Miami Heat vs. OKC Thunder: Which Team Has Better Title Chance in 2012-13?
The 2012 NBA Finals offered one of the most lasting impressions in league history. LeBron James won his first career NBA championship, taking down friend and rival Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The question is, is it LeBron's Heat or Durant's Thunder that have the better title chance in 2012-13?
Thus far, Oklahoma City has jumped out to an NBA-best record of 20-4. They've done so by winning 11 consecutive games and dropping their four losses by an average of just 7.3 points per game.
In turn, Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Thunder have reclaimed their crown as the Western Conference's elite. Even without James Harden.
As for the Heat, their ride has been a bit more turbulent.
Miami presently sits at 15-6 and ranks second in the Eastern Conference behind the 18-6 New York Knicks. They dropped each of their two meetings with the Knicks, losing by 20 points in both outings.
They've also suffered an 18-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies and a defeat at the hands of the 3-18 Washington Wizards.
Although we could measure title odds based off of the first quarter of the season, there is too much basketball left to be played to resort to such tactics. Instead, we must evaluate the more important areas in the pursuit of a crown.
Starting with the road to the gold.
Road to the Title: Miami
Who has the better chance of making the NBA Finals?
For those dedicated Miami Heat fans who claim that they will reclaim the top spot in the Eastern Conference, don't jump the gun. Miami has finished second in the East in each of the past two regular seasons.
With the New York Knicks proving to be a legitimate force rather than a product of momentum, that may very well happen again in 2012-13.
If that were to be the case, the Heat could face the daunting task of playing four postseason games at Madison Square Garden. Since Mike Woodson took over as head coach, the Knicks are 22-3 at home, including the postseason.
Fortunately, Miami has two of those victories.
Outside of New York, the task of repeating as Eastern Conference champions is manageable. Derrick Rose's timetable remains unset and the Boston Celtics could play their way into a low enough seed that they never see Miami in the playoffs.
If they were to face Boston, however, revenge could be the Heat's undoing as Ray Allen faces his former club. That and the fact that the Celtics always play Miami tough.
The Brooklyn Nets, Indiana Pacers, Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers are also viable threats to take Miami down. Each are made up of significant depth, with Brooklyn boasting star power.
Philadelphia also happens to have an elite player at Miami's weakest position.
That is, if center Andrew Bynum ever gets healthy.
Road to the Title: OKC
The Oklahoma City Thunder may be the class of the Western Conference, but that doesn't make their trip to the top any easier. Not when the San Antonio Spurs, Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies are just a step behind.
Not when the Los Angeles Lakers could hit their stride so late that they become OKC's first-round matchup.
The Golden State Warriors and Minnesota Timberwolves present feel-good stories, but they are not legitimate threats to OKC. Both lack any form of postseason experience and are likely to face the same fate as the Thunder during their first postseason appearance.
They'll put up one heck of a fight, but ultimately fall short to an experienced opponent.
The Denver Nuggets and Utah Jazz, meanwhile, both have postseason experience and revitalized rosters. Denver, specifically, has the luxury of placing Andre Iguodala on Kevin Durant.
Durant shot 39 percent from the floor with Iguodala defending him in 2011-12.
The true threats, however, come out of Texas. The Spurs are consistent championship contenders, while the Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets could give OKC a run for their money.
Emotion always plays a factor and a battle with ex-teammate James Harden would provide just that. It would also enable Jeremy Lin to perform on a big stage, and we all know how that goes.
As for Dallas, they played Oklahoma City competitively during the 2011-12 postseason. The only difference this year is that they've replaced aging legs with younger players and signed a legitimate No. 2 scoring option in O.J. Mayo.
The road to a repeat out West will be no easy task for Oklahoma City. Especially not if the Lakers turn things around.
X-factor Advantage: Oklahoma City
I'm not going to tell you that Kevin Durant is a better player than LeBron James. I'm not even going to argue on his behalf in terms of the MVP voting.
What I will do, however, is tell you that Durant is the best late-game performer in the NBA. Bar none.
That's exactly why OKC has the X-factor advantage.
If a game is within 10 points and there is under three minutes remaining, you can almost guarantee that Durant will bring the Thunder back or seal their victory. He's done this both in the regular and postseason.
This gives OKC the slight edge over LeBron's all-around performances with fourth quarter scoring woes.
This is not to say LeBron isn't clutch, but instead to acknowledge that James thrives as a late-game facilitator. Even if Ray Allen is around, no one compares to Durant in the scoring department.
The Miami Heat have the easier schedule. The Oklahoma City Thunder have the ultimate X-factor.
So who has the better shot at winning the title in 2012-13?
No matter how dominant the New York Knicks may have become, there is no established competition in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks haven't made it out of the first round of the postseason since 1999-00.
The Boston Celtics, meanwhile, are approaching the status of "too old to compete" with each passing game.
Even if Boston were to turn it around, can we really expect them to catch the Knicks for the Atlantic Division crown as they did with Philadelphia in 2011-12? Chances are, they won't.
In turn, Boston will be a 5- to 8-seed and be forced to win on the road.
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, the threats are everywhere to be found.
The San Antonio Spurs have won four titles since the turn of the century with virtually the same core. The Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, meanwhile, are only new threats by virtue of their competing for a Top 3 spot.
Memphis and LAC have as much postseason experience as any team in the West when you consider the individual pieces on board.
As for the Los Angeles Lakers, they're far too talented to remain this inconsistent. Once the growing pains disappear, they too will become a legitimate threat to the crown.
For that reason, Miami has the easier path to a repeat appearance in the NBA Finals. As long as they don't play down to the level of their competition, they will be more likely to repeat.
Consider the East to be the lesser of two evils and Miami the direct beneficiaries.
Maxwell Ogden is a B/R Featured Columnist covering the NBA.
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