What do the Miami Heat have to look forward to in next year's postseason, assuming nothing of titanic significance takes them out of it?
A run through the Eastern Conference playoffs that's going to be as arduous, physical and compelling, for one. Before the Heat took on the San Antonio Spurs in a masterpiece theater edition of the NBA Finals, they were subjected to consecutive series of ugly, technical and flagrant foul-laden, grind-out basketball.
For those clamoring for that "superior" style of 1990's basketball, they got their wish when the Heat ended up in two extremely physical series' against the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers. Led by dominant frontcourts and gunners in the backcourt, those two teams became nightmares for the Heat as interior play on both sides of the court nearly proved to be their downfall at certain points.
Miami was locked into three wire-to-wire games, in a series that extended five games, against a Chicago Bulls team playing without Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich. Their following series against the Pacers went the full seven, with both teams exchanging wins until Miami's decisive Game 7 victory. Before then, however, it was completely up in the air as to which team would represent the East in the NBA Finals.
The Heat may have had the talent and bench advantage in both series, but they were also stymied by both teams and their significant size advantages. While Miami featured a 6'11" Chris Bosh at center and a 6'8" Udonis Haslem at power forward, as well as a 6'8" Shane Battier, the Bulls were supported by Defensive Player of the Year nominee Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Taj Gibson.
The road didn't get easier for those three. Indiana nearly ended Miami's season thanks to a frontcourt featuring the 7'2" Roy Hibbert, another Defensive Player of the Year nominee, the bruising David West, the psychotic Tyler Hansbrough and Most Improved Player Paul George.
As guys like Hibbert, 22 points and 10 rebounds per game, and Boozer, 20 points and 10 boards per in the final three games of the semifinals, flourished, the Heat were constantly adjusting to the interior presences of both teams on both sides of the court.
Miami went through several different looks on offense, including a rare instance primarily featuring LeBron in the post for nearly an entire game, and were constantly adjusting to find ways to limit the influence of Hibbert, who became the heir apparent of Hakeem Olajuwon against the Heat.
Get used to seeing these teams beat up on each other. The Bulls are only going to get better with Derrick Rose making his long-awaited return next season. The Pacers, meanwhile, not only feature improvements to their bench in Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson, but will also be welcoming back Danny Granger, who only played five games last year.
The Heat don't have a choice this offseason. They're going to have find an addition to the team who's going to be capable of lessening the influences of these Redwoods and Sequoias. Indiana and Chicago are going to be the fixtures of Miami's postseason runs over the coming seasons, and those two squads can boast a lot of youth on their side.
Hibbert will turn 27 in December and George recently turned 23. Those guys are the cornerstones of a Pacers team that may end up giving the Heat their greatest challenges in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Size has been one of Miami's few weaknesses, and it was grossly apparent in this past season's Conference Finals.
The Heat were outrebounded in every game that series other than Game 7. Indiana held rebounding advantages of 20 in their Game 6 win and 19 in their Game 4 victory. The Pacers averaged nearly 13 offensive rebounds per contest, the majority coming by the way of Hibbert's length and size.
Even with Chris Andersen, who will be ready for another go-around with the Heat next year, the Miami Heat couldn't provide an answer. Despite being a showman that will give maximum effort any time he's out on the floor, the 35-year-old Andersen was not capable of handling Hibbert last year, and it may be the same case this year.
According to SynergySports, Andersen ranked 169th in the league defending spot-ups, allowing his assignment to shoot 44 percent and garner 0.87 points per possession. He is a stronger defender on weak-side blocks and defending pick-and-rolls, as opposed to his defense in one-on-one situations in the post.
Chris Bosh hardly provided an answer, either. And that goes for both ends of the floor. He scored under ten points in the final four games of the series, combining to shoot a paltry 8-of-34 and getting to the free throw line for only eight attempts. His defense hardly quelled the influences of guys like Hibbert or West, which is saying something since Bosh's defense actually improved last season.
The only other possible options on the Heat roster? The 6'8" Haslem or the 6'9" Jarvis Varnado, who doesn't even have a guaranteed roster spot. Unless Miami wants to convert LeBron James into a center this year, which he might actually be capable of doing, then they're going to have to look outside of their current makeup.
Playing small and creating space is a key characteristic of the Heat offense. However, it leads to guys like Battier getting manhandled by guys like Boozer and West. As long as those teams are attacking Miami's small lineup with their bigs, they're consistently getting shots in high-percentage areas and forcing Miami's smaller defenders to give up size and physical abuse.
It really seemed like the interior presences of Indiana and Chicago threw Battier off his game. Adding another big would take the pressure off of Battier on the defensive end and on the boards.
The Heat don't need to have their shooters, or their All-Stars, constantly battling it out with the physical frontcourts of Indy and Chicago for up to seven games before they even get to the Finals.
The name that's been bounced around the past couple of weeks has been Greg Oden. Both parties, Oden and the Heat, express mutual interest and the latest reports had the Heat and San Antonio Spurs at the top of the 7-footers destinations.
Oden's going to come at a cheaper price than most 7', 25-year-olds because of his history with injuries that have derailed the early portion of his career. Since being drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers with the number one pick in 2007, Oden has only played in 82 games, or one complete regular season in six seasons.
Oden has played in only two of those potential six seasons. He sat out all of his rookie season and has missed the past three seasons.
He hasn't played a game in the NBA since December 5th, 2009. The Los Angeles Lakers hadn't even won their second consecutive title yet, LeBron James was still trying to make it work with the Cleveland Cavaliers and Dirk Nowitzki was still considered a choker that would never win the last time Oden played in the NBA.
He has undergone five knee surgeries, but has reportedly looked "unbelievable" in recent practices.
So, yeah, can you see why nobody is too overzealous to unload a lucrative deal on Oden's doorstep? The Trail Blazers nearly made that mistake when offering him a qualifying offer worth $8.9 million in 2011. With so many serviceable big men waiting to get picked up, Oden is simply too big of a risk to use a roster spot and devote millions to when he could potentially get injured at any moment.
But the Heat isn't interested in those other big men. They're not looking for another Erick Dampier or Ronny Turiaf. They don't want another temporary solution. They want someone who is going to be there to depend on when they're facing off with potential perennial playoff foes in the Pacers and Bulls.
There aren't many other names out there that could possibly intrigue the Heat. Samuel Dalembert has had a history of chasing money, Byron Mullens can't play defense and Timofey Mozgov may still end up costing too much simply because he's 7'1".
Oden is a player who will not complain about not receiving a consistent role. He needs to acclimate back to the NBA after a three-year absence. Miami won't be as demanding as teams that are looking for a center to begin receiving minutes as soon as the season starts.
Miami doesn't need another scorer. They have enough players who can score already and don't want a big man who is going to clog up the lane because he needs his touches in the post. Although Oden averaged 11 points per in the 21 games he played in the 2009-10 campaign, 109 of his 152 attempts came right at the rim.
Of the 152 attempts, 110 of them were either dunks, layups or tip-ins. He only attempted 14 jumpers and shot 36 percent on those, while also converting only 32 percent of the 28 hooks he took. If Oden's getting signed, it's going to primarily be for his defensive prowess and catching-and-finishing ability.
But mostly, and this is why the Heat are so interested, because of his defense. He averaged 2.3 blocks in 2009, good enough for 3.4 per 36 minutes. Per 36, he was also averaging nearly 13 rebounds and five offensive boards before his career was thrown for a loop.
His size and youth will only help the Heat's cause, as well. Miami has no true 7-footers on its current roster and it appears to be a necessity in order to combat the offensive onslaught of five-to-ten foot hooks from Hibbert.
You can only wonder why Indiana didn't attempt to get the ball to Hibbert in their semifinals series with the Heat in 2012. The Pacers were slow learners, but they eventually figured out a way to push Miami to seven games despite receiving little help from its bench and having no Danny Granger.
This is where Oden is going to play his role. He's not going to get thrown into the fire immediately, so don't expect him to begin playing a significant role as soon as he's ready. It's more practical for Oden to join a Heat team that could give him up to 15 minutes of playing time, as well as an increased role when going against a team like Indiana.
It won't completely neutralize Andersen's role. Both players will be utilized in the right situation. If Miami needs athleticism and is going against a center who isn't scoring with ease, throw in Andersen. If the opponent has a Hibbert or a Brook Lopez or a Dwight Howard going off, however, it's the better situation for Oden to play.
Judging by the past, the Heat have no problem in switching up the rotation if need be.
Miami isn't on the lookout for many other names this offseason. They've only been linked to the likes of Sebastian Telfair, have already completed their primary goal of re-signing Andersen and will be soon faced with decisions to make on the contracts of Mike Miller and Joel Anthony.
The Heat can only offer Oden the mid-level exception or the veteran's minimum. Don't be surprised if Oden ends up taking the offer from the highest bidder. He's already had a rough start to his career and he may want to make his money now, before injuries potentially leave Oden off a basketball court for good.
They're willing to take the risk because they see the upside of Oden. They're also willing to take on Oden because of the role he will play, which could end up having him on the bench for a majority of the season or as a possible starter if his rehab over the past three years has brought him back to the supremacy he once embraced at Ohio State.
And if it doesn't work out? Miami still has a roster that has won the past two titles and should be pleased to see three players that have been playing great basketball in the summer league.
However, it's usually never a good idea to remain stagnant in free agency. Miami has made significant moves in the past three offseasons, including obtaining Shane Batter in 2011 and Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis in 2012, and need to continue countering the moves made by opponents.
The Heat realized long ago that every team would be gunning for them. Now they can also see teams making moves solely related to finding ways to defeat Miami. With Indiana set to continue using its All-Star laden frontcourt in hopes that it can best the Heat four times out of seven, Miami needs to sign Oden in order to do whatever it takes to decrease the roles played by the likes of Hibbert and West.