Tuesday, October 26, 2010

NBA Preview: Heat or Bust

From the minute they joined forces, the Heat winning the NBA championship -- or not -- was going to be the biggest (and certainly the most dominating) storyline of the season.

That they will not win the championship -- thwarted by the infinitely more title-toughened Lakers -- will be the season's defining moment.

But I will go one step further than that: I don't think that the Heat -- at least not in the 2010-2011 season -- will even win the Eastern Conference title. I will take the Magic.

In fact, unless the Heat finish with the best record in the East -- they likely will, obviously depending on the injury situation (which caveats every preview everywhere) -- I think they lose in the East semis to the Celtics, who will finish 3rd in the conference behind the two Florida teams.

Is failure fatal for the Heat? Hardly. But that would be one opportunity of the next five-year window gone. And Dwight Howard is only getting better, as are the Thunder. (Not to mention the uncertainty over whether or not Year 2 of the Heat will even happen, period.)

And the Heat falling short of a title certainly smacks of failure, in contrast to the Celtics' Big Three, who were able to come together in their first year and win a championship.

(Sidebar: After a lifetime of hating the Celtics, the Heat have managed to give me something I never thought I would experience -- I find the Celtics nominally likable. I know.)

The Heat are where the Lakers (and, at least for the past three seasons, the Celtics) have been: Championship or failure. I foresee failure. At least for now -- which is all that matters.

As with the past few seasons, there are only a handful of teams with a serious chance of winning a title: Lakers, Heat, Celtics, Magic.

I am ecstatic to add a potential contender to that list: The Thunder. But! The difference between giving the Lakers a series and winning 4 series of their own is the biggest leap in the sport.

(I would also add the Spurs to the list of contenders. So let's give the Thunder half-credit for being nearly on the list and the Spurs half-credit for being nearly off of it.)

But that's it: Four teams, maybe five, that are competing for a championship. Everyone else is rising (Chicago, Milwaukee), rebuilding (DC, Sacto -- among others), fading (Dallas) or floundering (Denver, Atlanta).

It feels kind of pointless to predict how teams will finish within their conferences or within their divisions. What's the point who the 6-seed in the West is going to be? They're all behind the Lakers anyway. Is that too defeatist? Too realist?

I'm not suggesting the rest of the league doesn't have its compelling storylines. Kevin Durant is going to cruise to MVP. Blake Griffin is going to win Rookie of the Year. Perhaps Carmelo Anthony will get traded.

The two dozen or so NBA also-rans are fun to watch for their individual talents (John Wall will be a draw on the road and I predict will win a starting spot on the East All-Star roster) or their efforts to give their fans some kind of vision -- some hope -- for what the future might look like.

(Rather than force a segue here, let me just recommend the new Free Darko book covering the history of the NBA. Like their previous book, it is visually gorgeous and full of FD-awesome essays covering, well, this history of pro basketball. Essential for any NBA fan.)

Speaking of the future, it is impossible to talk about the 2010-2011 season -- as much as we might want to avoid it -- without talking about the lockout in 2011.

It is hard to believe that a league that feels like it is going through a Renaissance would cut things off so severely. There are positions on both sides that would be good to see: The one I feel most strongly about is giving owners the ability to cut under-performing players with terrible contracts; the biggest scourge on the league the past decade -- the owners' own fault, of course -- was the way seemingly half the league was hamstrung from refashioning themselves into competitive products because of terrible deals they did. Take a page from the NFL and allow more contract flexibility.

But let's not talk about things like lock-outs and strikes and seasons cancelled.

Let's focus on happier thoughts: Like the Heat falling short of an NBA title.

Who is your pick to win the NBA title? More interestingly, where do you see the Heat finishing? Any other predictions and/or awards are welcome, too.

-- D.S.

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