Point/Counterpoint: Who Can Beat The HEAT?
Last week Yannis Koutroupis, Eric Pincus and Jabari Davis debated over who they thought was the best in the Western Conference, where they see things wide open. In the Eastern Conference, however, there’s much less room for debate. The Miami HEAT are the two-time defending champions and the favorites to represent the conference in the Finals for the fourth straight year. So, rather than asking our analysts who they thought was the best in the East, we ask a more difficult question: Which team can finally put an end to the HEAT’s dominance?
Speaking from a strictly macro level, the NBA public is not universally blessed with awesome hindsight; memories are short.
So then, it should come as no surprise that the Indiana Pacers have been largely overlooked as a contender to not only win the NBA’s Eastern Conference, but the Finals, as well.
In short, the Pacers are a bit of a throwback. Not since the 2004 Detroit Pistons has this league seen a team that perfectly embodies what a basketball team should be. As a unit, the Pacers not only play with each other, they play for each other. Led by a superstar on the rise in Paul George, the Pacers are one of the few teams in the NBA that have appreciable size up front with Roy Hibbert and David West.
Last season, the spectacular dearth of reserve-unit scoring was all too apparent on some nights. Now, that weakness appears to have been fortified. C.J. Watson is an upgrade over the departed D.J. Augustin and newly acquired Luis Scola could probably still start for a number of team in the league. If nothing else, Chris Copeland provides the team with an effective scorer off the bench and that is even before considering whether or not the oft-injured Danny Granger can make a meaningful contribution this season.
Even if he cannot, though, Granger is in the final year of his contract and could potentially be included in a trade that nets the Pacers another piece to their puzzle.
With excellent defense, rugged rebounding and hustle, the Pacers are one of the few teams in the NBA that can win a game without scoring more than 85 points. Even more so, they are one of the few teams in the league that has enough talented size to dethrone the Miami HEAT out East and rumble with the bigger teams out West–the San Antonio Spurs, Memphis Grizzlies and Houston Rockets.
The most interesting thing to watch with this team will be the urgency with which they approach the regular season. Deep down inside, the Pacers collectively believe that if the aforementioned Game 7 were at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse, they may be NBA Champions. At the same time, the Pacers are now respected and are a team to beat. The days of sneaking up on others are over.
This is still a young team, and without Brian Shaw, coach Frank Vogel has lost his most trusted ally and his players have lost a voice they all had supreme respect for. Still, with their commitment to defense, rebounding, attacking the rim and sharing the basketball, it is no wonder that the Pacers are succeeding. What is more curious at this point, is why they are not getting more respect from the masses.
So, word from the wise: do not forget the Pacers when the discussion of contenders commences. And that’s not just Eastern Conference contenders, that’s challengers for all of Adam Silver’s marbles.
Do not forget that it took the mighty HEAT seven games to knock the Pacers out of the Eastern Conference Finals last season.
Do not forget that it was positively the suffocating pressure of that Game 7 that caused the Pacers to crumble like a well-baked breakfast pastry.
The Pacers certainly have not, and in the long run, they will be better for it.
That, in one word, is scary. And not just for the HEAT, but for the entire league.
- Moke Hamilton
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The Miami HEAT are undoubtedly at the head of the table when you’re talking about the best team in the Eastern Conference entering the season. Miami has reached the NBA Finals the past three campaigns, winning two titles in the process, and are once again strongly positioned to make another run.
The Chicago Bulls will benefit from the return of former league MVP Derrick Rose. The Indiana Pacers strengthened their bench unit and are expected to have former All-Star forward Danny Granger back at full strength. Lastly, the New York Knicks will benefit from a healthy Amar’e Stoudemire and are also hoping former No. 1 overall pick Andrea Bargnani thrives in a new role.
However, the biggest threat to the HEAT’s three peat hopes may reside in Brooklyn.
The Nets spent the entire offseason stockpiling veteran talent to make a run at the throne. Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov seemingly armed general manager Billy King with a blank check with the goal of building a championship contender – in 2014.
The first order of business for Brooklyn was hiring Jason Kidd as its next head coach. Kidd retired as a player at the end of last season and the Hall of Fame is a guarantee.
Brooklyn also acquired future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from Boston in July (officially). For good measure the deal also included former Sixth Man of the Year Jason Terry. It is important to note all three of those new additions boast a NBA title on their respective resumes.
But Brooklyn didn’t stop there.
The club managed to convince productive forwards Andrei Kirilenko and Andray Blatche to take less money than they were being offered in free agency to play in Brooklyn.
With all of the offseason maneuvering by Brooklyn it’s pretty easy to forget the team already had a plethora of All-Star caliber talent returning to the roster in Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson.
There are legitimate questions centering on the age of Garnett and Pierce and whether the duo can hold up for another season which could potentially stretch into June. There are also legitimate questions on the team’s penchant for injury as Lopez and Williams have both missed time in the past nursing various ailments. However, Brooklyn is just too deep as a unit and should be able to withstand most short term absences.
The team is also built to beat you in a variety of ways. Defensively, Garnett and Kirilenko will serve as anchors who can defend multiple positions. Offensively, the club features six players who boast career averages of more than 15 points per game (Garnett, Johnson, Lopez, Pierce, Terry and Williams).
How quickly the team gain chemistry, an underrated aspect at the pro level, will determine how far the Nets can ultimately go. But it’s hard to imagine that a team featuring a boatload of All-Star selections, Defensive Player of the Year, All-Defensive team members, Sixth Man award winner and a former league MVP won’t be in the mix when the Eastern Conference Finals begin.
- Lang Greene
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Through two games, the Chicago Bulls have not looked like a championship-caliber team. Not even close, actually, as they have scored only 88.5 points per contest while shooting an abysmal .415 from the field through two games. Derrick Rose, despite his last-second game-winner against the New York Knicks on Thursday night, has exhibited only a fraction of the efficiency we witnessed in the preseason. He’s shooting 28.9 percent from the field and averaging a paltry 15 points and 3.5 assists per game, neither of which puts him at the top of anybody’s All-Star ballot. Not yet, anyway.
An opening night shellacking at the hands of the defending champion Miami HEAT didn’t do much to buttress public opinion of the Bulls as a potential NBA champion, either, and none of this seems to make an ounce of sense in an argument for Chicago as the Eastern Conference’s best team.
This team as they are after two games, however, will look very different compared to the team that finishes the regular season with one of best records in the Eastern Conference. Rose is facing real NBA defenses for the first time in 18 months, and so will have to readjust to the speed and physicality of a game he hasn’t played since April of 2012. As we saw in the preseason, Rose still has all the frightening quickness and athleticism that was there before his ACL injury, and once he finds confidence in his shot and remembers how to take better care of the basketball, he’ll be every bit the MVP candidate some pegged him as before the start of the season.
And let us not ignore the bright spots early this season; Joakim Noah is averaging 13 rebounds a game while playing only 28 minutes per night through nagging injuries. Carlos Boozer is averaging 22.5 PPG while shooting a blazing 72 percent from the field. Jimmy Butler has already shown that he’ll be every bit as good as the team hoped he’d be, and as bad as the Bulls have shot the ball themselves, they’ve also held opponents to 43 percent shooting from the field. There is talent here, the defense is still very good, and Luol Deng and Derrick Rose both have much better days ahead of them this season.
Plus, no team in the league is better suited to dethrone Miami. With Noah and Rose, Chicago is very strong at two positions for which Miami has no true equal, and it would be hard to find two defenders more qualified to guard LeBron James and Dwyane Wade than Deng and Butler. Tom Thibodeau is one of the league’s best coaches and only accepts one style of play: breakneck speed and maximum effort. The best part about it is that all the players are selfless enough to buy into that philosophy and the clearly defined roles that are required of them in this system.
It has been a slow start, yes, but the Bulls are better than this. Once they get some grease on their wheels, it won’t be surprising to see them win two out of every three games that they play this year. By that math, the Bulls could win 55 games and go deep into the postseason. Sure, Miami looks strong, as do Indiana, Brooklyn, and New York, but this is the Bulls’ time to shine.
- Joel Brigham