TrueHoop: 2012 playoffs

Time to move David Lee

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
1:06
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
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David Lee
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesDavid Lee is a winner, a great teammate ... and a conundrum for the Warriors.

You’re living in one of the few times in human history when Warriors optimism is surging.

It’s to the point that many Golden State fans expressed social media displeasure over an NBA Forecast of a “mere” 50 wins. This is a radical shift from when, about one year ago, owner Joe Lacob’s words were drowned out by a tsunami of Oracle Arena boos.

Having just outperformed postseason expectations, the Warriors have some perceived momentum.

Buried in the buzz is how Golden State’s playoff run made its lone All-Star look rather expendable. Today, the David Lee question is an awkward one in Oakland. A flurry of trades has passed, and the power forward remains on the roster. If the Warriors caught lightning in a bottle this spring, the unresolved Lee question could be how that electricity leaches away.

Now, if you’re a nerdy Lee fan, this is the part of the article when you might counter with: “Sample size!”

That’s a fair point: The Warriors were awesome without Lee for a very small number of minutes. But it’s difficult to dismiss just how much better the Warriors were within that postseason run.

“Signature significance,” as Bill James coined it, dictates that a singular event can be so dramatic as to have some analytical meaning. For example, when James Harden scored an efficient 82 points over his first two Houston Rockets games, you’d have good reason to believe he’d fare well in Houston.

After Lee injured his hip in Game 1 against Denver, the Warriors beat the Las Vegas spread in eight consecutive games. The staggering streak only ended when Stephen Curry badly injured his ankle.

What’s a bit confusing about the Lee question is that Golden State certainly was better with Lee on the floor in the regular season. This can be attributed to Lee’s skill, but also to how the Warriors played without Lee. Carl Landry, Lee’s primary sub, can be roughly described as a slightly worse version of Lee. When Landry came in, he’d run pick-and-pop plays with either Jarrett Jack or Curry, just like Lee did.

When Landry wasn’t spelling Lee, a replacement-level center was. Sitting Lee under those terms was no recipe for success.

The playoffs, though, were different. Because when Lee was out with injury, Golden State tried something new and, for an NBA team, radical. Coach Mark Jackson elected to slide rookie Harrison Barnes from small forward to power forward, something Jackson never tried during the season. The Warriors spread the floor with four 3-point shooters for the first time all year.

The results were astounding, and on a subjective note, aesthetically thrilling. The Warriors had been the NBA's most accurate 3-point shooting team that season, but only on 19.8 attempts per game. In Round 1 against the Nuggets, the small-ball Warriors hoisted 24.3 3-pointers per game while maintaining a sterling 40.4 percent accuracy. Like a Roman army unleashing flaming arrows, the Warriors flung volley after volley of long shots at their target.

Suddenly, thanks to that offense, the Warriors looked like a team that should have won far more than 47 games.

Denver was helpless.

Teams have enough trouble tracking Curry and Klay Thompson above the arc without two additional perimeter threats yanking the defense in uncomfortable contortions. The Nuggets were stretched too thin, often ceding ridiculously wide open shots to Barnes. Andrew Bogut’s brutal above-the-break screens also helped set the stage for Curry’s unique off-the-dribble shooting ability.

Around the time Curry got hurt, the Warriors reverted to more traditional roles for Barnes and Landry. Though the Dubs played well defensively, San Antonio shut down their attack, winning the series in six games.

Now, the Warriors must figure out if life without Lee was aberrational or a glimpse into a better future, where four 3-point shooters carry a team to ever-greater heights.

It would be one thing if Golden State could merely play its All-Star fewer minutes, but he will earn nearly $14 million in the 2013-14 season -- and since when do All-Stars get spot minutes?

This could easily go the way of the Knicks with Amare Stoudemire or the Grizzlies in the time of Rudy Gay. Paying a guy forces a team to play a guy, lest they lose face or trade value. Some of these kinds of players could actually help their teams, if only they weren't in the game so much. Hypothetically, 15 minutes of Stoudemire could be a boon to the Knicks, whereas 37 minutes is probably a disaster. Lee at 37 minutes wouldn't be a disaster for the Warriors, but all that inclusion would phase out the Warriors most effective lineups.

Rumor has it that Lee is spending this offseason practicing his 3-point stroke. Though a fine ball handler, passer and midrange shooter, he’ll need to bring something additional to cancel out defense like this, which shows up in some analysis as among the worst among all NBA big men.

I haven’t dwelled on Lee’s defense because it almost goes without saying that he’s bad at it. The entire Golden State pick-and-roll scheme is now based around the inability of their bigs to move well. Bogut shares this problem with Lee, but unlike Lee, the Aussie center protects the rim. Klay Thompson, as a shooting guard, claimed twice as many blocks as Lee did last season.

All that was excusable when it at least looked like Lee made the Warriors better offensively. The playoffs turned the necessity of Lee’s offense into an open question. If a big guy can’t defend, might be holding your offense back, and makes a ton of money, should he be in your team’s future plans?

That’s where the Warriors are with Lee, whether they or their fans would like to admit it. While it’s possible that Lee’s presence helps an injury-prone roster scratch out wins, it's almost certain that Lee -- a skilled player, to be sure -- would be more useful to a team that didn't have to put aside its best offense to play him.

Lee gives the Warriors a distinct ceiling: Neither the defense nor the offense is at its best when he's on the floor.

To aim higher than “playoffs” as a goal, the Warriors likely need to push the 3-point attack as much as possible on offense and do whatever it takes to get a little better on defense. If Lee can join that party, maybe he can be a key part of a special team. But counting on players to change seldom pans out. And if Lee doesn't change, the Warriors must find a way to trade their All-Star -- because talented and hardworking though he is, he's making far too much money not to make the team better.

The Miami Heat's age-old problem

June, 21, 2013
6/21/13
8:46
PM ET
By Mark Haubner
TrueHoop Network
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Miami Heat celebrateJesse D. Garrabrant/Getty ImagesDespite winning a second straight title, the Heat's window could close sooner rather than later.
As one of the handful of teams to win repeat championships, these Miami Heat have cemented their place in NBA history. They’ve easily been the NBA’s dominant team since their Big Three formed before the 2010-11 season, with three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, two straight titles, and more regular-season wins and far more playoff wins than any other team.

After surviving three elimination games in this year's postseason and coming from behind in five playoff series over two years, Miami’s championship heart and resolve are beyond dispute. But the Heat also showed far more vulnerability in these playoffs than was expected after a dominant regular season. Now, NBA history suggests this Heat group will be hard-pressed to keep its window open.

First, it’s hard for anyone to keep a run like this going, given how physically and mentally grueling it is to survive the NBA marathon for multiple seasons. The only teams to ever make the Finals for more than three consecutive seasons are three of the most legendary in NBA history: the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics (who made a miraculous 10 in a row from 1957 to '66), and the ’80s Los Angeles Lakers (1982-85) and Celtics (1984-87).

In their third straight season of playing well into June, the Heat often struggled to summon the maximum energy required to execute their blitzing defensive scheme. Now they're faced with scaling the mountain a fourth time.

That tidbit certainly isn’t a disqualifying factor in and of itself, but it becomes more troubling when coupled with another fact that became more apparent as the playoffs unfolded: These Heat have gotten old very quickly, with no clear way to reverse the trend.



"Effective age" measures a team’s average age by including minutes played with the average of the players on a roster (so 40-year-old Juwan Howard doesn’t artificially inflate Miami’s average, considering he wasn’t actually playing).

Using regular-season minutes, Miami’s effective age jumped all the way to 30.3 in 2012-13 (from 28.3 in 2011-12). That makes the Heat the sixth-oldest champion in NBA history (see chart).


(Note: These effective age numbers were calculated using Basketball-Reference, which lists a player’s age on Feb. 1 of a given season.)

The ’98 Bulls and ’69 Celtics -- the ends of the Jordan and Russell eras, respectively -- were famously on their last legs, while the ’11 Mavs were a one-hit wonder who enjoyed a charmed run and the ’07 Spurs needed a full overhaul of role players to return to true contention.

This year’s Spurs, by contrast, were the younger team in the Finals, with an effective age of 28.6 for the season (a fairly average number for a champion in the modern era). Despite the elevated age of its big three, San Antonio has made sure to fill out its rotation with sub-30-year-olds such as Kawhi Leonard (21), Danny Green (25), Tiago Splitter (28) and Gary Neal (28).

The Heat, though, have done very little to replenish their supporting cast with youth, opting for 30-something role players outside of Mario Chalmers (27) and Norris Cole (24). While there are various player options and the potential for retirements and the use of its amnesty provision, Miami is likely committed to Ray Allen (37), Shane Battier (34) and Rashard Lewis (33) through 2014, and Mike Miller (33), Udonis Haslem (33) and Joel Anthony (30) through 2015. Another player who seems vital to re-sign, Chris Andersen, is 34.

Of course, Miami’s most critical age-related variable is 31-year-old Dwyane Wade (for the record, LeBron James is 28 and Chris Bosh is 29). In what has become a rite of spring, Wade fought knee problems throughout the playoffs. Even if Wade can recover his health, his style of play -- dependent on athleticism, with subpar perimeter shooting -- figures to decline sooner rather than later.

On the Spurs, 35-year-old Manu Ginobili increasingly looks like a member of the big three in name only, but they have acquired and developed players such as Leonard, who has and can continue to pick up the slack of declining stars. The Heat simply have nowhere to go to replace a significant decline in Wade’s production, no cushion if his decline occurs more rapidly than expected.

Beyond James, the only other potentially desirable Heat asset is Bosh, and even that is questionable given that he, like Wade, is due more than $20 million in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

As a result, Miami appears headed inexorably past the 31 barrier in effective age in 2013-14, a mark beyond which only the "Last Dance" Jordan Bulls have won a championship, in 1998.

In particular, one has to wonder how much longer the Heat can hold off the Indiana Pacers in the East. Beyond playing Miami so tough in the conference finals, the Pacers had an effective age of just 25.7 in 2012-13, one of the youngest in the NBA -- younger even than the Oklahoma City Thunder (26.0). A young effective age number is no guarantee of future success, for sure, but Indiana’s roster is in good shape overall.

The Pacers certainly have lots of room for growth, especially considering that their main need is to improve their woeful bench, which should be easier to build than the top of the roster. Meanwhile, it’s unclear how the Heat improve going forward, possibly limited to dice rolls such as signing a Greg Oden, a player who hasn't played this decade.

Savor that championship feeling while you've got it, Miami.

Mark Haubner is the co-founder of the TrueHoop Network blog The Painted Area and can be found on Twitter at @mhaubs.

TrueHoop TV: Under the radar

May, 21, 2013
5/21/13
8:00
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive

Thomas Beller's $2,000 NBA Popsicle thrill

August, 15, 2012
8/15/12
10:18
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Thomas Beller is a lover of hoops and a damn fine writer, with an increasingly expensive NBA-watching habit.

On the New Yorker's website, Beller tells the story of moving out of a sublet house in New Orleans, only to have the landlord reach out weeks later to say he needed two thousand dollars to atone for massive Popsicle stain on the nine-foot Restoration Hardware white linen couch.

The bill was an amount that, Beller writes, "made a mockery of nearly every financial consideration of the summer: How much summer camp we could afford? Would we be able to rent a place in the country for a week, or a weekend? What about Whole Foods?"

And the bitter truth is that, much as things would have been simpler to blame on Beller's two young children, they had nothing to do with it.

In a manner, the expensive red stain had more to do, Beller admits by phone, with James Harden and the Thunder, who Beller was watching in the Western Conference Finals when it all went down:
If you have little children and find yourself subletting a place that has a long, white, linen-covered couch you should throw sheets on it. This is obvious. And yet we did not take these precautions. Why not?

I lamented this oversight for about one second before moving on to the real issue, which was much darker—it was my fault. I have a weakness, indulged only occasionally, for sugar-free Popsicles. I like them in combination with N.B.A. basketball. I had watched the playoffs during that month in his house, and, once, (once!) had bought a box of these Popsicles. I must have let one slide down between the cushions. Then, at some impossible-to-determine point, an hour or a week later, while we were innocently going about our lives, a silent bomb exploded and incinerated two thousand dollars.

Our life in the sublet place had been mostly happy. The house was located on a prim, pretty street in New Orleans right next to Audubon Park. Sometimes, in the morning, I would stroll out into the heat shirtless, my baby boy on my hip wearing a diaper and nothing more. In the park, with its birds, water, and sweating joggers, we fit right in. I rejoiced in the feel of his skin on mine, and in the smiles his baby fat elicited. But now, hearing of the Popsicle, this indiscreet shirtlessness felt like a rationalization for being a slob.

Part of the horror of the two-thousand-dollar Popsicle was, naturally, the money. But another part was the fact that in my marriage, my wife is the neat, fastidious one worried about germs, and I am the easy-going one who doesn’t mind a little dirt. She finds this tiring. And now this happens.

Keep your eyes off the ball

July, 24, 2012
7/24/12
4:02
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
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Dwight Howard
Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images
It's not a thing of beauty, but that doesn't mean Dwight Howard is ineffective.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss has written something amazing on HoopSpeak. On the one hand, it's insight into the Dwight Howard vs. Andrew Bynum debate, with several tactful turns of phrase.

It's also far more than that, pointing to something really important about how we watch basketball -- namely, watching the ball as it pings around the court can mislead you in predictable ways.

Ethan writes:
I often hear that Howard has “no offensive game” or “no post moves.” This is the kind of hyperbole that misleads not just because it is hyperbole, but because its spirit is wrong. Howard is a good offensive player; he’s not merely subsisting on alley oops and tip-ins.

Dwight’s footwork is fine, he can often freeze a guy with a rocker step and jaunt towards the rim. Back to the basket, Dwight likes to shade one way, and fluidly spin in the other direction, leaving his defender to watch the whirl. If you’re looking at Dwight’s feet, you won’t find his Achilles’ heel.

Flaws can be found in his handle, his court vision, and yes, his (free throw and otherwise) shooting. Fortunately for him, these flaws round out the least essential elements for a prototypical big man.

I don’t think the aforementioned flaws contribute much to the negative perception of Howard’s offense, with the exception of his shooting. But his problem is broader than an errant shot–it’s how bad it looks when the ball goes in. Dwight’s form is highly constrained, as though he’s trying to avoid an invisible barrier. Howard does not feel comfortable fully unfurling his lengthy arms, so he always appears to be pulling back from the ball, even as he pushes it.

This description is also applicable to Dwight’s hook shot, which can have the vertical trajectory of a floater. For whatever reason, Howard prefers to loft the ball rather than swing his arm towards the basket a la Kareem. This can give the visual impression that his made buckets are almost accidental, especially since Dwight pulls back from the ball at the last instant, like a batter checking a swing. It is hard for an observer to have confidence in such a method, even if the method is sound.

When Andrew Bynum takes a hook shot, his fully extended arm is grazing planets. The shot is blessed by a fluid, swinging, follow through. Bynum’s hand chases the ball towards its destination, making success seem quite intentional. When the twine flutters, Drew is still pointing in that direction. If you used CGI to make the ball invisible, Bynum would look like a wizard, casting a spell at the net. If you did the same with a Dwight shot, the swish might appear more coincidental than summoned.

Aside from free throws, there is nothing, nothing at all that Andrew Bynum does better than Dwight Howard. And yet, there is the sense that Bynum’s game is more refined.

Ethan opens his post with talk of beauty. Howard, he says, doesn't have the beauty to his game that Bynum does, and people love to see things that are pretty, and tend to overvalue them.

I'd add one more wrinkle: When most of us watch basketball, we watch the ball. That's normal -- that's where the action is -- especially if you're watching for entertainment, as opposed to scouting your next opponent.

But any scout will tell you us ball-watchers are poorly equipped to judge who is really playing well. I asked David Thorpe this morning for some examples of things you miss when just watching the ball and he asked "how many do you want?" Within seconds he was rattling off: What did the perimeter players do to get open? How are the bigs handling their crucial away-from-the-play duties? All the work that goes into offensive rebounding before the shot is even released.

I stopped him there, but he could have gone on.

The normal outcome of watching the ball, however, is to put a ton of stock in things people do with the ball, while crowding out the other things that go into wins.

The point of scouting staffs and advanced statistics is to note those other things. And if you're not paying attention to what advanced stats and scouting staffs have to say, and if you are judging the game based on what the guy with the ball does, then it is almost avoidable that you will overvalue scoring. (You can even see this in teams. The Knicks, for instance, have long paid a premium for scoring, while generally undervaluing other skills. It's a good bet James Dolan is a ball-watcher.)

Scoring's the main thing people do with the ball. People who do a lot of it will always have vehement fans in the stands. But are they actually helping their team with that scoring?

Depends how much it cost in lost opportunities. As a rookie, Derrick Rose scored a ton, but didn't help his team much 'cause he missed quite a bit, played so-so defense and didn't get to the line very often. To the naked eye, and by looking for great scoring moments, Rose played similarly last season. But to scouts and advanced stats, his game had progressed immensely -- now he is clearly helping his team, thanks to stuff that you might not notice just watching the ball.

Monta Ellis has long been polarizing for the same reasons: One of the best in the business at racking up dazzling memories for ball-watchers, and one of the worst in the business at helping his team score efficiently.

Andre Iguodala is the opposite: He is an all-star in terms of all the things he does all over the court. With the ball, he's so-so. Is it any wonder Philly fans have a hard time believing he's good?

This, to me, is what Howard has going on: He's a defense-first player who does unspectacular but efficient things on offense. He is among the best in the world at things that happen when he doesn't have the ball. But with the ball, he looks awkward. And so long as that's true, those who only watch the action where the ball is -- the majority of fans -- will always doubt.

Shane Battier: prototype

July, 19, 2012
7/19/12
4:17
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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Shane Battier
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
Battier is defining a new position in the NBA.

The Finals were all about how LeBron James transformed into an unstoppable offensive force from the post, the way most people tell it. But to hear Erik Spoelstra tell it on TrueHoop TV, the real reason the Heat became champions was that they had Shane Battier.
The difference from this year to last year was Shane Battier. That’s why we went after him so hard in the offseason. People looked at that as a little unconventional. They thought we had so many wing players, why would we go after another one? But he was the key to really unlock all our versatility and to put our best players out there and really be positionless and make other teams have to adjust to us.

“Positionless basketball” is an idea first articulated by then Bucks coach Don Nelson, who used Marques Johnson as a “point forward” out of necessity (Tiny Archibald got hurt) in the 1984 playoffs. Later, Nelson would play 6-7 shooter Chris Mullin as a power forward and Rod Higgins, also 6-7 at center.

Nelson’s vision was more or less to have five players who could do everything on the court, playing as interchangeable parts. The idea was that such extreme versatility would make defending or scoring against that team more difficult than a conventional lineup with conventional (and therefore obvious) strengths and weaknesses.

It’s a nice idea, but one that’s far harder to achieve in practice than it is in conceptualize.

In the Heat, the NBA has a working model for this type of play, which Chris Bosh succinctly describes to Couper Moorhead on Heat.com as “putting traditional guys in the next position over.” This allowed the Heat to play with more speed on the court than even the Oklahoma City Thunder, who, though extremely athletic at multiple positions, often played with at least one plodder on the court.

But, as Spoelstra points out, the Heat already had three super-versatile players in Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and LeBron James on the roster when they lost in the Finals.

That wasn't enough.

Enter Battier, who may not be as unique a player as James, but he is nearly as “positionless.” Battier has a mix of skills and size that, while not unheard of, matter as more teams seek to follow the Heat’s model.

He’s 6-8, strong and uses his length well, so he’s big enough to provide resistance inside. He’s nowhere near as quick laterally as he once was, but he can still fight through screens and acquit himself decently on the perimeter.

On offense Battier is a 3-point shooter; he fired more long balls than any other player in the 2012 playoffs.

A power forward who can shoot from distance has long been termed a “stretch four,” but that calls to mind more the Ryan Anderson type: A very big man who can play traditional power forward defense and space the floor on offense. Basically, a power forward on defense and a guard/forward on offense.

What Battier brings is different, because he’s also a “stretch four” on the defensive end.

It’s sort of like how for decades, all golfers played with basically the same set of clubs: 11 irons, three woods and a putter, just like basketball teams played with two guards, two forwards and a center. Then, all the sudden, players started to realize that this new, hybrid club (aptly dubbed “a hybrid”), which struck the ball like a wood but offered the control of an iron, could be really useful.

It caught on slowly at first, in fact recreational duffers picked up on the trend before the pros. But now the majority of big time players carry this club, which can be used to hit out of fairway bunkers or to run the ball onto the green from only yards away, in his bag. The club allows players to swing like hell from the tee, because they know they'll have a better chance of getting out of trouble if they don't drive the ball perfectly.

By allowing for the Heat's other position-less players to reach their full potential, Battier achieves a similar goal.

The Heat are perhaps the first NBA team to fully realize the potential of a player like Battier who, while hardly an outstanding talent, can do so many things.

And unlike superlative talents like James and Wade, Battier is a prototype that can be relatively cheaply had by other NBA teams. In the next few years, keep an eye out for front offices and coaches who add this hybrid club to their team’s bag.

Heat reload with aging ammunition

July, 11, 2012
7/11/12
1:21
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen
Getty Images
The Heat add shooters, but at the expense of youth, athleticism.

“Add old shooters with big-time reputations” is a fair summary of the Miami Heat’s offseason agenda thus far. Their two free-agent acquisitions, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, are 36 and 32 years old, respectively, and have spent a combined 30 seasons playing NBA basketball. Each has made some monster 3-point shots in the playoffs, an important résumé item for anyone planning to join Miami, especially now that LeBron James has established residence on the block.

But both players are also inarguably on the decline. In 2007, Allen and Lewis boasted PERs of more than 20. However Lewis’ PER hasn’t been above 15 (league average) in three seasons and Allen’s dipped below 15 for the first time in his career last season. The Heat's role players didn't exactly shine during the regular season, so these two are likely an upgrade, especially in the short term. But keep in mind that in 2011-12, Allen lost his starting spot to second-year guard Avery Bradley and battled bone spurs while Rashard Lewis has played in less than 60 percent of his team’s games over the past two years.

Sure they can still shoot, but can they play, especially in Miami’s frenetic defense, one that emphasizes speed and versatility?

Consider the case of James Jones, who played about eight minutes per game during the Heat’s playoff run and couldn’t even get in the game a few times. Jones is a lights-out shooter, a champion of All-Star weekend’s Three-Point Shootout. The dude can be trusted to make it rain when he’s open.

However Jones also fits poorly into the Heat’s defensive plan. He’s smart and aware, but really struggles on closeouts or to handle anyone with much strength inside or speed on the perimeter.

A player who worked out in a big way, Shane Battier, doesn’t shoot or even drive the ball much better than Jones and is hardly "quick," but he can guard a bunch of different positions and that allows the Heat to capitalize on their team speed. Even Mike Miller, who looked like he needed to be playing with a Life Alert (“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”) alarm on his wristband, could shuttle defensively between three positions, though not always with much effect.

Long story short: If you looked at the Heat bench during the playoffs, you’d see a bunch of players who can play only one position. Even though the Heat are wise to replace Miller's crumbling body and game, they are attempting to do so with players who, while more productive, have less malleable identities.

For all the experience and dead-eye shooting Allen and Lewis will bring to the Heat, defensive versatility is decidedly absent from their repertoires. That’s not to say they won’t be useful. Defending the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade pick-and-roll gets a whole lot more complicated when Ray Allen is coming off a double screen on the other side of the court. Rashard Lewis gives coach Erik Spoelstra a second power forward, along with Shane Battier, who can pull a help defender all the way to the 3-point line, freeing up the middle for the Big Three.

Still, I question whether this is how a dynasty is built -- on players with deteriorating skills and rapidly approaching expiration dates.

Here's a short list of way-too-old players acquired by the Heat just in the past two years: Jerry Stackhouse, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mike Bibby, Jamaal Magloire, Juwan Howard, Erick Dampier … you could even lump Eddie House in there.

The Heat skipped an opportunity to add valuable young talent -- Perry Jones, John Jenkins and Draymond Green come to mind -- in the draft, preferring to patch over holes rather than add to the team’s foundation. Now they have two more multiyear contracts with players whose defensive ability -- remember this has been Miami’s real strength on its back-to-back Finals visits -- is questionable already and will only become more so.

It should be mentioned that, if these two can stay healthy throughout the season and Lewis finds his stroke again, I have no idea how any team is going to guard the Heat. As our Tom Haberstroh mentioned on Twitter, “When Miami's Big 3 played with 2 non-PG shooters, they scored 127.4 points per 100 poss. All other Big 3 lineups? 109.8.”

That’s serious firepower, but only if the gunpowder stays dry.

Thinking one year at a time is generally bad strategy in the NBA; that’s how teams get stuck with bad contracts and fading players. Certainly right now, with each member of the Big Three still putting up big playoff numbers (combined 72.0 playoff PER), the strategy makes some sense. But Dwyane Wade, who underwent another knee operation this offseason, is on the tail end of his prime and we’ve already seen the benefits of developing young talent in what a crucial player Mario Chalmers has become.

Miami’s offseason moves suggest the franchise is living for its brilliant present. They’ll sort out the future, which always gets here before anyone expects, when it arrives. That’s the luxury of having James and Bosh, two superstars in the early stages of their prime years.

Who can stop LeBron James?

July, 10, 2012
7/10/12
2:43
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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Joakim Noah, LeBron James
Marc Serota/Getty Images
Joakim Noah and the Bulls are still a tough test for LeBron James.

In each round of his rampage through the playoffs, LeBron James seemed able to morph into the player best suited to demolish his opponent. Against Indiana, that meant dropping in sweet floaters and attacking pick-and-rolls. Against Boston, he shot his team back into the series in Game 6 with midrange jumpers and drove past slowfooted defenders. Against Oklahoma City, James’ jumper abandoned him, but he still brutalized the Thunder's wing defenders from the mid-post.

His dominant run suggests that the next few NBA titles will go through Miami. Meaning if any team wants to win a ring, it better have a plan for defending James.

So what does it take to slow down James?

Scouring video of the last few teams to defeat him in the playoffs delivers some clues.

The teams are Dallas ('11), Boston ('10, '08), Orlando ('09), San Antonio ('07). Or, written another way: Tyson Chandler, Kevin Garnett, Dwight Howard and Tim Duncan.

1. Quality big

The first step in slowing James is to have a (really) big man on the roster who can not only protect the rim but move laterally well enough to shut off driving angles. But there’s more. That big man must also be able to read the offense and attack James proactively. Needless to say, there aren’t a ton of athletic 7-footers with high basketball IQs.

2. The scheme

All the athleticism in the world won’t do much to contain James unless it’s employed in an aggressive, well-executed concept. The Mavericks and Celtics would double James as he caught the ball, and then retreat back to close up passing angles. The effect was that James held the ball too much and, still lacking the back-down game he used to bull his way to the paint against the Thunder, he struggled to create for himself and others as a result.

3. Quick and long

Gone are the days when a team could put DeShawn Stevenson on James and live to tell the tale. James is so overwhelming inside that the Celtics ended up putting Brandon Bass on him during Game 7 in an effort to push him away from the rim. Big players with quickness can do OK with James because they can offer him a cushion (a deep jump shot still being the best result when defending James) and contend with his strength on drives.

James is a lot of things, but one thing he isn’t is shifty. Unlike say, Chris Paul or Kobe Bryant, who will combine two or three moves to elude his defender, James prefers to make one move, get his shoulder past the defender then force his way to the rim. As James’ game continues to become more post up-oriented, it’s becoming increasingly important to match his strength, not just his quickness off the dribble.

With this criterion in mind, let’s take a look at the five teams with the best chance of slowing down James and the Heat.

1. Chicago Bulls: The Bulls remain the biggest threat to the Heat’s Eastern Conference hegemony because Tom Thibodeau is the league’s premier defensive coach and because Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah compose what might be the quickest duo of true rim protectors in the NBA.

Both are adept at managing James when they are forced to switch on pick-and-rolls, and Gibson in particular offers an interesting option to guard James one-on-one, since he’s demonstrated the lateral quickness to stay in front of James in the past and has the requisite size and strength to tussle with him down low. Gibson is also relentless, long and incredibly bouncy -- he’s my pick for “NBA player best-equipped to defend LeBron James.”

Add in Luol Deng and Jimmy Butler, two feisty wing defenders with length and quickness and you can see that Chicago not only has the perfect coach and philosophy to take on James, but a roster that is as prepared as any team’s to handle him.

2. Wherever Dwight Howard plays: There was a sequence late in a Heat-Magic game from last season in which James had the ball by the rim, went up to finish and was blocked by Dwight Howard. James recovered the ball, upfaked, and went back at the basket, where Howard again left to deflect the ball above the rim. There just aren’t many players who can do that sort of thing, and in four games against Howard last season, James shot just 40 percent from the field.

Howard’s former coach, Stan Van Gundy, knew how to leverage all of Howard’s strength and athleticism to defend the paint, but Howard is also a savvy pick-and-roll defender and will immediately give just about any team a top-rate defense. Wherever Howard ends up, that team will have the player who gives James more trouble in the paint than anyone in the league.

3. Indiana Pacers: The only team in the league that boasts a 7-2 center and two athletic wings to check James. In the playoffs, the Pacers actually outscored the Heat when Roy Hibbert was on the court. Danny Granger and Paul George were overmatched, but both have kind of body and required tenacity to bother James. George in particular, with his great size, shows special promise. One can imagine the 22-year-old becoming the type of player that can handle James inside and out as he continues to get stronger and smarter. Indiana's main problem is that Hibbert rarely plays much more than 30 minutes in a game, and James feasts on the Pacers backups. When they face the Heat, Indiana has to hope rookie Miles Plumlee can be a useful backup in the minutes Hibbert sits.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder: Yes, I watched the Finals, but the Thunder’s roster actually suggests they can do more than most teams to stifle James. It starts with playing Kendrick Perkins less. Perkins has real value against the likes of Duncan and Andrew Bynum, but he’s far too slow to be an effective help defender, a fact the Heat repeatedly exploited by involving him in pick-and-rolls, especially early in the shot clock when the Thunder center is still out of position after getting back. In the Finals, James shot 54 percent when Perkins was on the court compared to just 41 percent in comparable minutes when Perkins sat. Serge Ibaka and especially Nick Collison offer positive alternatives to Perkins, and Kevin Durant should be expected to improve his individual defense enough to bother James with his excellent length and quickness. It’s also worth mentioning that though James put a hurting on Thabo Sefolosha at times, nobody is perfect, and the Swiss defensive specialist is still a good option.

5. Boston Celtics: If the Eastern Conference Finals made one thing clear, it’s that Paul Pierce can no longer offer much resistance to James one-on-one and be expected to produce on the other end. But help is on its way in the form of Jeff Green, who can soak up some minutes. And Kevin Garnett remains the gold standard for defensive big men. If the Celtics are successful in their efforts to upgrade their frontcourt through the draft, they can still offer as much resistance as anyone.

Friday Bullets

June, 22, 2012
6/22/12
2:27
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
  • J.A. Adande on how things will change for the Heat, having won a title: "At the end of this journey for Miami from the brink of the depths to the pinnacle is ... liberty. That's according to Heat president Pat Riley, who entered South Beach restaurant Prime 112 to applause from the remaining diners in the 3 a.m. hour, then paused to share the thoughts he had as he watched the team he created consummate a championship. "It frees us up," Riley said. Freedom. He could be speaking for the entire NBA world, of course, which no longer needs to be consumed with speculation about whether LeBron James can translate his immense talent into a championship. Now the conversation can shift. It's no longer about his shortcomings, it's about his degree of greatness."
  • Tom Haberstroh on how LeBron James' Game 5 performance signified the broader changes in his -- and the Heat's -- play: "On Tuesday, James pounded the paint with precision and purpose. With 18 points in the paint in Game 5, James finished up a series that saw him average 17.6 points from that area. Last Finals? That number was 8.7 points, or half as much. When the Thunder realized they couldn’t guard James in the post one-on-one, they sent a cavalry to swarm him. And he mowed them down, one by one. On the night, James fed eight 3-pointers to five different players, each shooter catching the ball across the letters in rhythm. Who does that? The slicing passes from the post to the perimeter, that’s what separates James from any post player in the game. The 34 points that he produced on assists was the most of his postseason career and the second-most we’ve seen in the past 15 Finals series."
  • John Hollinger on James' historic season (Insider): "James' new legacy is one of the most amazing top-to-bottom seasons in NBA annals. Amazingly, virtually nobody discussed this while it was happening; that's how all-consuming the will-he-choke-or-won't-he meme became. In the modern history of the league, the only seasons that can really compare are Shaquille O'Neal's first championship season with the Lakers and Michael Jordan's first three championships with the Bulls. Everything else is orders of magnitude below. Check it out: James led the league in PER by a wide margin at 30.80, the 10th-best mark of the post-merger era. In the playoffs, he kept it up with a 30.39, which was doubly amazing because the competition in the postseason is so much tougher. It goes without saying that he led the league in both regular-season and playoff PER, and did so by wide margins. He also had the best adjusted plus-minus in the postseason, and nearly the best in the regular season. He wasn't just the best player in the league; he dominated it from start to finish, in a way only three players had done in the past four decades. Jordan. Shaq. LeBron. That's the list."
  • Daily Thunder's Royce Young on the heartbreak in Oklahoma: "Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden stood together on the sideline, watching as the inevitable ticked down. Their season was ending in disappointment, the dream was dead. Harden had both arms draped around Durant and Westbrook, as the three stood true to form, cheering on the seldom used bench guys. I saw it happen up in my perch in American Airlines Arena, and thought it was a really cool moment. Nothing I could do but crack a small smile and appreciate what those guys did, and represented, this season. For them to be standing and cheering despite the incredible wave of disappointment that was surely washing over them, was unbelievable. But not surprising. The TV monitor in front of me was on the game and had like an eight-second delay, and on the screen flashed those three, standing almost in defiance of the moment they were watching. Together. Family. One. And I won’t lie, I almost lost it. I’m almost losing it sitting here writing about it. Fine, I am losing it. I have no idea why. It’s just a damn sports team. It’s nothing more than a bunch of boys wearing blue jerseys with “Oklahoma City” wiped across the chest that happen to get paid millions to ball in my city. But we all know it means something more."
  • Some mighty sad photos of the Thunder.
  • The prospect of Durant vs. LeBron II, III, and maybe IV is pretty exciting.
  • What did fellow NBA players have to tweet about Heat winning the title?
  • Magic Johnson, to our Marc Stein, after the final buzzer: "Michael got better after his first championship, and so I think the same thing happens for LeBron. ... It's going to be LeBron-mania like we've never seen before."
  • Ethan Sherwood Strauss on HoopSpeak: "We’ve all been chasing the promise of LeBron for nearly as long as he has."
  • LeBron James' biggest critics respond to his team's victory.
  • Mark Haubner of The Painted Area compares James' Game 5 to another all-time classic closeout performance -- Larry Bird in 1986: "In the closeout Game 5 on Thursday night, it was a warm cycle-of-basketball life moment for this old hoophead, as LeBron's commanding 26-11-13 (including assists on 8 threes) echoed one of the greatest individual performances I've ever seen, the signature game in Larry Bird's career, when he hung a 29-11-12 on the Houston Rockets to clinch the 1986 title in Game 6 of the Finals."
  • The lovable Chris Bosh.
  • A look back at NBA history shows the falseness of premise that it was ever going to be easy for the Heat.
  • A strikingly straightforward explanation of why the Heat won.
  • An email from TrueHoop reader Noah Galuten: "On TrueHoop TV, J.A. Adande talked about how the Heat "out-futured" the Thunder by totally committing to this perimeter-oriented team, with Battier at power forward and Bosh at center. I think that D'Antoni was the pioneer of 'future ball,' who maybe just invented it slightly before its time. D'Antoni was totally right that small-ball lineups can win championships. He was just wrong about how important defense is. But really, I think it's just a lot easier if your MVP is 6'8," 250 pounds, instead of 6'3", 178." Beckley says: This is a great point, but I think the real message here is that versatility has never been more important in the NBA. If you can give up a couple inches of height and in return get a great shooter (as the Heat did with Battier at power forward, and in some respects Bosh at center) who can passably cover a few different positions, you've got to take advantage of it.
  • A whole lot of people watched Game 5, writes Maury Brown for Forbes: "This year’s Finals averaged an 11.8 overnight rating, the highest five-game ratings average since 2004 and second-highest ever on ABC, according to Nielsen. It is up five percent from an 11.2 rating through five games last year (Dallas Mavericks vs. Miami Heat). NBA Finals Game 5 delivered a 12.6 overnight rating, matching last year’s Game 5 number. In Miami, the game delivered a record 40.3 rating, which is the highest for an NBA game ever in the market. In Oklahoma City, the game delivered a 39.8."

Game 5 Micro-Movie

June, 22, 2012
6/22/12
1:50
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
David Thorpe and former NBA player Grant Long join Henry Abbott on the NBA Today podcast to wrap up the NBA Finals, including:
  • How the Thunder lost their cool
  • The ideal team to beat the Heat
  • How LeBron showed his leadership in Round 2 against the Pacers
  • Why the Thunder and Heat will be even better next year
  • Grant Long on raising kids as an NBA journeyman
  • What makes the Thunder such a strong organization

In their own words: 2012 NBA Finalists

June, 22, 2012
6/22/12
10:46
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
LeBron James
David Dow/NBAE/Getty Images
What did everyone have to say when all was said and done?

LEBRON JAMES: It took me to go all the way to the top and then hit rock bottom basically to realize what I needed to do as a professional athlete and as a person.

DWYANE WADE: You know, two years ago, putting this team together, obviously we all expected it to be a little easier than it was. But we had to go through what we had to go through last year. We needed to. And as much as it hurt, we had to go through that pain and that suffering. To get to this point of this season and the rest of our careers together, we'll take nothing for granted.

CHRIS BOSH: I think it did that to all of us, where we couldn't even see the light of day because it hurt so much.

JAMES: The best thing that happened to me last year was us losing The Finals, you know, and me playing the way I played, it was the best thing to ever happen to me in my career because basically I got back to the basics. It humbled me.

WADE: We had a group, a team meeting, and for the first time I heard LeBron James open up, and he kind of let us in on what it's like to be LeBron James. None of us really know. I said as one of his close friends, I said,"Wow, I don't deal with that." And I deal with a lot.

BOSH: Nobody in the world can understand what he's went through this past two years, since the moment that we came here.

JAMES: I dreamed about this opportunity and this moment for a long time, including last night, including today. You know, my dream has become a reality now, and it's the best feeling I ever had.

ERIK SPOELSTRA: We have a brotherhood now that you don't necessarily have unless you've been through the fire together, and two years of it made us all more closer, and it makes this moment that much more gratifying.

WADE: Last season I felt that it was too much questions in our mind, in our head, and guys looking at each other and not wanting to step on each other's toes. This year I know I'm playing with the best player in the world, and that doesn't take anything away from me at all.

BOSH: I know a bunch of people made fun of me and said I was soft, but you can't be soft playing this game, especially at that five, you know what I'm saying? We wanted it so bad, I just wanted it so bad, I didn't care what anybody said, I didn't care what anybody thought. All I thought about was pushing forward to get that trophy.

SPOELSTRA: We all knew that this team was built a little bit differently, and we needed to absolutely embrace what some would see as unconventional. We would need an inside presence to be able to play inside out. LeBron knew that, as well.

We were all on the same page about it. He dedicated the summer to develop that game, and that allowed us to play like the power teams that you see with a big center, but to do it with a versatile power forward, small forward, and to be able to play inside out.

And so people saw us as small, but we played a power game, attack the paint, inside out, play out of the post, things of that nature.

SCOTT BROOKS: Obviously it's too early to understand and internalize all the things that we will learn through this series. But just the one thing, that they play extremely physical basketball. They are a very athletic team and they use it every possession, and that's something that we will talk about. You have it, you'd better use it.

KEVIN DURANT: Their defense is really good. Those guys are really good over there. I didn't want to admit it during the series, but now that it's over, those guys are really good. Last team standing, so you've got to tip your hat.

BROOKS: I've never used age as an excuse. But we've got some incredible experience these last three years of being in the Playoffs, and it kind of -- it has helped us get to this point and to compete at his level.

JAMES HARDEN: I think now we know that every possession in The Finals matters, it counts. There were several possessions that we just gave away. I think that third quarter, we brought the lead out to five quick, and then they hit two threes in a row.

Every possession matters in The Finals. We just gave too many away.

KENDRICK PERKINS: Each individual has to think about it when you’re lifting weights, as you run suicides, just think about this feeling, think about this moment and how close we came. We just fell short. At the end of the day, nobody really gets praised for second place.

RUSSELL WESTBROOK We hugged each other and told each other to embrace this feeling and remember this feeling. We kind of looked around and just -- we've got to get better. We've got to be the guys that come back and push everybody next season and just got to get better, man, before we can find a way to get back here.

WADE: This is one of the best Finals, when you talk about matchups, when you talk about everyone tuning in and wanting to see, because these are two teams that in the summer everyone said they should be in The Finals.

We lived up to the billing.

First Cup: Friday

June, 22, 2012
6/22/12
5:21
AM ET
  • Howard Beck of The New York Times: As the confetti fluttered and American Airlines Arena boomed, James cradled the Larry O’Brien trophy in his arms, his mouth agape, his eyes bright, his vindication complete. The greatest N.B.A. player without a ring will soon have one. “It’s about damn time,” James said during the presentation. “It’s about damn time.” At that moment, James was no longer the antihero of “The Decision,” or the faltering star who crumbled in the 2011 finals, or the solo act who could not deliver a title to Cleveland, his home state team. He was, at long last, a champion, proving himself worthy of the label by averaging 28.6 points, 10.2 rebounds and 7.4 assists in the Heat’s five-game triumph. James was named the series most valuable player by a unanimous vote, making him the 10th player to win M.V.P. of the regular season and the finals in the same year. “This right here is the happiest day of my life,” James said, adding, “This is a dream come true.”
  • Dan Le Batard of The Miami Herald: For the record, somebody finally located the Finals MVP trophy for James, and the misplaced ring of the owner's son. But the treasure chest was overflowing in Miami as a silenced America watched in awe and had to wonder what the champion architect's team might do now that it is free. Remember James' introduction here? The one that has been mocked for two poisonous years? He was asked about championships, plural. And, giddy off the night's high and a new beginning, he said, "Not one, not two, not three...." That stopped being a national joke Thursday night. Now it sounds like something between a warning and a threat.
  • Berry Tramel of The Oklahoman: Thank you, Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley and all those fans who look like they just stepped off a Miami Vice shoot. You all did the Thunder a big solid. You beat the snot out of Oklahoma City's basketball team. You routed the Thunder 121-106 Thursday night to win the NBA championship, and you made it hurt. “It hurts,” said Kevin Durant. “It hurts, man. It hurts to go out like this.” Just exactly what the Thunder needed. No close calls. No near misses. No closing game like those first four, all of which came down to three or four key plays. This was blowout city. This was no-doubt-about-it basketball. The better team won. And the Thunder was given a priceless lesson: It still has a ways to go. The only thing better than that knowledge to take away from the NBA Finals would have been the O'Brien Trophy. Without it, the Thunder needed to know that wondrous talent and solid character and believing in each other still weren't enough. The Thunder needed to know that on this level, it has to play smart and tough on every possession. Needed to know that it can't relax against a team like the Heat. Can't resort to old habits or momentary lapses. And no better way to impart that knowledge than getting taken to the woodshed by third quarter's end in the season's final game.
  • Andre C. Fernandez of The Miami Herald: Few Heat players felt the pain of last year’s NBA Finals defeat like Chris Bosh. A year after he collapsed on the way to the Heat locker room with tears in his eyes, Bosh did everything he could to make sure the story would end differently. Bosh finished with 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting, collected seven rebounds and delivered two big blocks to help the Heat put away the Thunder by the end of the third quarter en route to its second NBA title. This time, Bosh thoroughly enjoyed the team’s on-court celebration as he realized the championship goal he set out for when he left the Toronto Raptors to join LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami. “We suffered through a lot together, but we love this city and we came here to win a championship,” Bosh said. “We came here to win a championship and we got it done.” It was also a sweet finish for Bosh, who overcame an abdominal strain that forced him to miss nine playoff games.
  • Ethan J. Skolnick of the Palm Beach Post: There are hundreds of photos in the Heat’s Championship Alley and tunnel to the floor, photos of joy and relief, photos of sweat and tears, photos from six long years ago. Now the franchise will make room for others. One above all. LeBron James hugging the Larry O’Brien Trophy, breaking into the widest grin you’ve ever seen. One player above all this 2011-12 season. The doubts. The anger. The criticism. The competition. LeBron James, labeled “The Chosen One” while still a teenager, is an NBA champion at the age of 27 in his ninth NBA season — the MVP of these Finals, to add to the MVP for this regular season.
  • Tom Reed of The Plain Dealer: LeBron James unburdened himself on Thursday night and, in a strange way, so did Cleveland fans who have spent the past two years rooting for the former Cavaliers star to fail. Lugging around that excess schadenfreude is not a good look, and frankly it's bad for the spine. It was released into the ether after the Heat defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder to capture the NBA title, culminating a remarkable playoff run for James, who atoned for previous post-season flameouts while embracing moments that once overwhelmed him. Scorned fans don't need to be happy for James or forgive the fact he went on national television to announce his breakup with a city that adored him. They also don't have to waste energy cheering against the inevitability of a LeBron title or debating whether he can be considered one of the greats without a ring. ... James has his title and a grudging respect from skeptics who thought he'd only win one as a second option to Wade. The Heat are champions. Let them have their parade down South Beach. We've got more pressing concerns. Who is going to catch passes from strong-armed rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden?
  • Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Plain Dealer: It took about five minutes for Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert to acknowledge the Miami Heat's NBA championship on Twitter Thursday night. But he still refused to mention LeBron James by name. Sometime after the final buzzer sounded but before the championship trophy was presented to the Heat and the Finals MVP went to James, Gilbert tweeted, "Great NBA season. Enjoyed playoffs. Congratulations to Miami & OKC for an exciting Finals. Back to work on next weeks promising Cavs draft.''
  • Al Iannazzone of Newsday: Kevin Durant already is in elite company, having won three straight NBA scoring titles, but Thursday night he joined the great players who didn't win a championship in their first trip to the NBA Finals. Some of the names include Jerry West , Julius Erving , Isiah Thomas , Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James , who finally won his first with Miami's 121-106 victory over the Thunder in Game 5 of the Finals. It made them hungrier and more determined to get back and win, and now Durant knows how they felt. "It hurts," he said. "We made it to the Finals, which was cool for us, but we didn't just want to make it there. Unfortunately we lost, so it's tough. It's tough, man. That's the only way I can explain it.
  • Mike Lupica of the New York Daily News: Maybe the Knicks can take consolation in this fact: That they played the same five-game series against the Heat in the first round of the playoffs that the Thunder played against them in the Finals. But it doesn’t change the reality of the Knicks’ situation, that they are in the same conference as No. 6 of the Heat, the best player in their sport, one of the best of all time in basketball. It does not change that Chris Bosh, who was a star in Toronto before he got to Miami, is perfectly content to be a role player and side man to James and Wade. ... This doesn’t mean the Heat will win for years, because the Thunder is young, because Durant and Westbrook also aren’t going anywhere. But if you are a New Yorker and you are a Knicks fan, if you have wondered when the Knicks will win their first championship in 40 years, you look at what you are up against with the Miami Heat, and wonder which player — or two players, or three — comes here and gets you past them.
  • Mike Bianchi of the Orlando Sentinel: And make no mistake about it, Hennigan is about to get a crash course on tough decisions. You want pressure, how would you like to be a first-time GM and hear this from your new boss: … "You're hired! Now go trade Dwight Howard, the greatest player in franchise history. And make sure you get something really good in return that will keep a skeptical fan base buying tickets." All indications point to Howard wanting out of Orlando although Martins and Hennigan didn't come right out and say it Thursday. Martins reiterated his past stance that the Magic would prefer to keep Howard long term, but added that "ultimately the decision is up to Dwight." Curiously, Hennigan said he has been made aware of where Dwight's current relationship is with the organization but said he prefers to keep that information "behind closed doors." As he left the news conference, a few writers surrounded the new GM and reminded Hennigan of the monumental tasks at hand — dealing with the Dwight drama, hiring a new coach, preparing for the draft and rebuilding a mediocre roster. Rob Hennigan may be young now, but just you wait. He'll age quickly in the weeks and months to come.
  • Michael Lee of The Washington Post: It’s easy to say that the Wizards should continue to simply build through the draft and possibly follow the Oklahoma City model, but there is a reason the Thunder cannot be duplicated: Rarely can a team draft a once-in-a-generation scorer, a freakishly-athletic point guard and a skilled scorer and playmaker in consecutive drafts. The Wizards certainly have not been blessed to be in that position and they can’t continue to waste the last years of Wall’s rookie deal by collecting more high lottery picks. Wall has yet to establish himself as an elite point guard who warrants the need for panic, but the team has to at least make an effort to convince him that it plans to compete and possibly win. This trade likely ensures that the Wizards will not be taking a top five pick next season, but it doesn’t immediately make them a playoff contender. Okafor has made the playoffs only once – when he played with Chris Paul. Both Okafor and Ariza were deemed expendable by a Hornets team that had one more win than the Wizards.
  • Rick Bonnell of the The Charlotte Observer: This was not your typical first day on the job. New Charlotte Bobcats coach Mike Dunlap jumped into a pre-draft workout Thursday, speeding the pace to the extent former North Carolina star Harrison Barnes called it a “track meet.’’ After the draft candidates left, several current Bobcats worked out. Within minutes of introducing himself, Dunlap jumped in the action, setting screens on big men, fine-tuning driving angles and reminding players to raise their chins to better focus on the rim when shooting. This guy has a lot to fix, with the Bobcats coming off a 7-59 season. Apparently wading into the pool is not his idea of a good swim. “We’ve got to roll our sleeves up and get going now,’’ Dunlap said as he departed the practice court. “We can’t figure this thing is going to come to us. We’ve got to go to it.’’
  • Brad Rock of the Deseret News: Anyone who follows the NBA knows that post-game press conferences these days look a lot like a Drew Carey family reunion. Glasses are everywhere. High fashion eye wear: It's not just for chemistry majors anymore. Of all the goofy sports fashions that occur, few are stranger than this: Horn-rimmed glasses in the interview room. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Glen Davis, Amar'e Stoudemire, Kevin Garnett and Russell Westbrook have each shown up in glasses during the postseason, often without prescription lenses — or any lenses at all. Little do they know it doesn't actually make them look smarter, it only makes them look like Buddy Holly. My only question is whether they buy them at a pricey eye-wear boutiques or All-A-Dollar. Either way, I imagine Kurt Rambis is really ticked. Glasses didn't get cool until he stopped wearing them.

TrueHoop TV: Heat champions

June, 22, 2012
6/22/12
3:32
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive

Durant, Thunder still right on time

June, 22, 2012
6/22/12
2:07
AM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Kevin Durant
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
Kevin Durant and the Thunder don't need to change much of anything to be champions.

MIAMI -- Kevin Durant was not just happy to make it to his first NBA Finals. He wanted to win, as he made abundantly clear after it was all over. He had done the things champions do. He had not just worked incredibly hard in the lockout, but rallied his teammates to do the same. He had embraced the NBA's smallest market. He had resolutely not caved to media pressure to criticize his teammate Russell Westbrook for shooting too much. He had stared down the barrel of an 0-2 hole against the formidable San Antonio Spurs. He had put up huge playoff numbers -- 28.3 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.2 blocks, 1.7 steals, 52 percent field goal shooting, 37 percent 3-point shooting, 86 percent from the line -- befitting the best scorer in basketball.

And it did not end, as he had intended, with a ring.

Durant says he was surprised how emotional Game 5's 121-106 loss to the Miami Heat made him. He said he could even see real strain in the faces of his parents. And he says he will take that experience and change … just about nothing.

And that's exactly how it should be.


"Whether we would have won or lost," Durant said, "I was going to come back this summer, everybody was going to come back this summer, and work extremely hard, win or lose."

Music to the ears of anyone who wants to see the Oklahoma City Thunder win -- because when you have things working like they are working in Oklahoma City, it's not about how mighty an improvement you can make to open the championship window. The window is wide open. Now it's about how long it can stay that way, how many consecutive days you can keep doing the right thing.

Just keeping it together, for these Thunder, will be enough, and Durant isn't making the slightest hints about flipping the script.

"I wouldn't want to play with anybody else," he says. "I wouldn't want to play for any other city. I'm just blessed to be part of this organization, and hopefully we can get back."

A scene that says a lot about the Thunder franchise: In the hotel gym the other day, a player was being coached -- loudly, boisterously, and with much loving attention -- through a workout. He didn't have one member of the Thunder training staff working with him, he had three. After all, it's the middle of the NBA Finals.

But here's the thing: The player was backup point guard Eric Maynor, who isn't set to play again until late summer after missing all but nine games of the season with a torn ACL. Even a player who didn't matter at all to the Finals was a huge priority in the Finals.

Maynor, who played 22 games with the Utah Jazz before joining the Thunder midway through his rookie season, says he can't imagine why anyone would ever want to play for another team, this being one that really cares about him as a person more than getting a win.

Who'd want to change that?


"Aggressively boring."

That's the phrase that has been rolling around in my head as the Finals coaches, Miami's Erik Spoelstra and Oklahoma City's Scott Brooks, meet the media day after day.

Russell Westbrook has been about as electric as a player can be in these Finals -- a walking storyline. Watch him fly around the court with an invisible jetpack, embarrassing all who would defend him. Watch him make critical errors, embarrassing himself. They say LeBron is "Hollywood as hell," but this guy is all plot.

And yet, to any question about Westbrook, Brooks rolls into a canned ham of a story about how he loves Russell, how Russell never misses a practice and about how the team would never be where it is without him.

Brooks and Spoelstra are as quotable as monks, and it goes beyond not wanting to provide bulletin board material to the other team.

By and large, what both coaches have to say is what Durant is already living: Do the right thing, even when it seems like the wrong thing. Eventually you'll probably get good results.

Ask Coach Brooks about just about anything to do with on-court play, and you're likely to get an answer along these lines:
"We talk about process, but process is work. It's doing your work every day. It is not just a word, it's an action that we do every day. Nothing is going to change. We're going to come to work today and work on things that we think that is going to help us win tomorrow night, but that process is always about work, and our guys believe in that, and that's not going to change."

Spoelstra is no different, and now he has a title to show for it. You going to tweak the lineup, Coach? "Well," he explained, "if you start changing the routine and now start making it about the result other than focusing on the process …"

Then … what, Coach? Then this quote would get way more interesting?

Alas. Both teams are a country mile from divulging the real nitty-gritty secrets of the locker room. There's a lot we will never know about solving the title riddle.

Unless, of course, they've been telling all that matters all along. Could it be as simple as not quitting?


"I'm more detached from the result than I have ever been in my career."

That's Shane Battier talking about letting the ball fly from downtown in the NBA Finals. He had a miserable season shooting, for him. But suddenly, Battier scored a cumulative 45 points from downtown in the Finals, relishing every open look without a whiff of concern. He had the same attitude about defending Durant or almost anything else. He'd play the right way, taking the open shot and forcing the tough one. If it went in or not -- not his problem. He played the smartest way he could, working as hard as he knew to work. If that ended in a loss … well, life's like that sometimes. But it's no reason to go changing everything.

It's exactly not how most of us think about sports. But maybe it is, in fact, exactly the lesson we should all take from the best teams in the NBA and into our daily lives. Do things the right way, even when that gets you bad results.
"It doesn’t have to be basketball. It can be a musical instrument or it can be learning mathematics or going to law school or figuring out how to turn the water off in your house because you’re an idiot.

If you can’t figure that out you just keep looking, keep trying, keep going."

-- Gregg Popovich, explaining his "pounding the rock" Jacob Riis quote, as quoted by 48 Minutes of Hell


LeBron James is a totally different player this year.

Last year's loss, and his entire career's lack of rings, needed a reason. The reason, it was decided, was that he lacked something. Some killer instinct, poise, leadership or something else. So, now that he's a champion, ergo, he must have gained something. He must be different.

He reads books. He posts up. He got engaged. Pick your favorite. Maybe if you read books, post up or get engaged your career will advance, too.

Or, maybe that's not the entirety of what matters, maybe the changes aren't the only thing that won the Heat the title. Undertold in this story is that James has been a similarly excellent player and teammate his entire playing life. Yes, there has been progress -- like Durant, one of James' constant qualities has been offseason improvement. Yes, he's older and wiser, just as time will season Durant. But don't overlook the reality that a huge part of Miami's 2012 title is owed to the reality that James has been steadily excellent year after year, but, as for many great players, it took close to a decade's worth of opportunities to thread that needle. Maybe it's less about the value of change, and more about the value of keeping after it.

Do all that long enough, and holy cow, look what can happen.

Maybe one year soon Durant will get his first title, and the stories will tumble forth about how he has matured, and now he has the sacred knowledge. Now he knows the secret.

Or maybe the secret is: There is no secret. Maybe you work really hard, add skills, build relationships with your teammates, stay in great shape, concentrate, take high percentage shots and just keep right on trucking, knowing that with the right people and effort in place, the results will take there of themselves.

"It's the toughest time we've ever been through," Durant says. "We want to do the same thing we would do if we won the game. We hug each other, tell each other how much we love playing alongside each other, and then for what they've done all season, every guy down the line, coaches, everybody that worked with us every single day."

That ought to work.

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