That the loss to Dallas in the 2011 NBA Finals fueled last season's title is undeniable. But so, too, did coach Erik Spoelstra's position-less philosophy. The idea is simple enough -- get the best players on the floor no matter their traditional position. In June, that meant Shane Battier and LeBron James playing in the frontcourt together with James moving his bulky frame into the low post to play power forward at times. This year will see Chris Bosh willingly playing center, a move Bosh said he hoped to avoid when he signed with Miami in 2010. As Miami demonstrated against Oklahoma City in the Finals, the plan works to a devastating degree when the Big Three have reliable shooters who can knock down threes and open the floor for James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade. That's where Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis come in; if they do the jobs for which they were signed -- namely, to shoot from outside -- there's little to stop Miami in the East.
Trading Joe Johnson freed the Hawks of his salary-cap-choking contract but left Atlanta in limbo. Josh Smith, Al Horford and Jeff Teague form a trio still potent enough to reach the playoffs in a watered-down East, but the team isn't a true title contender. It's hard to imagine that general manager Danny Ferry traded two primary rotation players (Johnson and Marvin Williams) in his first week on the job only to tweak a team that has made five straight playoff appearances. Ferry likely has a bigger rebuilding plan in mind, one with fresh faces whose ceiling is higher than the second round. However successful or disappointing the months ahead are will tell who stays and leaves for the next version of the Hawks.
Fumigating a locker room of players (Andray Blatche, JaVale McGee, Nick Young) whose maturity didn't match their talents was a good first step in changing the atmosphere of a franchise that hasn't posted a .500 or better record in four seasons. Drafting Bradley Beal, considered by many the best shooting guard available, offers the promise of a backcourt around which the Wizards can build a playoff contender. But watching John Wall get sidelined by a strained left knee for eight weeks has put all of that good news on hold. In his absence, the Wizards may have to set more reasonable goals, like acquainting Beal with NBA defenses or teasing more consistency out of second-year big man Jan Vesely.
Year 1 of the post-Dwight Howard era will see a dive deep into the draft lottery and a lot of uncertainty surrounding the future. Easing the upheaval is a lineup heavy on professionalism, if limited on upside. Jameer Nelson is a steady steward of the offense, but he won't raise it to another level. Arron Afflalo can make wing players such as LeBron James work on offense and defense, but he won't make elite players lose any sleep. Glen Davis can take over a half but is too inconsistent to dominate a game. The same type of caveats apply to Hedo Turkoglu, Al Harrington, J.J. Redick and Gustavo Ayon. There's a risk that the effort hard-wired into this group wins them too many games and too few Ping-Pong balls to fast-track rebuilding. Thus, look for a few key trades to guarantee one of the league's worst records.
After finishing last season on a 23-game losing streak, the Bobcats were in desperate need of NBA-level talent. The likes of Ben Gordon, Ramon Sessions and Brendan Haywood won't get Charlotte out of the lottery, but they offer a set of professional faces for recent draft picks Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bismack Biyombo and Kemba Walker to learn from. Plucked from an assistant's role with St. John's, coach Mike Dunlap was a surprising choice to lead a team that won a record-low 10.6 percent of its games. Dunlap's 14-year career as a college head coach, though, should make him the type of teacher the Bobcats need with a young roster that promises to become younger in the next few drafts. If Biyombo further develops into the defensive force his 7-foot-7 inch wingspan promises, and Kidd-Gilchrist makes good on his vast potential, this rebuild could be promising. In the next few months, however, there is a lot of bad karma to erase from a team that ranked last in points scored and points allowed per possession in 2011-12. This team won't be judged by wins and losses but by effort, and on that score, there is reason for hope.
Players To Watch
2011-12 Stats: 27.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 6.2 APG
Career Stats: 27.6 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 6.9 APG
The Cavs have Kyrie Irving. The Heat have a title. The NBA world has moved on, which has lightened the black hat LeBron has worn for two years. All that is left for James is legacy, and with Ray Allen joining him in Miami, he is free to explore the limits of his game in ways he has not before. Average a triple-double for the season? Maybe. Lead the league in assists or rebounds? Why not? James is only 27 years old -- prime time for NBA players.
2011-12 Stats: 18.8 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 1.7 BPG
Career Stats: 15.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 2.2 BPG
The Johnson trade was the start of a much-needed makeover in Atlanta. Now the question is whether Ferry opts for Botox or plastic surgery? At age 26, and with a game that seems to be growing more mature -- i.e. fewer forced plays -- Smith is a talented star around whom to build. But he won't come cheap after finishing a five-year, $58 million contract and he doesn't come without baggage. His habit of shooting threes despite a career mark of 27.8 percent has frustrated coaches as much as his requests to be traded have irked general managers. Still, players with his ability to attack the rim as well as defend it are rare, and the kind of do-everything talent he has is the stuff of which contenders are made. Smith has a chance to show he can, and is willing, to put the team on his back and carry it into the playoffs. If the Hawks flounder as he continues to fire three after three, Smith may be gone by the trade deadline.
Kidd-Gilchrist arrives loaded with upside but surrounded by questions: Can he shoot well enough to earn a defense's respect? Can he handle the ball well enough to create his own shot? Is he a lead character or second fiddle? His teammate Biyombo has the physical tools to alter opposing scorers in the paint, but his offensive game is limited to the low post. Both have already demonstrated they are willing to work relentlessly on their games. If the effort yields the kind of results that make the Bobcats a pesky opponent most nights, the stench of last season's historic futility will dissipate quickly.
What is the plan in Orlando? The Howard trade brought a bounty of draft picks likely to land late in the first round and a handful of useful, but unspectacular veterans. That's a good way to turn the page on the Howard era, but that's not a path to rebuild a contender. Free agents aren't likely to flock to central Florida without a superstar with whom to team. And the draft's best talent isn't available in the late lottery. Having spent several seasons with a rebuilding Thunder team, GM Rob Hennigan understands that it may take a dreadful season or two to accumulate a core of talent that can grow together. The bait Hennigan uses to make that happen will shape the season to come.
Can Mike Dunlap/Jacque Vaughn/Randy Wittman coach? The Bobcats, Magic and Wizards all start the season with new full-time head coaches (Wittman was the Wizards' interime coach for the final 49 games last season). All sent experienced veterans packing for coaches who either have no NBA head-coaching experience (Dunlap, Vaughn) or forgettable experiences (Wittman has a 118-238 career mark). Part of the decision was financial. Why pay a top-tier coach to lead a team deep in the midst of rebuilding? And part is promise. Dunlap has developed a sterling reputation as a teacher in the college ranks; Vaughn spent the last two seasons at Gregg Popovich's side in San Antonio; and Wittman led the Wizards to a hard-fought finish last season. The jobs ahead for them are daunting and will test their abilities as leaders. Are they up for it? If not, they could lose their locker rooms fast.
Will Chris Bosh embrace the paint? Bosh has long proclaimed his distaste for playing center, but this season he'll be playing there full time. Bosh has the skills for the move and a mid-range game that should put the more plodding centers out of their comfort zones. Does he have the heart for it? Dominant big men are rare in the NBA nowadays, and having Howard in the Western Conference eases the task for Bosh, but there are plenty of largely immovable objects Bosh will encounter near the rim in the East. That pounding will take a toll and test Bosh's stamina and toughness. Will he commit to the physicality needed or drift away from the basket, forcing the Heat into a perimeter-based attack that makes them vulnerable? Bosh may be considered the third part of the Big Three, but he's a vital one if the Heat hope to repeat.
Did You Know?
John Wall made 3-of-42 three-pointers (7.1 percent) last season.
The Southeast Division has only been won by either Miami or Orlando since it was created for the 2004-05 season.
Michael Jordan's teams in Washington and Charlotte have combined to go 278-444 (.385) in his time as a front-office executive or the man calling the shots.
With Ray Allen spacing the court all season, LeBron and Co. make a serious run at the Bulls' regular-season record of 72 victories.
Southeast Video Preview
Chris Mannix's Fast Breaks: Miami Heat
SI.com's Chris Mannix previews the 2012-13 NBA season for the Miami Heat.
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