Two down, five to go?
The Miami Heat can and certainly will bask in the glow of their second consecutive title for now. They worked diligently and capitalized on more than a few miracles to cap their historic campaign with the shiny crown-of-a-Larry O'Brien trophy it surely deserves.
But once the music stops and the post-celebration headaches have subsided, the wheels will start to churn again and the journey to the top will begin anew.
The History Ahead
Come the fall of 2013, the Heat will set out to complete just the fifth three-peat in NBA history—after that of the Shaquille O'Neal-Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers, the two of the Michael Jordan-Scottie Pippen Chicago Bulls and the octet strung together by Bill Russell's Boston Celtics.
That scarcity of accomplishment is no accident. Every season is a taxing endeavor in and of itself, even more so when the tally of games piled up between the regular season and the playoffs exceeds 100. More games shorten the offseason, thereby leaving tired players with less time to recover before the turn of the calendar to October instructs them to kick it back into high gear. String a few of those long, draining journeys together, and the group responsible is bound to wear down.
Especially when considering that defending champions almost always get the best shot of the opposition, regardless of the foe or the circumstances. That's why title defenses are considered so much more difficult to pull off than any single climb up the championship mountain.
Just as the San Antonio Spurs, who'd never so much as competed in back-to-back Finals during the Tim Duncan-Gregg Popovich era.
It's no wonder, then, that some, like TNT analyst and five-time champion Steve Kerr, preach the importance of refreshing even the most refined and battle-tested titleholders with infusions of new blood.
Know Your Limits
Doing so will be much easier said than done for the Heat, though. According to Basketball Reference, Miami's payroll is scheduled to exceed $86 million in 2013-14. That puts the Heat nearly $30 million clear of the NBA's soft salary cap and approximately $16 million into luxury-tax territory.
Even if Heat owner and Carnival Cruise magnate Micky Arison were to grant Pat Riley his every financial blessing, Riles would have access to only a few main mechanisms by which to acquire talent. The rules of the league's collective bargaining agreement restrict heavy taxpayers like Miami to a "mini" mid-level exception, worth just under $3.2 million per year. The Heat can also sign players to one-year, veteran's minimum contracts, the values of which depend on the experience of the free agents in question.
And that's it, at least as far as signing players outright is concerned. They don't have any picks in the 2013 NBA draft, though they might be able to buy a second-rounder or two if they feel so inclined.
There's always the trade market, of which Riles has long been a willing participant. But of all the players at Miami's disposal whom the team would consider moving, Chris Bosh is the only one of any real value.
Good luck getting anything close to equal return on him. Most teams would be reluctant to relinquish the sorts of quality big men the Heat could use in exchange for the nearly $62 million left on Bosh's current contract, especially after his uneven performance in the just-completed postseason.
For all the chatter about Dwyane Wade's decline, it was Bosh whose overall disappearance was (and should be) more disconcerting. The Heat's best big man averaged a subpar 12.1 points and 7.3 rebounds in 32.7 minute per game during the 2013 playoffs, with all of two 20-point games mixed therein and just the second scoreless game of his entire pro career to close out the Finals.
To the rest of the NBA, Bosh's value has never been lower. To the Heat, though, it could hardly be higher.
Say what you will about Bosh's occasional vanishing act from the box score, but there's no denying his importance to Miami's success. On offense, his range out beyond the three-point line opens up the floor for LeBron and Wade to attack the basket and kick out to the Heat's fleet of shooting specialists. On defense, his length, athleticism, speed and footwork is integral to Miami's aggressive, trapping, turnover-forcing style. He did an admirable job defending a bigger, stronger Tim Duncan one-on-one during the second half of Game 6 and for much of Game 7, particularly in crunch time.
On the whole, Bosh, more than any other member of the Big Three, has sacrificed his own game and his comfort zone for the good of the team. In many ways, he's the lynchpin that holds the Heat's operation together. He's the one whose ability and willingness to play out of position—in an uncomfortable, unconventional role—has enabled Erik Spoelstra to unlock LeBron's full potential as an all-around basketball savant.
And to lead the Heat to three straight Finals as a result.
To Bosh's credit, he found other ways to contribute to Miami's latest run, even when his shot was off. He wound up with four double-doubles in the Finals alone, and saved the Heat's bacon not once, not twice, but three times down the stretch in Game 6:
Chances are, Riles will entertain discussions about Bosh, at the very least. But if he's going to trade Miami's favorite space ostrich, he must know that he'd be doing so at the peril of his own team.
What else can/should Riley do then?
Keeping Chris Andersen on board as Bosh's backup would seem to be a good start. His arrival coincided with Miami's historic 27-game winning streak, and for good reason. Birdman was just the sort of athletic, hustling big man with a solid pair of hands that Miami had long been searching for to fill the bench. Andersen fell out of the rotation for a time during the Finals, but proved a valuable member of Spo's front-court rotation in just over half a season's worth of work.
In all likelihood, Birdman will want a raise of some sort from the relatively tiny share he earned in 2013. The question is, how much are the Heat willing to pay a soon-to-be-35-year-old journeyman who's not strong enough to guard post players with any consistency and who typically tops out at around 15 minutes per game?
Would the veteran's minimum do for Andersen? Would he insist on a share (if not the entirety) of Miami's mini mid-level exception? Or would another team stumble over its own feet to overpay the mohawked mural man to play in a different city?
With or without Birdman back in the fold, the Heat could use a bona fide post defender who's not a complete liability on the offensive end, unlike Joel Anthony. Such players are a relatively rare commodity, especially within Miami's price range, but there may be one surprising name who fits the bill.
The former No. 1 overall pick is reportedly interested in bolstering the thin front line of the two-time defending champs.
"The Heat need some size, that’s not a secret. Whether it’s in a backup role or whatever, he could help them. I know they’re interested in him and he’s interested in them, " Oden's agent, Mike Conley Sr., told Chris Tomasson of FOX Sports Florida.
Surely, Miami could use a player of Oden's size, strength and skill. The Heat will need a big body to bang against the likes of Roy Hibbert, Joakim Noah and Brook Lopez next season if they're to emerge from the Eastern Conference scrum in their push for a three-peat.
But adding Oden with anything more than the absolute minimal risk attached would be foolish for Miami. Oden hasn't partaken in an NBA game since 2009 on account of a seemingly never-ending string of microfracture procedures on his hobbled knees. There's no sense in throwing the mini mid-level at Oden if his career is going to be at such an obvious risk every time he takes the floor.
The Heat need only reflect on what happened with Oden's former teammate, Brandon Roy, whose two-year, $10.4 million deal with the Minnesota Timberwolves went for naught when his retirement-inducing knees gave way once again just five games into the 2012-13 campaign.
Paths of Glory
Oden won't be the only option on the table for Miami, though. As Chris Tomasson reported back in April, Samuel Dalembert could be in play. The soon-to-be free agent isn't the strongest of post players, but he is rather lanky and athletic, with a capable offensive skill set to boot.
Moreover, Dalembert, a native of Haiti, has a home in Boca Raton and may be willing to play for a fraction of the $6.7 million salary he earned with the Milwaukee Bucks this past season for the opportunity to work close to home.
And to compete for a title therein. The annual rite of veterans flocking to the bench-ends of contenders figures to favor Miami once again. If you've been in the NBA for years and have piled up millions of dollars along the way without so much as touching the Larry O'Brien Trophy, wouldn't you want to flee to South Beach to play with LeBron, Wade, Bosh and the two-time defending champions, even if it means sacrificing some potential earnings?
Money comes and goes. Rings are forever.
(Unless/until you sell them, anyway.)
That appeal is bound to bring jewelry-hungry journeymen crawling out of the underground like cicadas, hoping for one last shot at glory before their respective basketball life cycles have run their course. At this point, who comes calling is anybody's guess, though you can bet Riles won't have much trouble finding eager applicants.
Personnel changes aside, the key for the Miami Heat as they prepare for yet another grueling run through the Association is simple: rest, and lots of it. After taking home Finals MVP honors for the second year in a row, LeBron suggested that he might actually spend his summer doing something other than adding to his extensive repertoire of skills (via Ethan J. Skolnick of The Palm Beach Post).
“I need to rest my body. I do. As much as I love working out and as much as I love getting better, at this point, I think the smartest thing to do is to rest my body,” James said.
Ditto for Dwyane Wade, about whom Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports wrote:
Wade never made his knees an excuse, never sat, never stopped. He just kept pushing and pushing, even pleading with them, he said, to give him one more night.
"I told them, I said, 'Listen, both of you guys, y'all give one more great game,'" Wade laughed at his conversation with his knees.
Realistically, rest is the biggest need for the Heat right now. They've just survived a 105-game schedule that was preceded by a trip to China, during which they twice competed against the Los Angeles Clippers in foreign exhibitions. Miami's principals are all likely spent, with some (like Wade) nursing significant injuries. Some good, old-fashioned "R & R" would serve them well.
Because, in all honesty, this team doesn't need much else to defend its turf. The Heat have already been around the proverbial block together—multiple times, for most of them. They play a small-ball style that, while exhausting and fraught with vulnerabilities at times, has clearly been effective since Spo first flipped the switch during last year's playoffs.
More importantly, they know how to play it together. They understand their identity as a team better than any other in the NBA. They play to their strengths and work feverishly to cover up their weaknesses.
And, again, it's worked to the tune of two titles.
At this point, the onus is on the rest of the league to adapt to what Miami does, not the other way around. So long as everyone else is playing catch-up—and so long as LeBron James is still far and away the best basketball player in existence—the Heat will have their eyes trained on adding another Larry O'Brien Trophy to their impressive haul.