Now that we’re almost to the NBA Finals (one or two more games left between Miami and Indiana, and the Spurs are already in) it’s not too early to see what new facts have emerged about the players and teams in the league. Some players stock has gone up considerably (Paul George and Roy Hibbert in Indiana, Tony Parker in San Antonio, Stefan Curry in Golden State), while others have gone down (D. Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Zach Randolph in Memphis). Golden State and Indiana look like possible teams of the future while Miami and Los Angeles (both the Lakers and Clippers) look to be at a crossroads, and teams like Chicago and Oklahoma City are wondering what could have been were it not for injuries to major players (Derrick Rose in Chicago and Russell Westbrook with the Thunder). Next season looks like it will be one with some major upheaval in the league pecking order both on an individual and team level.
Now Miami is just like Cleveland
Despite a 3-2 series lead and the best player in the league leading the way, Miami looks to have some major questions once this season is over. Dwyane Wade looks like ten-plus years of playing a crash the lane and get hit style of ball have finally taken its toll on him; he’s averaging a career low 13 points a game in the playoffs this year, and has been damn near invisible in some games. His full season numbers took a noticeable dip last season, and now it’s clear that he has begun the Noticeable Decline, the one where everybody can tell and not just basketball/stat junkies. Chris Bosh is playing badly as well, to the point that he’s got to have some kind of injury that’s been kept quiet. There can’t be any other explanation because there’s no reason for his game to drop off like this so quickly. He doesn’t have the miles on him that Wade does and doesn’t play a style that wears a career out quickly. Either way this team is looking a lot like the Cavaliers team that Lebron left behind in Cleveland, one where 11 guys look a lot better than they would on their own because the 12th guy is Lebron. The big difference is that Lebron has embraced his Best Player in the League status now, whereas in Cleveland he was still wrestling with it. If this were the same Lebron from Cleveland this team would have lost in five.
But next season is going to be a challenge for the Heat front office. A new number two must emerge, somebody who can do what Wade used to do every night, or there needs to be an influx of good players who can get 10 to 15 every night. Right now Wade and Bosh might as well be Mo Williams and Drew Gooden. That won’t work next year over 82 games, or in the playoffs against this dangerous Pacers team and a presumably healthy Bulls squad. But the Heat are largely locked in salary-wise for next year so the only hope is some draft day magic, which currently has no chance of happening because the Heat don’t have any picks. 2014 will be decision time all over again for Lebron and company; Wade and Bosh will have to consider taking significantly less money if the team is going to continue to contend for the championship. $18 million a year for a fully in decline Wade and an inexplicably bad Bosh will doom the Heat to second round exits; Lebron could look at that possibility and decide to take his talents to Hollywood or Broadway. (Please note that I will not hate on Wade or Bosh for one minute if they exercise their player options and take more money than they would get on the market; it’s a business and it’s their right)
Up and Coming, or Flash in the Pan?
We’ve seen this movie before. The Golden State Warriors pull off a first round upset, then put up a fight before bowing out in the second round. People crown them as a new threat in the West. And then……..they’re back in the lottery later. That’s what happened in 2006-07. The Warriors, then an eight seed, shocked the defending West champs the Dallas Mavericks in the first round and were the underdog darling of the playoffs. They ran up against a less choke-prone Utah Jazz team in the second round and bowed out and then……they won six more games the next season but missed the playoffs. The year after they dropped under 30 wins after point guard Baron Davis left in free agency and was replaced by Jamal Crawford. Injuries set in to the rest of the roster, and the whole thing went under. So will that happen this time around, or is this team going to last for more than a year? I’d vote for the latter. For one, they don’t have any major contract issues. Curry has already signed an extension, and his new sidekick Klay Thompson is locked into his rookie deal through 2015, as is David Lee. Harrison Barnes is signed through 2016. Unless the team front office sours on these guys the way they did on Monta Ellis a few years back, the core will remain intact. If they continue to improve like they’ve been doing they could be a threat for some time. Of course that isn’t guaranteed and neither is health which brings us to…..
Can’t wait until we get everybody back next year!
That’s what they’re saying in Chicago and Oklahoma City right now. Both team got to the second round despite losing two irreplaceable players; Derrick Rose before the season started in Chicago and Russell Westbrook two games into this years playoffs in OKC. Given how formidable the two teams were when they had their full complement of players (OKC went to the Finals last year while Chicago got to the Eastern Conference Finals in Derrick Rose’s last full season), it’s not crazy for their fans to think next year can be much better if they get everyone back. That’s if you leave out the unfortunate truth for both teams that both of those seasons ended in five game losses to the Miami Heat. The Bulls roster is largely unchanged from that loss, and OKC has downgraded from James Harden to Kevin Martin. If they weren’t good enough to beat Miami then, then why would they be now?
Would a healthy roster in both cities and a Heat team with a declining Dwyane Wade close the gap between them and the defending champs? Maybe, maybe not. OKC went out to the Memphis Grizzlies in the second round, two years after their full complement of players beat them in seven games. OKC would have definitely beaten Houston faster in the first round and at least played Memphis tougher in the second had Westbrook been there; they might have even won that series and taken out the Spurs again in the conference finals like they did last year. With the Bulls it really depends. Rose went down in the first round of the 2012 playoffs, and the Bulls lost that series as a result. With him healthy they get further in that playoff and would have finished with a better record in the regular season this year. With him in the lineup just for the playoffs this year they probably still lose to Miami because the rest of the roster was plagued with injuries. Lots of possibilities, but no concrete evidence.
For next year? They have to re-sign Kevin Martin in OKC or they’ll have a big hole at shooting guard. Even if they do it’s going to be a hard slog until Westbrook comes back. If Minnesota is healthy and Denver stays good the division will be tough for them, and there are the usual suspects in conference that will be tougher to beat in the regular season without him in the lineup. The Bulls roster will go largely unchanged, but they have to deal with a tough Pacers team in their division that will be a lot harder to take down than two years ago. They should still be top two or three in the East, but winning the division is no lock. Future health is never guaranteed. League history is littered with ‘what could have been’ rosters on paper that never got to play together enough to make a difference. We may have already seen the best these two teams can do.
There are other things out there to consider. Clippers owner Donald Sterling could be on his way to sabotaging his team for the third time in the last ten or so years. Over the last decade or so they’ve built up impressive collections of young talent three different times. There was Lamar Odom/Elton Brand/Quentin Richardson group in 2002 that was on the cusp of the playoffs before falling apart, then the Brand/Chris Kaman/Corey Maggette group that made it to the second round in 2006 and lost in seven games before coming back to earth the next season. Now we have the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin group that just won over 50 games and has made the playoffs two years in a row. Will they re-sign Chris Paul and keep the team together or let him leave and let it all go to pot again? Will the Lakers keep Dwight Howard and re-tool for the future? Will the Knicks find some way to improve? Will Boston give up the ghost and embrace rebuilding? We’ll see what happens. Enjoy the Finals, folks.