ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Miami Heat

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Last season: A fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals resulted in disappointment, as the Heat were steamrolled by the Spurs in five games. The ease with which Miami was dispatched was troubling, so much so that LeBron James re-signing — something most believed to be a foregone conclusion — was suddenly thrown into question. And as the team scrambled to show a willingness to improve by signing guys like Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger in the early days of free agency, the underwhelming nature of those additions ultimately saw James expedite his plan to return home to Cleveland to once again play for the Cavaliers.

Signature highlight from last season: It was tempting to go with the pair of alley-ops Dwyane Wade and LeBron James connected on in the Christmas Day win over the Lakers, because the way the two consistently got out on the break like this for easy buckets in transition during their four years together was about as signature as it gets. But with a nod to the upcoming season where James won’t be present, it felt fitting to go with Wade’s drive and dish to Chris Bosh for a game-winning three against the Blazers — a contest in which James sat out due to injury.

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Heat season:

Life after LeBron: Having the game’s best player on the roster definitely has its advantages, and it isn’t something anyone in the Heat organization would choose to change about the last four seasons. But now that James has moved on, everything is immediately different on both ends of the floor. The continuity in place with Wade and Bosh being the team’s leaders, and with the highly competent Erik Spoelstra on the sidelines should ease the transition to a certain extent. But Miami will need to reinvent itself from an Xs and Os standpoint, and just how quickly the players get acclimated to those changes will largely determine their success, especially in the early parts of the upcoming season.

The health of Dwyane Wade: Wade was on a strict maintenance program last season to keep his knee from flaring up during the playoffs as it did the year prior, and that left him a gametime decision most nights. It was part of the reason he was limited to participating in just 54 regular season contests, and for the Heat to be successful in the post-LeBron era, they’re going to need a lot more than that out of Wade — not only in terms of minutes played, but also in terms of increased production. The good news for Heat fans is that Wade is planning on doing exactly that, but it’ll be interesting to see how he holds up while pushing himself to play more than he has in any of his previous three seasons.

The return of CB4: Chris Bosh is a perennial All-Star, but since coming to Miami, his numbers have dipped due to having to change his role, while sacrificing personal levels of production for the greater good of the franchise. Thankfully for the Heat, he has proven to be capable of doing so much more. In his final season in Toronto, Bosh averaged a career-high 24 points and 10.8 rebounds, and was unquestionably the team’s best player every single night. Bosh may have to return to his Raptors form for Miami to achieve postseason success, especially in light of Wade’s recent injury history — and he may be more ready than ever to do so.

Why you should watch: Wade and Bosh are still All-Star caliber players, and the addition of another one in Deng should make the Heat consistently competitive most nights. Spoelstra is one of the game’s top coaches at the professional level, and you can bet that he’s relishing the chance to lead his team to success in spite of the loss of Lebron James.

Prediction: With LeBron out of the picture, there are no longer championship expectations placed on this Miami team, which should be a weight off of their collective shoulders. The Heat can be in an underdog role for the first time in a long time, and there’s still more than enough talent in place to make a run at the postseason.

Miami is definitely a playoff team in the East, but is probably not deep enough to claw itself into one of the three top spots in the standings. A ceiling of fourth place in the conference feels about right, with an opportunity to surprise someone in the first (and possibly second) round of the playoffs if Wade, Bosh and Spoelstra find a way to have things clicking by the time the regular season is finished.

Clippers reportedly plan on playing Kawhi Leonard more than Raptors did last season

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Kawhi Leonard was the poster child for load management last season.

The Raptors essentially let him set his own schedule in a return from the quadricep tendon issue that cost him the previous season (and, ultimately, helped ruin his relationship with the Spurs). Leonard played in just 60 regular season game — and it worked. He was a force in the playoffs, leading Toronto to its first-ever title and winning Finals MVP again.

So the Clippers are going to follow that same script, right? Nope. Expect to see more Leonard, according to Dan Woike of the Los Angeles Times.

There are likely a couple of reasons for this. One is that Leonard may be feeling a little healthier and that he can take on more now. With a deep Clippers roster (especially once Paul George returns from his shoulder surgeries) it’s also possible the Clippers can limit Leonard’s in-game minutes, he averaged 34 a game when he played, which was top 20 in the league.

The bigger factor is the West is so deep with good teams the Clippers simply can’t have him sit as much and still get a good seed. Toronto could let Leonard rest and still won 58 games and had the two seed. That’s not how the West — with the Lakers, Rockets, Jazz, Nuggets, Trail Blazers, and Warriors — is going to go. The Clippers are going to need Leonard to win games most nights, and they certainly want to get a top-four seed and be home to start the postseason.

Leonard may play more early in the season and get more rest on the back half, once George returns to form and takes over some of the load on the wing. But he’s going to play.

The Clippers simply need him.

Did Hornets GM tell Kobe Bryant on draft night, ‘We couldn’t have used you anyway,’ as Bryant claims?

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Kobe Bryant spent 16 days as a Charlotte Hornet.

Long enough to develop resentment for the Hornets.

Charlotte drafted Bryant No. 13 in 1996 to trade him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac. Divac threatened to retire, but eventually relented on joining the Hornets. After the moratorium, Bryant went to Los Angeles, where he had a Hall of Fame career.

He hasn’t let go of draft night, though.

Bryant on the Knuckleheads podcast:

You get drafted, you get on the phone with the GM of the team that drafted you and all this stuff. So, I get on the phone with the Charlotte GM. He just tells me, “Hey, you know what’s going on.” Like, “Yeah. Yeah, yeah.” And you’ve got media in front of you and all that. And he goes, “Well, it’s a good thing we’re trading you, because we couldn’t have used you anyway.” You motherf. OK. OK. Alright. So, that’s what happened on draft night. So, I was already triggered. I was triggered. I was ready to go to the gym. Like f— the media. I don’t want to do any more interviews. I’m trying to – what are you telling me that for? I’m 17. What are you telling? OK. Alright.

The Hornets’ general manager was Bob Bass. He died last year, so he can’t tell his side of this story.

However, in previous tellings, Bryant said Charlotte coach Dave Cowens delivered that message. Cowens denied it.

Did Bryant forget whether he talked to the general manager or coach? Forget which position Cowens held? That’d be perfectly understandable decades later.

Or maybe both Bass and Cowens were on the call. Perhaps, Bryant initially thought Cowens said it and more recently learned it was Bass. That could explain Cowens’ denial.

But…

Stephen A. Smith of The Inquirer at the time:

On Wednesday, the Hornets took Bryant with the 13th pick of the NBA draft. Within minutes, there was talk of Bryant’s going to L.A. Dave Cowens, the Hornets’ new coach, was among those who raised the possibility, dismissing Bryant as “a kid” who would have a hard time playing for Charlotte.

That was a reasonable expectation. Bryant was just a teenager. Charlotte had veteran wings like Glen Rice and Dell Curry.

But Bryant was that special. He quickly became a contributor with the Lakers then developed into an all-time great.

In part because he fanned his competitive fire with perceived slights like this one.

Bryant is right: Who would say that to a 17-year-old? It just sounds cruel. Of course, Bryant would want to avenge being treated that way.

Here’s my guess: Someone from Charlotte – either Cowens or Bass – tried to comfort Bryant in a chaotic situation by saying the trade would work out for the best because the Hornets wouldn’t have played him much. It was supposed to be nice. Bryant took it as an insult.

But that’s just a guess. It was a private conversation many years ago. We’ll probably never know exactly what was said, let alone what was intended.

Report: Rockets signing Thabo Sefolosha

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The Rockets’ minicamp has produced a signing – Thabo Sefolosha.

Marc Stein of The New York Times:

This is surely for the minimum. It’s unclear how much is guaranteed.

Houston has just 10 players with guaranteed salaries, including Nene’s dud of a deal. So, there’s room for Sefolosha to make the regular-season roster.

Sefolosha should fit well in Houston. He’s a smart, versatile defender and can knock down corner 3s. James Harden and Russell Westbrook will allow Sefolosha to concentrate on his strengths in a limited role. The biggest question is how much the 35-year-old Sefolosha has left in the tank.

NBA to better define traveling rule, increase enforcement, explain rule to players, fans

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Gather and two steps.

That is how the NBA has defined the traveling rule for many years now. A player can take a step if he is in the process of “gathering” a dribble or pass, then has two steps. Players such as James Harden have stretched that to the limit, frustrating opponents and non-Rockets fans, but it’s legal.

Now the NBA is looking to better define that “gather” step, then crackdown on enforcement of the rule. With that will come an education program for everyone from players to fans. All of this was approved at the NBA’s Board of Governors’ meeting in New York on Friday.

“One of the most misunderstood rules in our game is how traveling is interpreted and appropriately called,” Byron Spruell, NBA President, League Operations, said in a statement. “Revising the language of certain areas of the rule is part of our three-pronged approach to address the uncertainty around traveling.  This approach also includes an enforcement plan to make traveling a point of emphasis for our officiating staff, along with an aggressive education plan to increase understanding of the rule by players, coaches, media and fans.”

That “aggressive education plan” should be interesting.

At the meeting, the owners also made gamblers everywhere happy by saying that starting lineups now need to be submitted by coaches 30 minutes prior to the start of the game. In past years that had been only 10 minutes (and road teams complained that was not evenly enforced between home and road teams all the time).

This is a good bit of transparency by the league, as have been some of the recent changes in requirements of announcing injuries. But make no mistake, this rule change is all about gambling.