They are arguably the two best teams in basketball; the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder. After a closer than the 4-1 series win would indicate 2012 finals, it appeared the teams were on a collision course for a 2013 finals match-up. It didn’t happen. It may not happen any time soon. Not more than one NBA season ago, experts were predicting the Thunder as the heir apparent to the Heat. However, to this writer, it feels like these teams are heading down different paths. Let’s examine.
Let us start from the top. LeBron James and Kevin Durant are almost universally considered the two best players in the game. Some experts even rank them 1 and 1A. Although that is a bit ridiculous, I do feel that Durant is currently a distant second to James, he has that same distance between him and the third best player in the game. Each team’s second best player is integral to their team’s success. Even though LeBron effectively carried the Heat during much of the playoffs, timely performances from Dwyane Wade pushed the team over the top to a championship. And we all know what happened to the Thunder once Russell Westbrook went down with injury. They went from Western Conference favorite to being unceremoniously ousted from the playoffs in his absence. Chris Bosh makes up the third member of the Heat’s big three. Unfortunately for OKC, their third big three member, James Harden, is now part of the Houston Rockets.
The remainder of the Heat roster is made up of role players, young reclamation projects and talented veterans. The Thunder do have Serge Ibaka (who they kept instead of Harden), and a bunch of role players they hope are enough support for Durant and Westbrook. But Ibaka failed to step up during Westbrook’s absence, and the Thunder have turned rising star James Harden into Jeremy Lamb. Two years ago, the Thunder’s talent was considered top to bottom superior to the Heat’s. This is no longer the case. We’ll talk about that in a bit, but first let’s talk coaching.
Erik Spoelstra is Gregg Popovich away from being in the argument as best coach in the NBA. He is a great motivator, a splendid tactician and a ego-less and tireless worker. His subtle juggling of line ups and styles has helped LeBron James reach new heights, has enabled the team to cope with injuries and has kept the motivation of a team of stars at championship levels. In short, Spoelstra is great, he’s kind of like a younger, less pompous Phil Jackson.
Then there’s Scott Brooks. When Westbrook went down with his injury, Brooks had the chance to step up. He didn’t. The Thunder devolved into a 1 – 4 team with all of the pressure on Durant. The simplicity of his schemes was exposed once the frenetic Westbrook was gone. In short, Brooks is one more wasted season away from sitting beside Vinny Del Negro in an ESPN studio.
Pat Riley is one of the all-time greats. His coup in bringing together the Heat’s big three is the stuff of legend. His continuing ability to convince great players to come join the team at a discount is amazing. His grooming of the unknown Spoelstra has been magnificent. The end of the coming season will be a new challenge and opportunity to add to his legend.
Sam Presti has proven to be possibly the best judge of talent of any NBA front office personnel. He brought in basically the entire team through excellent drafts. Had the Thunder made the commitment to keep Presti’s picks together, they may have been the 2013 champion. But they didn’t.
Mickey Arison is a great owner. One of the best in the league. He opened his wallet to bring in the big three, and has given Pat Riley pretty much whatever purse strings he’s asked for (Mike Miller not withstanding). Interestingly, Arison was a driving force in ending the NBA’s recent lock out, but voted against the final resolution. Arison sees the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) as punitive to those who strive for championships. Thanks to the agreement, Arison will pay a huge penalty in the luxury tax department. As the third wealthiest owner in the NBA, it is nice that he tries to comply by the parameters of the CBA.
Clay Bennett, owner of the Thunder, has thus far avoided paying luxury taxes. To accomplish this he has managed to parlay James Harden into Jeremy Lamb, and left himself a pretty thin bench. Annoyingly, Bennett has complained about the plight of the small market teams. This from the guy who sued big market Seattle to get away from them. Clay, you should have seen this coming.
So, you can see that the two teams have taken divergent paths. So far the Heat’s path has been superior, but we’ll soon see who’s to be most successful in the long run.
#LET’S GO HEAT