The Miami Heat will be just fine.
Losing LeBron James is close to a sports death sentence—just ask anyone living in Cleveland over the last four years—but Pat Riley responded to the departure of the greatest player on the planet in extraordinary fashion.
As The Associated Press' Tim Reynolds noted, things could be a lot worse for Miami:
Can't imagine Heat fans are upset with the Post-LeBron salvage work. Cavs lost 36 of 37 in one stretch first season without him. Heat won't.— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) July 15, 2014
The Heat aren't likely a championship contender, but they are certainly a playoff team. And anything can happen in the watered-down East.
Cleveland Cavaliers (at Home)
When: Dec. 25, 5 p.m. ET
Go ahead and cancel your Christmas plans. Again.
For the last four years—all runs to the NBA Finals—the Miami Heat faithful have been thoroughly picked apart. They don't show up on time, they don't care, they are just bandwagon fans, they didn't even notice when LeBron signed with Cleveland. The list goes on and on.
When James returns to Miami for the first time, it will be the fans' chance to prove the skeptics wrong. Whether they boo or cheer their former star, Miami needs to prove its devotion to this team by treating this like a playoff game.
On another level, it should be very emotional for James as well. When he revealed to Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins he would be signing with Cleveland, he discussed his love for the Heat personnel:
I went to Miami because of D-Wade and CB. We made sacrifices to keep UD. I loved becoming a big bro to Rio. I believed we could do something magical if we came together. And that’s exactly what we did! The hardest thing to leave is what I built with those guys. I’ve talked to some of them and will talk to others. Nothing will ever change what we accomplished. We are brothers for life. I also want to thank Micky Arison and Pat Riley for giving me an amazing four years.
This is probably the most anticipated game of the entire season, and it has very little to do with both of these teams being legitimate contenders in the East.
Cleveland has its star back. Miami will watch him return as the opposition. The result should be an environment worthy of playoff basketball.
When: Feb. 6, 9:30 p.m. ET
Again, the loss of James takes some of the sparkle out of this matchup, but a Finals rematch is a Finals rematch.
In June, Spoelstra was out-coached by Gregg Popovich while Wade, Bosh, Mario Chalmers and the remaining pieces from the roster were embarrassed in five games by the San Antonio Spurs. Revenge will very much be fueling the Heat's motivation for this one.
Still, it's not going to be easy.
The Spurs, if anything, have gotten better after their record-setting championship performance. They re-signed free agents Patty Mills and Boris Diaw, and they essentially stole Kyle Anderson—a perfect fit for them—at the end of the first round in the 2014 draft. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are ageless, and Kawhi Leonard is only going to continue to get better after his Finals MVP performance.
As we serve up free agency shots, & you guzzle them, the Spurs quietly ink Pop to continue coaching the best team in the NBA. Gold standard— Scott Van Pelt (@notthefakeSVP) July 9, 2014
If Miami can somehow pull a win out against the league's best team, it will do wonders for its confidence.
This game will not only be a good barometer of how Miami can fare without King James, but also an exciting game for fans looking to wash away last season's Finals loss.
A lineup of Chalmers, Wade, Deng, McRoberts and Bosh with role players like Chris Andersen, Norris Cole, Napier and Danny Granger coming off the bench is a playoff team.
Just how far this team goes, however, will hinge on Wade.
Riley discussed his veteran's importance, via USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt:
Dwyane has been the franchise cornerstone for this team since the day he arrived 11 years ago. He has shown his commitment to the Heat many times over the course of his career and has always been willing to sacrifice in order to help build this team into a champion. This time is no different.
Last season, the aging star played just 54 games during the regular season but still wore down at the end of the postseason. Perhaps Spoelstra's biggest task will be managing Wade's minutes—without James to mask any problems of depth, no less—while still keeping Miami successful.
Where will the Heat finish in the East?
Overall, though, there aren't many trios with as much talent and experience as Wade, Bosh and Deng, while McRoberts was a sneaky good role player last year. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he had an offensive rating of 115 and a defensive rating of 105.
If Cole can take a big step forward or Napier's game translates smoothly from college—Chalmers is difficult to trust after his Finals performance—the Heat will be dangerous.
Just don't expect them to be the dynamic force they were with James in town.
Record Prediction: 45-37