Pat Riley has saved the Miami Heat. When LeBron returned to the Cleveland Cavs Friday, it looked like the next move was going to be Chris Bosh going to the Houston Rockets. Suddenly, the Heat were headed from four straight Finals trips to the lottery. Houston traded Jeremy Lin to the Lakers and it seemed like acquiring Bosh was imminent.
And then Bosh spurned the Rockets, who could have become the team to beat in the West with him. Instead, he stayed loyal to Riley and took a 5-year, $118 million deal with the Heat. And throughout the course of the weekend, other positive things happened for the Heat that may keep them out of the lottery: the Heat beat out the Bulls for Luol Deng (2-years, $20 million), were able to retain the services of Birdman Anderson (2-years, $10 million), and retained Mario Chalmers (2-years, $8 million).
All positive! And the Heat play in the lowly East! And Miami still has Dwyane Wade! And added Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts! And don’t forget rookie Shabazz Napier!
Reality check time: They’ve got to replace LeBron James, who only played 37.7 minutes a game last year, and averaged 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.4 assists per game. The offense went through LeBron. In the postseason, he led the Heat in minutes, points, rebounds, assists and steals. Remember how far off a cliff the Cavs fell in 2011 when LeBron left for Miami? (Yes, the supporting cast was weak to begin with.)
This isn’t Jordan’s Bulls going from 57 wins and a title in 1992-1993 to 55 wins after he left to play baseball. Different eras, circumstances, everything. Fun fact: Two Bulls from the 1993-1994 team, Scottie Pippen and BJ Armstrong, were starters on the All-Star team. The core of that team – those two plus Toni Kukoc, Horace Grant and Steve Kerr, were all between 25-28 years old.
Miami’s stars next season? Chris Bosh is 30, Dwyane Wade turns 33 in January, and Luol Deng is 29. The big issue I have is the supporting cast. You lose LeBron, Shane Battier, Norris Cole and probably Ray Allen, and replace them with Deng, Danny Granger, Shabazz Napier and Josh McRoberts? I’d be prepared for a 10-14 win dropoff if I were a Heat fan.
Offense is going to be difficult for Miami next season. Chris Bosh, the Toronto version (24-10) isn’t walking through that door. He averaged 16-6 in a specific role last year, but will he remain a stretch four, or go back to posting up more? When Bosh averaged 24-10 in his best season as a pro, he took 22 three-pointers. Last season in Miami? Bosh took 218 three-pointers. He’s totally transformed as an offensive player. Which one will he be next year?
I think Miami is much more likely to be hovering around the .500 mark all season than in the neighborhood of 50 wins. Right now, I see the Heat on the outside looking in, but the playoffs could still happen depending on the remaining free agent moves.
Cleveland, obviously, significantly improved and more help could be on the way in the form of Mike Miller or Ray Allen (or Kevin Love). The Bulls add Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol. Indiana is still a Top 4 team in the East despite the likely loss of Lance Stephenson. The Wizards lost Trevor Ariza, but that backcourt will keep them in the 45-50 win range. Toronto (48 wins) didn’t get demonstrably worse, so that’s five teams definitely better than Heat.
Atlanta took the Pacers to seven games without arguably their best player (Al Horford) and if you look at their top six players, I believe it has more talent than Miami. (Neither team has depth.)
Which leaves … Brooklyn and Charlotte. The Nets lost Paul Pierce (to the Wizards), Shaun Livingston (to the Warriors) and have Lionel Hollins replace Jason Kidd as head coach. It’s still unclear what Kevin Garnett will do – one year left on his deal – but having a Brook Lopez at center will help (ignore what they did with him last year at the outset, when the team was a mess). Another guy in Brooklyn really emerging as a player is Mason Plumlee. He showed flashes last year of reaching the potential he had coming out of high school, and KG/Lopez/Plumlee could be a formidable interior trio.
The Bobcats essentially swapped Josh McRoberts for Marvin Williams, and have three very young players who need to contribute – Cody Zeller, PJ Hairston and Noah Vonleh. One could easily see the Bobcats sliding out of the playoffs if Williams struggles and the young kids don’t improve.
I’ll drop in two sleepers: Detroit and Orlando. The Pistons are worth keeping an eye on because of A) Stan Van Gundy, b) Andre Drummond, c) Greg Monroe decision. There’s talent on the roster, but can SVG harness it?
My deep sleeper is Orlando, which has six really talented players all under 24-years old, and that team will play a lot of defense and push tempo. Wouldn’t shock me if the Magic were in the 35-win ballpark and made a run at the final playoff spot.
The biggest point about the East is that truly bad teams – Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Orlando – all will be improved. They’re still terribly young, but they’re all brimming with talent and won’t be raging dumpster fires like last year. With a couple free agents still on the board, here’s my look at the Top 10 in the East:
1) Cleveland 53 wins
2) Chicago 52 wins
3) Indiana 51 wins
4) Washington 49 wins
5) Toronto 48 wins
6) Atlanta 47 wins
7) Brooklyn 44 wins
8) Charlotte 41 wins
9) Miami 40 wins
10) Orlando 38 wins