Roundtable: What's next for Heat, Thunder after NBA Finals?
June 22, 2012
SI.com's NBA writers analyze what's next for the Heat and Thunder and assess the significance of LeBron James' first championship.
Ian Thomsen: The biggest threat is from the Heat themselves. They must continue to find cheap help in free agency and the draft that will enable them to compete athletically around their three stars. Somehow they need to come up with an agile big man to provide length defensively around the basket. They must also hope for continued good health from 30-year-old Dwyane Wade, whose body has been hammered over the years. The length of Miami's title run is going to depend on Wade. At the same time, the Eastern Conference figures to be theirs to take without much of a fight because the Celtics will be yet another year older (if they're able to bring back Kevin Garnett) and Derrick Rose will be coming off major knee surgery for the Bulls. The Heat will believe they can deal with Oklahoma City, based on the lopsided 4-1 result of the NBA Finals, and there are no other credible title contenders likely to show major improvement apart from the possibility that the Mavericks could assemble a Big Three of their own around Dirk Nowitzki.
Zach Lowe: The team they just beat. The Thunder can bring the whole band back next season, plus point guard Eric Maynor, who sustained a season-ending torn ACL in January. Maynor is a crucial little piece, a quality backup for Russell Westbrook who renders moot the need for a non-threat on offense such as Derek Fisher to round out small lineups. Oklahoma City could also upgrade via the mid-level exception, though that could get tricky, given the salary commitments this team has ahead of it. Still, with the Celtics in flux, the Spurs a year older and the Bulls potentially missing Rose and Luol Deng for a huge chunk of next season, the Heat and Thunder will start as huge favorites to meet here again in 2013.
Lee Jenkins: The Thunder. Three years ago, they opened the season 3-29. Two years ago, they made the playoffs but lost in the first round. Last year, they reached the conference finals. This year, they made it all the way to the Finals. No one in their core four -- Kevin Durant, Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka -- is over 23 and their progression has been steady. The next step is the title. They will grow from this, just as the Heat grew from their loss to the Mavericks. The Thunder will return hungry while the Heat will combat the same hangover as any other champion, maybe more severe, considering the struggle to get to this point. The Bulls are also a threat depending on Rose's rehabilitation, but he is a long way from a return.
Chris Mannix: Oklahoma City, easy. The Thunder's Finals loss did not diminish the fact that this is a team to be reckoned with. It was all too much, too fast for the Thunder this season, but next year they -- like Miami this season after its Finals loss -- will be better, stronger and play with a chip on their shoulders. They don't lose much, and the continued maturation of Durant, Westbrook and Harden will only make them better. Miami will certainly be the favorite to win the title in 2012-13, but OKC won't be far behind.
Sam Amick: The Thunder, of course. As anyone paying attention to the league surely knows by now, this version of the Thunder is in jeopardy because it will be very tough for general manager Sam Presti to hold on to Harden and Ibaka long term. But both 22-year-olds have one year left on their deals -- they are eligible for extensions this summer -- so Oklahoma City can bring back all of their key players for another run. And those tears that Durant fought back after losing Game 5 said it all about how hungry he'll be to return.
Thomsen: Everything has changed. Instantly he has earned the benefit of the doubt after two years of pessimism. He is now, simply and unquestionably, the best player in the world. He couldn't claim that title until he won a championship. Fans may hate him but they'll also have to respect his achievement, especially because he adapted his game and taught himself to play out of the post in order to win.
Lowe: The ring shouldn't matter as much as the process and his play in earning it. After all, was Jerry West some sort of loser before finally securing a ring late in his career? What about Garnett? And with some years to think now, do we really hold the lack of a title against, say, John Stockton? The quality of player is what should matter, and James has finally produced on the biggest stage. He crumbled in the Finals against Dallas last season but thrived for the entire 2012 postseason on a team whose other stars needed him more. He played to his level -- even above it -- in the one round in which he had never done so. Well-earned ring (and Finals MVP) in hand, there is no more empty check box in the career ledger of LeBron James. The noise can fade, and he can take his rightful place among the greatest players in league history. In that sense, the perception of James will change -- at least among rational human beings who don't "hate" strangers whom they have never met. But the perception of James has always been out of whack as he has taken an early-stage career path not all that different from Michael Jordan's.
Mannix: In a word, immensely. LeBron is a champion now, and no one can ever take that away from him. Sure, some of the biggest cynics will continue to deride him for winning with basketball's Voltron, for not being able to win on his own in Cleveland. But he has a ring. He is a winner. And it wasn't like he was along for the ride, either. This was LeBron's team, which he carried with a masterful two-way performance.
Jenkins: Some, especially in northern Ohio, will hate him forever. Some will need more time. But in modern sports, nothing improves an image quite like a championship. The perception that James wilts in big moments, either stumbling or deferring, is gone forever. He's done a lot of the right things this season. On the court, he's improved as a post player, rebounder, cutter and passer. Off it, he's taken some steps to make amends for the fiasco that was "The Decision." I think a lot of people have noticed.
Amick: James' falling-out with so much of the NBA universe wasn't just about his inability to win a title. It was about his lack of humility, self-awareness or maturity -- the adage about how it's not what you say, but how you say it. But to his credit, the run-up to his redemption wasn't just about the championship, either. He seemed to change both personally and professionally, growing in ways that should do wonders for his once-tattered image. He spoke often about letting his love of the game inspire him again as opposed to the hatred of his critics. The days of LeBron's being the NBA's top villain, I would imagine, are over.
Thomsen: They must invest the No. 27 pick in next week's draft on a useful role player because -- as James pointed out not so long ago -- they lack athleticism. They need to find experienced talent that is willing to come to Miami for short money in exchange for a championship. Most important of all is going to be their attitude. They've gone through an exhausting two years, and now that they've won this championship the natural reaction may be to relax. They ought to watch a replay of the 2010 rally they held the day after "The Decision" to remind themselves of the larger goal of creating a long-term dynasty. Winning one championship turned out to be harder than any of them thought it would be, but now that they've won it, they won't be happy if it turns out to be their only title.
Lowe: A title should not make Miami complacent. If a superstar becomes available, the Heat should be open internally to at least discussing dealing Chris Bosh or Wade -- even if trading Wade would feel sinful. A major shakeup clearly isn't necessary now -- the Heat just won the title in five games -- but any smart team thinks several steps ahead and kicks around crazy ideas. This is a business, and Oklahoma City will not be the only looming threat to emerge in the next half-decade. Beyond that, the Heat can only tinker on the fringes via the mini mid-level exception (three-year deal for about $3 million annually) for teams over the luxury-tax line. Even using the amnesty provision to dump Mike Miller's salary would not open up the full mid-level. Miller and Udonis Haslem have never provided the two-way punch the Heat expected, and though Shane Battier was essential in the playoffs, he did not play to his standards -- at least in terms of shooting -- for most of the season. In short: The Heat still haven't hit that discount free-agent home run, and this summer means another round of trying to lure a productive player on the cheap.
Jenkins: Sign Steve Nash. Coach Erik Spoelstra wants to play fast and Nash would obviously allow the Heat to run even more than they do now. They might be unstoppable. Nash is a free agent, and if he doesn't return to Phoenix and is willing to take a steep pay cut, he could win his first championship in Miami. Because of the Big Three, and the new CBA, the Heat won't have a lot of flexibility. If they lost earlier in the playoffs, maybe trading Bosh would have been an option, but they wouldn't break up the team now.
Mannix: There will be a lot of talk about upgrading at point guard, what with the glut of veteran playmakers (Nash, Jason Kidd, Chauncey Billups) available. That might have made sense a year ago, but Mario Chalmers' performance in key Finals moments and manageable salary ($4 million per year for the next two seasons) make investing in him the smart play. Miami should throw whatever capital it has at a center. One possibility: Greg Oden. The snakebit former No. 1 pick could take his time recovering from his latest knee injury, and when healthy he can play under the most pressure-less of individual circumstances.
Amick: 'Tis the free-agency season for the elder statesmen, and 34-year-old Mavericks sixth man Jason Terry and 38-year-old Nash would be phenomenal options to add to the mix and have said they would consider it. Despite their age, they're both playing at a high level and might be willing to come for the mini mid-level exception.
Thomsen: They need to resolve the future of their coaching staff, whether that means re-signing Scott Brooks or coming up with someone they view as an upgrade. (Good luck there.) Maynor's return will help, whenever he is ready. The main job for them is to grow from this Finals experience, which showed Durant and his young teammates how much they need to improve physically and defensively. It's not that they need to play at a higher gear so much as they must play with more torque. Miami learned that lesson last year in the Finals and applied it within 12 months. Can the Thunder adjust and improve as quickly? The problem is that Miami will likely be waiting for them in the Finals again next year.
Lowe: Not much. The Thunder are capped out with 12 players already on the 2012-13 roster and a first-round draft pick to come -- unless Presti deals it. Presti has to think about extensions for both Harden and Ibaka, which will limit how aggressively the Thunder can pursue free agents with a multiyear, mid-level exception deal. They don't need much -- a true backup small forward (Grant Hill? Josh Howard?) and a big man capable of providing a little creative offense (Boris Diaw?) and/or shooting range. Those aren't easy to find in the Thunder's price range, but you know Presti and company will work at it.
Jenkins: The Thunder have proved in the past four years that they improve from every experience, and none was more valuable than a trip to the Finals. They will be better because of it. Like the Heat, there's not a lot they can do. Durant and Westbrook are locked in and they need to concern themselves with long-term deals for Harden and Ibaka. Keeping those four will be a challenge enough. One player easily forgotten is Maynor, one of the best backup point guards in the league. His return will give the Thunder even more depth.
Mannix: They could probably use a strong, low-post type off the bench (Carl Landry would be a nice fit), but that's unlikely to happen; the Thunder aren't spending money on anyone not named Harden or Ibaka. They will try to find a gem in the draft, hope 2010 lottery pick Cole Aldrich is ready to contribute and lean on the development of their Big Three.
Amick: Work on their offensive philosophy. Fourth-year coach Brooks has always been reluctant to rein in his young bucks, and a system with a lot of freelancing has mostly worked wonders for their confidence and potency. But the time has come to install more structure, and Brooks will need his players to evolve alongside him for this to happen. Beyond that, simply remembering what it felt like to come so close but come up short will be good for them, too.
Thomsen: Who would replace him? That's the real question. I can't think of anyone on the market certain to be a ready-made improvement over Brooks, given his relationship with and understanding of this young roster. The team has improved every year without fail under Brooks. Durant, Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka could not have advanced any faster. They didn't lose this Finals because of coaching; they lost to an older, more experienced and tougher team. The experiences of this season and the way it ended are going to help Brooks become a better coach, and it's obvious that he was already very good.
Lowe: News flash: Coaching in the NBA is hard, especially when you don't have a real backup small forward or a single big man who can consistently create any offense. Brooks takes justified criticism for some of his choices, particularly his strange loyalty to a starting lineup that doesn't work all that well and his occasional hiccups in choosing which players (one big, one small) to pair with his three stars in smaller units. But those choices aren't always easy. Kendrick Perkins, Ibaka and Nick Collison do not provide a steady combination of offense, defense and shooting range; Collison probably comes closest, and Ibaka, despite the highlight blocks, can still struggle in the pick-and-roll, against pump fakes and on the glass. There's a reason he plays fewer than 30 minutes per game, and it's not because Brooks and his staff are idiots. The Fisher/Thabo Sefolosha choice isn't easy, either. Brooks leaned too much on Fisher, but when you see how blatantly defenses ignore Sefolosha, you can almost understand it. Brooks didn't push all the right buttons, and he pushed some flagrantly wrong ones. But he has done well with this roster, and his midstream adjustments against San Antonio in the Western Conference finals turned that series. All of this said, he has not proved that he is indispensable, and if you can get Stan Van Gundy (or, gulp, Phil Jackson), you have to think about it.
Jenkins: I think so. It's hard to remember how futile the Thunder used to be, when their nucleus was essentially the same. Brooks cultivated this group from the ground up. He has proved to be an excellent developer of talent and the rare coach who can carry out Presti's vision. Presti would not jeopardize all that just because of a disappointing Finals. He is a deep believer in process and will come to see this loss as no more than a painful part of the process.
Mannix: Absolutely. Brooks made a few mistakes in the Finals, such as sticking with Perkins -- who reportedly was playing with a partially torn groin -- for far too long against Miami's small lineup. But Brooks is beloved by his players and is two years removed from being named Coach of the Year. Brooks, like the Thunder, is still maturing. But he's an ideal fit for this team and, perhaps more important, for the front office, which is able to dictate the direction to Brooks. Other, more strong-willed coaches might not go for that.
Amick: When I wrote this piece on Durant in late April, I left out a gem from my conversation with his mother, Wanda Pratt. Just before we hung up, the woman who spent all of Durant's childhood challenging his coaches to push him had one more thing to say. "When you see coach Brooks, would you tell him that I love him?" she said. "I just love him." No, I'm not saying Brooks is the coach because Durant's mother approves of him. But anyone who has spent any time around the Thunder knows that Durant loves him, too. Their partnership is important to the Thunder culture, and a breakup would be really risky. Brooks showed major growth in the series against San Antonio before having setbacks in the Finals, but he's a major part of this impressive program.
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