If the Miami Heat’s shellacking of the Orlando Magic last night was any indication, the Miami Heat plan to hit the ground running this season. In the second part of the series "Who Can Beat The Heat," I analyze the Heat’s competition in the wide open Western Conference. For the first installment, which breaks down Miami’s rivals in the East, click here.
Out go Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, DeShawn Stevenson and Caron Butler and in come Lamar Odom, Delonte West and Vince Carter for the defending NBA champions. Mark Cuban clearly wants to clear cap room to sign a star next summer (perhaps Deron Williams or Dwight Howard), so 2011-12 stands as a transition year for Dallas. The Mavericks could still come out of the West even after taking a step back, though.
From the Heat perspective, the losses of Chandler and Barea help Miami match up with Dallas much better. Brendan Haywood possesses none of Chandler’s athleticism, so the center position won’t cause Miami many problems. Cuban managed to acquire Odom for practically nothing, but Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem match up well with him defensively.
Even so, the Mavericks still have Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd and two previous winners of the Sixth Man Award in Odom and Jason Terry. I’m not sold on Vince Carter; the last time he joined a team looking for a championship – the Orlando Magic – the situation didn’t work out so well. He also turns 35 next month.
Oklahoma City Thunder
If Coach Scott Brooks straightens out Russell Westbrook, the Thunder would become the favorite to win the West. This team made it all the way to the conference finals and may reach the Finals now that Dallas and the Los Angeles Lakers each took a step back. Oklahoma City has a solid core of Kevin Durant, the effective yet erratic Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka. The Thunder will also have Kendrick Perkins for a full year, which solidifies the frontline.
Miami matches up better with Oklahoma City than it did last year; Norris Cole makes the Heat more athletic, and Shane Battier serves as another defender for Durant. LeBron James will still take the challenge of defending the two-time scoring champion, but Battier can save James for the battle in the fourth quarter. If these two teams meet in the Finals, the Heat’s edge in experience could tip the series their way.
Los Angeles Lakers
In the words of Billy Hunter, David Stern snookered the Lakers. Stern did give the Hornets a better long-term deal for the New Orleans Hornets, but he damaged two teams looking to improve in the Lakers and the Rockets. Instead of plausibly fielding a Big 3 of Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard next June, the Lakers now have Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and a bench that consists of Steve Blake, Jason Kapono, Josh McRoberts and Troy Murphy.
General Manager Mitch Kupchak said that he is looking at "more than one big deal," and he should make those big deals sooner rather than later. The only significant trade chip Kupchak has is Bynum, and his trade value will plummet as soon as he suffers his annual injury. He has missed an average of 31 games since 2007-08, never appearing in more than 65 games during that span. And now the Lakers expect him play in a compacted season with fewer days of rest. Moreover, Bynum is suspended for the first five games of the season for his classless foul on Barea. That will only further expose the Lakers’ lack of depth. Kupchak has to make a move now.
You see how deep the West is? Seeing this team win the West wouldn’t surprise me one bit. Rudy Gay will come back from his season-ending injury, completing a formidable frontline with Zach Randolph and newly re-signed Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies still have Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, Darrell Arthur and a defensive stopper in Tony Allen; they won’t miss a beat with the departure of Battier to the Heat.
The Grizzlies’ frontline could give Miami problems with Randolph and Gasol, two burly guys who can score inside. Perhaps Chris Bosh and Randolph cancel each other out, especially when considering Bosh’s added weight. But Joel Anthony, Dexter Pittman and Eddy Curry leave much to be desired against Gasol, who averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds in last year’s playoffs.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers should have waited a little longer to trade for Chris Paul, knowing that no team could match their offer. They could have kept Eric Gordon out of the deal and have a solid, young core in Paul, Gordon, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. Even so, the Clippers now have a playoff-caliber team with the additions of Paul, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler.
Billups could start at the two guard for the Clippers, and they wouldn’t be the first team to use a small backcourt (the Mavericks won the title with Barea and Jason Kidd starting). The Clippers also have Randy Foye at the two, but could afford to acquire another swingman. Griffin and Jordan will employ their athleticism to have nightly dunk fests with Paul, but the Little Brother L.A. team will not come out of the West.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs locked up the best record in the West before losing to the Grizzlies in six games in the first round. Manu Ginobili, who had an All-Star season last year, was hurt during the playoffs, however. Tony Parker remains one of the most efficient guards in terms of field goal shooting, so the Spurs could end up with home-court advantage in the first round again.
The problem with San Antonio is that the team has now become exclusively perimeter-oriented. Tim Duncan has willingly taken less of a load on offense, and I applaud him for refusing to whine about getting more touches at this late stage of his career (cough, Shaq, cough). While Duncan ages, the Spurs have no legitimate post presence, though. The Grizzlies exposed that in the playoffs. Even the Heat exposed that to a degree in Miami’s 110-80 victory over the Spurs in March. Bosh scored 30 points on 10-of-16 shooting and grabbed 12 boards, toying with anyone who was in his way.
The Blazers will make it to the playoffs again with a star in LaMarcus Aldridge leading the way. The addition of Jamal Crawford will also help a team with good players like Gerald Wallace, Nicolas Batum, Raymond Felton and a solid rookie in Nolan Smith. Unfortunately, I don’t see Greg Oden producing much this season. The Denver Nuggets have a few players stuck in China, but still have a team that is good enough to make the playoffs.
The West is as wide open as ever. With past conference champions like the Dallas Mavericks, L.A. Lakers and San Antonio Spurs regressing, perhaps the Thunder or the Grizzlies win the West. In those cases, Miami’s veteran-laden team would have the advantage. The Heat are positioned better than any other team to win the title this year. While last year was the first year of a new era and the team was never completely healthy, this year is truly championship or bust.