The defending-champion Heat are, barring a freak injury to LeBron James, odds-on favorites to repeat as NBA champions. LeBron, 28, continues to improve and appears to be nearing his prime; he’s averaging 27.3 points per game, his highest mark since departing Cleveland, and career-highs in rebounds, 8.2, and assists, 6.9. His field goal percentage is an absurd 56.5%, also a career-high, as is his 42% 3-point mark, a 6-point improvement over 2011-12, previously his career high. His 31.5 player-efficiency rating is tops in the league, leading Kevin Durant by 2+ points.
LeBron’s playing unreal basketball right now. As a fan who watched him in Cleveland, he always amazed me with how good he was so early — I mean, he took a Cavaliers team that started Drew Gooden, Daniel Gibson and Sash Pavlovic to the NBA Finals — and how easy he made a triple-double look. He’s always been the best driver and finisher since he stepped on the floor in 2003. His mid-range game is a threat, thanks to improved shot selection, and he’s such a streak shooter, that when he gets going from outside, there is absolutely no way to stop him. In his last 10 games, LeBron is averaging 31 points on 62% shooting. Whether it is the confidence he’s gained from winning a championship, his natural progression or both, he’s in line for a 4th MVP award and 2nd ring.
Miami, 36-14 and firmly in control of the East’s top seed, is every bit as good as last year’s championship team, with the additions of impact players Ray Allen and Chris Anderson. Dwyane Wade’s scoring, 21 points a night, is his lowest since his rookie year, but he’s playing efficient ball, with a 50.5% FG shooting that’s a personal best. Wade’s 23.83 PER is 8th-highest in the NBA and tops among 2-guards. And Bosh, the team’s third All Star starter (thanks to Rajon Rondo’s torn ACL), is clocking in with 17.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and a team-leading 1.3 blocks, all while shooting 55.5%. Bosh is 19th in efficiency at 21.4.
Miami has surrounded James with floor-spacers, much like Danny Ferry tried to do in his final years in Cleveland. The Heat shoot the 3 at a 38.6% clip, which trails only Golden State and Oklahoma City. Allen, a 41% shooter, makes 1.6 3′s a game; Shane Battier, a 40% shooter, makes 1.8; Mario Chalmers, also a 40% marksman, makes 1.4. Rashard Lewis, 42%, and Mike Miller, 38%, are also threats from deep when on the floor.
The one (and probably only) concern with Erik Spoelstra’s team has to be defense and rebounding. At 103.2 points per game, Miami has the league’s 5th-ranked scoring offense, but has fallen to 12th in scoring defense, at 96.8 points per game. The Heat are 30th in total rebounding, but a less alarming 19th in differential, -1.4. Spoelstra’s squad is 8th in opponent’s field goal percentage, but 19th in 3-point percentage, largely due a slower Allen. (When Allen and his opponent play 25+ minutes, Miami’s lost the head-to-head efficiency battle 14 of 24 times; in games when Allen’s more efficient, the Heat are 8-2, but when he’s less efficient, the Heat are 7-7.) Last year, Miami only alloted opponents 92.5 points per game, though they also scored 4.7 points less.
The Heat’s rebounding woes can at least be partially attributed to their smaller lineups, when they push James or Battier to the 4, or sometimes even the 5. That’s the main reason I was not really high on the Allen signing this summer, as I thought Miami would be better served to bring in another bruiser. At least until the Anderson signing, Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony, the latter of whom is extremely limited offensively, were all the Heat had in that category. (And Haslem only scores 3.7 points per 19.1 minutes, though his jumper at least deserves some respect.)
Miami’s 3-0 against Brooklyn, but a combined 1-6 against Boston, Indiana, Chicago and New York, two of which will probably see the Heat in the postseason. In their 2 games, New York used its hot shooting, but Indiana and Chicago are each capable of dominating Miami’s smaller frontline. (We forget Indiana had Miami on the ropes in last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinals, up 2-1.) If Derrick Rose returns healthily this season, Chicago could pose a serious threat; Indiana’s run came when Miami was minus Chris Bosh. Miami’s 6-2 against the Western Conference’s top 5 teams, with the only losses coming at Los Angeles and at Memphis in November.
I would be very surprised if Miami did not hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy each of the next 2 years. LeBron is just playing at that dominant of a level right now. But whether Pat Riley can keep this core together past 2013-14, when every player on the team, minus Norris Cole, either has an expiring contract or a player option, remains to be seen. LeBron will be 29 and still in his prime, but Miami’s arguably not the best option for him then, with Battier, Haslem, Allen, Miller and maybe even Wade, now 31, looking at the final years of their career.
LeBron’s been linked to the Lakers and Cavaliers, the former of which will be eying its heir apparent to Kobe Bryant and the latter, near his hometown of Akron, will have a young core, headlined by Kyrie Irving, that has serious appeal as a supporting cast. Both teams will be flexible enough financially to throw whatever dollars at him he so desires, at least up to the CBA-dictated max.
But Miami fans do not want to think about that just yet, and rightfully so.
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