Thursday September 23rd, 2010

Those worried about the Miami Heat's point guard position can rest easy: Mario Chalmers says he has it covered.

"I feel like it's my spot to lose," Chalmers said in a telephone interview. "But I still have to keep learning [the position] and not take anything for granted."

The Heat would certainly welcome a steady-handed Chalmers this season. Miami's free-agent bonanza solidified -- to say the least -- three starting positions while a fourth (center) will be occupied by a committee of big men. With training camp opening at Eglin Air Force Base in Fort Walton Beach next week, who will emerge at point guard looms as the team's biggest question mark.

Miami has several players (Carlos Arroyo, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Mike Miller) capable of initiating the offense, but the coaching staff is hoping the 24-year-old Chalmers, entering his third NBA season, can establish himself at the position. Miami wanted it to happen last season. Last October, coach Erik Spoelstra tabbed Chalmers as the starter. But, after a month and a half of uneven play, Spoelstra replaced Chalmers with Arroyo, commenting at the time that he didn't think Chalmers took the role seriously enough. Chalmers' minutes dropped by more than seven per game in his second season, and his scoring (10.0 points per game to 7.1) and assists (4.9 to 3.4) fell with that.

"Last year was tough," Chalmers said, "but it was all my fault. It wasn't that the Heat didn't believe in me or my teammates didn't believe in me. It was on me. Last year was a learning year. I understand now that everything is not guaranteed."

Miami doesn't have lofty expectations for Chalmers, who is expected to be ready for camp after spraining his ankle in a pickup game in July. In fact, Spoelstra told the Miami Herald earlier this week that "LeBron certainly will play minutes during the game at point guard and handle the ball a lot. He will be a playmaker. ... He will be a facilitator."

As Chalmers knows, he has a lot to prove. A professorial knowledge of the offense, solid assist-to-turnover ratio and three-point shooting closer to his first year (36.7 percent) than his second (31.8 percent) would fit the bill.

While Chalmers' play is a major issue going into camp, it's not the only one. Here's a look at a few things the NBA's newest superpower will need to figure out before the start of the regular season.

Interestingly, Chalmers says the core of the team -- James, Wade, Miller and Chris Bosh -- hasn't worked out together this summer. Clearly, the Heat are loaded with individual talents. But one player (or two, or three) can't win a championship, as Lakers coach Phil Jackson noted earlier this week.

"They got great talent," Jackson said in an interview with a Chicago radio station. "There's no question about the talent they have. But talent doesn't always win. The team that shows the best teamwork will win it."

Jackson is right. With a few exceptions -- like Boston in 2007-2008 -- it can take years for a team to learn to play together. If Miami wants to duplicate the Celtics' instant success, it will have to develop an offensive and defensive identity. A lot of that responsibility falls to Spoelstra, who will have to design a system that takes advantage of his team's superior talents. The Heat have the horses to be prolific in transition and two slashers (James, Wade) and a three-point gunner (Miller) to complement a polished low-post presence (Bosh) in the halfcourt.

Most important, after paying a lot of lip service to the idea of deferring to one another over the summer, the three stars will have to prove they mean it on the court.

An NBA source told that free agent center Erick Dampier was leaning toward signing with Miami. If that happens, the Heat's options in the middle will include Dampier, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Joel Anthony, Jamaal Magloire and rookie second-round pick Dexter Pittman.

The good news for Miami is that those players have something different to offer. Dampier and Magloire are bangers capable of matching up with more traditional centers. Anthony is an athletic big man who runs the floor well, while Ilgauskas, the best shooter of the bunch, can stretch the floor.

However, there will not be enough minutes to go around, especially with Bosh able to slide over to center late in games. It will be incumbent on Spoelstra to establish a rotation early, so each of his big men can come to grips with his role.

"My first reaction [when Wade, Bosh and James signed with Miami] was, 'I cannot wait for this season to start,' " said Magic center Dwight Howard, who was at the NBA store in New York on Wednesday for the premier of the league's new Adidas uniforms. "Not, 'Oh, they're going to be so good.' I don't think anybody's afraid of those guys. Everybody's looking forward to playing them. They still have to dress up and play."

Howard's feelings are likely shared by Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and others playing for title contenders. Avoiding overconfidence will be critical for Miami. Barring injury, and provided they do come together quickly, the Heat will likely run away with the top seed in the Eastern Conference and could challenge Chicago's record 72-win season.

Beating one of the top contenders in the postseason, however, won't be as easy. It's a message Spoelstra and Heat president Pat Riley need to drill home, not just in training camp but also throughout the season. Mental toughness is as important as talent in the playoffs and Miami will keep a narrow focus during what will likely be overwhelming success.

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