When LeBron James decided to return to Cleveland in free agency, it looked as though the Miami Heat were fucked. Like post-Jordan second retirement Bulls fucked. Chris Bosh was set to become a key piece in Darryl Morey’s Houston superteam, leaving Miami with an old and depleted roster. Facing the end of an era, Pat Riley and Co. executed a stunning turnaround by surprisingly retaining Bosh, not so surprisingly re-signing Dwyane Wade, and inking veteran SF Luol Deng (2yr/$20m) to a team-friendly contract. With this series of moves, the Heat’s outlook for the ’14-’15 season has done a complete 180°, and I now believe that they make a strong case to be the best team in the Eastern Conference.
This hot take is based on a few assumptions in which I am feeling especially confident. The first is that Eric Spoelstra is a really good coach, and not just the monster that LeBron created. Spoelstra deserves some credit for building a great Heat offense around LeBron’s unique skillset and probably, too, for transforming LeBron into the hyper-efficient, stretch power/point forward that he is today. Furthermore, bad coaches just don’t win two championships. Rings are so overrated when it comes to judging individual players that they are almost underrated for coaches. Many will say that Phil Jackson only has ten titles because he coached Jordan and Kobe, yet you never hear anyone say that Jordan and Kobe won because they were coached by Jackson. The only other active coaches with a championship to their name are Greg Poppovich and Rick Carlisle, the two best in the business according to just about anyone. From an outsider’s perspective, Spo belongs in that company, and this gives Miami a competitive advantage even without the talents of James.
The second assumption is that Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade can still play at a star level. This especially applies to Bosh, as a significant Wade resurgence seems highly unlikely. Bosh is two years younger and, unlike Wade, does not have a history of injuries. He also has a track record of performing at a superstar level when carrying a high usage rate. CB4 had the same excellent .592 TS% as the go-to guy (28.7 USG%) in his last season with Toronto that he did as a low usage stretch five (22.7 USG%) on Miami’s second championship team . Bosh is five years older now and not quite the player he once was, but there is reason to believe that he could still do some damage as a primary offensive option. It will be interesting to see how the Heat attempt to fill the offensive void left behind by LeBron, but between Deng, fellow free agent signee Josh McRoberts, and about 5% more Bosh, I am optimistic that they can work something out.
That sort of brings me to my last point: the signings of Bosh, Wade, and Deng justify the Heat’s earlier offseason moves. Well, not so much allowing LeBron to make their first round pick, but more specifically the 4yr/$32m contract they dished out to unrestricted free agent Josh McRoberts. Last season McBob emerged as a sort of poor man’s Lamar Odom; a skilled, versatile PF and an ace role player. After LeBron chose Cleveland, McRoberts appeared to be in a lose-lose situation as an unfit Bosh replacement on a sinking ship franchise. With Bosh, Wade, and Deng in tow, McBob can now settle into a role more like the one he had in Charlotte when he led the NBA in A:TO ratio and made the leap from a fringe roster player to a coveted free agent.
As for the rest of the Eastern Conference, one could make a case for any of Indiana, Chicago, Cleveland, Washington, or Toronto being better than Miami, but all carry serious question marks. Cleveland became the Vegas favorite to win the East after the LeBron signing, which wrongfully ignores just how awful the Cavs were last season. BronBron will certainly elevate their offensive game, but their defensive outlook is still bleak and it’s unlikely that Andrew Wiggins moves the needle either way in his rookie year. I am willing to give David Blatt the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is above average, but even still the Cavs will inevitably face issues of chemistry and adjusting to a new scheme that the Heat will not. Indiana, the top seed in the East last season, just lost one of the two players they had who could handle and make plays. The Raptors might be my second favorite Eastern Conference sleeper, but there is only so far you can go when your coach is Dwayne Casey and your best player is Kyle Lowry. The upstart Wiz struggled to hit .500 last season in a dreadful Eastern Conference and, even with the additions of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic, Chicago’s contender status still hinges on the uncertain health of Derrick Rose.
LeBron’s earth-shattering return to Northeast Ohio is assumed to devastate the Heat and catapult the Cavs into title contention. Color me skeptical on both fronts. The Heat’s coaching and veteran leadership make them a veritable lock to be good and, in a wide open Eastern Conference, that might be enough.