There's a disturbing trend emerging in the NBA. No, I'm not talking about flopping, "superteaming" or employing Rasheed Wallace.
I'm referring, instead, to ignoring incumbent champions.
In 2010, the Los Angeles Lakers won their second consecutive title, returned largely the same squad...and were immediately shifted to the back page by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the new-look Miami Heat.
In 2011, the Dallas Mavericks dispatched the Heat from the NBA Finals and, as their reward, were summarily dismissed in their defense—albeit because Mark Cuban allowed many of the team's key contributors to "self-deport" to other cities while Miami continued to hog the headlines.
This year, the circus has come full circle (sort of). The Lakers captured the lion's share of the attention from LeBron's Heat and Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder by way of adding Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in a five-week span.
OK, so maybe "superteaming" has something (or everything) to do with it, but that's not the point. The point is, the Heat have slipped under the radar.
Relatively speaking, of course. It's difficult for any team to maintain the ridiculously prominent place in the national sports conversation that Miami had occupied since rounding up free agents like herdsmen in the summer of 2010.
Such is the problem with being larger than life like, say, the Backstreet Boys, who went from being international darlings and staples of the MTV circuit one decade to being less than irrelevant the next. People are bound to stop caring at some point, either because they're tired of talking about said topic or because something newer and more interesting has come along.
In this case, the latter would seem to hold truer than the former. The Lakers stole the Heat's thunder (not to mention the Thunder's thunder) this summer when they essentially swapped out Ramon Sessions for a Hall of Famer (Nash) and Andrew Bynum for the premier center in basketball (Howard).
Mitch Kupchak's dual coups have put the Purple and Gold back on the map as title favorites, even though the Lakers were bounced by OKC in five games during the playoffs this past spring.
The Thunder were later bounced in five games by the Heat, who, in turn, still have every reason to excite fans, be it their own or those related to their opponents.
LeBron may not be the villain any longer after winning everything, demolishing everyone and doing it all with a decidedly less vindictive and more mature attitude. But he's still the best basketball player on the planet, on a team with two other top-20 active guys that just added Ray Allen, the most prolific three-point shooter in NBA history.
There's plenty of cause to believe that the Heatles will be leaps and bounds better in 2012-13 than they were for most of their first two years together.
To be sure, Miami was enormously successful during the 2010-11 season, when LeBron and company came within two victories of claiming the Larry O'Brien Trophy for themselves, and was a remarkably strong outfit for most of the lockout-shortened campaign thereafter.
But the Heat didn't truly shake and bake until the 2012 playoffs, when Dwyane Wade finally and so graciously conceded that he was the Cal Naughton Jr. to LeBron's Ricky Bobby.
Or, rather, when James made it abundantly clear on his own to D-Wade that the Heat would be better off with a new world order. LeBron's third MVP in four seasons, along with Wade's recurring knee problems, certainly helped to speed up the process.
As did LeBron's own improvement.
He stopped hovering around the three-point line and started punishing his opponents with his size, strength and agility inside using a newfound, Hakeem Olajuwon-taught post game.
The numbers back it up. According to Kirk Goldsberry of CourtVision Analytics, only 12 percent of LeBron's shots last season were three-point attempts, after hoisting from downtown approximately 23 percent of the time between 2006 and 2011. In exchange, LeBron became a force at the rim and on the left block, ranking in the top five in the league in field-goal percentage in each of those two areas.
As Goldsberry points out, the benefits of playing LeBron closer to the basket extended beyond just his scoring. It also allowed LeBron, arguably Miami's best rebounder, to be in better position to clean the glass, along with making him much more of a focal point as a passer from the middle of the floor.
Once head coach Erik Spoelstra shifted LeBron from the wing to the block, the rest of the Heat's ill-fitting pieces seemed to fall into place.
With James at power forward, Chris Bosh could replace Joel Anthony at "center" (albeit reluctantly), though he'd still have free reign to face up from mid-range and pop out behind the arc from time to time. More possession for LeBron meant less stress for Wade, who adjusted well to playing predominantly as a slasher and scorer off the ball.
In short, LeBron's change in roles, both hierarchically and strategically, made Miami's "small ball" approach not only functional, but highly effective as well.
Keep in mind, too, that things didn't truly click until well into the 2012 playoffs, when Bosh returned from injury after LeBron and Wade had sorted out their own arrangement. The Heat will presumably enter the upcoming season with the same understanding of how best to make things work with which they concluded in June.
No more fiddling around with matchups and lineups into the season's 11th hour for Spoelstra and his staff like in years past. They know what they are, and they know where they stand, with a championship ring to back up their collective confidence in their methodology.
Actually, there may be some tweaking involved, but only for the better, now that Ray Allen (and, to a lesser extent, Rashard Lewis) is on board. The addition of the league's most accurate purveyor of corner threes will make Miami's Big Three that much more dangerous offensively.
Where Miami previously relied on the likes of Mike Miller, Shane Battier, James Jones and Mario Chalmers to stretch opposing defenses, the Heat will now have Jesus Shuttlesworth on hand to open up the floor. Those former four are all formidable marksmen in their own rights and on their own occasions, but none can quite leave defenders trembling in fear as consistently as Allen does.
More attention paid to Ray Allen means less given to LeBron, Wade and Bosh, thereby making it that much easier for them to punish the opposition in their own ways.
All told, the Heat should be better this season than they were last, when they marched all the way to and through the NBA Finals. Their principal players have a more keen understanding of how to thrive alongside one another, and their supporting cast is both deeper and more properly aligned within the team's schemes.
Better yet, the intense pressure and scrutiny that once followed Miami from city to city has all but dissipated. The Heat don't have to prove to anyone that they can be champions, because they already are. They don't have to worry about Derrick Rose because he's out for several more months, Ray Allen because he plays for them and Dwight Howard because he's no longer in Orlando.
All that unwanted attention officially left South Beach for the City of Angels once Dwight took flight. Now, the Heat can do what they do best without having to live up to such lofty expectations, without having to worry about their every move being watched, their every up and down being dissected ad nauseam by the drive-time talking heads.
Maybe, then, this "trend" of ignoring champions isn't so disturbing after all.
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