Life isn't fair, and neither is the distribution of talent in the Eastern Conference, where four teams hoard the A-List stars and leave the rest fighting for scraps. While I wrote the other day that the West standings will likely be very compressed this season, the East is just the opposite.
This conference has been split into extreme haves and have-nots each of the past four seasons, and it figures to be that way again. The NBA's two best projected records are in the East this season ... and so are the five worst. It's particularly ugly at the bottom with early-stage rebuilding situations in five cities and a sixth, New Jersey, teetering on the cusp of prosperity but potentially facing another bottom-to-top rebuild a year from now if its aspirations don't pan out.
Only a few upwardly mobile middle-class teams dot the landscape, and one of those (Orlando) might get kicked back downstairs. At least, in terms of playoff contenders, it's become a more respectable neighborhood. Making the playoffs in the East will require winning half a team's games, and the top six seeds should all be genuinely good.
Here's how they stack up individually:
15. Charlotte Bobcats (13-53)
Michael Jordan has won seven championships (six as a player and a seventh when he gifted Tyson Chandler to the Mavs two summers ago), but Charlotte is currently the furthest in the league from a title. This is why Chad Ford and I ranked this team 30th every time we ran our Future Power Rankings -- the Bobcats' post-Larry Brown experience has left them with little cap space or young talent. This year they'll bottom out before the recovery starts.
The schedule will at least help them steal a few wins against tired opponents, but their talent deficit is daunting. Raw first-round pick Bismack Biyombo was stuck in Spain and missed most of training camp; nonetheless, he might be their starting center. Tyrus Thomas is probably the closest thing they have to a go-to guy, while wings Corey Maggette and Reggie Williams will put up numbers while allowing more. That's only if they can get in the lineup -- Williams is out for several weeks and Maggette is permanently day-to-day. Keep an eye on shooting guard Gerald Henderson, however, who could evolve into a top-notch wing stopper.
At least the 'Cats know where they stand. They have two first-rounders in Biyombo and Kemba Walker to start the rebuilding process, and they will be more than $20 million under next year's cap once they give amnesty to DeSagana Diop or Maggette (who was acquired before the lockout, remember). More importantly, the recent hiring of general manager Rich Cho should spare them the laughable cap mistakes they made when Jordan was trying to run things himself -- dumping Chandler's salary without actually saving any money being the most comical of the bunch.
Alas, the damage has already been done. This year will be ugly, and the timing is unfortunate. When they made the playoffs two years ago, it seemed the team was just beginning to gain traction with the fan base in Charlotte. Now they're back to square one, hemorrhaging cash and hoping for some lottery magic next spring.
14. Cleveland Cavaliers (18-48)
Well, it's better than a year ago. Slowly, but surely, the Cavs are rebuilding their future and cleaning up their cap, and in two years they may have a very good team.
This year's draft is the linchpin. He may not be LeBron What's-His-Name, but Kyrie Irving will be a very nice building block and the early favorite for the Rookie of the Year award. Fourth overall pick Tristan Thompson will combine with a returned-from-injury Anderson Varejao to contribute some energetic defense, rebounding, and finishing in the frontcourt.
As expected the Cavs gave amnesty to Baron Davis, cleaning up a messy guard situation and making their trade-deadline deal with the Clippers one of the best in NBA history. With no cap consequences to the deal, Cleveland essentially got the first pick in the draft for the cash difference between the salaries of Mo Williams and Jamario Moon and that of Davis.
Ramon Sessions, a vastly underrated offensive player but one whose defense has become indefensible, now backs up Kyrie Irving and, one suspects, will often play aside him in two-guard sets. There isn't really a "true" 2 on the roster, as Daniel Gibson and Manny Harris both are undersized, and that's likely to be a sore spot all year defensively.
At forward, the Cavs triggered a sweet deal before the lockout by trading J.J. Hickson to Sacramento for Omri Casspi and a first-round pick (albeit a heavily protected one), filling a gaping hole at the 3 and earning another asset for the future. At the other forward, Antawn Jamison will score 18 a game and give up 27 until he's traded or bought out, which should be soon given his advanced age, huge expiring contract and near-total indifference to stopping the opposition.
Overall, the Cavs have enough players now to give themselves a chance on most nights, but they're still going to lose a ton of games. Long-term, the three keepers here are Irving, Thompson and Casspi, so those are the ones to watch.
13. Toronto Raptors (19-47)
Toronto has finally come to grips with reality. No longer are the Raps delusional about loading up on mediocre veterans with long-term deals, nor about winning games without bothering to play defense. With Toronto again last in Defensive Efficiency in 2010-11, the overmatched Jay Triano was finally shown the door. Replacing him is former Dallas zone defense maestro Dwane Casey, who now must upgrade one of the most pathetic defensive outfits in league annals.
Central to Casey's cause is center Andrea Bargnani, who is offensively gifted but remains one of the most clueless off-ball defenders in the game. He's mobile for his size though, and the Raps may experiment with playing him at power forward periodically now that they have some genuine size. Don't be surprised if 7-footers Solomon Alabi and Aaron Gray get a fair amount of run.
Alas, they also have to clear minutes for Ed Davis, a revelation as a high-percentage finisher a year ago, but one who needs to add strength to battle NBA big men. Ditto for Amir Johnson, who quietly had a strong season last year but like his frontcourt mates, suffers from a lack of lower-body strength at the defensive end.
In fact, Toronto's frontcourt looks pretty darn good going forward. First-round pick Jonas Valuncianas won't be coming over this season, but at only 19 years of age, he ranks among the best players in Europe and looks like a star in the making. He and Davis could be a fearsome combo in five years; Bargnani, whatever you think of him, would make for a pretty potent sixth man in that arrangement.
On the wing, DeMar DeRozan flashed some star potential as a scorer, but the rest of his game lies dormant; he needs to pass the ball once in a while and play some defense. Small forward looms as a huge weakness, although the talented but ridiculously mistake-prone James Johnson remains intriguing. And at the point, Jose Calderon is a flawless offensive operator and a traffic cone for opposing point guards.
Big picture, there are a lot of problems here beyond Casey's control -- team president Bryan Colangelo invested almost entirely in offensive players, so the result is again likely to be a decent offense paired with a hopeless defense. But if Casey can persuade his charges -- particularly Bargnani -- to compete and at least use their length as a deterrent, the Raptors' D should be less of an embarrassment.
12 (tie). Detroit Pistons (22-44)
The Pistons basically quit on John Kuester last season, especially at the defensive end; there was no reason a team with this roster should have finished 28th in defensive efficiency. Enter Lawrence Frank, who presumably will have his troops better prepared and better motivated. Not having Richard Hamilton around may actually help, clearing up a playing time logjam on the wing and a volatile presence in the locker room.
There's actually more good news for the Pistons. They didn't make a single transaction last season while awaiting the team's sale; now that Tom Gores has taken over, they're diving back in and reshaping the roster for the future. The franchise has taken an interest in analytics for the first time, hiring StatsCube guru Ken Catanella from the league office and Charles Trask from Orlando, and their salary cap mess finally shows signs of clearing. If they give amnesty to Ben Gordon in 2013, they'll fall about $20 million under the cap just as their kids are ready to blossom.
In the short-term, however, Detroit faces all-too-familiar problems, the biggest being a glaring lack of star power. Their best player is either Rodney Stuckey or Greg Monroe, and there's a decent chance neither of the two ever plays in an All-Star Game.
Beyond that, the roster is lopsided. There's an overload of combo-forward types with Tayshaun Prince, Jonas Jerebko, Austin Daye and Charlie Villanueva, although it's possible Prince gets some run at the 2 with Hamilton gone. Meanwhile, the only true interior player is the grizzled Ben Wallace and the rapidly declining (not to mention rapidly expanding) Jason Maxiell.
It's the same story in the backcourt. They're overloaded with tweener combo guards like Stuckey, Will Bynum, rookie Brandon Knight, and Gordon, but there isn't a true point guard in the bunch and not a fearsome deep shooter either.*
As a result, I have trouble seeing the Pistons winning much more than a third of their games. Perhaps they can surprise if Stuckey or Monroe breaks out, and certainly their depth will help them in the compressed schedule format. But even the "surprise" scenario leaves them well short of a playoff spot.
(* This is how far Gordon has fallen. Dude was awful last year).
12 (tie). Washington Wizards (22-44)
The Wizards have a lot of young, talented players. Young, talented players who are professional and know how to play? Let me get back to you on that one.
Actually, this makes the Wizards a fascinating team to watch, because you'll see things you otherwise wouldn't in the NBA. For example, we're treated to amazing feats by the likes of JaVale McGee and John Wall, plays that nobody else in basketball can make. Mixed in, however, will be all kinds of unexpected knucklehead moves that you'd rarely see from another pro team. Not surprisingly, these blunders usually sabotage the game for Washington.
In spite of themselves, they're slowly getting better. Wall in particular seems ready for a breakout after his rookie campaign was held back by injuries, and I've factored a borderline All-Star season into my projection. If so, that may also help Andray Blatche, who was miscast as a go-to guy but may thrive as a second option and pick-and-pop weapon. Meanwhile, years of high draft picks have given Washington a ten-deep base of young legs that will serve them well in this season's punishing schedule.
Nonetheless, it's hard to get too excited about this team until guys like Blatche, McGee, Nick Young and Jordan Crawford figure out that a 20-point, 0-assist performance where they give up 115 points doesn't constitute a "good" night. That's where veterans like Rashard Lewis and Mo Evans may pay their freight -- somebody needs to set the right example for these guys.
Long-term, however, this is a team on the upswing. At some point these kids will figure out how to play (probably), and when they do they'll be dangerous. Meanwhile, the Wizards will have a trove of cap room if they give amnesty to Lewis next summer and a fairly desirable market as a lure. They're a have-not at the moment, but with the bad contracts off their books and several talented young players, they shouldn't be doormats for long.
10. New Jersey Nets (28-38)
The Nets are the hardest team to project because of all the potential wild cards. While Kris Humphries finally signed, they still have a ton of cap room and might sign Andrei Kirilenko too; longer-term, of course, the possibility of a trade for Dwight Howard teases.
For now, the Nets are a mishmash. Star guard Deron Williams has been playing in real games since October and should be in tip-top shape, and Brook Lopez looms as a secondary offensive weapon in the middle. That's a solid offensive foundation, and certainly one that should improve on last season's 27th-place standing in offensive efficiency. If they indeed add Kirilenko to Anthony Morrow's shooting, Humphries' energy and a bench with some offensive options (Shawne Williams, Jordan Farmar, first-round pick Marshon Brooks), this should be a decent offensive team.
Defensively, they're still short-handed. Lopez blocks shots but is ponderously slow and a comically poor rebounder for his size. The other bigs don't offer much on defense either, and Morrow is a sieve on the wing. Williams' effort on D has also slackened the past two seasons. Of course, if they land Howard, all of that changes.
If they don't, the scenario is much worse. Williams is probably leaving after the season, and the Nets will effectively have given the Jazz Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, and a 2012 lottery pick for a year-and-a-half of Deron Williams. So basically, they're heading into Brooklyn next year either riding atop a huge wave or smashed on the rocks beneath it.
In the meantime, they should be respectable in their final season in New Jersey. I priced in a re-signed Humphries and an added Kirilenko to this projection, but no Howard. That still leaves them short of the playoffs, but the folks in Jersey should be left with some decent memories.
9. Atlanta Hawks (33-33)
The Hawks won 44 games and made the second round of the playoffs in 2010-11, but that's misleading. They gave up more points than they scored in the regular season, went 10-17 after the All-Star break, lost one of the top sixth men in free agency and didn't do much to replace him, and will be without Kirk Hinrich for nearly half the season.
Pressed face-first against the luxury tax thanks to the bad contracts they lavished on Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, Atlanta was left to fill in around the edges with veteran retreads like Tracy McGrady and Vladimir Radmanovic. These weren't bad pickups for the price, but they don't offset losing Crawford and Hinrich either.
On the plus side, Jeff Teague takes over at the point after breaking out as a slashing, scoring guard in last season's playoffs, and Al Horford and Josh Smith provide a solid foundation as a 24-year-old frontcourt. Smith, however, is frustrated and spent the offseason angling for a trade.
But Atlanta's bench looms as a major weakness; past editions of this team weren't deep either, but Crawford and Zaza Pachulia often gave them an advantage against opposing second units. I can't see that happening with the current group, especially with McGrady likely to be the backup point guard until Hinrich returns. (Pape Sy, who has been talked up for this spot, has no chance of keeping it beyond the second quarter of the first game).
As a result, this is going to be a harder slog for the Hawks than they might think, especially with a schedule that does a short-benched team few favors. Unless they're blessed with outstanding health, they're in danger of falling out of the playoffs entirely. After three straight trips to the second round, that's gonna be a jolt.
8. Milwaukee Bucks (34-32)
Last season the Bucks were one of the best defensive teams in basketball, but it didn't matter at all because the offense was so awful -- Milwaukee ranked dead last in offensive efficiency. They've tried some tweaking around the edges to fix that, sending out Corey Maggette for Stephen Jackson, adding Beno Udrih and Mike Dunleavy, and drafting Tobias Harris.
Nonetheless, the Bucks' biggest obstacle to the playoffs is simply this: They need Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings to play better. Bogut isn't really a go-to guy but plays that role for Milwaukee, and last season he was bothered enough by his surgically repaired elbow that he took a major step back statistically. Jennings, meanwhile, also seemed stuck after a very encouraging rookie season; while his jump shot gets most of the criticism, it's his inability to finish that's been the bigger problem.
Milwaukee was also wracked by injuries a year ago; on health alone they should be a better team this season, especially if Drew Gooden comes back and stabilizes the power forward spot.
As for the help, Jackson is holding out with a nebulous back injury while he lobbies for a contract extension -- a strategy that will fail miserably unless former Warriors president Robert Rowell took a job with the Bucks and forgot to tell everyone.
But the Bucks hardly need Cap'n Jack. Milwaukee has vast reserves of depth -- so much so that they sent Keyon Dooling to Boston for a future draft pick -- and are well-adapted to the grueling schedule this season. The starting five (Jennings-Jackson-Carlos Delfino-Gooden-Bogut) may not scare anybody, but as with the Nuggets out West, the Bucks go 12 deep with Shaun Livingston and Udrih in the backcourt, Dunleavy, Harris and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute on the wing, and Larry Sanders and Ersan Ilyasova up front.
All except Udrih can defend, and coach Scott Skiles will make sure they all do. They still won't be an offensive juggernaut, but they'll be better than a year ago and maintain a top-five defense. That combination should just squeak them back into the playoffs.
7. New York Knicks (35-31)
This may seem pessimistic in light of the hype coming from Gotham, but in the short term I'm not sure the Knicks have dramatically improved. They've essentially traded Chauncey Billups for Tyson Chandler, which will help, but this is the wrong year to have a thin bench and brittle stars. Between Amare Stoudemire's knees and Chandler's toes, the Knicks are likely to feel the brunt of the schedule-makers' wrath.
Baron Davis, despite his weaknesses, will prove quite useful when he's able to play. Mike D'Antoni's system demands a point guard who can pass, and Davis can do that when he's not jacking up 3s with 20 on the shot clock. It's even more important given the Knicks' other high-profile moves -- they boast three of the best frontcourt finishers in the game, but nobody to get them the ball.
I factored in half a season of Davis into my projection, figuring he misses more than a quarter of the year with his current back injury, and then some more with his next injury. When he's out, the Knicks have Toney Douglas running the point, which is less than ideal. While I like him as a player, he's a bad fit at the point in this system because he's blind as a bat.
Otherwise, the roster is a bit of a mess. Landry Fields and Iman Shumpert are nice prospects but aren't ready to be top-seven players on a contending team. Jared Jeffries and Renaldo Balkman are the top two frontcourt reserves. Really. And at some point the Knicks will have to play Mike Bibby in a real game.
About the best thing New York has going for it is, well, New York. Players are lured by the city and, as with the Lakers, the Knicks have a great shot at signing any decent veteran who shakes free during the season via buyout, waivers or departure from China. Better yet, the Knicks still have their $2.5 million "under-cap" exception lying around to use on such a player.
Nonetheless, I have trouble envisioning a high seed for this team. Where they get more dangerous is once the playoffs begin. If their three frontcourt stars and Davis make it to May upright, they'll be a very difficult first-round out. Getting to that point is the problem.
6. Indiana Pacers (36-30)
On most levels, few teams are set up for the future better than the Pacers. They have a lot of young talent, $15 million in cap space and nary a bad contract, and they even scored a rare small-market free-agent coup by luring David West from New Orleans.
However, they face the classic small-market conundrum: How do we snag a star if we don't win the lottery? While Plan A is hoping Dwight Howard develops a passion for corn, more realistically their hopes depend on an advantageous trade opportunity. They've set themselves up for that chance, but they still need the right deal to fall into their laps.
In the meantime, they'll hope Paul George can take a step toward addressing their star problem. The second-year pro won't be their best player this season, but he is an alluring prospect with his size and fluidity, and at 6-10 combines with Danny Granger to give Indy the biggest wing combo in the league. In fact, long term one suspects Granger will be traded for a guard to clear the decks for George at the 3.
Despite the absence of a star, Indy has built itself a nice, deep team that should be able to take advantage of tired opponents on the schedule. One gets the impression they aren't quite done in the backcourt -- the only real rotation-quality guards on the roster are Darren Collison and George Hill, and neither sees the floor well. A deft passer would be Indy's preference going forward, because their frontcourt can seriously fill it up. West, Granger, George, Tyler Hansbrough and Roy Hibbert all should average at or near a point every two minutes this season.
The good news is that getting good guards is generally easier than nabbing bigs; the more difficult problem has already been solved. The Pacers have a two-year window to convert some of that cap space into an A-lister before the kids start becoming restricted free agents and hammering away at Indy's cap position, but they've put themselves in great shape. For now they're a merely interesting, one-and-done playoff team, but they're potentially much, much more.
5. Philadelphia 76ers (37-29)
The limited practice time before opening day is going to favor teams with continuity, and the Sixers have more of that than anybody. The likely nine-man playing rotation will be identical to last season's; the only major change is the mascot, which they've tentatively named "At Least It's Not A Hip-Hop Rabbit."
Philly also sports a fair number of young players who should play better this season, most notably point guard Jrue Holiday and wing Evan Turner. Putting the pieces together into coherent lineups gets a little tricky, however. Jodie Meeks is the only consistent long-range threat, inviting teams to pack the paint. Sixth man combo forward Thaddeus Young, while deadly effective in the right matchup, has to be spotted carefully; he can't guard big 4s and has struggled when asked to play the wing.
The Sixers proved shockingly good when they played small with Young at 4 and Brand at 5 a year ago. They could go to that option more often this season, especially since small, young and fast is likely to be a winning strategy in this season's grind of a schedule. However, they built a top-heavy roster that's dangerously thin in the backcourt, and an injury to any of their guards would leave them in a precarious spot. Philly was very fortunate in that respect a year ago, gliding through 2010-11 virtually unscathed health-wise, but they can't count on similar fortune again.
Big picture, the immediate future is a bit brighter than the medium term, despite the club's youth. Philly may challenge for a top-four seed this year, depending on Dwight Howard's mood, but it's difficult to see how they take the next step forward with this group. Coach Doug Collins' history is that he gets a big boost in Year 1, starts getting on everybody's nerves in Year 2, and completely self-combusts in Year 3, which presents a bad omen. A worse one is their lack of stars and subpar cap situation. Unless Holiday becomes a big star -- possible, but not likely -- they'll be tugged back toward .500 by two giant anchor contracts (Brand and Andre Iguodala) that have left them with their hands tied financially.
4. Orlando Magic (40-26)
I know everyone is anxious to predict doom and gloom for the Magic, but let's keep in mind that before losing to Atlanta in the first round, they'd put together a very solid regular season. Orlando won 52 games in an accredited basketball conference and had the point differential of a 58-win team. The Magic ranked third in defensive efficiency thanks to the might of Dwight Howard, and they may be able to considerably improve the offense if sharpshooting forward Ryan Anderson gets more burn.
In fact, my initial projection for Orlando was even rosier; despite all the overpaid averageness surrounding Howard, Orlando's ceiling remains very high because of Howard's dominance in the middle. If he plays all season in Orlando at last season's level, I could easily see this team pushing for a top-two seed in the East.
But there's the rub. Orlando's success depends on Howard being fully engaged and playing at an MVP level; if he's anything less than the second-best player in the league, the Magic's chances fall off a cliff. This, then, is a bit different from the celebrated 2007 example where Kobe demanded a trade and then belatedly realized he had a really good team around him; in Orlando's case, Howard has a really good team almost entirely because of his own efforts. Anderson and Jameer Nelson are the only teammates who project to generate a PER above the league average.
So if Howard isn't 100 percent committed to the enterprise, their fortunes inevitably suffer. And right now, Vegas has "checked out" as a seven-point favorite over "dialed in." If Howard goes into Vince Carter-in-Toronto mode, then the Magic are taking a step backward.
While Howard talk will obliterate any other news trying to escape Orlando, three other players who bear watching are Anderson, Earl Clark and Daniel Orton. If Howard is going to experience a Kobe-esque revival of interest in staying, the development of those three youngsters would be the most likely cause. Anderson has definite breakout potential, but we aren't holding our breath on the other two.
Overall, this is a difficult projection -- we don't know how long Howard is staying or how motivated he'll be while he's here. I split the difference and projected them with a full season of unmotivated Dwight. That's not unrealistic; in a vacuum I'd say Orlando would be better off declining the current lame trade offers and crossing its fingers he'll re-sign. However, a lot of water can go under the bridge between now and the trade deadline.
3. Boston Celtics (43-23)
It's amusing that the same Celtics fans who wanted Jeff Green tarred and feathered last spring now think they're hosed because he's out for the season. It's a loss, but he's a backup small forward and they can do other things with their lineups to mostly cover his absence; as long as they can avoid playing Sasha Pavlovic in an actual game, they'll be fine.
The more worrying problem for Boston is the grueling nature of the schedule, which will be magnified for them because of their age and mediocre bench. The theft of Brandon Bass from Orlando should help, and I suspect they'll get a lot more from Jermaine O'Neal than they did a year ago. Still, this team tied for 17th in offensive efficiency a year ago and should be mediocre again; Boston is counting on its defense being at or near the top of the league to keep it in contention.
Perhaps it will be, but the combination of age, schedule and coaching staff defections (Tom Thibodeau left two years ago and Lawrence Frank this past offseason) may cause some slippage too. All of Boston's bench players are good defenders except offseason pickup Chris Wilcox, but they'll still have great difficulty retaining their No. 2 ranking in defensive efficiency.
Here's one other bummer for Boston: there are no games before Christmas this year. Over the past four seasons, the Celtics were a ridiculous 94-14 (.870) before Santa's arrival and a much more pedestrian 140-80 (.636) afterward.
In the big picture, Boston shapes up for this season as Mavericks East: They're a Tier B contender, but rather than ride their veterans slowly down the tubes, they've built around short-term contracts and given themselves an opportunity to completely reshape the roster after the season. Pierce and Rondo are the only rotation players with contracts for next year, presuming Bass opts out, and Boston will have over $20 million in cap space and two first-round picks next summer.
2. Chicago Bulls (48-18)
Provided they can keep up last season's intensity through a sausage-grinder of a schedule, the Bulls are very likely the second-best team in basketball. Chicago led the NBA in defensive efficiency a year ago, thanks in equal parts to Tom Thibodeau's help-heavy schemes and a long, athletic rotation that defended the rim with gusto.
While the Bulls won a league-best 62 games, they finished just 12th in offensive efficiency and were shut down by Miami in the playoffs. This explains their quest to add more scoring. Chicago waived Keith Bogans and signed Richard Hamilton to provide scoring help for Derrick Rose; I'd argue Hamilton can help their anemic second unit even more, depending on how the Bulls spot his minutes. Unfortunately, he's also higher-maintenance than Bogans, so the Bulls will need to manage that carefully to maintain the esprit de corps that fueled them through last season.
Aside from Rip, the big item in the Bulls' favor is continuity -- Chicago has the most intact roster this side of Philly, with Hamilton the only change. Several young players will likely improve, including Noah and reserve bigs Omer Asik and Taj Gibson. The latter combo presents an awesome defensive frontcourt with the second unit, but each is raw offensively. Rose comes off an MVP season, but the exciting part is that he's still getting better -- his free-throw rate steadily escalated during 2010-11, while his long-range shooting and court vision are the next items on the list.
While continuity favors the Bulls, the schedule presents some challenges. Chicago is generally a deep team, but Thibodeau's instincts last season were to ride Rose and Luol Deng as long as humanly possible; do that with this season's schedule and he'll break them. If he treads more carefully, the Bulls are heavy favorites to get back to the conference finals.
1. Miami Heat (52-14)
We don't know yet what LeBron James will do if he gets back to the Finals this season, and there is little he can do to mollify his critics between now and then.
Here's what we do know: James has a better chance of playing in June than any player in the league. We already know that Boston and Chicago had no answer for the Heat's stars a year ago, and it remains to be seen what the Western Conference could throw at him in a potential Finals matchup -- especially now that Dallas has reshaped its roster.
Thus, while I would take "the field" over the Heat to win the NBA title this season, I would take the Heat over any other single team. There simply is too much talent not to put them above the rest, especially since they're likely to have more help than a year ago.
The scary thing about last season's Heat was how heavily they had to rely on awful players. Between Mike Miller, Joel Anthony, Mike Bibby, Eric Dampier, Juwan Howard, Carlos Arroyo, Jerry Stackhouse and Dexter Pittman, Miami allocated 5,346 minutes to players who produced a PER below 10 ... nearly matching the combined playing time for Wade and James.
That 5,346 figure should diminish considerably this season. Shane Battier's arrival and Miller's having operable thumbs should allow Miami's wing rotation to be far stronger, permitting more lineups where James is either playing power forward or, in a frightening matchup situation, point guard.
In the backcourt, rookie Norris Cole should soak up the minutes taken by the Arroyos, Bibbys and Eddie Houses of a year ago, along with holdover Mario Chalmers. Unfortunately, Miami still lacks a point guard who can push the tempo and get James and Wade out in transition; the Heat had disappointingly few run-outs a year ago and ranked just 21st in Pace Factor.
And up front, Udonis Haslem returns after missing nearly all of last season. He'll often be playing as an undersized 5 next to Bosh or even James; while this isn't ideal, it's again a big improvement on what they had a year ago.
Despite those upgrades, weaknesses remain. The Heat have only three players who project to have a PER above the league average -- I'll let you guess which three. Their starting center, Anthony, was statistically one of the league's least effective players last season. Yes, he provides defense, but no player in basketball is more blatantly disregarded by opposing offenses.
And despite the bench upgrades, the depth situation remains fraught. For instance, Juwan Howard is the second big off the bench; I'm pretty sure he played with Bob Cousy. As a result, any injuries to one of the Big 3 will quickly make this team very beatable. Plus, the grueling schedule puts teams with weaker benches at a disadvantage.
With all those caveats, Miami will be extremely difficult to beat in the playoffs, because there's more rest and the Superfriends can each play 40 minutes a game. With the drama quotient dramatically reduced this time around, I expect a more relaxed and comfortable Heat team than the one that pressed through early-season games a year ago. That team was already a heavy favorite, and with a better bench and unmatchable star power, this is again the team to beat. Whether James can deliver on that promise will have to wait until June.