For the first half of this conversation, head over to Hot Hot Hoops, and see what I had to say about Greg Oden, Michael Beasley, and how easy it was for the Heat to sign them.
What follows is the second part of our talk, which begins with Surya answering my question: Tell me who you think the Heat's toughest matchup is: Indiana, OKC or San Antonio? And why?
First things first, you deal with Indiana and treat that as the toughest opponent. You don't want to look ahead TOO much, seeing as the Heat breezing through the first and second round is a pretty much foregone conclusion this season, and pretty much has been every year since...oh, I don't know....the Heat acquired LeBron?
Between OKC and the Spurs, yeah I'd say the Heat would be happy to face the Thunder instead. They already matched up well enough the first time they faced off in the Finals and that was with the threat of James Harden going off at any moment. They're a great team today and Durant is playing at an MVP level but your Spurs are definitely a tougher team to face and loaded with championship experience and savvy.
Also, looking back on the signing Beasley and Oden you might think of it as being a no-brainer but remember that both are quite talented on paper but at the time there was a fair bit of concern over both. Oden was an intriguing project but it could have been as impactful as Eddy Curry's "comeback" here in Miami (or San Antonio). I still hold my breath a little when Oden comes down after a dunk. Of course it's great he's back and playing but if he was still rehabbing or not showing improvement then he would have just been taking up a roster spot. Beasley wasn't as much of a risk but I'm not sure many NBA teams were calling after his Phoenix dismissal. So no, I don't think Beasley needed to be convinced to return but rather the Heat front office needed to see if he was truly serious about joining them, being more mature and also being aware that minutes might be hard to come by. Riley brought him in but Spoelstra and his teammates got him on track with the way things are done in Miami in the Big 3 era. I think both players came in with the right attitude and it's paying off for the Heat now.
As for the Spurs, Marco definitely fits right in to the culture, and not just because he's a Euro guy. Plus he's always been a feisty opponent against the Heat, most recently in their battles with the Bulls. But what's up with Leonard? He's back now after a long layoff from injury so should he back up to speed by Thursday? Looking further on down the line, can he be more than a glue guy and be a star for the future Spurs? There's a lot of questions about the future of the Heat with free agency looming but how much time does this current Spurs squad really have left to win another ring with their three future Hall of Famers?
So you think the Heat would rather play Durant than Duncan? Man, is the internet going to love you. Of course, I agree that Spurs/Heat is more of a fight than Thunder/Heat because basketball is about matchups. Miami just seems to be built to be OKC's kryptonite, while the Spurs ... well it was a seven gamer last year. And with Marco replacing Gary Neal, the new Patty Mills and Boris Diaw playing aggressively instead of just looking to pass, it's a solid argument that this season't version of the Spurs is superior to last year's -- even with another year's worth of tread gone from the Big Three's tires.
As for what's up with Leonard, here's a play from his third game back from his broken hand.
He's shooting the ball better than he has all season long. His stamina is already back to mid-season form. He's playing defense like he never missed a single shift and his overall game looks more developed, polished and complete than it did back in January when he was injured against the Thunder. If tonight's game isn't a great one, it won't be because Kawhi's still rounding back into form.
The rest of your questions are seriously intriguing, and I think I'll take the championship window one first. If the Spurs were an end-of-the-world/disaster movie, 2014 would be the point of the film where people starting wearing "The end is nigh" signs as they walk down the streets of Manhattan and an eerie green sunset dominates the background. But the question, as it's been with the Spurs for years, is just how nigh is the end? Duncan is still elite and the only way I see him not taking his player option for next year is if he gets his fifth ring this year. And he might come back even then. But since I'd lay odds that next season is Manu's last in the league, I'll answer your question by saying: this year and next -- at least.
Yes, I hedged. But the reason why is because of your Future Kawhi question. He's going to be a beast, one that the Spurs can ride on both ends of the court. He shoots threes. He gets steals and takes it coast to coast. He slashes and dunks. And he posts up.
I know there aren't many offenses in the league that are built to punish opposing defenses with one post-up after another, but Kawhi is capable of dominating on the block, and Popovich has already spent a successful 10+ year stretch of his career coaching an unstoppable post threat. The Spurs will likely still have Parker to run the offense, and I see Tiago Splitter sticking around to anchor the defense. Which means that the do-it-all Leonard would be a fantastic linchpin to take the Spurs into the post-Duncan, post-Ginobili era.
So, what about you and Miami's current era? Will Wade keep playing? CAN he keep playing? Will Lebron stay and what do you think is going on in Bosh's head?
Okay, saying the Heat would be happy to face the Thunder is a bit much, but it's in the context of choosing between two elite teams and come to think of it, the Heat should be happy to face anyone in the Finals because it means they got past the Pacers. Both the Spurs and the Thunder are great teams but if I have to choose between the two, yeah I think the Heat match up better against the Thunder.
That's not taking anything away from Durant either. He's a special player and an unstoppable offensive force that's fully capable of winning games all by himself. It's just that Miami also has a guy that can sort of do that too. And yet, LeBron can do much more than that too. Sure, the rest of the Thunder rotation is pretty solid but I don't see how they collectively can top what Wade, Bosh, Allen, Chalmers, Battier, Beasley and Cole can provide.
As for the Spurs, I might be biased because I really admire Manu and his game but we all know he was pretty much unrecognizable through most of the Finals. A career high 8 turnovers in Game 6? Maybe his Game 5 performance of 24 points and 10 assists can't be counted on consistently anymore, but you'd have to assume if there was a Finals rematch that he'd bounce back and make the Spurs that much tougher. And it sounds like you're pretty content with their bench too so this year's squad will be a tough opponent for the Heat or any playoff team.
But that's the thing about all of this, we just don't know until it unfolds before our eyes. Who could predict Danny Green's record-setting long range prowess in the Finals? This is why we watch the games, for the unexpected and surprising twists and turns. We literally need to see all of this play out, so I'll backtrack to the beginning and remind you that I still think the Pacers are the toughest opponent for the Heat because it will be their first true test in the postseason.
As for the Heat, it's been a slow and steady process for Wade but he's coming along nicely at the right time and has been putting together an impressive collection of recent performances this season. (We just wrote about it on HHH) Bosh has looked as comfortable as he's been since arriving to Miami and has fully settled into his role. I also feel like Spoelstra has a better handle on the advantages of having the Big 3 at his disposal.
And the near future? I just don't see them breaking up the band this quickly, to be honest. It almost feels like they've just gotten started putting all of this together. They've only lost one playoff series since forming the "Heatles" (I never call them that), with two straight titles and an excellent chance at a third one now.
Together, they can be perennial title contenders for years to come. Call me crazy, but that sounds pretty appealing to me.