It's been a wholly interesting first half of the season for the Miami Heat. After entering the season with an aura of invincibility, this Miami team has never looked more vulnerable than it does today, fresh off a loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Wednesday.
However, the Heat still have an impressive record of 32-13, all while seemingly being bored with the regular season.
45 games into the season, there's reason to be encouraged and discouraged about the Heat's future prospects.
Let's take a look at why that's the case and what we've been able to glean from the season's first half.
It was about this time last season when the Heat clamped down and embarked on a 27-game winning streak. Don't expect anything of that sort in 2014, though.
Miami has made it abundantly clear that its main priority is to get to the playoffs healthy rather than having an incredible streak or even earning the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Dwyane Wade has missed five of Miami's previous nine games—not because he's been too hurt to play, but because the Heat want to avoid the 31-year-old's body breaking down as it did in the 2013 playoffs.
Miami could be right with the Indiana Pacers for the top seed in the East now had it not instituted Wade's maintenance plan. The Heat are 25-7 in games Wade has played in this year. That's a 78.1 winning percentage, which is just a tad below the Pacers' current 79.5 winning percentage.
Instead, the Heat are sitting Wade routinely and haven't been shy in sitting their other aging veterans from time to time if they aren't 100 percent healthy. In turn, they have just a 71.1 winning percentage for the season and are three games behind Indiana.
While the Big Three has long garnered all of the headlines, a key reason for Miami's success over the past few years has been its incredible depth.
The Heat's depth is still an asset, but multiple important role players have underperformed this year.
Miami legend Udonis Haslem isn't even a rotation player anymore.
Shane Battier hasn't been nearly as effective defensively. On the other side of the ball, he's shooting 35.9 percent from beyond the arc after he was the Heat's top three-point shooter last season (43.0 percent).
Battier isn't the only Miami shooter who's struggled. Ray Allen is shooting just 34.2 percent from three and Rashard Lewis hasn't been much better at 34.7 percent.
Considering Battier, Allen and Lewis are all 34 or older, there's reason for concern about whether these guys will be able to fully right the ship.
Since the 2012 postseason, the Heat have employed a small-ball strategy that puts Chris Bosh at center. While that championship-winning style is still predominantly used, head coach Erik Spoelstra has experimented and had success with bigger lineups recently.
The Heat have at times used lineups that feature Bosh at his natural power forward slot and Chris Andersen or Greg Oden at center. Spo told Ira Winderman of the Sun-Sentinel that Bosh's improving three-point shot (36.7 percent this season) has helped Miami make this transition.
"Where we were before, when we played bigger with him at the four, it compromised our spacing," Spoelstra said. "Now, it doesn't compromise our spacing because of the development of his game. Our guys are used to it more now.
The Heat having true centers that are capable of producing on the offensive end has also been instrumental in the bigger lineups performing well.
"If we were where we were three years ago, it'd have been a little bit more clumsy," Spoelstra said of the transition to playing a true center alongside Bosh, gambits that largely had failed with the likes of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Erick Dampier, even Joel Anthony. "Again, we would have had benefits of it defensively, but offensively a lot of things of what we do right now would have been compromised."
This newfound versatility adds another element to what was already a scary team.
Before the season, I would have said the only way LeBron James wouldn't win his fifth MVP trophy is if people simply got sick of voting for him.
Now, three months into the season, James isn't the front-runner for the trophy and, incredibly enough, that's based solely on merit.
Kevin Durant is the MVP right now. This isn't to say LeBron isn't still the best player in the world—he is. However, KD's been more valuable to his team this season.
The fact that Durant has led the Thunder to the best record in a stacked Western Conference while Russell Westbrook has played just 25 games is remarkable.
The eye test doesn't just show the scorching-hot Durant to be the MVP, the numbers back him up too. He's currently averaging 31.3 points, 5.2 assists and 7.8 rebounds with a 31.17 PER.
LeBron's posting 26.2 points, 6.4 assists and 6.8 rebounds nightly with a 28.80 PER. While one might think, based on reputation, that LeBron would at least be out-dueling Durant on the defensive end, mySynergySports' data (subscription required) says otherwise. LeBron allows a field-goal percentage that's 5.8 percent higher than what KD gives up.
As B/R's Joe Flynn touched on, Durant's case as MVP favorite was only strengthened on Wednesday when he scored 33 points in a win over the Heat in Miami.
James' chances of winning the MVP are looking bleaker by the day.
Miami played in three do-or-die games in the 2013 playoffs: one in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers and two in the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs. As we all know, in Game 6 against San Antonio, the Heat were dangerously close to being eliminated.
Winning a title last year was extremely difficult for the Heat. However, Miami is going to have an even tougher path to glory this year.
The first two rounds of the playoffs will be a cakewalk for Miami, but the inevitable ECF rematch with Indiana will be anything but.
The Pacers are a better team than they were last year. Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson—three key members of the squad—are all improved players. Indiana has more depth this year and its already great defense is now playing at a historic level.
Also, the likeliest team to come out of the Western Conference—the Thunder—had an enormous breakthrough against Miami in that recent Thunder win we touched upon earlier.
Oklahoma City coach Scott Brooks benched starting center Kendrick Perkins early in the game, opting instead to do something he's been reluctant to do in the past and play small ball against Miami. After sitting Perkins, the Thunder outscored the Heat 96-60 the rest of the way.
Miami is still my pick to win it all, but it sure isn't going to be easy.