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Thursday, July 8, 2010
Is Miami a title team? Thorpe's analysis

By Henry Abbott

I was just listening to the sports talk radio in New York, and they had Donnie Walsh on. They were saying how amazing it was that even now, nobody has any idea where LeBron James is going. Walsh said he had all his spies out there, checking on this or that, and nobody knew.

I find that shocking.

As I have e-mailed all kinds of people over the last few days, I could not believe more strongly that LeBron James is going to Miami. Chad Ford and I reported something pointing in that direction yesterday, and Chris Broussard made the point far clearer today. If it's a secret where he's going, it's hardly a very well-kept secret. (Broussard's story has more than 8,500 comments at the moment.)

In my mind, what's left to wonder about now is: How's that going to work? What does a LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh team look like? Are they going to eat all of the Heat's available cap space, or are they going to leave some crumbs to attract better-than-the-minimum teammates?

These are questions for David Thorpe. I asked him to engage his big basketball mind to help us picture what this might look like on the court. His thoughts:

If LeBron's only concern was winning a title in the next three years, where would you advise him to sign? Miami or Chicago?

I'd probably go with Miami.

Chicago has not done much of anything since Michael Jordan retired.

You know I love Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and a lot of their players. But that franchise just hasn't gotten it done. I also think it wasn't like Shaquille O'Neal was amazing when the Heat won in 2006. He's a brand more than a talent at this point.

Let me be clear: I'm not a Heat fan. I grew up a Laker fan,  and Orlando is far closer to where I live than Miami.

But when the Heat were good, and on their title run -- that was as fun an environment as I have seen in an NBA arena. Boston's amazing. I haven't been to a game in L.A. There are a lot of good arenas. But Miami ... wow was that fun.

And on the pre-game show in Miami they talk about it being the most professional organization in sports. There are a lot of teams that in all sports that could compete for that, but I don't disagree about the Heat. There are a lot of people there who work very hard and are extremely professional. They are always doing little things. For instance, their players are there working out in the offseason. The team tests everybody's body fat all the time. It's non-stop, the efforts to improve in every little thing. I'm sure that starts with the owners and Pat Riley, but you can see it, and that carries weight.

It's one reason they were able to win a title.

And consider that Wade wants to stay. They lost way more than LeBron did in Cleveland over the last few years. Why would Wade want to stay? There's a reason for that. LeBron James and Chris Bosh played against that. They know about it.

It's a great message for the league. A lot of what they're about is not settling, and being smarter and working harder.

With those three players, are they the favorites?

I think it has a chance to be a very special team, in the running for a championship. There are variables like injuries. You have to get lucky. You have to hit big shots in big playoff games. It's not like they're going to march through the playoffs 4-0, 4-0, 4-0. But when you have three players of this magnatude, especially Wade and James, special things can happen.

They need 3-point shooters off the bench, and in the starting lineup. They don't need a point guard, necessarily, because Wade and James are both such willing distributors. And look at the teams that have won titles in recent years. Many have not had trandscendant point guards. Jason Williams, Avery Johnson, Derek Fisher, Jordan Farmar ... they're not lottery picks.

They have two players who are so good with the ball, and so willing to make the right pass. You need 3-point shooting to execute the strategy, but this team is not going to be selfish.

And then you have got to find some centers. They don't need to score. They just need to rebound, play defense and race the floor.

Players like that can be found cheaply and developed. This team will have a real advantage in getting the most out of development, because nobody's going to relax. When your best players are your hardest workers, good things happen. Players in that environment play much better and develop faster.

You have long talked about seeing a special connection between Wade and James.

A year ago in Orlando, when the Cavaliers lost, I saw LeBron perform like a superhuman in a losing effort. I tried to read his face as best I could. That's my reaction as a coach. I always watch body language and faces even before and after the game.

I saw, in LeBron, a real sense of loss. Like he didn't have the guys he had with him on Team USA.

I think that was a real eye-opener for him.

Meanwhile, on Team USA Wade volunteered to come off the bench! What a huge signal. For a period there, before the injuries, many thought Wade was the best player in the world. And he was just all about winning. Players respected Wade as a competitor and a performer.

And in those Team USA games you would have thought he was the  young guy trying to make the team. He was saving balls going out of bounds and sprinting for race-out dunks. And he was a Finals MVP!

Meanwhile, James has always been the kind of guy to make the right play, like when he famously passed the ball to Donyell Marshall in the corner. He was so ridiculed for that, but it was the same play Michael Jordan made passing to Steve Kerr or John Paxson. If Marshall hits that shot James' play would have been judged similarly.

And I'll tell you this. In my gym we use James and Wade as role models in a drill we do. We talk about them as perimeter guys who get above the rim as help side shot-blockers, whether it's chasing somebody from behind, or helping on a post player who has lost track of them, and getting over there to lay a finger on or just influence a shot.

That's a great thing to master, and that's all from James and Wade. They are the two guys who play with that zeal.

This roster would seem to have nobody who can guard, say Rajon Rondo or Dwight Howard.

There are a lot more guys to add to your tough-to-defend list.

But it's a myth that defense is a story of one-on-one matchups. OK, Kendrick Perkins can slow Dwight Howard in some games, or for a quarter. But not every game. Defense is a five on five story, and you can challenge the ball with any one of those five players. You can double-team. You can zone up. That's all legal.

Not to mention, Wade, LeBron and Bosh may be the fastest at their positions in the NBA. Certainly the three fastest really skilled players.

You can create a tempo game. You can aggressively trap. You can make it a game about aggressiveness, and those three will all have a great feel for that.

Erik Spoelstra is a very bright guy. If he doesn't have the roster for it, he's not going to play a classic defensive scheme and get crushed. He will strategize with what he has.

But remember that guarding fast point guards is a problem for everyone. Derrick Rose can't guard fast points. Rondo is one of the best, but he can't stop Derrick Rose, who cooked him in the playoffs a couple of years ago. It's hard to guard those guys! You have to have structure in the defense behind the point guard.

But you don't like Chris Bosh as your starting center, do you?

Not unless you're using him like they used Amare Stoudemire in Phoenix, where you're basically going small and fast and making the other team's big man into a dinosaur who has to run to keep up.

This team, though, they might not have to go small. They can go unique. They can have James and Wade as the backcourt, with a couple of 6-8 athletic shooters, and Bosh, and then race the floor. That's not a tiny lineup.

There will be work to do. And they will be scouring Europe and the draft and everywhere else for some big men. It's hard to find a good big for the minimum. But the three of them will be recruiting. And I think it's foolish to think of it as they have to win a title this year. You give yourself a five-year window, you've got the three big names, you've got a strong ability to develop players, and you see what you can do.

But there are people out there. For instance, I was just at summer league. I don't love his game, but Brian Zoubek from Duke was there. I believe he can learn to defend the center position in the NBA, and that he can rebound in the NBA. He knows how to play, because he got all that coaching at Duke, and he's a big guy. He probably can't help your team in November. But by April or May he may be serviceable.

Jeremy Evans was drafted in the 50s by the Jazz. He's 6-9, but very long and very athletic. He really knows how to play. He's an NBA player. There are all kinds of players like that, and the Heat will have to do the work of finding them.

What about a point guard or two? Some names I'll throw out there: Keyon Dooling or Anthony Carter.

Two great names. No question veterans who understand the game, and can execute with five guys working together, will bring a ton to this team. Dooling I like a little better than Carter.

Derek Fisher?

No question the phone calls are going to be made.

Also, Mario Chalmers can probably play like Fisher. Shoot 3s. Defend like crazy. And if you take an extra dribble, we'll sit you down on the bench. He should be able to do that.

Would you keep Michael Beasley?

If I could I absolutely would. If he can't figure it out with these three guys, he's never going to figure it out. He's the one guy who could absolutely put this team over the top.

I'd get him very excited about coming off the bench, scoring in bunches, and competing for sixth man of the year. He's a fantastic bucket-getter, and if you can re-sign Udonis Haslem, that's a three-four combination off the bench that not a lot of teams can match. He's a great scorer when he's dialed in, and superstar teammates working so hard can change everything.

I like Kendrick Perkins, but I don't know if he's the same player without Kevin Garnett firing him up. Beasley, with those three ... that's a really big opportunity for him to show what he can become.

What about Erik Spoelstra as coach of this team?

Erik has known this league more or less his entire life. I can just imagine Wade telling James "He's one of us! He's our guy." He as a low-level assistant when Wade was a rookie, and he put in work. You want to shoot at 4 a.m.? He was there. They grew up together.

But watch that team: He's an alpha male. There's no doubt he's ready to take charge at any time. But he's also a little bit of a new-breed coach who is not afraid to ask "What do you think we should do?"

I don't think Phil Jackson ignores the wants and needs of his best players. He integrates their best ideas into the team's plan. If you have a good idea for the team, you call Coach Spoelstra. He might disagree for some reason, but if it makes sense, he'll probably try it. He doesn't have an ego like that. That matters.