How Biggest Moves in Eastern Conference Impact Miami Heat's Quest to 3-Peat

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 11, 2013

Until LeBron James is officially filling out a change of address form, the road to an NBA title still travels through the Miami Heat.

Despite some rocky playoff performances from Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Miami's key to another successful title defense lies in its decorated three-headed monster. With multiple superstars serving as the key ingredient to this new-age championship recipe, the Heat's Eastern Conference rivals have spent the early part of the 2013 offseason on a frantic star search.

Some have fared better than others, but have any done enough to tip the scales away from the reigning champs?



Brooklyn Nets Add a Trio of Former Champions

With a new billion-dollar home and billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov writing checks as fast as his hand allows, the Brooklyn Nets are looking to test the theory that NBA titles aren't up for sale.

Brooklyn's blockbuster start to the offseason didn't come without a hefty price tag attached to it. After the Nets landed Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry in a trade with the Boston Celtics, they're now facing a record-high luxury tax bill that USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt reports will cost the team nearly $70 million.

With Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Brook Lopez already on the books for more than $54 million by themselves, Brooklyn's 2013-14 salary is coming dangerously close to cracking nine figures. There is no time for rookie coach Jason Kidd to learn on the job; the Nets' spending alone has placed a championship-or-bust grading scale on the coming season.

An interior tandem of Garnett and Lopez allows Brooklyn to attack Miami's swarming defense at its weakest point. Both players are capable of creating offensive chances away from the basket, but expect their movements to be restricted in a potential matchup with the Heat if Kidd saved any film from Miami's struggles to stop the post games of the Indiana Pacers and the San Antonio Spurs.

The Heat also aren't immune to defensive breakdowns on the perimeter (see: Danny Green's 24 uncontested threes in Games 1 through 5 of the NBA Finals). Here's where players like Johnson (career 36.9 three-point percentage) and Terry (37.9) can leave their biggest imprint.

When the Nets' offensive sets break down, they now have two of the best creators in the business in Williams and Pierce. Both players could help expose another of Miami's weaknesses (lack of rim protectors), while Pierce's presence should keep James' attention away from slowing down Williams like he did to Tony Parker in the championship series.

On the defensive end, though, the Nets could still be in trouble.

Johnson and Terry have both lost a step at this stage of their careers, and neither was ever a strong defender to begin with. Pierce has the body to bother James, but lacks the needed athleticism to keep pace with the four-time MVP.

Garnett is comfortable defending away from the basket, but Kidd will have a tough time keeping Lopez from being left on an island. Spelling Lopez with a more perimeter-savvy stopper might sound like an easy fix, but just ask Gregg Popovich how well trying to match Miami's downsized lineup worked out for him.



Josh Smith Joins the Up-and-Coming Detroit Pistons

Trapped in a four-year postseason drought, the Detroit Pistons aren't facing the same pressures to win now as the Nets are. After shelling out $56 million in a four-year contract for Josh Smith, though, the Pistons are hoping to see some immediate returns for their investment.

Between Smith, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, Detroit has quietly assembled one of the league's deepest front courts. On the surface, that's an enormous boost to the Pistons' chances to dethrone the Heat. 

But the addition of Smith alone doesn't guarantee that the Pistons can put together a prolonged run when/if they find their way back into the playoffs.

Detroit is still in dire need of a pass-first point guard, the kind of player that can test Miami's defensive discipline with a dizzying display of ball movement. Jose Calderon could've been that player, but the free-agent floor general just inked a four-year deal with the Dallas Mavericks.

Calderon's absence leaves only combo guard Brandon Knight and career reserve Will Bynum to handle Detroit's distributing responsibilities. Miami's frantic defensive system will trap this pair of point-guards-in-training at every opportunity, perhaps thwarting coach Maurice Cheeks' schemes before they ever take shape.

As for the Pistons' post attack, even that might not be the thorn in Miami's side that it first sounds like. Monroe is the best interior scorer of the three, but he's never averaged more than 16 points per game. Smith's trigger-happy tendencies could make him a non-factor (or even a negative one) on the offensive end, where the 19-year-old Drummond is still honing his craft.



A Former No. 1 Pick Lands in the Big Apple

Carmelo Anthony pleaded with the New York Knicks to find him a secondary scorer. New York general manager Glen Grunwald promised an "aggressive" and "creative" approach to improving the roster.

The result? The Knicks added former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani, a finesse 7-footer deemed expendable by the revamped Toronto Raptors front office.

While Bargnani averaged better than 19 points a night from 2009-12, his shooting percentages have plummeted over the last two seasons. In 2011-12, his three-point percentage dipped below 30 for the first time. Last season, he labored through the second sub-40 percent field goal season of his seven-year career.

Bargnani might not have been the player Anthony had in mind, and he's not going be flooding the streets of New York with No. 77 jerseys, but he could be a decent fit if he's fully healthy. He was a 37-plus percent sniper in three of his first four seasons in the league and could help free up space for Anthony to operate on the block.

As for a matchup with Miami, though, Bargnani might not even make it on Erick Spoelstra's game plan. If he's only utilized as a floor spacer, the Heat have to account for sharpshooters like him every time they take the practice floor.

If Anthony and J.R. Smith can't find consistent paths to the cup, then the Heat shouldn't have much to worry about in this potential meeting.



Are the Heat in Trouble?

Even in the shape-shifting Eastern Conference, the Heat still figure to be their own worst enemies.

Brooklyn added experience (and a load of salary commitments), but a rookie coach guiding an aging roster still smells like a potential disaster. Detroit certainly got more interesting, but the Pistons still need a capable point man to put all of the pieces together. New York hasn't found a way to make an Anthony-Amar'e Stoudemire pairing work, so it's tough to hold out faith that an Anthony-Bargnani duo will fare any better.

James got his taste of the champion's life, willed his way back for seconds and has no apparent plans to give up his seat at the head of the table. Wade and Bosh should be even more motivated for a three-peat, as they're not only fighting to keep James in Miami but could also be auditioning for their next employer if things go awry.

The gap between Miami and the field might be closing, but it was so wide to begin with that it won't be enough to end the Heat's championship run.


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