A possible Finals preview between the Clippers and the Heat and Dwight Howard's first game against the Lakers since he left Hollywood highlight Thursday's NBA schedule. We answer the tough questions heading into the action.
1. Fact or Fiction: The Heat should aim to be the NBA's No. 1 seed.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Fiction. What do the past three three-peaters (1991-93 Bulls, 1996-98 Bulls, 2000-02 Lakers) have in common? They weren't the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs. Any team good enough to win a third consecutive championship should be good enough to win a crucial playoff game on the road. There's no sense in expending extra energy in the regular season.
Andrew Han, ClipperBlog: Fiction. If you're an experienced marathon runner, you know the last five miles are exponentially more difficult than the first 20. And the last 0.2 is that much harder than the preceding five. Miami has endured more miles than any team over the past three seasons with Dwyane Wade and LeBron James even more fatigued after including their Olympic runs. The Heat's main objective should be preserving their finishing kick.
Danny Nowell, TrueHoop Network: Fiction. The Heat don't stand much to gain by pushing the pedal to the metal this regular season. At the end of the tunnel are the Pacers or Bulls followed by the best of the West, and I doubt the Heat would trade a few home games for team health.
Michael Pina, Red94: Fact. Miami's margin for error in this year's postseason will be slim to nonexistent. The Bulls and Nets have started slow but have an entire regular season to find themselves and coalesce. Then there are the Pacers, who should be even more enormous and less offensively fragile this time around. The Heat need every advantage they can get in a playoff series, and that starts with playing potential Game 7s on their home floor.
Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Fiction. Sure, the Heat should do all they can to secure the best record possible, but that shouldn't come at the expense of the team's potential postseason health. An example of this is how Dwyane Wade still looks at the costly toll that 27-game win streak took on his knees last season.
2. Fact or Fiction: The Clippers' defense is a major concern.
Adande: Fact. Even a great offensive team can have an off shooting night, as the Clippers did while missing several open shots down the stretch in a loss to Orlando on Wednesday. Great defense isn't subject to off nights. Also, the only way for the Clippers to get on one of their lob runs is to generate turnovers.
Han: Fact, but this is not a new concern. The Clippers' defensive efficiency steadily declined last season (17th post-All-Star break), and as far as absorbing Doc Rivers' strongside defense, Rome was not built in a day. Still, even if the starting lineup becomes a quality defensive lineup, the bench has shown no proclivity for anything on that side of the court.
Nowell: Fact. If you can outscore the Rockets while giving up major points, so be it. If you're not capable of digging in to get a few stops against the Magic, there are some issues to examine.
Pina: Fiction. The Clippers aren't just integrating new players like J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, they also have a new head coach who is implementing a complex, battle-tested system. We're just a week into the season, and such things need time.
Wallace: Fiction. At least for now. Defense is judged by a different standard in the West because of the pace and style of play in that conference. Offenses are generally better, more prolific and more efficient out there. But the Clippers will eventually need to be a better situational defensive unit. They need to play better in the fourth quarter, especially when the game slows and points are at a premium. And there's little margin for error, considering the free throw issues with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
3. Fact or Fiction: The Lakers should tank for a higher 2014 draft pick.
Adande: Fiction. Anyone who answers "fact" should be forced to sit in a room with Kobe Bryant and explain the rationale. He didn't put in all that rehab work on the treadmill to play for a team that's trying to count pingpong balls. Even if they landed a high draft pick, would he be ready to contribute in time to help Kobe in one of his final years? That should be the focus for the duration of Kobe's "window," however long that is.
Han: Fact. The Lakers are bereft of assets. Their 2015 and 2017 picks are already spoken for, and if they don't land a top free agent this offseason, Los Angeles could be looking at the remnants of its 2010 title core as the team for the foreseeable future. The Celtics have already conceded to the tanking strategy for this season; it seems fitting that their rival join them.
Nowell: Fact. If the Lakers were a young team that could pursue its franchise plans by just playing its guys, that would be ideal. But they have a roster of proven damp firecrackers (and Pau Gasol), so they need to infuse the franchise with youth however they can.
Pina: Fact. Lopsided trades have re-energized this organization over the past few years and free agency appears to be the next quick-fix plan of attack, but what lies ahead is an abundance of frightening questions no Lakers fan wants to answer. The team needs young talent, and with a 2015 first-rounder owed to Phoenix, the loaded 2014 draft is its best chance at finding some.
Wallace: Fiction. When are folks going to learn that tanking doesn't pay? When was the last time a team with the worst record got the No. 1 pick? In fact, when was the last time a top-three pick led the team that drafted him to an NBA title within five seasons? Correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm thinking Tim Duncan some 14 years ago. The Lakers know better and have too much pride and respect to flat-out tank.
4. Fact or Fiction: The Rockets have been the West's best so far.
Adande: Fiction. Both the Rockets and Warriors can blame the Clippers for their only loss thus far -- but the Warriors didn't give up 137 points to them. I like the Warriors' consistency, and they seem a little further along than the still-under-formation Rockets.
Han: Fiction. The dubious honor of first week's best in the West would go to San Antonio, the eternally slow and steady franchise. Houston has played only one consensus playoff team (Clippers), and while their offense looks as potent as ever, questions are beginning to sprout about the Rockets' defense along with the Asik/Dwight tandem.
Nowell: Fact. It's way too early to make this determination, but the Rockets proved capable of responding to their Clippers embarrassment with an impressive showing in Portland. The Clippers showed that the issues exposed against the Rockets are real enough to matter against Orlando. The Thunder and Spurs, so far, have not impressed enough to warrant consideration.
Pina: Fiction. The 4-1 Rockets have been encouraging on both ends of the floor (not including Monday night's loss at the hands of Chris Paul's Clippers), but the Warriors (also 4-1) hold the league's best point differential, second-best defense and assist-to-turnover ratio, and third-highest team true shooting percentage.
Wallace: Fiction. I'm still leaning toward the Clippers, despite Wednesday night's loss to Orlando. I'm not even certain I would place the Rockets ahead of Golden State at this point. Now that Russell Westbrook is back for Oklahoma City, three or four teams can lay claim to best of the West.
5. Fact or Fiction: The 2014 NBA champs are playing on Thursday night.
Adande: Fiction. The 2014 champs played Wednesday night. That would be the Spurs. Their NBA Finals opponent was in action too. That would be the Pacers. It's way too early to get the validation stamp on my picks -- but it's encouraging that they're a combined 9-1.
Han: Fiction? Six teams are playing Thursday night, with only three thought of as preseason contenders: the Heat, Clippers and Rockets. Betting against the Heat doesn't seem like a great idea, but the sheer volume of contenders remaining (Thunder, Spurs, Grizzlies, Warriors, Pacers, Bulls and Nets) makes the field seem like the logical choice.
Nowell: Fact. I think the West's two best teams and the East's best are playing, so I like the odds. Chicago, Indiana, Oklahoma City or San Antonio might have something to say about it, but since we're in the business of predicting the Finals seven-ish games into the season, I'll step out on a sturdy limb.
Pina: Fiction. Betting against the Heat isn't wise, but it's too early to count out the Bulls, a team whose star point guard is still in the process of rediscovering his supernatural ability. Thanks to its daunting size, I'm convinced Chicago's Rose-Butler-Deng-Gibson-Noah unit will be the last five standing.
Wallace: Fact. Unless the Pacers ultimately have something to say about that by preventing Miami from a third straight title.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
J.A. Adande and Michael Wallace cover the NBA for ESPN.com. Andrew Han, Danny Nowell and Michael Pina contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
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