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|If you can't stand the Heat, this isn't the NBA season for you.|
This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's March 4 Analytics issue. Subscribe today!
THE 2012-13 NBA SEASON is a tease. It is a restaurant advertising its food in slow motion to make it look more appealing. It is a friendly smile that is mistaken for romantic interest. It is Tony Romo passing for 350 yards this week, making you think it will translate into a big-time playoff performance next week.
This season has wonderful narratives: Kyrie Irving is terrific. The Knicks are simmering, close to a boil, a potential danger once the snow melts. The Thunder are right on schedule in their championship ascension, thus far defending their Western Conference title with cold efficiency. The Spurs, in their never-ending twilight, just win and win. And there is fun to be had in Houston, Oakland and Indianapolis and even, it seems in the not-too-distant future, Seattle again. The Lakers, car-wreck interesting, still have Kobe Bryant performing at a high level. The Celtics carry on with pride and purpose, even as the long season threatens to devour their old bones; they are a less-talented team without Rajon Rondo but maybe a better one.
But for all these compelling storylines, there is no compelling evidence that any team -- not the Knicks, Bulls, Spurs, Clippers or even the Thunder -- can beat the Heat four times in seven games.
The defending champions aren't scaring anyone. There is not much distance in the Eastern Conference standings between the Heat and the Knicks, Pacers and Bulls. They are not going to break records in the win column; they might just barely reach 60 -- the bellwether for great teams -- and are well behind the Spurs' pace for top winning percentage.
Yet as these contenders jockey for position in the second half, all they are really battling for is the honor of losing to Miami in the postseason. That's because in the NBA the best player usually wins, and right now LeBron James, unburdened and reaching supernova, is the game's best player, with the best supporting player in Dwyane Wade and with the best veteran cast. In dispatching the Clippers and Lakers shortly before the All-Star break, the Heat proved they possess that frightening championship quality of being able to win at less than full throttle. This version of the Heat has but one title and the same number of Finals appearances as the Rip Hamilton-Chauncey Billups Pistons, but all signs suggest that the NBA has reached a pivotal juncture with one likely outcome: A LeBron dynasty.
During Michael Jordan's heyday, no rival player or team -- not Barkley's Suns or Malone's Jazz or Riley's Knicks or Reggie's Pacers -- was able to match his combination of ability and fire. The result was a Bulls reign so dominant and so complete as to have been anticlimactic. The gap between James and his closest contemporaries -- Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Derrick Rose -- is not as large, but with his ruthless focus and drive to improve, he is rapidly increasing the distance.
Of course, nothing is truly inevitable in the NBA, and three X-factors could upend the Heat's quest to become the next superteam. Durant is a special talent, but jump shooters simply don't win NBA titles. But a Durant who plays an efficient, close-to-the-basket offense in crunch time can win it all. Meanwhile, if Rose returns to form from his torn ACL, the Bulls could ignite.
Then there's Anthony. He is maligned for being one-dimensional, for not having James' defensive desire. But there is nothing on the court he cannot do. He is playing in the big town, where he wants to be, with a strong supporting cast. The NBA is about high-stakes possessions, about the best player in the biggest moments. If at some point Anthony seizes the initiative and recognizes that an NBA crown can also belong to him -- if he finds motivation in the fact that everyone talks about the future of the league in terms of Durant and James but not him -- there is a place for him at the very top. He simply must take it.
If not, James will run through the East, more driven than ever, furious for history's approval. The real suspense in the NBA, then, isn't so much whether the Heat can rise as the NBA's next dynasty but whether Durant, Rose or Anthony is capable of writing a different ending.
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