Ranking the Biggest Threats to Miami Heat's 3-Peat Bid
Much of the conversation and speculation regarding the Miami Heat’s bid for a third consecutive championship has centered around the team itself, on factors squarely within its control.
Is the defense good enough? Is the supporting cast ready to go? Is Dwyane Wade himself? After all those extra games, and all those extra miles, are they too tired to finish a three-peat?
This is important stuff, sure, but there’s another category of concern, another group of factors, that could just as easily thwart Miami: the other guys.
From the Indiana Pacers and the Oklahoma City Thunder to the Brooklyn Nets and the San Antonio Spurs, there are a handful of teams that want the 2014 Larry O’Brien Trophy just as badly as Miami and appear, at the moment, to have the raw materials necessary to wrest it away from LeBron James and company’s greedy, and bejeweled, hands.
It would take quite a pull, but here, in ascending order, are the five biggest threats to do exactly that.
5. The Brooklyn Nets
Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Since the calendar turned to 2014, the Brooklyn Nets are 34-15, one of the finest records in the Association in that period.
You may have come across this little statistical tidbit, too: The Nets are 4-0 against Miami this season. According to Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first time a team of LeBron's has been swept in a four-game regular-season series.
This isn’t merely trivia, either. Brooklyn is a proud, veteran team that has zero fear of the champs.
"They've definitely had our number. That's obvious," James conceded to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News (h/t Zach Buckley) after Miami’s most recent defeat at the hands of its neighbor to the north, an 88-87 loss on April 8.
And it all started with a lineup switch. Counterintuitively, the Nets' steep climb up the Eastern Conference standings began the moment the franchise lost its ostensible top player, center Brook Lopez. With Lopez out, according to Devin Kharpertian of The Brooklyn Game, “longball” was born:
Brook Lopez's injury forced the Nets into those drastic changes. Kevin Garnett, who started the season as their power forward, moved to center. Paul Pierce, their small forward, moved to Garnett's slot at power forward.
Joe Johnson slid up to small forward from shooting guard. Either Alan Anderson or Shaun Livingston slid in next to Deron Williams, until Williams went down and both started.
As implausible as it would have seemed just a few months ago, the Nets—the team formerly known as one of the most expensive disasters in NBA history—are suddenly a credible threat to dash Miami’s three-peat hopes.
4. The Chicago Bulls
Speaking of Eastern Conference teams who’ve oscillated from contender to pretender to…well, interesting—meet the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls have long given the Heat fits, and with Joakim Noah playing at a near MVP level, Tom Thibodeau’s crew appears poised to give them a run for their money if a playoff rematch were to occur.
Chicago is cresting. The Bulls are 10-2 in their last 12 games, and, according to ESPN, have pieced together the No. 2 defense in the NBA.
The Bulls are strong, physical and absolutely brutal to play against on any one night, let alone four to seven in a two-week span.
They have Joakim Noah, who just might be the most versatile non-LeBron James or Kevin Durant frontcourt player in basketball; they have Tom Thibodeau, who just keeps finding ways to win even while his roster gets more and more depleted; and they have the league's second-best defense on a per-possession basis, according to NBA.com, a unit that's actually been the best in the league since the calendar flipped to 2014.
No one said achieving a three-peat would be easy, but I distinctly remember hearing the Heat wouldn’t have too difficult of a time emerging from the impotent East. With the rise of the Nets and Bulls, that supposition is, now, very much in doubt.
3. The Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers are floundering.
There are some smart people who are saying it. Like Grantland’s Zach Lowe:
The Pacers have collapsed…and their offense, long the team’s weak link, has reached a point at which it might disqualify them from title contention.
These Pacers have never been a good offensive team. They ranked 19th in points per possession last season, and even at their best this season, they topped out around average. They lack the mechanisms to create easy shots at the rim.
And there are some compelling facts that underscore this case, such as the Pacers’ definitively mediocre 15-14 record since the All-Star break.
But how soon we forget. Despite one particularly unhelpful deadline acquisition—sorry, Evan Turner—this is still, basically, the team that took the Association by storm in the season’s first few months and took Miami to seven games in last season’s improbably competitive Eastern Conference Finals. The public shouldn’t lose sight of this and nor should Miami.
In fact, according to Benjamin Morris of FiveThirtyEight, the Pacers' recent woes might actually say less about the team than their bonkers early-season success.
“Ultimately, I’ve concluded that there is no special correlation between late-season performance and playoff success,” Morris wrote in a 2011 post examining the surprisingly weak correlation between strong finishes to the regular season and playoff success. “In fact, the opposite is far more likely.”
Long story short: Don’t sleep on the Pacers, guys.
2. The San Antonio Spurs
The fact that Gregg Popovich doesn’t win Coach of the Year each and every season is the strongest evidence we have that factors beyond “which guy did his job the best” creep into the awards voting.
"Pop" is at it again in 2013-14, as he has his rag-tag San Antonio Spurs—I’m not being flippant here, but there is no way this roster, based on pure talent, should be running roughshod over the NBA the way they have—on a smoldering hot streak and with, by a four-game margin, the best record in basketball.
There’s also the matter of unfinished business. San Antonio, objectively, should have won the 2013 NBA Finals. According to inPredictable, before Ray Allen hit his insanely unlikely/consequential three-point shot to force overtime in Game 6, Miami’s odds of winning the contest were 66 to 1. So the Spurs, you could say, were in the driver’s seat.
San Antonio is better than it was last year—its 2013-14 scoring differential of 8.1 is 1.7 points higher than it managed in its 58-win 2012-13 campaign—and it might be angrier. It's not an ideal combination for a Heat team that barely eked by the Spurs a season ago.
1. Kevin Durant
LeBron James is an unstoppable, indestructible, supernaturally gifted powerhouse who can—through sheer force of will—alter a playoff series on his lonesome. It’s why picking against the Heat is a fool’s game.
And Kevin Durant has now, officially, joined him.
When Durant is on—which he is nearly always—he’s devastating. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the "Slim Reaper" leads the NBA in points, win shares, win shares per 48 minutes and player efficiency rating. By measure of wins produced, via BoxScore Geeks, he’s pacing the Association as well.
Durant has been the best player in basketball in 2013-14, is surrounded by a long, rangy supporting cast in Oklahoma City that’s fifth in the league in defensive efficiency and has entered a period in his career where, like James, he can single-handedly swing a series.
If the Heat fall short in their quest to join the rarified ranks of NBA three-peaters, it would surprise exactly no one if the lanky forward was prominently involved.