Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on a too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or us would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Miami Heat.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons to be Cheerful
Somewhere in my millionth hour of NBA TV viewing spread over the last month I noticed a clip in a Finals highlight package that showcased LeBron James' in-huddle speech to his Heat just seconds before they would take the court for their final game of the year last June. It was nearly as painful to watch as that intro was to read. Not exactly Henry Phillps-esque, but certainly nothing that would give you goosebumps.
Not that goosebumps are needed in that situation. The Vince Lombardi treatment? Everyone tries it, and yet there's only one winner in each sport at the end of the year. The Knute Rockne chiller? Go nuts and literally bang your head against the wall, but it only does so much. Or, in most cases even with eventual champions, absolutely nothing at all. And I could honestly give a rip as to LeBron James' in-huddle swayings just as long as he flirts with a triple-double all night and has all the right moves in the fourth quarter.
For whatever reason, those moves weren't there against Dallas last season. LeBron, as was the case inside that huddle, lost his nerve. We can point to matchups or roll our eyes at more lame jokes about him disappearing, but somehow LeBron left us wanting after dominating the late stretches of games against what we thought then to be opponents superior to Dallas in Boston and Chicago.
The criticism? It won't do anything. LeBron is who he is, save for better footwork and an improving shooting stroke. The months off? They only go so far, because he's nearly at his saturation point as the game's clear best player. What will turn Miami into champions is their ability to be a better team than 29 other contenders.
That's all it is. Whether that's folded out over 66 regular-season games and continuing until the Finals, or whether it's a short burst in May and June, no amount of rah-rah will change anything. This is how it's always been. The Bulls beat the Pistons in 1991 not because Scottie Pippen stopped getting migraine headaches, but because the Bulls were a year older and better and the Pistons were a year older and worse. When Miami wins -- and this is no guarantee for this or any other season -- it will be for the reasons listed above.
So are they better? Yes. And this should scare the league.
LeBron will be older and better. Chris Bosh will be older and better. Dwyane Wade is in his prime. Udonis Haslem likely won't turn his foot into powder a few weeks into the regular season this January. Mario Chalmers will be older and better. Someday, Mike Miller will be healthy. Mike Bibby is far, far away.
And Shane Battier? Well, he might be in the middle of that huddle next June. And like Mike, he might be giving his speech with a smile and a smirk. Yes, Jordan was the NBA's biggest meanie for decades, but in those hallways before games he was as reassuring as seeing those decades-old Clydesdales Christmas ads from Budweiser. Or, if you need further reassurance, a Budweiser.
In the end, whatever happens will be basketball's fault. Not LeBron's lethargy or emergence as some newly born killer of Western (we're assuming) giants. There should be growth, as a tentative Heat team often walked on eggshells last year while playing amongst best friends, not unlike an All-Star game. This year, the attack should be more pointed. Erik Spoelstra is a year older and better, as well.
Until then, it's the Heat that you've known since "The Decision." Top heavy, a big hole in the middle, questionable at point guard, hoping that a lacking eight-man rotation can go all the way if the top three in that rotation tend to spin the basketball world severely with every quote, commercial or look-away lob and finish.
Less martyrdom and more basketball this season. You get the feeling LeBron, through all his fulminations, is ready.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Miami Heat
I'm so excited for you!
In Year One, the Heat seemed like a workout warrior who spends all his time pumping up his arms and chest. They frequently looked dominant but were weirdly, impossibly top-heavy and when they faced the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals, it became evident they just didn't have the legs to run with a more balanced, better-conditioned opponent. What's exciting about Year 2, to me, is the $64,000 question: Can a reconstituted and potentially more evenly distributed edition of Erik Spoelstra's team get two games better?
The Heat's roster improvements this offseason stand in stark contrast to the monstrous deals they made last summer to import LeBron James and Chris Bosh and re-sign Dwyane Wade. This time around, with the centerpieces in place, Pat Riley turned his attention to tweaks around the edges.
Miami has reshuffled the deck in the middle, bidding farewell to veteran centers Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Jamaal Magloire and Erick Dampier, who is enjoying a lucrative post-Miami career as a science textbook cautionary tale. The sea change should mean a larger role for defensive revelation and postseason stalwart Joel Anthony, a possible opening for significantly slimmer 2010 second-rounder Dexter Pittman and a Last Chance Saloon trip for longtime punch line Eddy Curry. Getting more than 25 total games from a healthy Udonis Haslem will only fortify Miami's front line.
On the wings, new import Shane Battier adds another dogged defender to take the pressure off James and Wade, a 38.5 percent career 3-point shooter with a sharp eye from the short corner, and a steady veteran presence liable to help any locker room. Mario Chalmers enters the season as the favorite to start at the point, potentially giving rookie Norris Cole an opening to provide the kind of second-unit energy and defensive intensity at the one-spot that the Heat didn't get from veteran options Mike Bibby and Carlos Arroyo last season.
These aren't last summer's blockbuster moves. The chassis and big-block engine of the Doomsday Machine was already in place; this stuff is more akin to filling the tank with super-premium, swapping in clean filters, tightening all the bolts and making sure everything runs as clean as it can. It's the detail work of building of a team, and it'll be exciting to see what this more refined version of the reality-reinventing vision actually looks like. My guess is it'll look like the best team in the Eastern Conference.
I'm so worried for you!
Pending injuries to their three major stars, there really don't seem to be very many on-court reasons to be worried about this year's Heat — Miami survived lengthy stretches without Haslem and poor, sweet, snake-bitten Mike Miller a year ago, they've added depth and all of the first-year insanity is now behind them. Unless, of course, someone starts feeling a Reese Bobby itch and decides everything's looking a little too perfect.
Here are the four most likely ways the Miami Heat could ruin everything Pat Riley has built:
1. Riley himself could go on national television and make an exorbitant bet with fellow league executives that no one could find legitimate, documented video evidence of him rapping, and that if such evidence came to light, he would cut James and Wade immediately;
2. The introduction of chipper training camp invitee Mickell Gladness to perpetual Eeyore Eddy Curry causes a "matter meeting anti-matter" explosion that blows a hole clean through the space/time continuum, and when we blink back into existence, we learn that Miami has lost both Eddie House and James Jones to space madness and inexplicably dropped two straight to the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers.
3. Spoelstra begins donning a Matthew Lesko suit and conducting himself as the Riddler for reasons heretofore unknown, making his pregame speeches all the more curious and his halftime adjustments incredibly difficult to implement;
4. LeBron James grants a wide-ranging interview with Field and Stream in which he admits in a moment of weakness that he has, on no fewer than three separate occasions, hunted The Most Dangerous Game.
Barring any or all of that, everything should work out just fine.
I have no idea what to make of you!
It was pretty big news when photos surfaced this summer proving that Udonis Haslem had decided to get rid of his trademark braids. The decision (lowercase "d," an important note of clarification when dealing with the Heat) made sense from an "it is 2011 and not so many guys have braids anymore" perspective, but it makes way less sense from a "doesn't this render all that trademark paperwork you filed a real waste of time and legal fees?" perspective. Actually, he probably used LegalZoom.com or something, so no big deal.
What is a big deal is that Haslem informed Heat media members like ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh that we should not let UD's new smooth taste fool us:"Nothing's changed. I just want you guys to understand that I'm probably still going to use the same amount of profanity out there. Same number of technical fouls."
Not sure I understand why changing your hair would potentially have anything to do with how much cursing you do, unless you had a swear word shaved into the back of your head, which by definition would increase by one the number of curses you were saying at any given time, because that's just basic math. Haslem, of course, does not need to worry about doing his own cursing, since O'Grime and Metro Zu have already take care of pretty much all the loosely-tied-to-Udonis-Haslem-cursing you'd ever need.
And, for the record, Udonis Haslem has not been whistled for a technical foul since the 2008-09 season. So if the nothing that changes is nothing, does everything change? Am I in a Gladness-meets-Curry wormhole? Are we even alive anymore?
In summation, I have no idea what to make of the new you, which may be exactly the same as the old you, Udonis Haslem. But you do look handsome.
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
Miami Heat, "Entourage"
The Heat lost to the Mavericks last June, and no one really has any sympathy for them. They're jerks, losers, moral midgets and arrogant fools. Many people wish they would just get off their TV screens and never come back again.
In other words, they're a lot like the cast of HBO's thankfully departed "Entourage" (Chris Bosh and LeBron James even had guest appearances). Vince, E, Turtle, Drama, Ari and various women who barely had names led luxurious lives with little at stake. If things went bad, they acted in mildly popular movies directed by fake directors instead of popular movies helmed by terrible filmmakers like Nick Cassavetes, or made hundreds of thousands of dollars instead of millions. By the end of the series, characters that were once marginally relatable had turned into disgusting monsters. One even called the love of his life a whore, only to come back a few weeks later acting like he was entitled to be with her for the rest of his life. And, somehow, the audience was expected to identify with him.
Yet creator Doug Ellin and his writing staff never conceded that there was anything wrong with their show. No matter how loathsome the characters and their actions became, the show continued to treat them as if they were lovable heroes. Whether that happened because of some personal mania on the part of Ellin or not, that confidence helped carry the series to pretty much every possible form of success, from a lucrative syndication deal on basic cable to, in the biggest shock in recent Hollywood history, a steady acting career for Kevin Connolly.
Pretty much every NBA player loves "Entourage," but the Heat's star trio stand to gain the most from the lessons of the show. At times, the three (particularly LeBron and Bosh) have seemed overly concerned with public opinion. The only way they'll win back casual fans is by winning a championship. As in the case of Vincent Chase, his friends, and the people who created them, there's little point in being nice when popularity only comes with tangible success. As in Hollywood, the NBA meritocracy is an amoral machine.