Heat-Thunder: NBA Finals preview?
1. KD or LeBron: Whom would you start your team with today?
Tom Haberstroh, ESPN.com: LeBron. I would give Durant the nod here if it weren't for James completely defying the age curve. For example? LeBron's field goal percentage has improved each of the past seven seasons. When he should be plateauing, LeBron continues to raise the bar at 28. As Nicolas Batum said, "We're just human. He's not."
Danny Nowell, Portland Roundball: LeBron. KD is the only other player it's fair to mention in the same breath as LeBron right now, but he's still not the one-man wrecking crew that James is. Their age differences make up that gap somewhat, but in this thought exercise, Durant is a one-man title window, and LeBron is a one-man title favorite.
Michael Wallace, ESPN.com: LeBron. Today. Yesterday. Tomorrow. It doesn't matter. LeBron James is the most complete player in the league and has been for quite some time now. Durant has improved an already dominant game this season. But these past few weeks have proved that LeBron can do whatever he wants to do on the court whenever he chooses to do it.
Brian Windhorst, ESPN.com: LeBron. He's a dominant two-way player who can play every position on the floor, act as a scorer or facilitator, defend the ball or the rim and is in his prime. Also -- and this is amazing -- he makes less money than Durant.
Royce Young, Daily Thunder: Durant. Yeah, LeBron's been unbelievably dominant this season, taking his game to a level where it seems like he's figured it all out. Like it's too easy almost. Well, Durant is still four years younger and with him reaching new heights this season as a 50-40-90 player and on pace for maybe the greatest scoring season in modern NBA history, it's scary to envision four years from now when Durant "figures it all out" too.
2. What's the Thunder's biggest roadblock to a Finals return?
Haberstroh: Gregg Popovich. Fool Pop once, shame on Pop. Fool Pop twice time to retire the sport.
Nowell: The Clippers. The way Los Angeles is able to move the ball around the interior means that the Thunder will be attacked where they're weakest by a team that can nearly match their top-end talent. For my money, a healthy, clicking Clippers team is the stiffest competition either Miami or OKC will face.
Wallace: With the exception of a healthy and hot Spurs team to potentially push them, I don't see anything standing between Durant and his return trip to the Finals. The Thunder are flat-out destroying teams these days and are playing with the same laser focus I saw in LeBron and the Heat the season after Miami lost to Dallas in the 2011 Finals.
Windhorst: Strength of the West. The Thunder's biggest weakness used to be inconsistency at the defensive end and issues sharing the ball. Those still crop up from time to time but they now have a top-five defense and Durant and Westbrook facilitate more together than in the past. But they are going to have to win three challenging series to make it back and the margin for error is so small.
Young: Clippers. If the Clippers are healthy, they possess a lot of the tools needed to dismantle the Thunder. They have a crunch-time magician in Chris Paul, athletic bigs to expose OKC's front line and an especially deep bench. In a seven-game series, they'd be a major challenge for the Thunder.
3. What's the Heat's biggest roadblock to a Finals return?
Haberstroh: Health. If they're healthy, I just can't see any team taking down LeBron James and those other two guys now that they know how to play with each other and within themselves. We've seen how suffocating their defense can be when they push that button. Without a true center every night, they might be wise to save the good stuff for the playoffs.
Nowell: Health. I'll say health because I can cop out and slide Derrick Rose's recovery under the umbrella, though it seems increasingly unlikely he'll be a real factor. If everyone in Miami's locker room stays healthy, they're the class of the East by a wide margin right now.
Wallace: A Pacers team that potentially adds a shooter. When David West channels his inner Karl Malone and Paul George morphs into Scottie Pippen, Indiana can stand the Heat. At least in the regular season. The Pacers must prove it in the playoffs. Other than that, the Bulls don't scare Miami with or without Derrick Rose. The Knicks are capable, but far too inconsistent.
Windhorst: Size. The Heat are flourishing with their commitment to playing small ball. They're so dynamic on offense that it makes up for mismatches at the big-man spots most of the time. The Bulls and Pacers have the size to leverage this weakness and the Knicks have potential matchup advantages at power forward and center. But you wouldn't make any a favorite over the Heat if Miami is healthy.
Young: Pacers. The Heat have been vulnerable against big, physical teams. They overcame exactly that en route to the Finals last season, but the Pacers are a year wiser now and have built an even stronger defensive identity.
4. Thunder or Heat: Who wins a seven-game series?
Haberstroh: Heat. As Erik Spoelstra said the other day, the Finals were way closer than a five-game series. Still, I'm not sure the Thunder's postseason chances improved when they dealt James Harden but the Heat's closing lineup with Ray Allen has been downright terrifying. I think the Heat still have the upper hand here.
Nowell: Heat. This is more about not wanting to bet against Miami than it is a lack of confidence in the Thunder. I wouldn't be shocked to see OKC break through in a long series, but I'm not predicting anybody to beat the Heat with LeBron on the roll he is.
Wallace: Heat. And just like last season, it wouldn't go seven. As great as Durant is, the Thunder won't beat the Heat at small ball. OKC's only shot is if Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins rough up Miami inside. You can't beat the Heat without efficient, attacking guard play; low-post dominance; and 3-point shooting. Getting two of those three won't be enough.
Windhorst: Heat. They have developed a game plan that has proved effective against the Thunder's strategy, which has not been to match their small lineups. Miami has won the past five meetings going back to the Finals. Also, the Heat have LeBron and right now it seems hard to bet against him.
Young: Heat. It's really a toss-up, I think, but since we have only recent history to live by, it's hard not to side with Miami. The Heat won four straight against the Thunder in the Finals and then reaffirmed it all by beating OKC on Christmas in mostly the same fashion. Until something gives for the Thunder, you've got to lean toward Miami.
5. Thunder or Heat: Who will win more titles over the next five years?
Haberstroh: Heat. Just too many beasts out West, especially if Chris Paul sticks with Blake Griffin. Also, don't count out James Harden's Rockets squad if they land a star big man soon.
Nowell: Thunder. My instinct was to say the Heat, but one assumes that the core of Thunder stars should not just be hanging on but thriving in two or three years, while age is looming for Miami even now. Here's where I include the caveat that it's always wisest to bet the field, but of the league's two best teams, I'd say Oklahoma City should be dominant longer.
Wallace: Thunder. Only because, moving forward, they have the more favorable contract situation. Durant, Ibaka and Westbrook are locked in long-term. Things could look a lot different with Miami's roster as soon as 2014. But if the top three players on both teams stay put for the next five seasons, I'd give Miami a slight edge -- even being a bit older.
Windhorst: Thunder. It's been painful and cost them an All-Star, but they've been able to lock in their core players while dodging the teeth of the new luxury-tax penalties and limitations. Not only are they older, but the Heat are facing some hard decisions and roster-building challenges over the next few years that will make it difficult to keep their three stars together.
Young: Thunder. Very difficult to predict obviously, but the Heat have extraneous factors working against them, like the new CBA, the fact they're going to have to recycle a lot of their role players soon and that it's still unknown how much longer Dwyane Wade can play at a high level. There's a real possibility the Heat might be broken apart in 2016. The Thunder are built to last a little better.