The off-season wheeling-and-dealing is largely in the rear view, with teams now just sorting through the scrap pile to round out their rosters. So what should we expect next year? Here's one man's view of the league's totem pole, from the weakest to the Heatest.
- NBA offseason Power Poll, Part 1: From 30 to 14
- NBA offseason Power Poll, Part 2: From 13 to 8
- NBA offseason Power Poll, Part 3: From 7 to 4
Contenders with a fatal flaw (continued)
Look, I can understand the argument for the Thunder, I really can. In Kevin Durant, they have the best player in the Western Conference, by a fairly wide margin, and probably two of the top seven or eight. If you look at the two-time defending champion Heat, where they're basically one all-time-great, another superduperstar second banana and a third big galloot who helps with defense, rebounding and hitting open 18-footers, the title-winning formula looks rather favorable to OKC as well, particularly if you argue that Russell Westbrook is a better player than Dwyane Wade at this respective stage of their careers and that Serge Ibaka is younger and springier than Chris Bosh, with his prime still ahead of him.
Here's the thing though... as brilliant as Durant is, he's not LeBron James. He can't pass like James. He can't post up like him. He certainly can't defend all over the court like him. The margin between the best player in the world and the second best is a wide chasm, certainly bigger than the difference between Durant and the next guy, whether your flavor is Tony Parker, Chris Paul or whomever. Ultimately, that's the big difference.
However, it's not the only difference. I also think the Heat's supporting cast, as invisible as it can be at times, is miles better than the Thunder's, where outside of Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha and maybe a Reggie Jackson, there really isn't much left, now that Kevin Martin has moved on to Minnesota. If Scott Brooks is smart (a big if), he'll use the first 40 games of the season to experiment with fellas like Jeremy Lamb, Daniel Orton, Perry Jones, DeAndre Liggins and Andre Roberson. They're all young athletes who can presumably run fast and jump high, and who knows, maybe a couple can play basketball if given a chance. I mean, how hard can the game be when you've got a Durant and a Westbrook accounting for virtually all of the defense's attention anyhow?
Brooks has to find some depth by hook or by crook because there's only so much time and space opponents will give the big dogs before someone else for the Thunder has to knock down open shots. Because GM Sam Presti exists solely to troll his old employers, they re-signed Derek Fisher, who shoots 80 percent vs. the Spurs and 20 percent vs. everyone else. OKC did snag a trade exception during the free agent wheeling and dealing and we'll see what deals will be available for them at the deadline, and how much a skinflint owner is willing to bend for a title run.
I'm absolutely fascinated about this club's prospects going forward. More than any team in the league I think their range of outcomes extends from a first round exit all the way to the Larry O'Brien Trophy. On one hand, you've got a roster that took Miami to a seventh game in the Eastern Conference Finals (and don't forget, they blew Game 1 thanks to coach Frank Vogel's bizarre decision to take out Roy Hibbert on the final play so that LeBron had an easy stroll to the rim for the game-winner. I mean, can you imagine that? Can you even conceive of such an asinine, mind-boggling maneuver? Taking out your best defensive big man on the most important play of the season against the Heat? What an embarrassing blunder. Vogel will never live that one down, [ahem] no siree) AND they're essentially adding Danny Granger to that mix, to give some life to what was, last season, a tire fire of a bench. Also, they upgraded their backup point guard, signing veteran C.J. Watson to replace D.J. Augustin, who I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out was the central figure in some point-shaving scandal encompassing the Pacers' entire playoff run.
On the other hand, what the Pacers are trying to do is basically win a championship without anyone who can pass or dribble, which seems to me a bit unprecedented. I like George Hill a lot: as a third guard. As a starter on a championship contender? I'm just not feeling it. Forget the inconsistent jumper, a lot of point guards have that issue. Most of the others can dribble though, which is kind of important. And the ones worth discussing at all can all create for their teammates. Hill is basically a combo guard shoehorned into a starting job out of necessity, and because Vogel likes his defense.
Paul George is the Eastern Conference's answer to Kawhi Leonard (all right, fine, he's better, I guess) and his continued ascension will be critical to their title hopes, because he basically has to turn into a Kobe or a Wade for them to pull it off, and I'm curious if they'll stress his ball-handling and passing in the off-season to take some of the pressure off of Hill and to give defenses a different look. I also wonder how George and Granger will mesh, now that their roles are 180 degrees different than from the last time Granger was fully healthy. Of all the Eastern teams I still think the Pacers are the best bet to knock off the Heat, but they're still a bit too Nugget-ish (i.e. star-less) for me and for that reason prone to being upset by somebody like the Cavs, especially if a couple of Indy's starters implode.
Say it with me, "One last run."
Gregg Popovich is blessed with the easiest job in the league and cursed with the hardest. He gets to bring back virtually all of a crew that came within seconds of winning the title, all the essential principals respect and believe in his methods on and off the floor, and the group as a whole has a bunch of experience playing together, so chemistry will not be an issue. Even better, despite the wealth of talent at his disposal and the undeniable fact that he's in charge of one of the five or six true contenders for the crown, he'll once again be operating, at least during the regular season, under a cloud of virtual anonymity, as the Spurs will just keep on keeping on while the spotlight will shine on the Heat, Nets, Clippers, Bulls, Thunder, Rockets, Warriors, and, for comedy's sake, the Lakers.
The tricky part for Pop is that he's basically forced to live the life of an NFL coach, knowing full well, that no matter how carefully he plans or how protective he is of his stars, that the Grim Reaper is bound to tap Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and/or Tony Parker (not necessarily in that order) on the knee, ankle or shoulder at any second, telling them, "You're done. Now." It's a black cloud that will hover over the team all season long from training camp to (hopefully) late June, always in the back of our collective minds. All of it, the grand operation, could possibly end at any second. It's really a terrifying way to view what should be an enterprise built on "entertainment."
The Spurs are entertainment the way that "Romeo and Juliet" is entertainment. Better yet, they're more like that sick freak who walked across the Grand Canyon on a rope with a net. Did you watch that? I sure didn't. It gives me the willies just thinking about it. No, thank you.
So Pop will dole out and ration the minutes. Duncan and Ginobili will probably be limited to 65-70 games, at somewhere between 24-27 minutes per, regardless of whether or not they're healthy enough to contribute more. Parker won't get too much more than that either. They will lean more on Leonard to lead the team on both ends, and I suspect he will be more involved in the pick-and-roll, both as an initiator and on the business end from Parker. It will be quite the luxury (albeit a necessary luxury, if that makes sense) that Leonard, and to a lesser degree Danny Green and Tiago Splitter will be able to take over whole chunks of games while the Big Three cruise. No other contender can really come close to pulling that off.
How much analysis do the Spurs need? All it's going to take is for everyone to stay healthy, for Parker to not tweak a hamstring at the worst time and for Ginobili to have three good games in the Finals instead of one-and-a-half. It sounds so simple, yet it's going to take a massive amount of luck.
"The Potential Dynasty."
1. Miami Heat
Oh, screw this.
Yeah, congratulations, LeBron. Way to shoot the ball so incredibly bad that it careened off the backboard like a scud missile instead of just being a routine brick. Your team beat the Spurs because your three-point attempt at the end of Game 6 with the Heat down five looked like a love-child born of a union between a DeAndre Jordan free throw and an Andris Biedrins free throw.
Also, Erik Spoelstra deserves kudos for telepathically manipulating Pop into benching Duncan for that critical sequence. He must be a Vulcan or something.
And who can forget Wade, who bothered to jump for for that history-changing offensive rebound? That totally offset the other 47 minutes of regulation where Pat Riley was openly wondering what he could get for trading him in the off-season.
An "attaboy" is certainly in order for Bosh, who held Duncan to five points in the second half and overtime after allowing 25 to a 37-year-old in the first 24 minutes. All it took was your gumption, effort, and three other guys illegally camping in the paint on Duncan for you to totally turn that around. Also, sweet offensive rebound over Duncan to set up Ray Allen's game-tying three. Oh wait, that's right, Duncan was on the bench for that one too.
And way to go, Jesus Shuttlesworth for hitting the biggest shot of your career to send Game 6 into overtime. The refs were so impressed by your clutchness that they decided to ignore your blatant foul at the end of overtime that could've given the Spurs a title. I guess you felt guilty about that or something, so you decided to not show up for Game 7 (Bosh and Mike Miller also went scoreless). Mighty nice of you, mighty nice.
I'm not bitter or anything.
I've got nothing at all instructive to say about the Heat. James could be so motivated for a three-peat that he could cajole the gang into a 70-win season or they could collectively decide to hit the snooze button, Shaq-Kobe style, to a fourth-seed, figuring they'll just turn it on when they have to. It doesn't matter that Mike Miller left because some other nitwit will drain 10 three pointers when they need him to. If it's not Shane Battier than it'll be box-head Norris Cole or maybe Birdman will start shooting hooks from 27-feet. You know somebody's going to do it and it's going to annoy everybody but ESPN executives. I hate every single thing about this team. Hate. And I don't think it's just a sports-hate either. I want every single member of their organization and all their front-runner fans to try that walking-across-the-Grand-Canyon thing too. C'mon guys, it's easy. Just try it.
Finally, can we all just stop pretending that Greg Oden is thinking hard and weighing his options about which team he's going to go to? Puh-lease. There was more drama about the Dwight Howard signing. We all know he's going to the Heat. Of course he is. He surely wants to go to the easiest situation for him, to chase a ring, and to not have to worry about whether his body can handle any heavy lifting. I've got more character in my pinky than he has in his comically gynormous ... pinky. I can't imagine he'd ever go to a team where --heaven forbid-- there are actual expectations for him to play hard and contribute.
It's basically a carbon copy of the decision LeBron made three years ago, only he's this generation's Sam Bowie instead of one of the best players to ever play. Just sign already and end the pretense.
[Editor's note: And here the ranter laid down his reverse-jinxing pen, and was silent. Temporarily, that is. - jrw)