If you were an NBA fan outside the league's beachiest city this offseason, the shocking news that Pat Riley and the Miami Heat had managed to re-sign or scoop up what was perceived to be three quarters of the cream of 2010's free agent talent crop had to have set you for at least a little bit of a loop.
Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosch and the self anointed King Lebron James all in South Beach?
Immediately, the very pressing concern arose that this trio along with some reasonable complimentary parts (Udonis Haslem & Mike Miller were two—Haslem is out, maybe for the season, Miller has just made his way back onto the court this week) were not only on their way to a barely contested title in 2011, but a series of titles reaching to god knows when and then cries of inequity, imbalance, complete and utter impropriety rang out amongst rooting interests across the nation wide NBA fan base.
Some of the concern dissipated almost at once as the Heat dropped a couple of early season encounters. Miami fans & sports mouthpieces, fair weathered people in the best of circumstances were suddenly all over the team.
They were weak up the middle. Couldn't rebound or play defense. There was only one ball on the court for Wade & Lebron to share and while the Heat would almost certainly make the playoffs, the city of Miami could forget about any sun-filled dreams of winning another NBA title in 2011.
Fast forward a bit and the Heat, off a recent 12-game winning streak, are once again the talk of the town. At 21-9 they lead their presumed heavy comp in the Southeastern division—the recently revamped Orlando Magic—by four games.
But they don't have the best record in the Eastern Conference.
That belongs to a terrific Boston Celtic team—winners of 14 straight—with a healthy KG back and a larger than ever, but still pretty mobile Shaquille O'Neal playing a nice complimentary role in the front court.
Veteran aces Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are still filling the hoop, and all purpose point guard Rajon Rondo is orchestrating as well as any backcourt ace in the league (nearly 14 assists per). There's some pretty nice depth off the bench as well.
Barring injury, this Celtics team is simply not going away. To this point, there is no reason to think that the Eastern Conference road to the NBA finals will not being going through the city of Boston, the Fleet Center, and its recently refurbished parquet floor.
Over in the West, you've got two veteran clubs playing at a super high level, and neither is from the city of Los Angeles.
Tim Duncan is rejuvenated, (14 points on 50 percent shooting, 10 rebounds, three assists, two blocks per game), Richard Jefferson has blended in, Tony Parker and Manu Ginoblli are healthy and on their games. I love DeJuan Blair, a space eater with soft hands and great skills around the basket and the San Antonio Spurs—off another 10 game winning streak—stand 25-3 and look ready as ready as anyone to capture—or in their case re-capture—this years NBA crown.
In Dallas, the fans are happy with Dirk Nowitski having re-upped, Jason Kidd playing at a high level, lithe Tyson Chandler patrolling the middle, and underrated Caron Butler, one of the best all around players in the league rounding out the front court. They've got Jason Terry (nearly 16 per game), Brendon Hayward and Shawn Marion coming off the bench so there's no wonder Dallas is cruising along at 23-5, just a shade off the lead in the ultra tough NBA Southwest.
Of course, nobody's counting out the Lakers. Kobe's their leader but another of the team's requisite strengths is up the the middle in Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, and the team can't afford extended injuries to either this year.
Artest is still a major asset on the defensive side of the ball and Derek Fisher continues to make a contribution but the Lakers lack another gun—it was exceedingly obvious in last year's final against the Celtics that they will need to find another shooter at some point this season. Lest they lay that entire load all over Kobe again in this year's playoffs, they figured to be matched up against teams capable of scoring in boatloads almost each and every night.
If these five teams: Boston, Miami, San Antonio, Dallas, and L.A. make up the league's elite, there are numerous others that have picked it up or figure to before seasons end.
The New York Knicks are much improved finally, giving the league a potential marquee presence in the city's game mecca, Madison Square Garden.
Orlando will bounce back once they get all their pieces in suitable playing order, but they'll need much more than sporadic contributions from Gilbert Arenas to go deep into the post season. Atlanta, Denver, Oklahoma City, New Orleans and particularly Utah are all playing good basketball.
The league seems to have turned it up a notch, and one cannot deny the influence of Riley and his off season signings on other teams, their players and management.
There have been upgrades made all over the league. Key players have been moved and benches have been lengthened. Veterans have come in ready to rumble from day one, having fine tuned aspects of their all-around games, knowing the Heat were about to raise the bar and that nothing less then stellar play would cut it in this year's heightened NBA.
Instead of a Miami Heat runaway, the specter of extraordinary competition has engendered a breath of superior teams that recall fairly recent NBA glory days when the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls and Pistons were taking turns beating each others brains in.
And just in the nick of time too. Last year's Lakers-Celtics final was a full on bore fest. Low scoring games filled with dreary, inaccurate marksmanship and for the most part lacking in last moment drama.
The league needed a spike, and while it may or may not—depending on your locale and rooting interest—have appeared to have been the case during that insipid summer moment when Jim Gray sat and fawned before King Lebron and a nationwide audience, that is exactly what the result has been.
Pat Riley pulled off what appeared to be a miracle in Miami.
But at the same time he seems to have revitalized all of the NBA.
While I don't believe he'll be getting league wide pats on the rear for his off season efforts, we should at least thank him for bringing a more thrilling version of basketball back to the NBA at a time when the game of basketball seemed to need it most.
If others haven't already, well let me be the first.
Thanks, Pat, I'm not rooting for your team but I sure am enjoying the heck out of this years NBA.
That's it for today,