This season's NBA Finals will have a tough time living up to the Heat
epic from 2012-13. (Greg Nelson/SI)
The beginning of the NBA season calls to mind its end. It's only natural that with so many teams expressing their championship hopes that our minds would wander to what might eventually be. The greater trouble, though, lies is in focusing on just one particular finale; there are so many viable contenders this season that the possibilities seem endless.
Yet there's an underlying guilt in concocting any dream NBA Finals pairing beyond a rematch of last year's foils. Miami and San Antonio delivered a more or less perfect series -- a work of achievement and drama, execution and splendor. Both teams pushed one another in fascinating ways, and with the Heat and Spurs set to make another run at the title, it would be foolish to overlook their known chemistry for the sake of some other hypothetical matchup. This isn't a default doff of the cap to recency, but an acknowledgement that this latest final round of the NBA playoffs meets the gold standard. Even if there are richer rivalries to mine, NBA fans can only hope that next year's Finals yield such a pure, refined basketball product.
With that, a continuation of last year's series might be the safest bet on the board. Even with some of their core pieces another year removed from their playing primes, the Spurs should continue to be one of the NBA's most brutally consistent teams. Their playbook is well-known at this point, but so deeply layered -- and enacted by such skilled players -- that even the routine seems fresh. Tony Parker has developed such remarkable improvisational instincts that every set acts as a mere basis for a natural, flowing offense. That might be a problem on a team of less intuitive players, but the Spurs on the whole have an impeccable understanding of how to position themselves to complement the unscripted. Knockdown shooters flank Parker on his every drive, Tim Duncan provides an incredibly flexible offensive outlet, and every other Spur has at least one high-level offensive skill that can be leveraged in space. Plus: This is officially the year of Kawhi Leonard, as the rangy Spurs forward looks primed to assume a bigger role in San Antonio's offense. In conjunction, those factors beget an offensive resilience that may be unmatched in today's NBA.
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All of which offers a perfect opponent for Miami's high-pressure, high-wire defense. While some teams play to the conservative in their defensive coverage, the Heat look to take full advantage of their mobile bigs and idiosyncratic wings. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are both crucial to one of the league's most unique systems of help defense -- a frenetic system of ball-hounding coverage and swarming support. It's a clever scheme made possible by great players, and one which makes for a brilliant show when pitted against a Spurs team that attacks with surgical precision.
On the other side of the ball, fans had the distinct pleasure of watching the greatest in the game work against worth adversaries -- at times carrying an injured Wade and an out-of-sorts Chris Bosh along for the ride. Miami isn't a one-man team by any means, but the benefit in employing such a prodigious talent is the ability to lean on a single player in times of particular need. James fulfilled his end of that bargain, beating both the smothering work of Kawhi Leonard and an impeccably prepared team defense to average 25.3 points, 7.0 assists, and 10.9 rebounds per game in the Finals. Out of that performance came the means to seal the series -- the open looks for Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers, the defensive relief for Wade, and an engine powerful enough to overcome one of the league's very best defensive teams. It was a worthy championship series, through and through.
Yet it was also a final verdict that came down to an incredibly fortunate -- and gutsy -- play. Had James' attempt at a game-tying three-pointer with 12 seconds remaining in Game 6 not bounced just so, Miami would have been finished. Had Bosh not emerged from a crowd to collect the board, the Spurs would again be champions. And had Allen not somehow tucked himself into the corner, risen, and fired over Danny Green with just seconds remaining, the legacy of the series would be written quite differently. San Antonio won't ever get a chance to rectify that improbable play. But another crack at the Finals -- and at the team the Spurs challenged through seven riveting games -- might be consolation enough.
The depth of the coming season's contenders make that possibility a bit remote, though, as either Finalist could be eliminated prior to again reaching the Finals. If that turns out to be the case, here are four other possible outcomes which could make for fantastic basketball theater.
While both of these teams have dedicated their offseason resources to addressing their respective weaknesses, this is still fundamentally a matchup of overwhelming offense and asphyxiating defense. By season's end, the Clippers could easily rank as the most efficient scoring team in the league -- anchored, still, by Chris Paul, who for the first time in his Clippers tenure will be running an offense beyond base pick-and-roll sets. Former Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro was never able to give L.A. the offensive basis it needed to succeed beyond Paul's natural talents; that L.A. ranked fourth in the league in points per possession last season had more to do with the mere presence of Paul and Blake Griffin than any schematic advantage. But for the Clippers to have even reached the Finals would signal that Doc Rivers' hiring as head coach had gone well, and had brought about an offense resilient enough to make it through three trying postseason rounds.
GOLLIVER: Best-case, worst-case for East teams
All of which would run the Clippers into the teeth of the Pacers' team defense -- an entity which has managed to slow down many of the NBA's most capable scorers. Yet L.A. would present a unique challenge, in that the Clipper wings don't drive the offense in the same way that, say, the Heat's superstar wings do. Paul George would spend a lot of his time trailing J.J. Redick or Jared Dudley rather than locking down an elite creator. Indiana's defensive strategy of protecting the paint and surrendering mid-range jumpers, meanwhile, could completely backfire against a pull-up shooter as proficient as Paul. And on face, L.A. would at least have the size and rebounding ability to give the Pacer bigs a run for their money. Neither team would be fully comfortable given the particulars of the matchup, but watching both teams -- and both coaches -- negotiate that dynamic would make for a great series.
San Antonio's offense was deliberate enough -- and its defense disciplined enough -- to slow down Miami a bit in the Finals. Houston, on the other hand, would likely have no interest in doing so. This would be a matchup based on collective speed, a meeting of two teams both inclined to jump passing lanes and trigger the break. It doesn't seem all that likely that the Rockets could withstand the Heat's barrage over the course of a seven-game series, but what this pairing lacks in proper balance it would more than make for in entertainment value. Even in incorporating Dwight Howard, Houston should still be one of the NBA's most prolific three-point shooting teams and an uncompromising foe in transition. That disposition should allow the Rockets to keep things interesting, while Howard's addition will give both the half-court offense and defense a bit more backbone.
Going the other way, we'd have an opportunity to see a relatively unencumbered James and Wade challenge Howard and Omer Asik at the rim repeatedly, while Miami's perimeter marksmen try to match Houston stroke for stroke. The results should well make for marvelously entertaining basketball, as one would expect with both teams fueling the pace of the series. When one committed running team plays, any game can drift into wave after wave of feverish transition play. When two such teams play against one another, it's almost guaranteed; one transition opportunity creates another, which creates another, until both teams are sent reeling out of control. Then they center and begin again. Miami would have a clear upper hand in its familiarity, which would be of great value in resetting itself. Yet this would still be a high-speed chase between high-level athletes -- a delightful end to another NBA season.
A battle of well-balanced underdogs. Things would have to go completely off the rails for both the Warriors and Nets to make it to the Finals, but both teams have the lineup flexibility to play out an awesome, adaptive series. Golden State has the personnel -- between Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, and Harrison Barnes -- to drape Brooklyn's perimeter players, a resource which should afford Warriors coach Mark Jackson an opportunity to toggle his lineups and matchups if he so wishes. In response, the Nets have the luxury of funneling their offense through any of five capable creators and away from the toughest defenders. Whichever player Iguodala is guarding can be made to spot up and support, while Brooklyn singles out Stephen Curry -- who isn't a poor defender, but is hardly on Thompson or Iguodala's level -- to attack him with bigger, stronger guards.
MAHONEY: Best-case, worst-case for West teams
It would be a battle of true centers, stretchy power forwards, versatile wings, and scoring point guards. And more interesting yet: Stalking the sidelines would be two relatively inexperienced head coaches undergoing a trial by fire. Both Jackson and Nets head coach Jason Kidd would have all kinds of options in terms of tweaking their playing rotations and strategy, with each bit of micromanagement set to play out on the biggest stage imaginable. That their haphazard chess match would manifest through such intriguing rosters would only make the series that much more gripping.
This series would be ripe with narrative. At the center of the matchup would be Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose, two new-wave superstars celebrated for their team-first sensibilities and evident humility. Lurking in the background would be a battle between a small-market upstart and a big-market institution, or an undecorated contender against a championship-laden franchise, if you'd prefer. Yet overall, Oklahoma City and Chicago both would be making a definitive statement. It would be an insult to mark this potential series as some kind of arrival given how terrific both are already. But the fact that the Thunder and Bulls would likely need to overcome last year's Finals competitors in a series in order to make this stage would make for a hell of a prelude chock full of symbolism.
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In basketball terms, this would be a meeting between two radically different foes -- one that craves order and another that courts chaos. Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau is a man of structure, so his teams follow suit. Rose is so tantalizing in part due to the way he contrasts with those defined limits; he is the exception to Chicago's general rule, as the rest of the Bulls offer stable, restrained support. Oklahoma City couldn't be more different, as Durant and Russell Westbrook are empowered to freelance out of base formations as to fully leverage their shot-creating abilities. The juxtaposition of the two styles -- to say nothing of the stars involved -- would make for beautiful, engaging basketball, and offer a glimpse into what we can hope to expect for the next few seasons.