Just before Christmas, as I was thumbing through various previews of this NBA season, I was struck by just how wide the consensus seems to be that the 2012 NBA title is Miami’s to lose. On the one hand, it isn’t surprising to see that Miami is this season’s favorite (which, it should be noted, wasn’t the case at the start of last season; many thought the Heat wouldn’t get past Boston in the East, and few if any thought they would get past the Lakers in any event); they came within 2 wins of the title last year, and should be a more cohesive unit than they were for much of last season. On the other hand, the Heat still face certain issues that either haven’t been adequately addressed or can’t be proven until next June. With that in mind, I present the top four reasons why the Heat are far from a lock to win the 2012 NBA title:
1. The unpredictability of LeBron James.
Lebron’s season-opening performance against Dallas certainly lent credence to the notion that he has used the experience of last season’s Finals to improve his game and is determined and ready to exorcise his demons. But the question remains: how could the same guy play so brilliantly and fearlessly in the clutch against Boston and Chicago last spring (the best basketball of his entire career, in my opinion), and then play so passively and timidly when the ultimate prize was so tantalizingly close? Was it a matter of burn-out from a season of tumult unlike any other? Was it a matter of flaws in his game being exploited? Did Tyson Chandler and Dallas’ D have that much of an impact? Did LeBron simply freeze up or choke under pressure? Does he even know what happened to him? LeBron’s performance last June raised many questions which can’t be answered until and unless he plays well enough in the Finals to get the Heat over the hump.
2. The inexperience of Erik Spoelstra.
His contract extension was intended to avoid risking lame-duck status and to drive home the message that the Heat are his team, period. But it is still very much an open question as to whether he is the right coach to lead Miami to a title. Spoelstra was clearly outcoached in the Finals; I couldn’t have been the only one to catch the quote attributed to Mark Cuban in which he told his team, after Miami won Game 3 of the Finals to take a 2-1 lead, that the Mavericks were home free because the Heat weren’t making any adjustments. That’s one of the worst indictments of a head coach imaginable. Now the question is whether Spoelstra can make adjustments to the zone defenses that the Heat are sure to see in bulk given their early season struggles. Moreover, the stagnation on offense that afflicted the Heat for much of last season can’t simply be chalked up to questions of role involving Miami’s Big Three; a large measure of blame has to fall on Spoelstra, for not finding a way to get LeBron and Wade to consistently play well together or to get more out of Bosh. The Big Three came together to do many things, but they didn’t come together to do the coaching themselves.
One last point on Spoelstra: much has been made of LeBron’s lack of a consistent post game. I agree that he could stand to improve in the post, and he appears to be addressing that part of his game. But he should not do so in isolation. Kobe Bryant garnered considerable praise a few years ago for developing his post game, but that was simply in keeping with Phil Jackson’s triangle offense for which strong post play from the wings has historically been a big part (see Jordan, esp. in his second stint with the Bulls, and Pippen). Likewise, LeBron’s development of his post game can only succeed in coordination with a coaching gameplan which blends his post game seamlessly into the overall offense and creates favorable matchups to exploit. Can Spoelstra do that? The jury is still very much out; I’m surely not the only one who still thinks that the Heat’s chances would be much improved if Pat Riley put himself back on the bench.
Shane Battier was a nice pick-up for the Heat; he remains a solid “glue guy” whose defense will come in handy against the likes of Luol Deng and Rip Hamilton in Chicago, or against James Harden in Oklahoma City. But their biggest personnel holes, at center and point guard, weren’t sufficiently filled. Eddy Curry can be a valuable low-post scorer when healthy, fit and motivated, but the odds of him being any (let alone all) of those on a consistent basis are slim, and even if he is, his defense and rebounding remain highly suspect. Joel Anthony is another “glue guy” playing solid defense, but his offense is practically non-existent. Dexter Pittman has potential, but has bigger issues keeping in playing shape. At the point, Mario Chalmers‘ contract extension was a questionable move, and while Norris Cole is showing considerable promise, he is still untested, and it is a fair question as to how much rope he will and should get this season. Those two positions remain areas where the Heat, at least for now, have more questions than answers.
4. Young and hungry competition.
The Lakers, Celtics and Spurs may be in decline, and the Mavericks may have torpedoed their title defense before it even got started by letting Chandler walk, but there are younger and hungry teams ready to take their place. In particular, the Bulls and Thunder are in position to take the next step. In Chicago, Derrick Rose is hungry to carry the Bulls back to their Jordan-era glory, Carlos Boozer is determined to prove that his poor showing last year was an aberration, and Hamilton will fill a void for them at shooting guard. In Oklahoma City, the Thunder have assembled a Big Three of their own (Durant-Westbrook-Harden) that, if it can work out its own issues of role, has even greater long-term promise than that of Miami, and Kendrick Perkins is fit and healthy again to anchor what should be an improved defense. Both teams figure to have learned from their losses in last season’s conference finals, in which each of them had two games within reach (and one seemingly in the bag) in crunch time, only to unravel. Neither team, nor any other team in the league for that matter, will be in a mood to concede an inch to the Heat.
None of this is to suggest in any way that the Heat will be anything other than a top-level contender and the first team on any NBA odds to win a championship list this year. They have the talent and motivation to win it all this season, and increased familiarity and cohesion with one another should lead to a better record overall and in close games specifically. But they’re not so much better than the rest of the field as to render the title chase a formality. The Heat have flaws that can bring them down, and there are other teams that can beat them in a seven-game series. If the Heat do win it all this year, it will be because they overcame those flaws and took their opponents’ best shots-and that will make their achievement a noteworthy and yes, praiseworthy one, not just a formality.