do exactly that. With a season under their belt, and a shorter schedule in place that should allow for Spoelstra to make the necessary tweaks along the way with his core from last year intact, Miami should be able to get back to the Finals, with a better chance this time to take home the league’s ultimate prize.

Prediction: 52-14, best record in the East, and number one overall seed entering the playoffs.

PBT Extra: Five players to watch heading into the NBA’s trade deadline

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It’s going to be a slow NBA trade deadline this year.

The reason it will be relatively quiet on Feb. 7 (the deadline day) this year is reflected in the five players to watch talked about in this PBT Extra. The bottom line: There are far more buyers than sellers.

Take Trevor Ariza in Washington, for example. A number of playoff teams are looking for wings on expiring contracts to help them out — the Rockets and Lakers are at the front of that line — but Wizards owner Ted Leonsis has said the team the team will not tank, so is Ariza even available.

Or, what about Terrence Ross in Orlando? Another wing a lot of teams have interest in, but is Orlando selling?

And while the Dallas Mavericks have made public overtures about reconciliation with Dennis Smith Jr., sources tell me the plan on both sides is still to find a trade, it’s just right now the offers are lowball ones (because the Mavs have no leverage and there will be good young point guards such as Terry Rozier and D'Angelo Russell available in July as restricted free agents, and teams like them better).

Still, there will be trades. These are the guys to watch.

Report: Hornets rookie Miles Bridges to compete in dunk contest

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Want to see more dunks like this and this?

Watch the dunk contest during All-Star weekend.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Miles Bridges, the No. 12 pick in last year’s draft, has quickly proven himself as belonging in the Hornets’ rotation. He’s active, capable of getting to the rim and picks up defensive concepts quickly.

But like most rookies picked in the middle of the first round, he hasn’t yet earned a national profile.

The dunk contest will be his opportunity to change that.

Bulls’ Wendell Carter reportedly out 8-12 weeks following thumb surgery

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Wendell Carter Jr. has had a strong rookie season in Chicago: 10.3 points a game, 7 rebounds, showing real strength and touch inside and getting 67 percent of his shot attempts in the paint. The advanced stats like him: He’s got an above average PER and Value over Replacement Player, something very rare for a rookie. He looks like a key part of the future in Chicago.

And he’s out for the next two-to-three months.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune first reported that Carter might have ligament damage in his left thumb requiring surgery, and that coach Jim Boylen said Carter was seeing a specialist. Shams Charania of The Athletic took it to the next step.

That’s a blow to his development but doesn’t really change the trajectory of a Bulls team that will pick high in next June’s draft.

This does not change the Bulls’ plans heading into the trade deadline — big man Robin Lopez is still available (but likely will end up a buyout candidate) reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Bobby Portis will get more run with Carter out.

The young Bulls have been hit hard by injuries this season.  Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Portis have all missed time, and Denzel Valentine has yet to play a game for Chicago this season.

Wizards owner Ted Leonsis: ‘We will never, ever tank’

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Before the season, Wizards owner Ted Leonsis stated his goals: 50 wins and the conference finals.

Washington is 19-26 and 11th in the Eastern Conference.

Time to shift priorities?

NBC Sports Washington:

Ben Standig of NBC Sports Washington:

The Wizards are too talented to tank right now. Led by Bradley Beal, they have a roster of capable veterans. They just traded for Trevor Ariza, making that even more true.

As bad as they’ve been, the Wizards are just 2.5 games and three teams out of playoff position. They will likely miss the postseason, but there’s no alternative better than trying to get there. They’re too far down the road toward winning now to simply pivot into a rebuilding.

But what about if the Wizards get eliminated from playoff contention with games left in the season? They won’t tank down the stretch to improve their draft position? What’s the point of that?

And what about future seasons? Washington will have a tough time building a satisfactory winner after signing John Wall to a super-max extension that kicks in next season. That difficult-to-move contract almost mandates the Wizards prioritize the present. A healthy Wall is good enough to ensure Washington can’t bottom out – for now.

Wall be 32 in the final year of that deal. The Wizards could be in ruins by then. Taking the option to tank off the table would be a mistake.

To be fair, I’m not totally sure Leonsis is doing that. Owners almost never admit to tanking. Most deny it.

But this goes a level beyond. This is far more forceful than Leonsis had to be, which makes me believe it’s actually his plan.

That’s fine right now. Eventually, it could make a futile situation far worse.