By Michael Wilbon
Sunday, July 11, 2010; D03
While we were gazing at the fireworks of free agency, the recruiting visits and prime-time revelations, the NBA was undergoing a fundamental competitive makeover. The road to the championship still runs through Los Angeles and the Lakers, but the years of Western Conference superiority appear to be over, and not just because the Miami Heat is hogging so much talent.
Of course, the Miami talent haul will immediately change the NBA. The concerns over the Heat not having enough role players probably won't hold because while LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are being welcomed in a style only South Beach can pull off, Pat Riley is cobbling together a pretty impressive supporting cast of veterans who have visions of championships parades.
As of Saturday, Miami was still leading in the chase to sign Mike Miller, the versatile swingman who can shoot it from anywhere and is super-tight with LeBron. Miller shoots a better percentage from three-point range than most guards do from inside the arc, and can rebound and defend. What to do about a floor leader, whether he starts or comes off the bench, becomes no issue at all if Riley can sign five-time champion Derek Fisher, who has been more or less low-balled by the Lakers as they try to cut back on payroll. You put Fisher on the floor with Wade, Miller, LeBron and Bosh and you've got something scary.
Want more fireworks? Suppose Miami signs Allen Iverson? You want some instant offense off the bench, a guy who can give Wade a breather and score 12, 14 points in a flash and be a matchup nightmare? Iverson says he's ready to come back, that his family is healthy, that he's refocused on helping a team in whatever way he is asked. The one thing Iverson doesn't have is a championship ring, and Miami seems like just the place for him. There's enough structure -- from Riley to Wade -- to keep Iverson straight, and he's not about to walk into that locker room and think it's his team. Yes, Iverson can go elsewhere and find more shots, maybe a teeny bit more money. But the guess here is that essentially being out of the league last year and being away from meaningful basketball for three years has led him to realize his personal window of opportunity is nearly closed.
It's a team made for Miami Beach, really, which seems to have already juiced the Orlando Magic. For all the celebration of LeBron, Orlando has been a much bigger part of the playoffs the past two years, going right through LeBron to the NBA Finals in 2009. And the Orlando folk, starting with General Manager Otis Smith and Coach Stan Van Gundy, seem just fine with going right at the Heat. On Friday, Smith questioned whether leaving Cleveland to hook up with Wade suggests that LeBron isn't as competitive as other great players.
Ouch. And Van Gundy has already called Bosh a "lapdog," which must refer to Bosh tying his free agency search to Wade and LeBron. Ouch.
But Orlando has issues of its own this morning, like what do about the offer sheet guard J.J. Redick has reportedly signed with the Chicago Bulls, who might just use that move to pull even with Orlando in the East, if we're assessing rosters. Bulls management, to its credit, spent no time mourning being spurned by LeBron. Signing Carlos Boozer gives the Bulls the big-man scorer they needed, and it certainly can't hurt that the team that led the NBA in rebounding last season added a player who grabbed 11 per game in Utah last season. What the Bulls had to do after that was find three shooters, preferably guards. They added one in Kyle Korver, who hit an astounding 53.6 percent of his three-pointers last season, and have now gone after Redick, which would strengthen Chicago's lineup and weaken Orlando's. And now they're in on the chase to land Fisher, who as a veteran presence could do wonders with that young team come playoff time.
The Bulls have really improved at the expense of Utah, which is just part of why the Western Conference is going to take a slide. The Phoenix Suns lost their best scorer and rebounder, Amare Stoudemire, to New York. The Suns look like a 44-win team instead of a conference finalist. San Antonio is old; maybe the Spurs have one more run in them but they've done nothing so far to tweak their roster. Utah is great at retooling on the fly but it looks like a No. 8 seed instead of a playoff threat. While the Knicks and Nets have no choice but to be better than they were last year and Milwaukee, always under the radar, might be good enough to be a No. 5 seed in the East, the Western teams have mostly stood pat. The Dallas Mavericks, so far, have the same roster that lost in the first round last year, though to be fair, that group was put together at the all-star break and could blossom with familiarity.
Still, the only team out West that has actually done any upgrading so far is Golden State, which sent New York a youngster with upside (Anthony Randolph) and a couple of spare parts (Ronny Turiaf, Kelenna Azibuke) for David Lee, who'll put up 24 and 12 a game out West. But overall, the league's power base is shifting East. In fact, it's a shift that will have direct impact on the Washington Wizards, who are now playing in probably the toughest division in the NBA: the Southeast.
The Wizards are thrown in a pot with four playoff teams: Atlanta, Charlotte, Miami and Orlando. Two of them begin the season as the favorites to become the No. 1 and 2 seeds, respectively, in the East (yes, ahead of Boston). That means the Wizards are the only non-playoff team of the quintet. Of the 16 in-division games, the Wizards will be lucky to win four, which could be good for the team's long-term development but isn't good for this coming season.
The Wizards, in two years, could be part of the surge in Eastern Conference basketball.
But right now it's the Southeast, particularly the state of Florida, that is flexing. When the new Miami players were introduced at a rally Friday night, LeBron James, who as yet has zero titles, talked about the Heat winning multiple championships -- four, maybe five. Such is the confidence derived from playing with other players that good, and believing that architect Pat Riley has reinforcements, ones with credentials, headed to the beach.