5 teams that could prevent the Miami Heat from winning the 2014 NBA title

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The Miami Heat will open the 2013-14 NBA season at home against the Bulls on Tuesday, after receiving their championship rings and raising a banner to the rafters for the second straight season.

They’ll also open the year as the favorites to win a third straight title, but history has not been kind to teams that have previously been in this envious position.

The Heat may have won back-to-back championships, but they’ve been to the Finals three years in a row. And the last team to make it to the Finals four straight seasons was the Boston Celtics, who did so from 1984-87.

So, despite the fact that the best player in the game in his prime plays for Miami, it’s going to be tough for the team to play into June for the fourth straight season. Here’s a countdown looking at the five teams with the best shot of taking down the defending champs.

5. Los Angeles Clippers: Obviously, for the Clips to have a chance at this, they’d need to make it out of a daunting Western Conference, and the Heat would have to similarly emerge from a much-improved East to buck the odds and get back to the Finals once again. But if this matchup happens, you’d have to think L.A. would have a very real shot.

If the Clippers get to the Finals, it means that all of the team’s potential heading into the season has been realized. Chris Paul turned in an MVP season, J.J. Redick lit it up from three-point distance, and DeAndre Jordan evolved into a Kevin Garnett-like defender, but one even more athletic who was able to wholly alter the opponent’s game plan on a nightly basis. It also means that Doc Rivers has gotten maximum production out of his role players, and gotten the team to buy into the notion that they are legitimate championship contenders.

A lot of ifs? No doubt. But if the Clippers get this far, you’d have to like their chances.

4. Brooklyn Nets: This could be too low for Brooklyn on this list, but for the most part I like to see new collections of talent prove themselves first before going out on a limb and handing them a top-shelf prediction.

There’s no question that the Nets are going to be formidable this season. The team features maybe the most feared starting lineup in the league one through five, and the acquisitions of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett should bring the culture change on the defensive end and a championship mentality that may have been missing from the team’s stars still in place from last season.

But Jason Kidd in his first year as head coach is troublesome, even though he has a more-than-solid group of tenured assistants in place to provide guidance. Coaching in the playoffs when the game slows down and every possession becomes critical requires experience, and we’ll have to wait and see if Kidd will gain enough of it during his first 82 games on the job to be successful.

That one area aside, this Nets team is deep and experienced. A healthy Deron Williams could be the key to whether or not Brooklyn has enough to get by the champs in a seven game series.

3. San Antonio Spurs: Much like the Clippers, if the Spurs get to this point, you’d have to like their chances. San Antonio came within 28 seconds of knocking off the Heat in the Finals last season; remember the yellow rope? Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker are plenty good enough and experienced enough to take care of business a year later should they get another shot.

The question for the Spurs becomes whether or not they can get out of the West to get the chance.

An improved Rockets team, along with the Clippers, Thunder and Warriors make the playoffs insanely difficult to predict, which is why it’s a safer bet to tag a couple of Eastern Conference teams as the ones most likely to send the Heat’s season to its unexpected end.

2. Chicago Bulls: Derrick Rose being back at full strength and playing as well or better than he did during his MVP season would be plenty to give the Heat nightmares in a seven game series. As is the case with most teams, the health of guys like Joakim Noah and Luol Deng come playoff time will be paramount to the Bulls’ chances for success. But the way this team defends under Tom Thibodeau and with the way Rose is capable of taking games over, Chicago has to be considered one of the teams best-suited to end the Heat’s run in the East.

1. Indiana Pacers: Indiana gets top billing in these rankings for one simple reason: They proved they were capable of hanging last season by taking the Heat to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals. Add an additional year of experience along with a fortified bench unit featuring the likes of Luis Scola and (possibly) Danny Granger to the equation, and the Pacers are the team that seems most poised to make the leap to championship contender by taking out the team that’s worn the crown for the last two seasons.

Report: Hawks eyeing Luke Doncic with the No. 3 pick.

Associated Press
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No. 1 DeAndre Ayton to Phoenix.

No. 2 Marvin Bagley III to Sacramento (probably).

It’s at No. 3 in this draft that things seem to open up right now. The Atlanta Hawks have listened to trade offers for the pick but are rumored to be seeking a premium to move down in the draft (same with the Grizzlies at No. 4). If the Hawks make the pick, it’s been unclear what direction they go, in part because there were a lot of rumors about Sacramento’s leanings. Now that seems settled, there may be a direction for Atlanta — Luka Doncic. From Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Slovenian teen star Luka Doncic has elevated to the forefront of the Atlanta Hawks’ internal discussions on the third overall pick in Thursday’s NBA draft, league sources told ESPN….

Doncic started to separate himself in organizational discussions around the choice, an examination that has included a tremendous intrigue with Jaren Jackson Jr., league sources said.

This could be a real interest, in the sense that the Hawks may want to draft the 19-year-old Slovenian (who will be at the draft after he led his Real Madrid team to the Spanish League title on Tuesday). He is a 6’8″ point-forward gifted at running the pick-and-roll, is a great playmaker in transition, and he is the best passer in this draft. Doncic has shooting range from the NBA three and he can finish inside. He also may be the most NBA ready player in this draft, having been a star (EuroLeague MVP) at the highest level of basketball outside of the United States. Doncic has, at the very least, the highest floor of anyone in this draft.

Or, could this be a leak to put pressure on the Dallas Mavericks and other teams high on Doncic — would Dallas be willing to swap picks (they draft No. 5) and throw in a young player or future pick to entice Atlanta to make the swap?

Doncic is not expected to fall past No. 4, although with teams down the board having a lot of interest in Mohamed Bamba and Michael Porter Jr. it’s possible a team trades up to get one of that pair and Doncic slides a little. It’s an unpredictable draft.

But we may see Doncic off the board at No. 3.

Deandre Ayton is already signing Phoenix Suns jerseys (PHOTO)

AP
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DeAndre Ayton seems to be the player most likely to go No. 1 overall on Thursday night in the 2018 NBA Draft to the Phoenix Suns.

The Arizona big man is still a little raw, and there are several good players in the Top 10 that Phoenix could choose from including Luka Doncic, Marvin Bagley III, and Mo Bamba.

However, fans are confident that Ayton will end up in Phoenix, apparently so much so that some have already made up jerseys with his name on it and had them signed by the lottery pick-to-be.

Via Twitter:

For obvious reasons there’s no way Ayton will end up wearing the number 13 in Phoenix. That jersey has been retired for Steve Nash.

However, it seems like the chatter around the NBA has been more about who will go below Ayton and what teams will do to shift their draft picks leading into Thursday’s big selection night.

It was probably a mixture of fun and funny for Ayton to sign this Suns jersey, but it seems like all signs point to Phoenix taking him No. 1 overall. Then again, the NBA is crazy and anything could happen in the next 48 hours.

Report: Gregg Popovich met with Kawhi Leonard in San Diego

Getty
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Don’t count the San Antonio Spurs out of the Kawhi Leonard sweepstakes just yet.

We have been waiting on pins and needles to see whether or not Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would meet with the apparently disgruntled Leonard this week before San Antonio approaches Thursday night’s NBA draft.

According to Yahoo! Sports’ Shams Charania, Leonard and Popovich met on Tuesday night in San Diego where Leonard has been working out.

Via Twitter:

For what it is worth, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has reporterd that Popovich has not yet met with Leonard, but is traveling to Southern California to meet with the Spurs forward. Even further, Leonard has reportedly requested a trade to Los Angeles from the Spurs, specifically to the Lakers.

Via ESPN:

Leonard wants a trade to Los Angeles, preferably the Lakers over the Clippers, league sources said. He has privately maintained that he no longer wants to play in San Antonio, and will eventually alert rival teams considering trades for him that his intentions are to sign in Los Angeles — preferably with the Lakers — when he can become a free agent in 2019, league sources said.

Leonard had told confidants that he did not want to sit down with Popovich and has been purposely difficult for the Spurs to reach recently. Among the issues, Leonard is angry over what he believes was the Spurs’ mishandling of a quad injury, and remains irate with public comments out of teammate Tony Parker and Popovich that he felt were not supportive of him, league sources said.

We had to know this was coming. San Antonio wasn’t going to let Leonard dictate the terms of his departure from Texas all by himself. Although Leonard has put the Spurs in a tough situation given his reported open request to play in Los Angeles, no doubt both parties would be better off from a basketball perspective if they were together. San Antonio apparently doesn’t want to make a deal with a Western Conference team, either.

Since the Spurs were trying to get in touch with Leonard before Thursday’s big selection night, it could be a signal that Leonard is on the move. Several teams, including the Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers, and Cleveland Cavaliers are rumored to be interested in Leonard’s services.

Rumor: Cavaliers could have trade interest in Kemba Walker

AP
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The Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to do everything in their power to retain LeBron James. They are also doing everything they can do to prepare themselves for if James decides to leave Cleveland once and for all.

Last week we heard rumors about how the Cavaliers were trying to prepare an offer to snag Kawhi Leonard away from the San Antonio Spurs. That move could be seen either as an intent to entice James to stay, or as a replacement for The King.

Now, we have rumor that the Cavaliers could be interested in acquiring an Eastern Conference point guard, presumably to help LeBron next season.

According to Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com, the Cavaliers have inquired to the Charlotte Hornets about the availability of point guard Kemba Walker.

Walker, 28, just became the Hornets all-time leading scorer this last season. The University of Connecticut product has just one year left on his current deal at $12 million, and could be both a good rental for a season as a means to bolster another James Finals run, or as a focal piece moving forward.

As is the issue with any package for Leonard, a trade to the Cavaliers from Charlotte for Walker really depends on what a third trade partner can bring into the mix. Not many of Cleveland’s young players have performed well enough to be used as trade bait for marquee guys. That necessarily means that Kevin Love will be the main trade bait, and it is tough for many teams to have interest in the sharp-shooting forward given many already have that position filled.

We are just 48 hours away from the 2018 NBA Draft and no doubt rumors like this will continue to heat up as we get closer to 4 p.m. Eastern on Thursday night.