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NBA 2012 preview: Can anyone beat the Heat?

A roundtable discussion about LeBron's place all-time, the balance of power in the NBA and other pressing storylines as a new season begins.

Mike Ehrmann

Willie Funk, Andy Tobolowsky and Ian Boyd are all members in good standing of the SB Nation Dallas news team. Aaron McGuire (@docrostov) writes for the excellent NBA blog, Gothic Ginobili.

Is LeBron James the most talented player of all-time?

Funk: Yes. His size and array of skills are transcendent. Oscar Robertson, who I never saw play, was about the only person with his size/skills combination, but Bron is a mass of explosive athleticism as well. He can defend 1-5 and play in the front court, back court or the point. When someone stands out in terms of athleticism and feel for the game in the NBA, you're watching a once in a lifetime talent. But for the record, MJ is still the greatest of all time and always will be. But that's for another day.

McGuire: Not a huge fan of questions like this. I feel they're reductive, and you can't really measure "talent" in any reasonable way without recognizing the importance of relativity. Still, if I had to be honest, I don't think he is. Not all-time. That's Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. It's not particularly hard to see LeBron as falling off a bit as he ages and loses his legs. Kareem, on the other hand, spent over 20 years (in an era with FAR worse sports medicine than our current) as one of the 3 or 4 best basketball players on the planet, and won one of only two or three "one man" titles in the history of the sport. His longetivity primarily resulted from the fact that his natural talent was so laughably absurd that the league had no real response to him. There's a good reason nobody else has been able to successfully adopt the skyhook as a core component of their games -- Kareem is the only big man who's ever been naturally gifted and talented enough to actually use it.

Boyd: LeBron brings a unique set of skills to basketball in exactly the right era. The game is focused more and more on penetration via pick'n'rolls and three point shots and James is perfectly suited for that style. His size and athleticism make him extremely difficult to keep away from the rim while his vision and laser beam passes enable him to find shooters on the perimeter and punish overplay. Then, he translates that size and athleticism on the other end as a defender, often shutting down the most dangerous perimeter threat on the opposing team.

It's hard to compare across eras but James' ability to dominate offensively and defensively playing basically every position on the floor is unprecedented. The Heat have assembled a team around him that essentially ignores the traditional 1-5 positions on the court.

How many titles do you expect Miami to win?

Boyd: This draft and offseason they had a choice to either shore up their interior by signing Marcus Camby or drafting a big man, or continuing on their small ball path and gathering more shooters to spread the floor. They chose the latter, which leaves them vulnerable if they face a team that can punish them inside without being murdered by Miami's outside shooting. They are also relying on the health of multiple older players.

However, Game 5 of the NBA finals demonstrated the terrifying potential of the Heat offense when the outside shooters get hot and they've added Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen to that formula. This strategy relies on Wade and James being able to provide above average rebounding and help defense for years or else the team becomes a slow mess in a hurry. Given the dearth of teams with dominant post play and the ages of James and Wade, I think as many as 2 more championships is more than reasonable, more than that is asking too much of the training staff.

Tobo: Uh...3? The Bird Celtics won 3, and the Lakers are nearly as good as they were back then, and Wade's getting older and those contracts don't last forever. I'm going with three. We've seen a real shift in the media towards being absolutely certain who is going to win, and in free agents wanting to go to teams that strike them as guaranteed titles. There is no such thing. It doesn't happen in basketball as much as in other sports, but any team can drop 4 of 7 to another good team, even if they're superior in general.

Funk: I'll say three more. The Lakers really don't scare me -- Kobe may sabotage the team if Nash holds the ball longer than him, and he will. The Heat have 3 top 15-20 players, and they'll get some bit players a la Ray Allen over the next few years looking for a title run.

Who is the fourth best team in the NBA (behind LA, MIA and OKC)?

Funk: Brace yourselves... the DENVER NUGGETS! The Celtics and Spurs are old, the Knicks have talent but they also have Carmelo Anthony, and the Nets just aren't that good. The Nuggets can score with anyone, and while they have defensive holes, some of that should be erased by having JaVale McGee down low for the entire season this year and adding Andre Iguodala over the summer.

McGuire: Don't think there's any other pick here outside of San Antonio. Boston's pieces virtually all have question marks (and their defense WILL fall off a touch with Garnett's lessened minutes and Bradley's absence), Denver needs to prove it can make a three to save its life (at least if they want to be the best offense in the league -- which they'd need), and everyone else is scrambling. But the Spurs remain a constant in the admittedly narrowing scope of contenders. Last season's Spurs had a disappointing swan song in the Western Conference Finals, but they still return every single core piece of a team that -- with Manu Ginobili on the court -- won games at a 70 win clip in the regular season.

The defense will remain an issue, and as Popovich slowly draws down the minutes-load on Duncan and Manu to highlight the younger talents on the team and keep them fresh for the stretch run, they almost certainly won't win at quite that pace again this season. But I wouldn't be shocked if they ended up with the best record in the West for a third consecutive season, and I wouldn't be surprised if they're a bit better in the playoffs as well. They won't win a title without at least some form of defensive renaissance, but they're closer to the top than anyone.

Should the NBA be concerned about the lack of parity in the league?

Tobo: I would be, but not overly. It's obnoxious that the Thunder decided not to keep Harden because they didn't want to pay him as much as they pay Durant. Is Harden worth the amount of money that a max contract at his scale offers? Probably. Is he as good as Kevin Durant? Of course not. And Bosh isn't as good as LeBron. And all of it means that to get a core together that can win a title requires either an unbelievably fortuitous confluence of circumstance, a Frankenstorm of talent at the right salary levels, or else a kind of collusion that's unsavory but not illegal.

Meanwhile, perfectly serviceable vets can't find contracts because the new rules create salary disparity between stud and serviceable akin to what's going on in American society. So the rich get richer while the poor hope that someone like Bynum or Harden care more about money than winning (which used to be a safe bet), and then they have Bynum and Harden and either a young hopeful core or nobody, and they hope that they'll become attractive enough that some other big star will want to take less money to become part of their core.

But I'm hopeful that the new rules about reserving sign and trades for teams under the cap will help with this. The Lakers won't be able to do what they did with Nash, for example, and that'll mean more free agents will enter the market because teams looking to unload a free agent they can't keep won't have so many options, and superteams will be harder to form. Plus, there's only one LeBron, and one Dwight. As the Knicks have taught us, it's not just getting good players together.

McGuire: In general, concerns of diminishing parity are always a bit overstated. It's worth noting that the "evidence" behind this go-around's panic includes a set of relatively dismal teams in New York, a 1 or 2 year creaky-boned contender in Los Angeles, and a variety of flawed teams that can be beaten in the right situation. I think the several poor unexpected outcomes of the new CBA (that is, the inability for a team to actually sign their players to an extension) have been harmful to parity, and in general, should be closed as soon as possible. But as for a major overarching concern? Not sure that's really warranted.

Boyd: Is there a lack of parity in the league? Last year's two Western Conference finalists were small market teams and the ratings for the league's playoff product have been stellar. The league currently has an ideal blend of strong teams in classic markets like Boston and LA combined with teams people have great interest in located in places like Oklahoma City and San Antonio. There seems to be little evidence that small market teams can't compete and we have seen the major market teams attract the kind of attention that has traditionally carried the sport.

What young core has the best chance to be the next OKC?

Tobo: Weird choice, but I really, really like what Detroit's doing. They're obviously not there, but they're starting with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, and that has a chance to be otherworldly. There are a lot of ways for a team to win, but if you start with a front-court, you're automatically a two way team. Brandon Knight chipped in an under the radar 12.8-4. There are smarter choices, and it won't happen this year, but they're finally out from under Ben Gordon's contract, they may be out from Villanueva's this summer, and by 2014 they'll have a load of cap space and that great front-court core. And, as a Mavericks fan, that would be bitterly ironic, since so much of the Mavericks moves these last two years have been predicated on not ending up like Detroit.

McGuire: They're quite differently oriented, but the Utah Jazz look like a very good team going forward. I share the collective love seemingly everyone holds for Derrick Favors as an eventually transcendent defender, Gordon Hayward has a shot to be something special, and their salary flexibility is a great plus. I don't know who's going to break out of their Burks & Kanter duo, but I have a feeling one will. Combine that with some good trade fodder in Millsap/Jefferson, possible max cap space in a year or two, and a bright GM? I think the Jazz will be right there, if Tyrone Corbin can improve his coaching and the franchise gets a bit of luck. Should be fun.

What did you make of the Harden trade?

Tobo: I could not be a bigger fan of Houston's strategy this last year, and that's been true all along. Like the Mavericks they swung for a big fish and missed, but unlike the Mavericks they did so by stockpiling draft picks. And so, unlike the Mavericks who ended up with nothing, Houston ended up with all these young, talented players. It was a win-win strategy, and it showed a smarter way of doing business.

Now, Houston has used that young talent to get an even better player in James Harden, and they still have Brockman, White, Lin and Asik. And for everybody pointing out that Lin and Asik have those hilariously back-loaded deals, I don't understand how so many pundits collectively forgot that teams love trading for expiring deals. As for the Thunder, they got a fine young talent in Jeremy Lamb, an efficient scorer for this year in Kevin Martin and Kevin Martin's 13 million dollars of cap space next year, while picking up highly coveted draftee PJIII with the 28th pick. So, they're going to be fine and have money to spend.

Funk: I really like the Harden trade for both teams, especially the Thunder. This is because I think Jeremy Lamb could end up being the best player involved in the whole deal. He's still an unknown as a rookie who has yet to play in a real NBA game, but the potential is there. Add in two more first round picks (one potentially between the 4 and 14 spots), and it's an easy thing to swallow for OKC fans. As much as I enjoy the balance of his game and the way he plays, Harden is best suited in the role he played in Oklahoma City, and paying him a max contract is fairly risky, especially when you also break the bank for Jeremy Lin.

From the Rockets standpoint, the deal is something of a boom or bust deal. Morey is making a move to win now by shipping out their best young prospect and two first round picks. I'm not a huge fan of spot up over-shooters who can't play defense, so losing Kevin Martin shouldn't hurt too much. Harden does a lot more than Martin, and his game should fit well with a high usage point guard like Lin. If Terrance Jones continues to impress and Royce White plays to his potential quickly this could be one of the more interesting teams in the West in a couple years.

What happens to Jeremy Lin from here?

McGuire: I think he'll struggle this season. Quite a lot, actually. It won't really be his fault, though -- the fact is, players coming off of a meniscus tear don't tend to be quite themselves for a while. While he'll be drawing double teams and getting the added defensive attention his breakout play last year inspired, I have my doubts he'll be able to score efficiently through them on a bum leg for the first month or two. But, much like a fine wine, I think he'll get better with age. He'll figure out how to split the double eventually, and Houston has surrounded Lin with a variety of interesting, potentially-lethal second options.

And now he has Harden, who is going to be absolutely fantastic next to him. Think of all the times Lin found Novak open on the curl for three. Wonderful, right? He'll do the same thing with Harden, except Harden's even more crafty at getting himself open and even more of a dynamic offensive player. The two should be among the most electric backcourts in the NBA from midseason onwards, and once Lin's leg is fully healed, they're going to be a complementary force. Should be incredibly fun.

Boyd: Jeremy Lin has undeniable talent as a penetrating point guard and a high ceiling if he can manage to stop turning the ball over at such a high rate. Daryl Morey has shown the ability to field strong teams with unknown talent in Houston and the Rockets have already built relationships for marketing Chinese players. Lin needs a pick'n'roll partner in Houston to really take off but I believe he'll be a strong lead guard in Houston in the short term and a potential wingman for a superstar if Morey can ever convince one of those to buy in to the Rocket's program.

What type of impact do you expect Anthony Davis to have this year? Five years from now?

Funk: I think he's the most overrated player to enter the league since Greg Oden. That said, I thought he was a top 5 player in the draft. This year I think he'll put up decent numbers -- 12 and 8 with a few blocks a game. Long term he'll be Marcus Camby, and that's really not a knock. Then again, it's not on par with the outrageous hype he got during the college basketball season and through the draft process.

Boyd: I think Davis' length and athleticism plays immediately in the NBA into defensive success. We've seen Durant be able to dominate games playing at the 4 in the Thunder small ball lineups because so many teams don't have forwards that can hang with Durant on the perimeter or beat him up inside. Being athletic, long, and not particularly strong is not the disadvantage today that it has been in the past.

For that reason, I think Davis can have an immediate impact before he adds the strength, experience, and post moves he'll need to maximize his potential inside. I expect he'll be a shot-blocker, strong rebounder, and offensive pick'n'pop player in the short term before eventually becoming a dominant defender with an overall upside comparable to Kevin Garnett's depending on how his offensive skillset comes along.

How good a player can Blake Griffin become?

Tobo: Eh. I have this argument with people all the time. They always tell me you can learn to shoot a jumpshot. You can't, really. You can get serviceable, from bad, and the rare guy like Jim Jackson or Jason Kidd can reinvent themselves as a corner three-ball weapon, but it doesn't happen much and there just will be guys who can clog the paint on Griffin. His game is highly, highly, highly dependent on his athleticism and he's already missed significant time for injuries. Will he have some years of averaging 22-12? I think so. Will he ever be a truly elite scorer? I doubt it. And his decline will very probably be fast.

McGuire: Might be cutting against the grain a bit here, but I'm not sure we're phenomenally far from his final destination as a player. He's already an incredibly talented rebounder and scorer, almost to the point of being overwhelming. I don't think chances are high he develops a significant outside shot or becomes a better rebounder -- he may tinker a tad with his already quite formidable post game or make incremental improvements, but these won't substantially increase his value. The main step forward he needs to take to become an all-time elite is on defense.

Unfortunately, for Griffin, he struggles with a natural ceiling most people don't realize. Just read Ethan Sherwood Strauss' piece on the subject from January where he outlined the general problem -- relative to the vast majority of NBA starting-caliber big men, Griffin's [6'11] wingspan is ridiculously short. This makes it infinitely harder to block shots, harder to contest on the perimeter (despite his nimble feet), and a smaller margin for error on the defensive end. It's still possible he overcomes his relatively short wingspan, but it's certainly not the most likely outcome. I think Griffin's overall game screams C-Webb, when he reaches his final potential -- defensively a bit lacking, but with eye-popping stats and an exceedingly annoying and unrealistic focus on becoming a better outside shooter.

NBA Finals prediction

Funk: The Thunder certainly lose a little firepower with Harden leaving, but they're still loaded and still a cohesive unit that plays well together. Losing Harden won't change that. Their challenge will be finding some firepower off the bench, but Kevin Martin can get buckets in a hurry, and Jeremy Lamb could contribute this year. They still overcome an old Lakers team for the privilege of losing to the Heat.

Tobo: Hard to bet against Lakers-Heat, and unfortunately, hard for me to go against the Lakers there. People think LeBron lost two years ago because he choked, but it's because he has an inconsistent jumpshot and the Mavs had a scrambling zone with a tremendous ability to clog the paint. The Lakers do not have Shawn Marion and DeShawn Stevenson, but they do still have the biggest front-court in the league, and while Bynum might actually be the better offensive player, he's not in Howard's league as a defender.

Boyd: The Lakers look like the strongest team on paper but it's hard to overlook their age, the potentially crippling effect of a major injury, and the challenges in meshing 4 superstars into an effective team product. If Kobe takes 30 shots in a loss on TV to a rival how does Howard respond to that? Meanwhile, the West returns very good San Antonio and OKC teams with Denver and Minnesota (if they get healthy) on the up and up.

In the other bracket, Miami bolsters a product that's a proven winner versus a cast of teams that appear weaker than last year in Chicago, Boston, Indiana, and Philly. I think they'll be challenged but ultimately prevail. Lakers-Heat seems like a foregone conclusion to many and I don't have a better pick to win the West but for the fact that the Lakers seem well designed to dominate everyone inside with Howard and Gasol, one of these teams has an identity hardened by long playoff stretches and the other does not.

I'll take Miami for back-to-back championships regardless of whether the Lakers are ready to take down the Spurs and Thunder with their newest superstar.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.