By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
I simply didn't have the foresight last year to pick Miami to win the NBA championship.
Pat Riley was telling people he was sick of hearing how great he was when he hadn't won anything in more than 15 years. Not only that, but it seemed Riles had traded for the wrong guys, people like Jason Williams and Antoine Walker who didn't have championship pedigree. Shaq was looking, well, older. Gary Payton was looking, well, ancient. Who knew how much Alonzo Mourning, after a kidney transplant, would be able to contribute? And while Dwyane Wade looked like he might become the best player in the league, which he did, it seemed premature to suggest he was ready to carry a franchise to glory.
But we saw what happened. The Heat, sorta like the St. Louis Cardinals, got hot in the playoffs and couldn't lose. And now, they're all back for a chance at a repeat, Wade and the Golden Oldies. They've all got a champion's pedigree now, and they're favored to win in the Eastern Conference where Detroit might be past its time and the Bulls and Cavaliers probably aren't ready yet.
So, there's every reason to pick Miami this time. But some people never learn.
I'm picking against the Heat again.
Well, not against it necessarily. I can see the Heat getting through the East if Wade can overcome playing virtually nonstop through the FIBA World Championship and stay healthy. But winning the whole thing? Um, no. There are too many younger and physically able teams in the Eastern Conference (Bulls, Cavs, Pistons, maybe the Nets) and too many potential monsters in the West (Mavs, Suns, Spurs).
When the NBA season opens tonight, with the Chicago Bulls visiting the Heat in Miami on championship ring night, the Heat will be the favorite to win it all, which is completely understandable since Shaq and Wade are back.
Problem is, when we left Miami celebrating its championship in Dallas, the team consisted of all the same players, with no obvious upgrades. There's no arguing Miami's players have every right to try to defend their title, but it's also fair to suggest that the Heat needed to get younger . . . and didn't.
The big question in the East is: If not Miami, then who? The Western Conference at least has something of a pecking order. If Dallas falters, the Suns are beyond ready. If the Suns stumble, the Spurs are right behind them, and the Clippers behind them, with the Houston Rockets coming up fast. But in the East? The Bulls, still young even with the addition of Ben Wallace and P.J. Brown, are 11-deep loaded but have yet to win a playoff series with this nucleus. Can LeBron lead his team to the next level when all the Cavaliers added are David Wesley and rookie Shannon Brown? I was all set to write off Detroit, not just because Wallace left for Chicago, but because Big Ben is no longer there to keep Rasheed Wallace from blowing a gasket in a season when there is zero tolerance of 'Sheedish behavior. But then this kid Jason Maxiell comes along and tears up the preseason, and the Pistons look refueled and ready.
Where do the Wizards fit into all of this? It depends on how seriously they take playing better defense and being tough-minded at the end of games. Yes, the NBA now clearly values up-tempo offense and isn't going to allow hyper-physical defense, which favors teams like the Suns, Mavericks, Clippers and Wizards. Even so, if the Wizards don't make a big improvement defensively, especially late in games, they'll finish seventh or eighth and be done early.
While the early story in the east is who can challenge Miami, the story out west is how quickly, if at all, Amare Stoudemire can approach his form of two years ago. If he gets to 80 percent, nobody will beat the Suns. If he doesn't, the Suns will be hard-pressed to equal last year's run to the Western Conference finals. Recovery has been slow. "Getting back to being that guy is the goal," Stoudemire said recently of trying to come back from microfracture surgery. "Penny Hardaway [whose career was dramatically altered by the surgery and his inability to recover fully from it] told me the same thing Jason Kidd told me, which was, 'Don't rush.' They told me to tune out the expectations."
Asked what the other Suns expect of Stoudemire, Steve Nash said: "Our team should have no expectations. Let's put no pressure on him. The sky's the limit, but who knows. Be patient. He's still a young player and didn't play for a year. When you're young, trying to come back from your first injury, you don't have the same confidence in your physical abilities. His health and durability is all we should be concerned about."
With Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas out during last year's playoffs, the Suns became the darlings of the league for the aesthetically appealing way they played and how they persevered. "We had that seven-man rotation in the playoffs and just ran out of juice at the end," all-star Shawn Marion said. "I was dead tired . . . never been that tired before. To think we could this time around have a bench? Subs!"
And the Suns will need everything they had last year and more because Tim Duncan is healthy again in San Antonio. The Mavericks were about 10 minutes from winning the whole thing and come back with pretty much the same team. If you're looking for a sleeper, something of a surprise team that could rearrange the furniture in the West, the Rockets are just that kind of team, what with Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady being surrounded by Bonzi Wells, Luther Head, Shane Battier, Juwan Howard and Dikembe Mutombo playing support roles. The big question: Rafer Alston at point guard.
Look for Utah to replace Denver atop the Northwest Division, for the Lakers to miss the playoffs entirely, for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to be coveted by every contender after Christmas, for Darko Milicic to form a potent front-court tandem with Dwight Howard in Orlando, for McGrady to be a serious candidate for MVP, for Yao to be the most productive low-post center in the game, for rookie Brandon Roy to restore hope in Portland, for the Grizzlies to sink like a stone with Pau Gasol out for four months, and for the Bulls to have no 20-point scorers but still reach the conference finals.
Look for the Heat, Bulls and Nets to win their divisions and for the order of finish in the East to be Miami, New Jersey, Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Cleveland, Orlando, Indiana.
In the West, the Mavericks, Suns and Jazz will win their divisions and the order of finish for the playoff teams will be Dallas, Phoenix, Utah, San Antonio, Houston, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver and New Orleans.
Ultimately, the Suns will get Stoudemire back in the lineup for real in February and beat the Heat in the series everybody who loves basketball will want to see, except Miami.