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Noam: This Heat-Pacers series has been something of a basketball treat. All games have been competitive, excepting those in which Udonis Haslem goes 8 of 9 from the field (which, incredibly, amounts to more than one game). Paul George and Roy Hibbert have made themselves household names. Chris Andersen LITCHERALLY hasn’t missed a shot. And that LeBron guy is pretty good. Having seen these two squads matched up two years in a row, I would gladly sign up for another four or five.
You posit an interesting question on Twitter, though: could the Pacers possibly be considered as favorites in any future permutations of this series? Of Miami’s core, only LeBron, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole are on the right side of 30. More importantly, Dwyane Wade, supposedly among the younger-oldies at 31, has seen fluctuations between his prime self and a sadder, broken down version happen frequently and violently. On the other side, Indiana’s starting wings are 22 and 23, with latter doubling as a third-team All-NBA premier wing defender. Roy Hibbert is 26, George Hill is 27.
But Indiana, for all its up-and-coming appeal, does have a major age concern. That would be David West, 33 by the time 2013-14 will tip off. He had ACL surgery two years ago, and while he seems to have recovered admirably, he plays a very physical game. Indiana’s strength is in their five man unit, but if one declines sharply, are we sure that balance isn’t irrevocably disrupted? Could growth on the wings, as well as the incremental improvements Hill and Hibbert project to make as they hit their prime, be enough to offset West’s age?
Amin: First of all, I don’t want your Chris Traeger reference to go unacknowledged. Well done, sir.
Second of all, yes my question is interesting. That’s sort of what I was alluding to. Indiana’s core–aside from West–is on the upswing. I could see West decline (as you said, he’s 33, he had ACL surgery, and he plays a tough, low-post game), but he looks like he’s declining gradually. I think that’s kind of the most ideal situation for any player in any sport, but especially for a guy who plays how he does. West will be slightly less effective next year, but he won’t have a stark drop off. Hibbert should improve, right? Will he make up for any potential deficiencies in West? Will Indiana let Hansbrough walk and pick up a backup PF who has a little more offense up his sleeve? Maybe Indiana can pounce on Thomas Robinson’s availability and play him heavy minutes behind West? Wowee.
Then, you’ve got the potential re-addition of Granger. Assuming Granger can play at even 75% of his former self… that’s pretty good. Granger is an effective scorer and a great defender. He gave LeBron fits during their intra-division CLE-IND series a few years ago. Granger also doesn’t seem like the type of player who would be difficult to fit back into a Pacers-style offense or defense. And based on the Pacers’ slower offense and their need for a wing upgrade over Gerald Green, slotting Paul George at the 2 (with Lance Stephenson behind) and Granger at the 3 seems like it would make the Pacers really good without causing extra stress/undue injury to Granger and his recover. And when I say “good” I mean “really really good.”Back to Miami real quick: Even with a very effective post game, LeBron + a bunch of other guys is probably not a championship team, right? That’s what existed in Cleveland, and it was proven time and again that LeBron needed a bit more reliability from the rest of the roster. That reliability came in Miami in the form of 1 guy who can get to the free throw line at will to close any gap (Wade) and another guy who is essentially guaranteed to make any shot if he’s wide open (Bosh). Those two players were not available in Cleveland. I am saying this as an unabashed Cleveland homer and someone who is rooting for a team with TYLER HANSBROUGH to beat the Heat.
Sorry about the Cleveland-aside. FOCUS. Ahem, OK. So, what I’ve noticed during this series is that the Pacers have been VERY good at preventing LeBron and Wade from living at the free throw line. As Derek alluded to in his piece, they’ve also effectively neutralized Chris Bosh’s impact by drawing him away from the basket on nearly every possession and contesting every shot he puts up. Miami has been relying on LeBron (as it should) and a 20-point performance by random role player X on any given night. Last night, it was Udonis Haslem. Haslem played really well, and the Heat needed every bucket he made–if not for their points then for their momentum.
When you look at the Heat’s roster, LeBron and Bosh are still in their primes, Cole and Chalmers are still young, and pretty much everyone else is a dinosaur in NBA years. Also, Chris Bosh is still possibly a dinosaur, but for other reasons (JOKES!). Going into next season–and more important the next postseason–if you have this same roster, you have LeBron still in his prime, a Bosh that people can figure out, an OK Chalmers/Cole backcourt (OK in Miami, average or less elsewhere), a Wade whose bad nights are starting to outnumber is good nights, a Ray Allen/Shane Battier combo that not doing its only required task of making open 3s, a revolving door of bigs, and Udonis Haslem. That’s… not gonna cut it.
Sorry, guess that wasn’t quick. But as it stands now, Indiana’s got options and are generally moving uphill. The Heat are still going to be good, but with their cap situation, they’re really only going to be able to make changes around the edges… and right now, their potential long term problems are with their core.
What do you think the next step for both teams will be to make sure we’ve got a rematch of them in the ECF next year?
Noam: It’s hard to throw out a foolproof ECF plan just because so many things can go wrong – injuries, luxury tax, injuries, random bounces, injuries, Nate Robinson catching fire, injuries. My gut says Miami is pretty much fine staying the course, as Erik Spoelstra would say, using the mini-MLE to get another 3-and-D guy (but maybe a less decrepit one this time, eh?) and gambling on a few minimum deal bigs. Indiana might be more interesting – I think convincing cases can be made for both keeping and trading Danny Granger, West is a free agent and could potentially come out of this summer either overpaid or in another jersey, the Pacer bench is epically horrendous. Also, after they refused to give up the 23rd pick in the draft for J.J. Redick, I demand that they either sign J.J. Redick or find a way to draft an immediate contributor with that pick. DEMAND IT, I SAY. HEAR ME, DONNIE?! However, I will immediately turn on my designation of Indiana being more interesting than Miami and ask you this question: is Miami’s run for a repeat title a historic abberation? This whole Wade business creates a unique vibe around the Heat – the way they came together and the mere existence of a 28 year old LeBron James makes them seem dynastic, and yet, as covered earlier, they might just be headed for a decline. We’ve seen teams win the title in a manner that seemingly dooms the following decade (Jordan Bulls, Duncan Spurs, any Laker title team ever), and we’ve seen teams win titles while giving the impression that they’re about to fall off from that level (the 2011 Mavs are a prime example of that), but do you remember any other team ever looking like it may just be both?
Amin: There are three important variables in this evaluation: 1) The CBA and salary cap, 2) Are any of the things that LeBron/Wade/Bosh do things that other players can do? and 3) What is Miami’s draft outlook looking like?
If you want this 3-man core to be dynastic, then the ret of the roster needs to be filled out in the same way as San Antonio’s. You gotta draft, develop, and trade your way into good parts that fulfill some of the tasks (or cover the deficiencies of) your core guys. And you gotta have the money to do it. If you do, you start to play your core guys fewer minutes as they get older, but the system is locked down. Alternatively, you can do what Dallas does and break the bank, stack, and reload the roster later around 1 or 2 pieces.
Right now, the Heat have a lot of good players, one great player, and two guys in between that are injured so are playing as good-level. Now, San Antonio has definitely recovered from a situation like that, but they’ve also consistently had draft picks and a well-managed cap. There’s a good chance Miami can pick up the same great play next year–like 99% certainty if Wade is healthy–but the nature of the Heat’s management of those 3 Spursian variables points to them not being able to turn this team into a 3+ championship dynasty like they hubristically promised.
In today’s CBA, is 3 rings the best anyone can do? Will the Spurs be terrible after their core retires/leaves? Can any team maintain contender or semi-contender status for 10+ years anymore? 5+ years, even?
Noam: The Thunder will be the ultimate test case for that, won’t they? They’ve hit all the theoretical checkpoints by drafting a transcendent star in Durant, finding another all-star to flank him in Russ, and being good enough early enough so his prime isn’t wasted. It’s what the Cavs couldn’t do with LeBron – they got to the Finals in his fourth year, one year ahead of the pace Durant set for OKC, but they did it with a supporting cast that was mostly veterans and role players. As LeBron continued to grow, they wilted instead. I think that’s the point that makes San Antonio so unique – David Robinson sitting out in 96-97 gave them their two cornerstones as a starting point, and they capitalized even further on that by inexplicably picking up two more in Tony and Manu. Without discrediting their developmental system, there are only so many such players percolating through depth charts, and grabbing several of them closely enough to have them all hit their primes together (or, in two different batches) requires immense amounts of luck.
Could it happen again? Sure, in theory. It’s hard to say if there are any other candidates for such a run, though. The Pacers are trying, but Paul George isn’t LeBron or Durant, and Hibbert is more Ibaka than Westbrook. Since this has somehow become a heavily anti-Cleveland exchange, we should point out that Kyrie might be that kind of transformative talent, and is being smartly surrounded by players his age, though none of the Waiters/Thompson/Zeller(/Nerlens Noel?) seems to be of the Westbrook caliber. There are some other tandems that one might throw out there – Chris Paul/Blake, Rose/Noah, Rubio/Love, Harden/Morey Acquisition X, Andrew Wiggins/Whoever Is On The Roster That Drafts Andrew Wiggins – but all are stretches, whether because they are dependent on unknown qualities, or because the known qualities have so far been lacking.
Is that CBA-designed or just plain happenstance? I would call it the latter, but it’ll be hard to tell without the benefit of hindsight. After all, this Spurs stretch is an outlier not just for the 2010s, but throughout NBA history. Outside of Red Auerbach being decades ahead of the curve, the Lakers continuously getting hall of fame centers, and the greatest player of all time existing, these things tend not to happen more often than they do. Again, the viability of the model could hinge on where OKC lands, with the Harden trade as the potential turning point. It’s an interesting wrench in that it simultaneously rid them of a third all-star, but brought in some assets that, if maximized, could theoretically bring in some of those young assets to develop in the Spursian manner you mentioned. If their run is cut shorter than we envisioned when this team came together, the Harden trade could become the turning point in NBA dynasty building.
Which brings us back to the Heat. They seem to be staring down some financial issues of their own – they’re scheduled to be repeater tax payers the moment such designations become available. If Wade’s knees don’t ruin everything, could his contract? Could Bosh’s? Are they due for a Harden trade of their own? Or, conversely, LeBron walking next summer before his supporting cast is torn apart? God, these would be great questions to discuss retroactively during all the free time we’ll have in the 2017 lockout.
Amin: Game 6 seemed to exacerbate all the same questions we had after Game 5. It’s going to be tough to figure out what Miami needs to do, but they need to do something. Be it a Harden-type trade, a use of the amnesty provision, any other type of trade that creates some complementarity and reliability… something. I don’t think they anticipated their core becoming unstable like this so quickly. And I don’t think any of us did either.