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.

Austin Rivers: Everybody, ‘so f—ing gassed up on the Celtics and the Sixers,’ overlooking Wizards and Pacers

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We picked the Celtics, Raptors, 76ers and Bucks to be the top four teams in the Eastern Conference this year and ranked the Wizards and Pacers next. If that’s not the consensus, it’s close to it.

Wizards guard Austin Rivers, via James Herbert of CBSSports.com:

“I think we’re heavily slept-on,” he tells me. “Team’s been to the playoffs, what, the last five, four or five years? Then going into this year, you add me, Dwight Howard, Jeff Green and nobody seems to talk about us. So I just think we’re heavily slept-on, but that’s fine. At the end of the day, nothing really matters until the season starts and we set that tone for ourselves. I get the hype of a couple of the other teams, but I think we have a chance to compete with the best of the East.”

I tell him I recently spoke to Tyreke Evans, who said something similar about the Indiana Pacers. Rivers gets more animated.

“Yeah, I would say Indiana’s the other team that gets slept-on, too,” he says. “You look at Indiana, they took Cleveland to seven games and then damn near, arguably could have beaten them.”

Rivers rattles off Evans’ stats from last season, then continues: “That’s who they just added to the team? And nobody seems to talk about the Pacers because everybody’s so f—ing gassed up on the Celtics and the Sixers. And rightfully so: they’re both talented teams. But Indiana is just as good as both those teams. And I think we’re in the same situation.”

I agree the Wizards and Pacers had positive offseasons. But Indiana might have been punching slightly above its weight as a surprise team last year, and Washington’s problem has often been overconfidence.

In that regard, Rivers – acquired in an offseason trade from the Clippers – is already fitting right in. The brashness might be good for Rivers, but it’s not what the Wizards need.

Washington could have a good season. John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter are a strong starting point in the Eastern Conference, and Dwight Howard could help with the right attitude and health. Rivers is a quality reserve. But let’s pump the brakes on calling Jeff Green a key addition, though Rivers would be only one of many – including someone in his immediate family – to make that error.

Report: Klay Thompson doesn’t plan to give Warriors discount

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Klay Thompson, who will become an unrestricted free agent next summer, has said many times he plans to stay with the Warriors. He even discussed signing a contract extension, which would have capped his compensation far below what he could get in free agency.

But Thompson is apparently no longer interested in offering Golden State that savings.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Thompson has no plans to take a discount, and the Warriors don’t expect him to, league sources say.

Thompson’s max next summer projects be about about $221 million over five years if he makes an All-NBA team (or wins Defensive Player of the Year) this season or about $190 million over five years if he doesn’t.

That’s a steep bill, but the Warriors have little choice but to pay it. They’re in the midst of maybe the greatest run in NBA history, and they’re generating massive revenue. Cheapness would be a terrible reason to break up this team. Thompson is a key contributor, and at least his outside shooting should help the 28-year-old age well.

But costs will get steep in a hurry. If the Warriors re-sign Thompson and Kevin Durant next summer and Draymond Green the following summer to max – not even supermax – deals, keep Stephen Curry then fill the roster with 10 minimum-salary free agents, their projected payroll in 2020-21 would be… about $288 million, including about $115 million in luxury tax. That might be untenable, even for Golden State.

Perhaps, Durant will take one decision out of the Warriors’ hands. But if Durant stays and Thompson seeks every penny, Green could face a belt-tightening team in 2020 free agency.

Spurs waive Manu Ginobili, will likely continue paying him into retirement

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The Spurs are still paying Tim Duncan, who retired in 2016.

It seems they’ll also give Manu Ginobili, who retired this summer, a similar golden parachute.

Duncan will earn $1,881,250 this season, the final installment of his three years of post-retirement income. When he retired, Duncan had one season remaining on his contract with a $6,393,750 salary. San Antonio didn’t have to pay him that money. Duncan wasn’t coming to work anymore. But the Spurs graciously allowed the all-time great to receive all but $750,000 of his remaining salary and stretched the payments over three years. That money still counted against the cap and was paid despite San Antonio trying to clear cap space in both 2016 and 2017.

The Spurs waived Ginobili yesterday, and no word has emerged on a buyout amount. He was due $2.5 million this season.

Based on the process and Duncan precedent, it seems highly likely Ginobili will continue to draw paychecks from San Antonio.

The Spurs would do well to pay Ginobili all his money this season, whether it’s the full $2.5 million or a negotiated reduced amount. They’re already over the cap and still below the luxury-tax line, so there’s minimal flexibility harm. The only other option – stretching Ginobili’s payments into equal thirds over the next three seasons – could interfere with roster building in future years.

Of course, the other option was getting Ginobili removed from the books entirely. But it seems that route has passed with waiving him.

San Antonio wants to treat its legends well, and that means paying them more than necessary – even with that money counting toward the cap as the Spurs transition into their next era.

Clippers biding their time until star hunt

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

Lob City is the proudest era in Clippers history. Really, it’s the franchise’s only proud era since moving to California. After reaching the playoffs just four times in the first 33 years post-Buffalo, the Clippers qualified all six years Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan played together. In that span, only the Spurs and Thunder won more games.

And now it’s over.

The Clippers moved the final remaining link from their 2012-2017 teams by trading Wesley Johnson yesterday. That’s historic turnover, as the roster is completely remade just two years later. Since the early 1950s, only the 1996 Mavericks and 2003 and 2004 Hawks completely changed their rosters within two seasons.

L.A.’s flux comes with big eyes. The Clippers are trying to lure star free agents, which means closely monitoring situations elsewhere. Entering the season with the Raptors, Kawhi Leonard reportedly favors the Clippers. Jimmy Butler is unhappy with the Timberwolves – ideal for the Clippers, who want to avoid another pleasing team landing his Bird Rights. Though Kevin Durant rumors are focused on the Knicks, talk of him leaving the Warriors could mean L.A. is at least in the mix.

The Clippers project to be able to unilaterally open about $63 million in cap space without stretching players next summer.

Creating so much flexibility required stinginess this summer. The only free agents signed to multi-year guarantees were Montrezl Harrell (two years, $12 million) and Avery Bradley ($12 million this season, just $2 million of $12.96 million guaranteed next season).

The Clippers also gave multi-year deals to their first-round picks, No. 11 pick Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and No. 13 pick Jerome Robinson. I’m much more bullish on Gilgeous-Alexander. Those two rookies could be important in building back up, because for the second straight summer, the Clippers lost their best player.

After Paul engineered his way to the Rockets last summer – with Griffin traded to the Pistons between – Jordan left for the Mavericks this summer. His fit in L.A. had become awkward, and though he was willing to take a one-year deal (at least with Dallas), everyone seemed ready to move on. This seemingly wasn’t about maintaining flexibility. It was about turning the page.

The Clippers will miss Jordan on the court next season. They replaced him with Marcin Gortat, acquired in a trade for Austin Rivers, but that’s a downgrade.

Gortat (like Rivers) is on an expiring contract. So are Luc Mbah a Moute – a Lob City contributor returning after a stint in Houston – and Mike Scott, who each signed one year, $4,320,500 deals for half the mid-level exception.

The Clippers look deep and feisty after all this tinkering around Tobias Harris, Lou Williams, Patrick Beverley and Danilo Gallinari. They probably won’t make the playoffs in a loaded Western Conference, but they should remain competitive enough to stay on the radar of free agents.

Remember, though, the Clippers entered the summer coming off a winning season and with plenty of 2019 cap space. They were always setting up to make a big splash next summer. They just took a small step back this summer, which will be no problem if they make their desired leap in a year.

Offseason grade: C-