Is the Miami Heat’s reign over the Southeast Division nearing its end? With the team facing a tumultuous offseason, and the Charlotte Bobcats and Washington Wizards poised to rise, it may come sooner than you think.
The wildly entertaining 2014 NBA playoffs have been rough for the favorites.
Entering Monday, with a lone exception, each higher-seeded team was either tied with or trailing its opponent—with the Houston Rockets and the Chicago Bulls up against the proverbial ropes, both down three games to one.
For casual fans without a rooting interest in one of these underperforming hosts—or those whose team isn’t owned by an alleged racist—it’s been a strange and exhilarating start to the postseason.
But about that exception. With a 109-98 win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Monday night, the Heat polished off a 4-0 sweep to move on to the tournament’s second round, where they’ll face the winner of the Toronto Raptors-Brooklyn Nets tilt.
Charlotte was an ideal initial opponent for Miami. To say the Heat have dominated the Bobcats lately would profoundly understate the case. Miami has now beaten the future-Hornets in 20 consecutive games, 19 and counting since LeBron James and his superfriends joined forces in South Beach.
The Heat’s trouncing of the Bobcats is, historically speaking, unusual. According to Robert Bradley of ABPR.org, the longest such streak in NBA history is the 26 consecutive games the Seattle SuperSonics took from the Minnesota Timberwolves between 1991 and 2009. Miami’s run, at the moment, is tied for the eighth-longest ever.
And the streak itself is just the tip of the iceberg—the gulf between two franchises could scarcely appear larger. The Heat are pursuing a third consecutive championship, while the Bobcats haven’t won a postseason game in their current iteration. The season the Big Three won their first title together, Charlotte set an NBA record for the lowest winning percentage in a single season.
As if to underscore the point—the point being: “We own you”—LeBron scored a career-high 61 points against the ‘Cats in March.
But, difficult as it may be to believe—with the ink still drying on the sweep the Heat just authored—Miami’s rule might be winding down. The chasm that separates the two organizations could soon shrink into something like a small valley.
A lot of this has to do with Miami. The Heat are facing an offseason that will result in a serious roster makeover. Pat Riley’s team has an NBA-high 13 potential unrestricted free agents this summer, including each member of the Big Three, who have opt-out clauses in their respective contracts.
To wit, in March, Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick summarized an interesting interview Bosh did on The Dan Le Batard Show:
Rather than conduct a conventional interview, Le Batard—the longtime Miami Herald columnist—and co-host Jon ‘Stugotz’ Weiner played two games with the Miami Heat forward/center, first asking him to ‘fill in the blank’ and then asking him to answer ‘true or false.’
Le Batard stated that Bosh—who can opt out of his contract after this season—will be in Miami next year.
‘True,’ Bosh answered.
‘And so will LeBron...,’ Le Batard continued.
‘True,’ Bosh replied.
A heartening exchange for Heat fans, sure, but this is hardly definitive evidence that the trio will join forces again for a (possible) run at a fourth straight title. And even if they all do return to Miami on their current deals, as ProBasketballTalk helpfully pointed out in December, the troika will count for $61.3 million against a projected $62.9 million salary cap.
That doesn’t exactly leave Miami a lot of wiggle room to fill out the rest of its roster.
And—heresy alert!—the core itself might not be worth building around for much longer. Though LeBron is at the top of his game and figures to stay that way for a while, Wade will turn 33 next season and is increasingly injury-prone, while Bosh—with his well-documented rebounding issues—might no longer be an ideal fit for a team that’s among the worst in the NBA on the glass.
Meanwhile, the Bobcats, long the laughingstock not only of the NBA but also of professional sports, appear ascendant. Though it’s gone largely unnoticed because the baseline from which it improved was so low, the team has gotten (pretty) good (very) fast.
Charlotte’s 43-39 season marked a 22-game improvement over its record the previous year—itself a huge jump from a 7-59 2011-12 campaign. In the course of two seasons, the team boosted its winning percentage by over 40 percentage points.
To accentuate how dramatic a jump this is, consider this: If the team continued to develop at this rate, it would win 76 games in 2015-16. (Granted, it’s numbers like this that prompted Mark Twain to quip that there are “Lies, damned lies and statistics.”)
The Bobcats’ rise to respectability was catalyzed by a defense that’s quietly become one of the best in the NBA. Under first-year coach Steve Clifford, the tough, balanced Charlotte D has become expert at denying opponents close-range shots and, consequently, finished sixth in the Association in defensive efficiency, per ESPN, after finishing dead last in the previous two seasons.
Grantland’s Zach Lowe chronicled the shocking turnaround in March:
Clifford has installed a basic system designed to minimize Jefferson’s limitations and provide clear roles for everyone. The results have been stunning. Charlotte has been the league’s stingiest transition defense by almost any measure, following Clifford’s demands to get back on defense immediately upon the release of a shot instead of crashing the boards
There’s reason to believe the improvement will continue. Per Basketball-Reference.com, the Bobcats’ five leaders in win shares in 2013-14—Al Jefferson, Josh McRoberts, Kemba Walker, Gerald Henderson and Bismack Biyombo—have an average age of 25.
Meanwhile Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, at 20, is a smart and disciplined defender with an improving jump shot, and rookie teammate Cody Zeller—after a rocky start to the season—shot 54.3 percent from the floor in March and April while averaging 7.7 points and 4.9 rebounds, per NBA.com.
This is a strong foundation, and the Bobcats have the resources to bolster it in future offseasons. The team has just a little over $44 million on the books in 2014-15 and $19.5 million committed the following season.
General manager Rich Cho—a whip-smart young executive who cut his teeth working for the Portland Trail Blazers and Oklahoma City Thunder—has plenty of cash to add a player or two who could accelerate the franchise’s rise.
While it’s hard to imagine a superstar would willingly join an organization as historically hapless as Charlotte, stranger things have happened. Consider the Los Angeles Clippers. The events of the last week notwithstanding, the team went from doormat to destination in the course of a few seasons.
And Charlotte, as bright as its future suddenly looks, isn’t the only threat to Miami in the Southeast. The Washington Wizards, with their 3-1 lead over the Bulls, have quickly established themselves as both a near- and long-term threat to Miami behind the play of John Wall and Bradley Beal, their electric backcourt duo.
The Southeast—and the Association itself, really—has belonged to Miami since LeBron James made his infamous decision in July 2010. And though the Heat will likely remain favorites as long as the best player in the NBA calls the “33132” his home, things could soon get very interesting in the division the Heat have won 79 percent of their games in during the last four seasons.
Miami is facing a lot of uncertainty, but elsewhere in the Southeast, things are looking up.