Even before the Miami Heat embarked on their franchise-best 16-game winning streak, there was little doubt about which team reigned supreme in the Eastern Conference.
Of course, that aforementioned hot stretch has since extinguished all fleeting hopes held by the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks to overtake the defending champs between now and April 17, the final day of the regular season.
Miami has stretched its lead over New York to 7.5 games and moved eight full games clear of Indiana. No other conference foe stands within even 10 games of the mighty Heat.
Perhaps even more importantly, when will the time arise that Spoelstra can comfortably find more rest for his starters without the threat of a $250,000 fine? Like the one levied against the San Antonio Spurs when their coach, Gregg Popovich, sent his starters home a day early before a highly anticipated, nationally televised game against these same Heat earlier this season.
Remember, this is largely the same Spoelstra rotation that has played 44 postseason games after back-to-back NBA Finals appearances the last two seasons. And don't forget that MVP front-runner James followed up last year's championship run by guiding Team USA to Olympic gold at the 2012 Games.
There's certainly some motivation for the Heat to maximize the remainder of the regular season in hopes of grabbing the overall No. 1 playoff seed. The Heat have the best home winning percentage in the NBA (.900) and haven't lost inside American Airlines Arena since Jan. 4.
On the strength of their current spurt, the Heat have moved ahead of the Oklahoma City Thunder for the second-best winning percentage in the league (.763).
While they still trail the Spurs (.774), their interconference rivals face an uncertain future. Their MVP candidate, Tony Parker, is expected to miss the next four weeks after suffering a grade 2 ankle sprain against the Sacramento Kings on Mar. 1, according to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today.
Miami's remaining schedule isn't quite a month's worth of gimmies, but it's not that far off. The Heat nearly split their remaining games between home (11) and the road (12). Of Miami's remaining 23 games, only nine come against opponents with a winning record (including two against the 30-29 Milwaukee Bucks).
What could ultimately afford Spoelstra a luxury not given to most coaches is the fact that he can give an off night to one of his three stars and still have potentially the two best players on the court. All three players (James, Wade and Bosh) have a history of being the leading man on a franchise, and all three are more than capable of filling that role to this day.
If Spoelstra can buy an extra night of rest here and there for his stars and not risk giving the game away, it's certainly worth strong consideration.
If James sits, Wade returns to the leadership role he filled for the franchise before James' arrival in the summer of 2010. And it would also give extra minutes to players like Rashard Lewis (12.1 mpg) and Mike Miller (13.4 mpg), giving them the chance to show they're worthy of a spot in the playoff rotation.
Moving Wade or Bosh to the sideline offers similar benefits.
In the backcourt, sophomore Norris Cole would be granted an opportunity at reaching the next step in his development, which scouts thought they would see after his strong rookie season.
Up front, newcomer Chris Andersen would earn some extra time to familiarize himself with his new teammates. And veteran Joel Anthony could prove he's capable of more than the garbage scraps thrown his way this season (9.5 mpg).
Things like Miami's winning streak and James' unprecedented dominant stretch (six-straight 30-point games on 60-plus percent shooting) are commendable achievements and worthy of attention.
But the Heat clearly have one unit of measurement to calculate their success: championships.
And yes, that would be multiple championships: not one, not two, not three...remember?
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!