It’s Never Too Early To Start Thinking About Tomorrow

This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.

The New York Sun

Once the parades and celebrations are done, the Miami Heat will need to face the cold hard reality: At 52-30 during the regular season, they are one of the weakest championship teams in NBA history. That shouldn’t put a damper on their victory, of course – a championship is a championship, and the Heat won their crown by beating the teams with the best and third-best records in the NBA this year. However, once the Heat brass look at where they stand in off-season, Pat Riley will need to roll up his sleeves.

The Heat finished with the second best record in the Eastern Conference, but they should hear footsteps. Cleveland improved by eight games to 50-32 despite getting little from the cast supporting LeBron James. The Chicago Bulls, 41-41, have a young nucleus and will be adding two first-round draft picks to a team that played the Heat tough in a six-game, first-round series. In addition, Detroit (64-18) and New Jersey (49-33) will have revenge in mind after losing playoff series to Miami.

As if the competition wasn’t enough motivation, the Heat have an old roster, and this off-season will represent the best opportunity to refurbish it during the Shaquille O’Neal-Dwyane Wade era. Wade will receive a contract extension at the maximum rate allowed by the collective bargaining agreement, but that pact won’t take effect until the 2007-08 season. With Shaq due to make $20 million a year until 2010, the Heat must act now to fortify the cast of role players surrounding their superstars.

In examining the Heat’s needs, it’s better to look at how they performed as a unit relative to the league according to Dean Oliver’s Four Factors of winning – shooting, rebounding, turnovers, and free throws – than simply to consider the aura of the players (which may be the Isiah Thomas method of player evaluation). Miami was second in the league in effective shooting percentage (a metric that incorporates the different risk/reward ratio of three-pointers),and 10th in eFG% allowed. The Heat also led the league on the boards, grabbing 76.4% of all opponent misses.

Where Miami struggled this season was on the perimeter. The Heat committed turnovers on 15.4% of their possessions (17th in the league) and forced them only 13.7% of the time when their opponents had the ball (29th). Surprisingly for a team with foul magnets like O’Neal and Wade, the Heat shot free throws on only 25.4% of their shot attempts (15th) and allowed them on 25.1 (17th), which implies that Jason Terry’s ease at driving around his defenders in the Finals was no fluke.

The Heat roster is set with O’Neal, Wade, guard Jason Williams, and forwards Udonis Haslem and Antoine Walker. Where they can make changes is in the reserves. The team’s problems on the perimeter show that it’s time for Gary Payton to hang ’em up. Though he hit a couple of huge shots during Miami’s Finals comeback, the former Defensive Player of the Year is now a liability, and the Heat need to use his salary slot for an ace perimeter defender.

Similarly, Shandon Anderson and Derek Anderson should receive best of luck wishes with their playoff bonus checks. The Heat urgently need more depth among their perimeter players. Forward James Posey probably earned himself a nice extension with his defensive work on Dallas superstar Dirk Nowitzki and his key three-pointer late in Game 6. Once Posey, another year of Alonzo Mourning, and Wade’s extension are in place, Miami will be set for the next three or four years. So the Heat will have to shop the free-agent market carefully, or else their title defense could end before next season arrives.

A casual look at the Dallas roster suggests that the Mavericks will be playing into mid-June for the foreseeable future – but they too have problems that go beyond closing out games in the Finals.

The Mavericks went 60-22 this season on the strength of a great offense, which finished first in Offensive Efficiency (points per 100 possessions) and an improved defense that ranked 10th in Defensive Efficiency. The Mavs’ only glaring weakness is on the defensive boards, where they grabbed just 72% of their opponents’ misses and allowed 25.7 free throws per 100 field goal attempts or (19th).

Dallas’s roster is chock-full of young, improving players like guard Devin Harris, swingmen Josh Howard and Marquis Daniels, and center DeSagana Diop. The other key players – Nowitzki, Terry, and reserve swingman Jerry Stackhouse – are still in their primes.

The Mavericks are well ahead of the curve in player development, and the continued improvement of Diop will help fortify their primary weaknesses. Otherwise, Dallas will have to negotiate extensions for Terry and Howard, but with the albatross contracts belonging to Keith Van Horn, Shawn Bradley, Tariq Abdul Wahad, and Evan Eschmeyer coming off the books this or next off-season, Dallas should have the budget to keep its core in tact.

The primary obstacle to a Dallas return to the Finals is the competition. San Antonio and Phoenix are as good, if not better, than the current Mavericks. The Suns will certainly be stronger next year with the return of Amare Stoudemire, and it’s hard to imagine the Spurs turning into shrinking violets. The level of competition among the elite Western Conference teams is so strong that Dallas could do everything right this off-season and still wind up at home by June. It’s a lesson the Spurs learned this year.

The New York Sun

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