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.

Rumor: Clippers not interested in Jimmy Butler, he would sign with Lakers for max

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Should a team feel comfortable giving Jimmy Butler — who will turn 30 before next season, is a hard-charging personality who plays a hard-charging style that can be hard on his body, and has only once played 70 or more games in the past six seasons — a four-year, $141 million max contract?

If the Lakers strike out with Kyrie Irving and other top targets (Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard are not interested, according to sources), should they give Butler the max and sign him comfortable or not?

LeBron James has already reached out to start recruiting Butler, and if the Lakers offer him the max Butler would love to come, Arash Markazi of the Los Angeles Times said on the Colin Cowherd. Markazi adds that the Clippers are not interested because they are aiming higher on the food chain.

That is what a lot of sources have said about the Clippers, they would need to move Danilo Gallinari (and do a little more) to sign both Leonard and Durant, but would and should in a heartbeat.

Butler is going to have options, starting with the Philadelphia 76ers, who do not want to let him go. As it got near the end of Philly’s playoff run it had seemed Butler had found a home, both on the court as a primary ball handler in the halfcourt, and off the court as a leader and someone who bonded with Joel Embiid. Also, Philadelphia can offer more money, a projected $190 million over five years, and for a guy who has had injury issues that extra year and extra money might matter a lot.

Is Butler going to stay? What should we read into his cryptic Instagram post? If he leaves, does he want to play with LeBron? Is that the Lakers’ best option? (I think the Lakers should prefer Irving, who is younger and coming off an All-NBA regular season, plus he has a track record of winning with LeBron, but if not him…)

It is going to be a wild July in the NBA.

Raptors bench play key reason Toronto on cusp of first trip to NBA Finals

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There are multiple reasons the Toronto Raptors have beaten the Milwaukee Bucks three times in a row and now are one win away from the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.

Kawhi Leonard and his play — particularly his defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo — is a huge one. So is the Raptors incredible halfcourt defense, which has held the Bucks to an 84.3 net rating on halfcourt possessions in this series. When the Raptors have been able to slow the game down (which they have done very well the last two games, with possession totals in the mid-90s) they win.

Just don’t forget about the Raptors bench.

Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell — the three guys coach Nick Nurse leans on in his regular rotations — have been critical for the Raptors, and if they are again on Saturday night in Toronto it will lift the franchise to a place it has never been before.

Toronto’s starters are -23 in this series. That fivesome — Kyle Lowry, Danny Green, Leonard, Pascal Siakam, and Marc Gasol — were -10 in Game 5, struggling against an impressive Milwaukee starting lineup.

In Game 5, it was the Raptors’ bench that led the comeback after the Bucks’ fast start. It has been that way all series. Lineups that have at least one of those core three Raptors bench guys on the floor are +30 this series. Lineups with all three of them on the court together are +12.

Different guys are stepping up each game. In Game 5 it was VanVleet’s turn. After a rough few games in this series, he got to Milwaukee late after being with his wife for the birth of their son, then proceeded to knock down 7-of-9 threes in Toronto’s come-from-behind win.

“He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said of VanVleet. “Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs. It’s been probably a long time coming. Great game by him.”

Toronto’s bench — and Leonard — are key reasons that this team responded to adversity, going down 0-2 in the series and bouncing back. It’s the experience of having been there before, having dealt with the pressure before, learning about themselves because they have been tested like this in previous years. Leonard and Green have rings from San Antonio, Gasol has been to conference finals in Memphis, Lowry has been there through all the Raptors struggles in recent playoffs. On the bench, Ibaka has seen plenty, and these guys have not been fazed by the moment.

It’s the test the Bucks are facing now — this group had never been challenged like this. Their athleticism and Antetokounmpo’s MVP-level season propelled this team to the best record in the NBA, then they swept through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-1 record. After that, they beat the Raptors the first two games of this series.

However, now they have lost three in a row for the first time all season and they are learning about their weaknesses. The Bucks entire offense is based around the idea that nobody can slow Antetokounmpo one-on-one, except that Leonard has done just that. The Greek Freak has shot 35.5 percent this series (11-of-31, via Second Spectrum data) when Leonard has been his primary defender. Antetokounmpo also hasn’t found shooters and those guys have not hit the passes he does make, particularly in the halfcourt. Toronto has controlled the tempo the past few games, and when Antetokounmpo isn’t getting easy buckets in transition the Milwaukee offense stumbles. Toronto also has taken care of the ball and hit shots, with Leonard getting to his spots on the floor, which has limited the Bucks transition chances.

The Bucks need to make adjustments — finding ways to get Antetokounmpo the ball with better matchups, not having him attack from the top of the key every time and giving him some picks to force switches — and they need another ball handler, such as Eric Bledsoe or George Hill, to have a monster game. Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon can and should do a little more shot creation.

And Milwaukee has to contain that Raptors bench and not get beat so badly when they are on the floor.

If not, the Bucks will be on vacation in Cabo next week while the Raptors are still playing.

Are Rockets trying to push Mike D’Antoni out the door?

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After a slow start to the season, by the end the Houston Rockets had found their groove and were the second best team in the West. That still wasn’t good enough to get by the Warriors dynasty. That has led to some soul searching in Houston.

And some changes to the assistant coaching staff. First came the news Jeff Bzdelik would not return in his defensive coordinator role. Then on Friday, Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle put out a series of Tweets talking about the other coaching changes coming.

Cho had been with the Rockets for a decade. Roland worked closely with James Harden, among others.

This is a near total overhaul of Mike D’Antoni’s staff, which has led to speculation the Rockets are trying to push their coach out the door, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

D’Antoni has done an excellent job — and adapted his style — to coach these Rockets into being contenders. He is part of the reason this franchise is a contender. The Rockets have fallen short the last two seasons not because of D’Antoni, but rather because of the Warriors. Golden State is an all-time dynasty level team, they are beating everybody.

This feels like the East in recent years when coaches lost jobs and teams were broken up because they could not get past LeBron James‘ teams when the issue was really LeBron is one of the game’s all-time greats.

There could be other dynamics at play in Houston, but the challenge there is not the coach. If Tilman Fertitta is frustrated his team fell short again, he should start by looking in the mirror at the cost-cutting moves his team made this season to get under the tax line. That put a ceiling on this team more than anything D’Antoni did.

NBA officially moves up free agency to 6 p.m. ET on June 30

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I’d like to think this means we’ll all be able to go to bed at a reasonable hour on June 30. I also know better.

There is a frenzy of activity right as free agency opens (Tampering? There is no tampering in the NBA…), which traditionally has been as the clock turns to July 1 in New York, right at midnight. Things got so active that a lot of agents and players made sure they were in Los Angeles, even if they didn’t live there in the offseason, just so things started at the more reasonable hour of 9 p.m.

Now the NBA has made the rumors official: Free agency will begin at 6 p.m. Eastern on June 30. Six hours earlier than before.

This was done as an agreement between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association.

This is going to be a wild July with a lot of big-name free agents — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler — and maybe a third of the players in the league on the market, plus there are a lot more teams with cap space to spend this season. It’s going to be a frenzy.

Now we know what time the wild times start.