After blowing a their best opportunity, how certain is a championship for Miami?
It has been one year since LeBron James turned the NBA onto its head by announcing that he would play for the Miami Heat. In doing so, he became part of one of two trios in NBA history to contain two of the top five players in the NBA along with a top-10 big man.
As the season went along, the reigning champions showed their age, two teams were not ready to win it all, and the best team found a way to sabotage their own season. This left the Heat as the only contender in the East and a lock for the finals.
Despite this talent, the Heat were unable to win the title. Problems with the team's composition, chemistry, and performance down the stretch in games led to the Heat's downfall in the finals. And even though this was just their first year together, the Miami Heat wasted their best opportunity to win a championship.
While people would argue that the only thing the Heat need is time to improve their chemistry, they leave out an important aspect. James and Dwyane Wade are redundant on the same team. Both players are ball dominant slashers. Neither of them work well without the ball (James is downright atrocious).
Both of them must initiate their offense from the perimeter. No amount of time playing together will fix that issue. There is one thing that will and that is James developing a post game.
Watching James in the post is like watching your drunk uncle dance at a wedding reception. He has no rhythm, his footwork is awful, and he does not know what he wants to do. If James can work on a post game, then the equation for Miami's chances changes.
However, he has been in the NBA for eight seasons and has never attempted to work on that part of his game. For the past three seasons, pundits have openly criticized James for his lack of a post game and he still has made no progress. He might very well start working on that aspect of his game, but we have eight years of behavior that say otherwise.
Was last season the best chance for the Heat to win the NBA Championship?
The team's chemistry will continue to be an issue due to their cap situation. If they have to resort to signing older veterans to the league minimum, those players will almost always be getting one-year deals since they are at the end of their career and have only one season of basketball left in them. That would lead to the Heat having to create chemistry between at least six new rotational players every year.
Progress made by the end of the season would have to be erased because a new crop of veterans will need to be signed. One could argue that they could sign the player to another deal. However, the age and caliber of many of these signees will be in the Mike Bibby, Juwan Howard, or Eric Dampier range.
The way the Heat are constructed defensively hurts them moving forward. They are a defense that is based solely on the athleticism of James and Wade. There is no great scheme to their defense. Mostly, their defense involves James and Wade covering as much ground on the perimeter as possible and helping from the weak side to protect the basket.
While it proved to be potent throughout the season, it asks a lot of James and Wade in the long run. This would not be the case, though, if they were able to relax on defense or played around 34 to 36 minutes a game.
However, James and Wade played 43.9 and 39.4 minutes per game respectively in the postseason. This was necessary in order for the Heat to win in the playoffs. These minutes were not only at playoff intensity, but James and Wade could not relax on the defensive end. LeBron played almost 4,000 minutes this season and 922 of them were in the playoffs. Wade played over 3,600 minutes with 828 in the playoffs.
Players like Magic Johnson have stated that each minute in the playoffs is worth at least two minutes of regular season wear and tear. It's like putting two miles of stress on a car for every one miles you travel. Based on that assumption, James played close to 5,000 minutes (or about 1.66 seasons) and Wade played almost almost 4,500 minutes (or about 1.5 seasons).
The talent of James, Wade, and Chris Bosh will ensure that the Heat go deep into the playoffs every season. That means that James and Wade will be playing heavy minutes year in and year out. Over the course of the next four seasons, James and Wade could play 6.66 and 6.0 seasons' worth of basketball respectively.
While this could lead to James running of gas at the end of the postseason, the minutes will have a bigger impact on Wade, who has already shown susceptibility to injury. He has never played that many minutes at such an intensity like he had to last season (he never had to play at that level defensively in their title run in 2005-06). That workload, the wear and tear Wade has accumulated, and the fact that Wade turns 30 next season make him into a ticking time bomb.
It almost becomes a matter of when, not if, Wade will get injured.
The Heat need to solve this issue by lowering the workload on the two stars, but they lack the ancillary pieces to do that.
As of today, the Heat have their trio of Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony under contract (James Jones has opted out and Mario Chalmers is a RFA). The common argument made for the Heat moving forward is that they made it to the finals despite Miller and Haslem missing significant time.
However, none of these three were supposed to provide the depth needed to curtail the minutes played by James and Wade. In fact, the original idea was to have a starting-5 of James, Wade, Miller, Bosh and Haslem. If that's the case, the only backup they have would be Anthony, who could spell Bosh or Haslem but not James or Wade.
Another problem with the optimistic view of the Heat is the view of what Miller brings to the team. Most see Miller as a knockdown three-point shooter who can stretch the defense and take attention away from James and Wade. However, Miller needs consistent looks in order to be effective. Throughout most of Miller's career, he has averaged over ten field goal attempts per game. The lowest he had going into this season was 7.5 per game while playing in Minnesota.
Also, most of Miller's attempts came from him having the ball in his hands or the team running a play for him. The Heat used and will continue to use Miller as a catch-and-shoot three-point shooter who gets his shots when plays for James, Wade or Bosh break down. He is not Jones. He is not that kind of player. That was why James Jones fit the team better on the offensive end.
Health is another issue for Miller. He has never played 3,000 minutes over the course of a whole season. Before this season, he has never gotten out of the first round of the playoffs. Besides his rookie season, he has never played more than 73 games, and he has only started 70 games in a season once in his career.
Now with the Heat perennially going deep into the playoffs, Miller will be asked to play starter's minutes for more that 90 games a year. That toll will only lead to more injuries for an already fragile Miller. And unlike Haslem, there is no viable backup for Miller currently on the Heat's roster.
This obvious lack of depth can be cured through trades, the draft or free agency. However, the Heat are not in a good position in any of those three markets to improve the roster.
The Heat are victims of their own success when it comes to the draft. There team is in a position such that it is unlikely that they will have a pick the top-25 of the draft. It will be unlikely that the Heat would find themselves with a player who can make an impact and be able to reduce the minutes that the starters will have to play.
Now let's look at the picks the Heat have through the 2015 draft.
2012: First-round pick and a second-round pick from Memphis (top-55 protected). Their own second-round pick was traded to the Nets and another second-rounder (originally from the Hornets) goes to the Cavaliers.
Going into 2013, the Cavaliers have the right to two first-round picks until 2017.
2013: First-rounder and a second-rounder.
2014: A first-rounder, their second-rounder and another second-round pick from the Timberwolves.
2015: First-rounder and a second-rounder.
In all likelihood, the Heat will have two first-round picks (assuming Cleveland takes two) and four second-round picks. None of these picks will be in the top-25 many of these second-rounders will be in the middle-to-high 50s. Unless they can find a way to trade one of their players for some higher draft picks, there is little chance that Miami finds quality depth in the draft.
Not only is there a lack of depth on the Miami Heat, but there is also a lack of desirable trade assets. Outside of their trio, nobody on the Heat's current roster is an attractive trade chip. All of these players are role players at best and all of them have deals that go through the 2014-15 season.
No team is going to give up the pieces the Heat need. Also, a trade involving Anthony or Haslem, where another big was not coming back, would be a severe blow the front line. Bosh's contract makes it unlikely that the Heat will be able to trade him for a play at or above his level of play. It also seems that the Heat are unwilling to trade James or Wade. That leaves free agency as the only option for the Heat to improve the team
The New Free Agent Market
In previous years, a team like the Heat would be able to turn to an array of exceptions to fill out their roster. The VE, BAE, and most importantly MLE would allow the Heat to add quality players around their trio. However, the new CBA will most likely end the MLE and the BAE has a good chance of ending as well.
There is chance that all exceptions will be gone if the NBA adopts a hard cap or flex cap. The most recent proposal by the owners called for a $62 million flex cap. The most likely range would be eight million in both directions. That would set a ceiling of $70 dollars.
This would be disastrous for the Miami Heat. James, Wade and Bosh are signed for a combined $47.7 million next season and will be owed a combined $65.8 million in the final year of their deals (all three have player options for the 2015-16 season).
In addition to those three, Miller, Anthony and Haslem are owed $12.8 million next year and will end up being owed $15 million in the last year of their deals. That means next season with only six players on the roster, the Heat have $60.5 million on the books.
They also Patrick Beverly and Dexter Pittman. Those two would put them at $62 million. Eddie House and Big Z have player option for $1.4 million each. Along with Norris Cole, Pittman and Beverly, the Heat have a grand total of $67.2 million. With another roster spot to fill, the Heat will have a cap hold added bringing them to $67.7 million.
Then, the Heat have a decision to make about Chalmers and Jones, an RFA and UFA respectively. With only $2.3 million left to spend, they will probably have to let Chalmers go and could keep Jones. That would leave them with a roster of James, Wade, Miller, Bosh, Haslem, Anthony, Beverly, Pittman, House, Big Z, Cole, Pittman, Beverly and Player X. Going forward the cap situation only gets worse as the 10 percent and 8 percent raises kick in.
The best likely situation for the Heat would be a soft cap with veteran's exceptions. That would allow them to exceed the cap to fill out their roster. However, with only the veteran's exception at their disposal, the Heat will be forced to sign aging veterans who have made their money and need a ring. That leaves the Heat the ability to sign the Juwan Howards and Eric Dampiers of the NBA and not the players that can make an impact on the court for the Heat.
While the Heat will have difficulty improving the roster and almost all of their players have hit their ceilings, teams like the Thunder, Bulls and the Knicks have room to grow.
The proposed salary rollbacks, lowered max contract value and reduced length contracts will benefit the Knicks. While the proposed rollbacks (most likely around 10 percent) will have a minimal effect on the Heat (around $80 million owed to their top-six in 2014-15), they will help the Knicks build a team to compete with the Heat. If the proposed flex cap is accepted, the Knicks will be able to sign Chris Paul and a new lower max contract number.
Also, the lack of exceptions and the harder cap will lower the value of contracts given to role players. This will allow the Knicks to get a better bang for their buck when it comes to filling out their roster. A triumvirate of Paul, Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire can go toe to toe with the Miami Heat.
The Bulls have their superstar in place in Derrick Rose, and he is surrounded by very good pieces. However, Carlos Boozer's contract holds the Bulls back. It is the only thing that was more depressing to Chicago Bulls fans than his performance in the Eastern Conference finals. However, the new CBA might include an amnesty clause. The Allan Houston Rule, Part II would allow the Heat to get rid of Miller's contract, but it would be a greater help to the Bulls.
Removing Boozer's contract from the books clears $13.5 million off this seasons cap number and saves the Bulls $47.1 million over the following three seasons. That would allow them to add a shooter who isn't a defensive sieve, get better offensive options and give Taj Gibson more playing time.
Or they could go after Dwight Howard. Losing Boozer's deal would put the Bulls at $51.6 million, and with the proposed flex cap they would be able to sign Howard. A frontline of Howard and Joakim Noah may be the most frightening proposition to offense in the NBA today.
While those two risers still need to add pieces to contend with the Heat, their greatest threat over the next five seasons are the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder appear to have no team in the Western Conference who will be able to challenge them for supremacy (assuming Howard does not go to Los Angeles or Dallas). They will not have to go through the grind that the Heat will have to go through in the Eastern Conference (kind of like the '80s where Thunder are the Lakers and Heat/Knicks/Bulls are Celtics/Sixers/Pistons in no particular order).
They reached the Western Conference Finals and that's not the scariest thing about them. It is 22, 22, 21 and 21. Those are the ages of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and James Harden.
These players have tremendous room for growth. Ibaka has the potential to end up as the second best big man in the NBA (behind Howard). More specifically, he has the potential to exceed Bosh's level of play. Westbrook and Durant have the ability to play James and Wade to a draw. While Wade is as good as he will be and James has not shown signs of improvement over the past two seasons.
Barring James discovering a post game, those two are as good as they will be. Durant and Westbrook have only scratched the surface of their potential.
Maybe even more importantly for the Thunder, only Durant is not signed to a rookie contract. Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka do not become UFAs until 2013, 2014 and 2014 respectively. Along with the lowered contract values due to the new CBA, the Thunder have a good chance of signing these three to a number under $33 million.
Adding in Durant's deal, their nucleus could be signed for $49 million and the rest of the money ($21 million) can be used to surround them.
This is not to say that the Heat will not win a title with this trio (though I think they will not). However, blowing Game 2 and falling apart in the finals cost them the best opportunity to win a title. The road only gets hard from here on out.
And if James comes up empty, he will have sacrificed his chance to be in the conversation as a top-10 (maybe top-20) player of all-time for nothing.