No one can debate which team won the NBA free agency championship this off-season. Miami was the clear winner, resigning Dwayne Wade and Udonis Haslem, while adding the two All-Stars, Lebron James and Chris Bosh. So what obstacles lie in the Miami Heats path through the 2010-2011 NBA Season and Eastern Conference Playoffs?
Team chemistry will be the biggest obstacle to just how far this team can ascend through the 2011 NBA playoffs, their first together. On the court, James and Bosh know that when it comes down to the last two minutes of a game, Wade must have the ball in his hands. Imagine the expression on Wade's face, if James keeps the ball for himself and tosses up three-point bricks, or Bosh loses the ball trying to post up as the clock winds down. This will be the only major problem on the court. Off the court, there are a slew of distractions. Will it be the party scene, jealousy over the endorsements another player is getting, or the giant egos of these three players that cause them to stumble? The simple answer is no. Most likely, none of these factors will be an issue. The only problem that may rise to the surface is resentment and dislike for James' entourage. There have been rumors and reports about the guys that Lebron surrounds himself with walking around with a sense of entitlement due to Dan Gilbert's choice to let them do just about whatever they wanted to do. If James is smart, he won't let his group of hanger-ons rub the other players on the team the wrong way. Assuming that the Heat learn how to play well together, avoid distractions, and James' crew is kept in check, what other obstacles lie in their path to a NBA Finals appearance?
The second obstacle in their path is the one that no one wishes upon them (with the exception of jilted Cavaliers fans and Dan Gilbert). The dreaded season ending injury to one of their top two players, James or Wade, would put a stop to their run to the NBA Finals. What happens to the Heat if Wade falls awkwardly on his shoulder, or twists a knee trying to dunk on a bigger defender? Lebron James has never had a serious injury, but he might run into a few intentional elbows on his way to the basket this year, with Eastern Conference teams trying to send an early message to the Heat. Dwight Howard has been known to take out his own teammates, so it is in the realm of possibility that he could take out an opponent. There are other players on that team (ATTN: Mike Miller) that might be out 6-8 weeks if they get a hangnail. The key player on that team is Wade, and without him they will not win an NBA championship. An injury to James or Bosh would not be as devastating to the Heat.
However, since we don't want to jinx the Heat, let's assume that they stay healthy this year. The third obstacle is the regular season schedule. The Heat are a team full of alpha dogs, looking to dominate their opponent. They will try to start off the regular season by blowing people off the court, and forcing lesser opponents into fearing them. Their ego will grow big, and the enjoyment of running out to the best record in the league, and trying to win 70 games could get the best of them. This may sound mundane, but there are many stories of teams with the best record in the league not winning the NBA Championship (Cleveland the last two years), or flaming out in the playoffs because they spent too much energy trying to win home court advantage throughout the playoffs. A very good example of this is the Portland Trailblazers of the early 1990's. A team filled with talent, athleticism, and boundless energy, lost to the Detroit Pistons in the 1990 NBA Finals, after being an afterthought for most NBA prognosticators. The next season, they ran people off the court, and flew into the playoffs with the best record in the league. When they reached the Western Conference Finals, they met Magic Johnson's Lakers, who they should have handled easily in 5 or 6 games. But the combination of the smart and savvy play of the veterans on the Lakers, and the Trailblazers running out of gas, led the Lakers to win that series. The next year, the Trailblazers played smarter, expended less energy during the regular season, and made it back to the Finals. This lesson is an important one that the Heat, especially Lebron James, need to learn in order to avoid a flame out: NBA Championships are not won in the regular season.
The fourth obstacle will be the zone and transition defenses. In the half-court offense, James, Wade, and Bosh will be left open from 19 feet out, while Miller and Eddie House will be given everything inside of 19 feet. If James and Wade drive to the basket, teams will foul and foul hard. Bosh isn't known for being a strong inside player, and teams will try to bully him into submission. If teams can box out Haslem, and keep him away from offensive rebounds, we may see the Heat shoot 38% from the field. Even more important is the defending the fast break. Wade, James, and Bosh will be looking to run every chance they're given. If the Heat are able to turn their team in Showtime East, most teams won't be able to keep up for the full 48 minutes. If you want to stop the Heat, stop the fast break, and play zone.
The fifth obstacle, and what many consider the most important, is the Eastern Conference opponents they will face in the Playoffs. There lies a three-headed monster. The Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic, and Chicago Bulls. Boston knows how to win, knows how to play defense, and has one more big run left in those old legs. Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen would love nothing more than to show Miami the exit sign. Rajon Rondo is only getting better, they added a solid player in Jermaine O-Neal, and Kendrick Perkins will be back. Orlando has the inside presence, Dwight Howard, along with the three-point shooters to match up extremely well with the Heat. Their bench is extremely deep, and if they could somehow pull off a trade for Chris Paul, they would instantly have a shot at not only beating the Heat, but winning the NBA championship. Stan Van Gundy, more than any other coach in the league, would love to have a shot at taking down Pat Riley's creation. The biggest threat, though, comes from the much improved Chicago Bulls. Their starting five will give Erik Spoelstra nightmares trying to figure out how to beat them. Derrick Rose, Ronnie Brewer, Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer, and Joakim Noah may be the most well balanced starting five in all of basketball right now. They also have a good bench, and the defensive mind of new head coach Tom Thibodeau. Outside of those three teams, there are others that could throw a wrench into the Heat's plans. The Atlanta Hawks, are athletic enough to challenge the Heat, but need to figure out how to win on the road. The responsibility of their playoff success falls squarely on the shoulders of Joe Johnson and new head coach, Larry Drew. The Milwaukee Bucks are also a young energetic team that has a shot at upsetting the Heat. The key to the Bucks having a shot is the health of Andrew Bogut, and the ability of Maggette and Salmons to attack from the wings. There is also another team that has an outside shot at upsetting the Heat, The Washington Wizards. Most people wouldn't give them a shot, but there are several reasons that Heat fans should fear facing this team in the playoffs. The Wizards starting five will most likely be John Wall, Gilbert Arenas, Al Thornton, Andray Blatche, and JaVale McGee. As we saw in the NBA summer league, no one can keep up with Wall when he decides he wants to go past a defender. Arenas has something to prove. He would love nothing more than to get playoff revenge for those years that the Wizards lost to the Lebron and the Cavaliers. We all know he can shot the lights out, and as ESPN's Skip Bayless likes to say, he has the clutch-gene. Thornton and Josh Howard will split time at small forward, but both are great at filling up the hoop on any given night. Blatche, who is extremely excited about playing with Wall, was unstoppable on offense last season after the trade deadline, being compared to a young Kevin Garnett. The biggest X-Factor on the Wizards is McGee. He is a very athletic 7-footer, who can run the court, finish at the hole, and block shots. Also, the Wizards fans will not make it easy on Lebron James. They were the first fans to hate, loath, and despise Lebron James and his antics. They won't ever forget a game in 2008, when Lebron James covered his mouth in pain and acted as if he had been shot, after being hit by Roger Mason's elbow. The only problem? Replays show that Mason's elbow hit Lebron in the chest. Outside of Cleveland, the Wizards fans despise Lebron the most. So, if Arenas stays happy, and Wall, Blatche, and McGee live up to their potential, the Miami Heat better hope they don't get them in the first or second round.
Considering all of these obstacles, the Heat have a long way to go before they can book their trip to the NBA Finals. If they make it there, it won't be easy, but considering their talent, no one would be surprised.