Friday, June 20, 2014
Spurs Dominate, What's Next For the Heat?
The Spurs are everything sports fans claim they want out of an NBA team. They epitomize team basketball while staying completely humble. They display pride without arrogance, practice fundamentals, don't talk trash and allow themselves to be coached harshly without incident. There is no doubt they were the best team all season.
The series was sweet revenge for the Spurs and a culmination to their most successful season in team history. Quite an achievement considering it's their fifth championship. Their franchise has become the gold standard of professional sports. They look for players that are "over themselves" to advance their brand rather than promoting flashy superstars which has been the standard train of thought in the NBA for 30 years. They develop players better than any other NBA franchise and they have a keen eye for undervalued talent.
Boris Diaw who would have finished runner-up in the MVP voting (if there was such a thing) was cut by Charlotte (the worst team in the NBA at the time) for being fat and lazy. The Spurs figured out how to use his strength and he flourished. He was a weapon throughout the playoffs after the rest of the NBA wouldn't touch him.
Danny Green was cut twice, once by Popovich, before becoming and integral part of two Finals runs. Patty Mills was not on anyone's radar before becoming one of the best bench players in the NBA. And of course, the over-the-hill-four-years-ago duo of Ginobli and Duncan continue to play like 30 year olds. Remarkable. When they put it all together, the Spurs appeared to have no weaknesses. All that being said, the Spurs, as usual, are not the most compelling story and they wouldn't have it any other way.
What's going to happen to the Miami Heat?
After four thrilling seasons, four trips to the Finals and two championships, the future of the franchise is as uncertain as it was before acquiring LeBron and Chris Bosh. They have 13 free agents on the roster, basically the entire team. The only player with a guaranteed contract next season is Norris Cole. The Big 3 have a player option for another year, but the salary structure hardly seems prudent considering the play of Dwyane Wade and Bosh. What seemed like a forgone conclusion that the Big 3 would be together next season, is now in doubt based on the way the season ended. Four Finals appearances in four seasons seems like a hollow accomplishment after such a humiliating loss.
When thinking about the legacy of LeBron and the Heat, it dawned on me how grossly underrated Scottie Pippen was as a player. He was a reliable second option every night offensively while also playing elite defense. Consider the rest of Jordan's supporting cast. Great shooting point guards like John Paxson and Steve Kerr, amazing rebounding from Horace Grant or Dennis Rodman, third scoring options like Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper, and bigs like Bill Cartwright who could protect the rim.
Unlike 2011, James did everything he could to help his team win. "Follow my lead," was his message to his supporting cast before game 5. They didn't. At times, it felt like he was playing one on five. Wade was abysmal. A performance so bad that most of the basketball world assumed he was injured again. He had no explosion in his legs and couldn't finish anything at the rim. He missed more easy opportunities than he has at any point in his career. If he was truly healthy (as he claims), he picked a bad time to play the worst basketball of his career.
Bosh had his moments but was not a difference maker. The Spurs exposed him defensively by attacking the rim with the option to kick to an open teammate. As the only rim protector, Bosh was moved in and out of the paint which either forced him into foul trouble or forced him to run all over the court leaving open shooters.
The lack of production from the bulk of the team was surprising, but what was most shocking was how badly Eric Spoelstra was outcoached. I have never criticized Spoelstra, but he got his butt kicked this series. His adjustments looked desperate and he tightened his rotation when the team needed rest. They couldn't defend the Spurs and he left veteran defenders Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier on the bench until game five. The offense became increasingly LeBroncentric which is understandable considering the play of the rest of his team, but he knows better than anyone that you can't beat the Spurs with one player.
In the last four years the Heat have been undersized. They have no interior presence and can't rebound. They played every game/series knowing they would lose the rebounding edge which is why Spoelstra placed such a premium on defense and offensive efficiency. Both strategies failed against the Spurs and their weaknesses were exposed in embarrassing fashion.
It's amazing to think that the sky is falling for the former back to back champs, but that's the reality for the Heat. Every win and loss is blown out of proportion. With another monumental decision for the Big 3 and an entire to team to rebuild this offseason, the future of the Heat is all speculation.
Bosh has already publicly stated a desire to stay together. Wade is the most beloved Heat player in franchise history and will probably want to finish his career there. LeBron is the biggest question mark. Does he still have faith in his teammates and ownership?
Wade took a third of the season off in order to be fresh for the playoffs while Lebron shouldered the burden. In the end, Wade ran out of gas in the Finals leaving another season of heavy mileage on LeBron's legs. If Wade accepts his player option he is due to make $20 million next season which is drastically more than he's worth at this point in his career. Based on what he has done for the franchise and his pride, Wade will probably want to keep his money, handcuffing the teams ability to sign premium free agents below the luxury tax penalty. If Wade is unwilling to renegotiate, LeBron's future in Miami is very much in doubt.
The only savior in that case is owner Micky Arison. He has lived a dream life as owner over the last four seasons and the players might be tired of taking pay cuts so billionaire Arison can avoid luxury tax. No one on the team was happy they waived Mike Miller to save a few bucks, and there's no doubt they could have used him this season. It might be time for ownership to open the purse strings like Mikhail Prokhorov in Brooklyn.
At this point in his career, LeBron should not be moving around like a mercenary. His move from Cleveland was absolutely necessary after seven seasons of poor coaching and management, but he is comfortable in Miami and should look to finish his prime as a member of the Heat. Players will always want to play with him, and he has developed a trust in Pat Riley and Spoelstra that would be impossible to replicate anywhere else. But, the Heat have to get him help. He has been a leader in minutes played every year of his career and after watching the decline of Wade, he is very cognizant of his own mortality. He is no longer the greatest athlete on the planet. Like Jordan, he has matured his game to remain dominant but the minutes will continue to catch up. The Heat can't rely on LeBron playing 40 minutes a game anymore.
There are rumors that the Heat will target Carmelo Anthony. I think that is more fantasy than reality. Aside from relegating Wade to the third option, Anthony does not play efficient basketball. He is a volume shooter who defends when he feels like it. That hasn't been the Heat way for the last four seasons and I don't think he would fit in with what they are trying to do. Anthony would also have to play for half his worth in order to make that move work. It doesn't seem like a smart use of salary cap. Getting LeBron and crew several young and competent role players is enough to win without adding another star.
In the end, the sky really isn't falling and that's what the Heat should realize. They played a better team in the Finals and must continue to grow and evolve to regain their place as champions. When it comes to building a team and selling a dream, Riley is one of the best and I would expect the Big 3 to make another run next season. For now, they all need rest, and lots of it. There is no doubt they are drained mentally and physically. Bosh stated that the season was the least fun of the four with expectations weighing the team down.
Everyone associated with the Heat needs to do some soul searching and redefine what they feel is success. Any team with LeBron will have a championship or bust mentality, but the Heat were always at their best when they were having fun. Strange as it sounds, a Finals loss is often the best thing that can happen to a group. It either breaks you or makes you stronger. The Heat must figure out which it will be in roughly nine days when the Big 3 are forced to decide their future.