2010-11 NBA Preview, Part Two: Can The Heat Win A Championship?

MIAMI - OCTOBER 12: Forward LeBron James #6 and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat prior to playing CSKA Moskow on October 12, 2010 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images)

After Part One looked up and down the Western Conference and shined a light on Kevin Durant, the NBA's greatest Good, it's time to look East, at the team everyone loves to hate. And we've all heard the hype, but tonight, the real games start. So how good will Miami be this season? Can they win a title?

We're back for Part Two of the 2010-11 NBA Preview, and today, we're looking at the Eastern Conference, making picks for the playoffs and MVP, and answering one simple question that everyone's been asking for months: Can the Miami Heat win it all?

And the other questions being asked: Will the Miami Heat win 72 games? Will the Miami Heat be the most dominant trio of the modern era? Will LeBron James average a triple-double? Who will take the last shot in Miami? Can Eric Spolestra coach everybody in Miami? Does Miami have a point guard? Can Miami guard people inside? And when you have two of the top five players in basketball, like Miami does, do those last questions even matter?

For months now, Miami has been the center of the hoops universe. And with good reason; as mentioned in yesterday's Part One, villains make the game a thousand times more fun. Plus, we really have no idea what to expect. Nobody can say for sure how good the Heat will be, nobody knows whether Boston can hold up for another 100-game season and Chicago and Orlando are looming as the wild card contenders that could surprise everyone. There's a lot to process out here.

So, let's get started. Here's what the East hierarchy looks like (SBN blog in parens).

Elite:

Upper Middle Class:

Peasants:

Whew! So along with an exceptionally tough core at the top, this exercise has taught us that the East apparently has A LOT of a painfully mediocre teams anchoring the basement. I mean, jeez.

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So, who's Good and Evil in the East this season? We'll start at the bottom.

EVIL: Bryan Colangelo's quiet incompetence in Toronto. You'd be hard pressed to find an NBA situation more depressing than the Toronto Raptors. At least the T'Wolves have been spectacular with their misfires. The Cavs can rally against LeBron, at least this for this year. Toronto, though, has put together a high-priced team that can't defend, can't really score with any consistency and lacks any semblance of coherence from top to bottom. So, they basically suck at everything.

Leandro Barbosa, Jose Calderon and Jarrett Jack will anchor the backcourt—because if you have one incomplete, overrated point guard, you better get three. Then, up front, they've got Linas Kleiza, Andrea Bargnani, Reggie Evans and Julian Wright. As the 8th or 9th man on a contender, any one of those guys could be a great addition. As the foundation on offense and defense, they're maybe the worst in the entire league. And looking at the NBA and the way we love to criticize GMs, you have to wonder how Bryan Colangelo has avoided getting mentioned with the David Kahn's of the world. I mean, it's nice that he believes in European basketball and everything, but is this his vision?

And just for fun, let's run down the top five most depressing excerpts from the 2010 Basketball Prospectus' Raptors preview:

  1. "Draft an athletic phenom. Develop him into a star. See him get sucked into the NBA machine. Watch him leave town. Start again. ... There's the franchise's story in a nutshell."
  2. "We know what happened next. The Raptors struggled to get near .500 and annually competed for the last spot in the East playoff bracket."
  3. "That evaluation begins with Bargnani, whose development has been uneven, painfully slow and downright disappointing. Dirk Nowitzki he is not."
  4. "Fans of raw athletes, both in the stands and in the scouting community, remain enamored with DeRozan, who has been referred to in some circles as the next Vince Carter. Gulp."
  5. "In fact, this roster may turn out to be completely devoid of foundation players. If that's the case, then this franchise is in a mess."

And one, final excerpt: "... you get the picture. It's got to be tough to be a Raptors fan."

(And go buy the 2010 Basketball Prospectus. $10 for a .PDF or $20 for the real book, and if you like the NBA, it's pretty much indispensable.)

GOOD: The New Jersey Nets missing on 'Melo. So, you may remember when I said that despite some statistical red flags and that time he put a bounty on a groupie's head, Carmelo Anthony's absolutely worth gambling on via trade. And that's still true. But with a team like New Jersey, it could have gotten ugly real quick.

Carmelo needs to go somewhere with pieces around him. Chicago, Houston, New York, the Clippers ... someplace like that. If he's the foundation, or if a team trades their foundation to get him, there's at least a 50% chance he'll gain weight, take 25 shots-a-game and slowly withdraw from the team. At this point in his career, whether it's fair or not, you get the sense that 'Melo feels he's earned the right to play for a contender. So it was a blessing in disguise when New Jersey's proposed deal for Carmelo fell through at the last second. 

The Nets will get a superstar, they've got an owner willing to spend, and soon enough, they'll be in the middle of New York City, with a new name, new uniforms and a completely new life. They may lose a lot of games between now and then, but it's better than sinking $100 million into a superstar that's not the right fit.

EVIL: The Nets hired Billy King. Pretty much the only way the Nets could fail was by hiring someone like Billy King. Someone to spend Mikhail Prokhorov's money on the wrong guys. And as I wrote back when they hired King, "King is the man who traded for a barely-walking Chris Webber, dealt Allen Iverson to Denver for Andre Miller, and perhaps best of all, spent more than $180 million in contracts for Dikembe Mutombo, Kenny Thomas, Brian Skinner and Sam Dalembert." So ... Yeah. Let's hope he doesn't ruin our fantasy of a powerhouse team in Brooklyn helmed by the coolest, most insane owner the NBA has ever seen.

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(Oh yeah, Glenn Robinson. Another gem in King's crown of Suck.)

EVIL: The 76ers also hired Billy King once. And Philly's never quite recovered from the quagmire that began under King and continued under Ed Stefanski. I'm rooting for Evan Turner, Spencer Hawes, Jrue Holliday, Louis Williams and Marreese Speights to get things going in the right direction, but ... God. Look at how depressing that sentence was. Welcome to Philadelphia basketball in 2010.

(Utah? Chicago? Orlando? Clippers? You should all be placing calls about Andre Iguodala right this second. Don't even watch the game tape from the past two years. Just get him. He's been in basketball purgatory, and whoever sets him free will reap significant rewards.)

GOOD: The cycle of Wall-hyperbole continues. A year ago, right around this time of year, I wrote a breathless, consciously ridiculous 2,000 word ode to John Wall before he'd ever played a college game. It ran the day of his season-opener. That night, he hit a game-winning shot, and the rest was history.

Now here we are a year later, Wall's playing for my favorite team, and nothing's changed from what I wrote last November: "It's incredibly rare for a point guard to leave fans shaking their head in disbelief. More common are the Steve Nash, Jason Kidd-types, who methodically dissect the opposition with a series of pinpoint passes and efficient offense. ... But John Wall plays a style that's liable to make heads explode. ... The sort of thing we only see once or twice a decade. Not Steve Nash, Jason Kidd-type stuff; Kevin Durant, Lebron James-type stuff." 

And it's kind of amazing: the only difference between the Wizards and 76ers is Wall. Both teams have rosters littered with failed prospects and lost causes, but Wall single-handedly makes the Wizards a feel-good story of 2010, while Philly has fans averting their eyes. It's cruel how the NBA works sometimes.

EVIL: Amare Stoudemire will not save New York City. It's not so much "evil", actually, just willful delusion. When the Knicks struck out on the big names this summer, you just knew the Amare-as-savior rhetoric would be coming. And sure enough, here's New York Magazine's Will Leitch:

He might not be LeBron James, but Stoudemire is one of those exceptional, otherworldly talents that the Knicks haven’t had in a generation. It’s been so long since someone like him has played here that I’m not sure we understand what we have. He dunks the basketball with a ferocity that seems to overwhelm the game itself; he attacks the basket as if beckoned there by evolution. Stoudemire has many facets to his game, but his signature act—driving the lane, throwing the ball down, defenders vaporized into dust underneath him—is so elemental and powerful that it may, by itself, change the trajectory of basketball in this town for the next decade.

It's not to pick on Leitch, because he's just following the pack of Knick fans determined to crown Amare the new king of New York City. And maybe he'll be exactly what New York needs; just enough to convince Carmelo Anthony (and maybe Chris Paul) the Knicks have a serious shot at contending. But on his own, with this Knicks roster, Amare's fool's gold.

Or, exactly what the Knicks have been chasing for years now. And you know, with his inflated self-image, outsized hype, a penchant for flair and fleeting commitment, Amare's sort of the perfect fit for New York. The Knicks and Stoudemire deserve each other. Neither side quite "gets it" as far as NBA success is concerned, but at this point, you get the feeling that both would be happy with 45 wins in Madison Square Garden. That's fine; let's just slow down with the talk of Amare "changing the trajectory of basketball" in New York City all by himself.

GOOD: A bright future in Milwaukee. Looking for the exact opposite of the Knicks? Almost by accident, the Bucks have stumbled to the forefront as the perfect counterpoint. The Knicks passed on Brandon Jennings, so Milwaukee took him. And now, by adding complimentary guys like John Salmons, Drew Gooden and Corey Maggette, the Bucks have cemented themselves among the NBA's upper middle class. Basically, where teams like the Knicks have spent years scheming to build an empire, Milwaukee has built a more impressive foundation simply by drafting well and showing patience.

They may not contend for a title, but they've put together a team that will win about 50 games this season on the way to the 5th seed. There's still a lot of work to do if they want to become great, but for this season, they're a terrifying matchup for whichever team draws them in the first round. Like, say, the Hawks ...

EVIL: The Hawks, still treading water. The problem with Atlanta? Where "rock solid fifth seed" represents a step forward for Milwaukee, Atlanta has been there. And you can only tread water for so long before you drown. They say that in life, "Good" is the enemy of "Great." And in Atlanta, "Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby" are the enemy of "having a chance at anything, ever."

Hawks_medium

Okay, now the contenders...

EVIL: Orlando stands pat. Here's the thing that baffles me about Orlando. How does a team lose the way the Magic did to Boston and NOT shake things up? While Miami, Boston and Chicago stockpiled talent, Orlando's big offseason additions were Chris Duhon, Question Richardson and Daniel Orton. Insanity is engaging the in the same behavior over and over again and expecting different results. So... isn't it insane to think that a starting lineup featuring Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson will somehow not get exposed in the playoffs again?

With Dwight Howard, Orlando theoretically has the ultimate trump card against the Heat in the playoffs. But if they can't get that far, then what difference does it make? And throughout his entire career, we still haven't seen Dwight Howard devour somebody on offense--why should we think this year will be different? The Magic seem like the logical antidote to Miami's evil, and they could have been, but they're really only a little bit different than the Hawks. And being compared to the Atlanta Hawks hasn't been a compliment for at least 20 years now.

GOOD: Chicago loads up. So while Orlando treads water, the Bulls looked ready to leapfrog them. Derrick Rose continues to look like the best young guard in the NBA, Carlos Boozer will (eventually) give them one of the best post presences in the East, and Joakim Noah is right there with Dwight Howard in terms of defensive dominance.

What am I missing here? Why isn't everyone picking the Bulls to take a major leap forward and become one of the best teams in the NBA? It would have been cooler if they'd landed Dirk Nowitzki this summer, but even with Boozer as a less spectacular replacement, the pieces are in place. Noah, Rose, Booz, Deng ... They even signed Kurt Thomas, the James Posey of backup big men, and Kyle Korver, an assassin for the playoffs. We've been hearing rumors of a Bulls renaissance for about five years now—"This is the year they take the next step!"—but this is really the year they take the next step.

GOOD: Boston might be the most enjoyable team in the League. "I told Doc, ‘Listen, I know how to play the game. I know this is Paul’s and Kevin’s team. I’m just coming to fit it in.’" That's Shaq talking to the Boston Herald, and it's sort of jarring to say this, but he actually comes off as endearing in Boston. The whole Celtics team does.

Even though we've all grown justifiably weary of guys like Kevin Garnett and Shaq, this season's Celtics team has a different feel to it. While Miami's "superteam" is futuristic in every sense, Boston gives us the chance to get a little nostalgic. It's a team full of guys who, like Shaq, "know how to play the game." Even the young guys like Rondo and Big Baby have been reared on the values of a bygone basketball generation.

And when you look at the depth in Boston, you start to see that the Celtics may be something more than just a feel-good favorite this season. Delonte West and Nate Robinson will be murderous off the bench, and when Kendrick Perkins returns, the Celtics will have four seven footers (Shaq, Perk, KG, Jermaine O'Neal) to throw at teams like the Magic and Heat. If Ray Allen and Paul Pierce stay healthy, watch out. Rondo's still playing with a chip on his shoulder as the team's superstar, and the rest of the roster has just enough punch to make one, last run. And it'll be a lot of fun to watch.

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THE BIG, DARK EVIL HANGING OVER EVERYTHING: The Miami Heat. And with that, we come to the big, swaggering elephant in the room. The team that's already become the object of scorn, fear and envy from NBA fans and teams everywhere.

People could nitpick the Heat, and no question, they're begging for it. Even their beat writers respond to news of an injury to a starter with questions like, "Forget Mike Miller for a moment and consider that if you add Dwyane Wade to this LeBron James, how can this team do anything but succeed?" God, it'd be great to see them fail. But the truth is, they won't.

The last time a trio this good came together, the Boston Celtics won 66 games. The trio in Miami is even better, and they'll win more than 66. 72 may be a stretch, but whatever happens, Miami will finish the regular season with the best record in the league. By a fairly wide margin. We will see them dominate teams in ways that no team has dominated in a decade. Because they've got the talent, but more than that, the criticism has galvanized them, and it will fuel this team all year long. We'll hate them for it, but Miami is going to be even better than anyone imagines this season.

Miami will put on a show the likes of which we haven't seen since the '90s Bulls. They will be so satisfied with themselves, so unapologetic about it all, so annoying, so contrived, and so ... Evil. But they'll be the best team in the NBA all year long.

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Now, as for the playoffs...

Western Conference

  1. Oklahoma City
  2. Los Angeles Lakers
  3. Utah
  4. San Antonio
  5. Portland
  6. Dallas
  7. Phoenix
  8. Los Angeles Clippers

Because the Lakers have no reason to go full tilt all year, OKC will steal the top seed in the West. Kevin Durant will win MVP, and we'll spend the last six weeks of the regular season looking ahead to a potential finals between Oklahoma City and Miami. And after the Lakers cruise past the Suns and Jazz (hugh mental edges in both cases) while the Thunder take care of the Clips and Spurs, the Western Conference Finals will end up being even better than any Finals matchup. But the Lakers will win the West in seven games.

Eastern Conference

  1. Miami
  2. Chicago
  3. Boston
  4. Orlando
  5. Milwaukee
  6. Atlanta
  7. New York
  8. Charlotte

Wouldn't it be great if the Heat won 72 games and lost in the playoffs? And it could happen. Because as great as the Heat will be in the regular season, they have nobody to bang inside with the best teams in their conference. On a week-to-week basis in the regular season, that's not a problem. The Heat won't have major matchup problems unless they're playing the Celtics, Lakers, Magic or Bulls, so their challenges will be spread thin, and surrounded by all sorts of momentum-building wins against teams like the Bobcats and Hawks.

But in the playoffs, the sporadic, week-to-week matchup problems will become a daily issue. LeBron James is the most talented basketball player on earth, Dwyane Wade competes harder than anyone in the league except perhaps Kobe, and Chris Bosh will have a ridiculous season playing next to those two. But can those three be good enough to beat the Magic, Celtics, and Lakers in succession? Each of those series would be an all-out war. So it's asking a lot, and Bosh and LeBron don't have the greatest track record in this area.

Ever since this Superteam came together in Miami, non-NBA fans have been asking me, "Will the Heat be as good as everyone says?" And I guess it's a complicated answer. Yeah, the Heat will be as good as everyone thinks. They'll probably be even better. All season long, they will dazzle us and drive their critics crazy.

But it won't be quite enough. The Lakers will beat 'em in seven, and after a season that'll be defined by fawning over Kevin Durant and the Heat's dominance, Kobe will get the last laugh. Again.

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