Posted Jun 14 2011 1:22AM
While the Mavericks prepare to do their conga line celebration through the streets of downtown Dallas, the parade of challengers for next season is already lining up for a chance to take down Dirk Nowitzki & Co.
There are holes to fill, deals to be made, strategies to reconfigure and individual skill sets to improve. But even as the Mavs are still basking in the golden glow of the Larry O'Brien Trophy -- and maybe even still bathed in champagne -- the list of 2012 contenders is taking shape.
The top five challengers for next season:
You didn't really think they'd just go away, did you? Now that they couldn't cruise through the express lane at the check-out counter to buy a championship, the Heat will have to do the heavy lifting instead. They may have three big pieces in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but too often they look like they come from three different jigsaw puzzles. It will be coach Erik Spoelstra's task to actually devise a complementary offense and not just rely on pressure defense and transition. Do they trade Bosh for a traditional center? Or even entertain the notion of swapping James or Wade? What would the Heat look like if Pat Riley could convince free agent Tyson Chandler to change sides in the Dallas-Miami rivalry? The remodeling could look like Extreme Home Makeover. All that being said, there's no question that things should be smoother the second time around simply due to familiarity. It's going to take a lot to prevent the Heat from being back on The Finals stage next June.
Returning to the battle with the reigning MVP in Derrick Rose, a coach in Tom Thibodeau who knows how to instill the importance of defense and a record that was already an NBA-best 62-20 last season certainly isn't a bad place to start. But if the Bulls are going to take that step up to the next rung on the ladder, they have to lessen some of the offensive burden on Rose. Yes, he can do it all, but that doesn't mean he should. The first priority is for a shooting guard whose range goes out to the 3-point line. If the Warriors become serious about moving Monta Ellis, he might go to the top of the list. Denver's Aaron Afflalo is another keeper whose nose for defense would fit right in with the Bulls. J.R. Smith has the kind of talent that is intriguing, but all of the extra baggage he brings is drama the Bulls don't need. There's also a need to get better in the middle. Carlos Boozer simply didn't live up to his huge free agent contract at either end of the floor. Nevertheless, they're the team that will keep the Big Three of Miami from regarding the Eastern Conference as a gated community that they own.
Forget about the criticism that he takes too many shots and isn't a good fit with Kevin Durant. The fact is Russell Westbrook isn't going anywhere. The pair of 22-year-olds first shocked everyone by reaching the Western Conference finals ahead of schedule and then was flogged by some for not being ready for prime time. The experience of being in the spotlight and taking hits will ultimately be beneficial as Durant learns to be more assertive and Westbrook learns to pick his spots. There is no question that the Thunder need a third scorer in the starting lineup. That could be Serge Ibaka, but more likely it's James Harden. He can get to the basket, hit the outside shot and is learning to become a better defender. Maybe just as important, he can also play minutes at the point guard position, allowing Westbrook to slide into the "2" spot at times and fill that need to be a scorer. When Harden makes the inevitable move into the starting lineup, OKC will need to find a scorer off the bench. But it's only a matter of time before they rule the West.
Most coaches and GMs in the league would be more than happy to take their chances with a core lineup of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom. That is, if Gasol could shake off whatever was bothering him in the playoffs, if Bynum could be sure to stay healthy, if Odom wasn't someone who seems to need prodding every week or so and the whole thing was threatening to wear Bryant down. They'll likely resist the temptation to blow everything up and look to take a different tack with new coach Mike Brown's emphasis on offense. Still, it seems obvious they finally must replace Derek Fisher's loyalty with a young point guard who can drive and score and defend. They need speed on the wings and in transition, which means it would have made more sense in the long run not to jettison Trevor Ariza for Ron Artest. The Lakers made their dangerous bargain with Artest to win a title in 2010. But now that his mind seems to be everywhere except on the court, the last three years of that deal seem far more burdensome than shrewd. Still, the sting of their second-round sweep at the hands of the Mavs should re-light the fire and get the Lakers into the game and that -- along with their size and ability to score -- makes them still a threat to win again.
Their first-round playoff loss to the Grizzlies notwithstanding, there's reason to give the Spurs the nod for this spot over Boston. His name is Tiago Splitter. While the Celtics lost much of their inside game with the trade of Kendrick Perkins and the retirement of Shaquille O'Neal and could force them to rely on 33-year-old Jermaine O'Neal, Splitter still gives San Antonio youthful hope. The Brazilian big man fell behind in his rookie NBA season during training camp with a strained calf muscle and never really caught up to the Spurs' system at either end of the floor. He can be an interior defender and scorer. If Tony Parker is right and the Big Three with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili no longer have enough of the right stuff to contend for a championship together, he could be the one to go. The Spurs could trade Parker for the scoring small forward they need, moving George Hill into the starting lineup at the point. If only they could find someone to take the $30 million they owe to Richard Jefferson for the next three years off their hands. The window to make one more title run is sliding shut, but it's not quite closed yet.
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