Heat Pacers

After their dominant win over the Indiana Pacers on Sunday, the Miami Heat solidified their status as the unquestioned favorite to win the NBA title. The win was the Heat’s 18th in a row, and yet another “revenge” win against a team that had beat them earlier in the season (a list including the Knicks, Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, and Warriors).

Basically, fans of other teams have little hope for a championship this season.

As Miami gains steam during this winning streak, something bigger is casting its shadow over this season: the desire of many teams to play for the future. Largely stemming from the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) negotiated before last season, several title contenders made risky decisions this year to position themselves well down the road. The immediate effect could be a Heat championship this year (and until the Heat’s Big Three fall off). Here are three such moves:

James Harden is traded to the Houston Rockets –

Just before this season, the Oklahoma City Thunder broke up a young core of players that had just gone to the NBA Finals and helped the USA win a gold medal in the Olympics. Obviously the Thunder was a team on the rise. Too bad the math didn’t work. harden[1]

Facing the reality of paying Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Serge Ibaka, and James Harden, the Thunder struck swiftly dealing Harden for an expiring contract (Kevin Martin), a rookie, and draft picks. The new CBA established stiffer penalties for going over the salary cap (here is a pretty straightforward explanation), something the Thunder could not avoid with four young stars on the roster. While the Thunder could technically afford to pay everyone, they would have no financial flexibility as early as next season.

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On the court, the Thunder definitely miss Harden’s production. While their record is good, the offensive dynamic has shifted, putting more pressure on Westbrook to be as much of a playmaker for others as he is a scorer. Against the Heat (the team to beat for a championship), I don’t trust Westbrook to limit his turnovers and defer to Durant when necessary. Essentially, playing for next year put the Thunder further away from a championship.

Rudy Gay is traded to the Toronto Raptors –

Very similar to the Thunder, the Memphis Grizzlies could see the writing on the wall for their finances. With almost their entire salary cap tied up in just four players, the Grizzlies traded Rudy Gay’s huge contract for several cheaper ones. This creates financial leverage for them in the future, but it blew up a dangerous team building on playoff successes.

Rudy Gay

The Memphis situation is a watered down version of Oklahoma City. Built on defense and low post play, the Grizzlies were a team poised to make a playoff run this season. The Grizzlies were capable of beating any team in the league. Simply put, they are worse now without their former leading scorer. This is yet another example of a team putting money tomorrow before winning today; a defensible, but deflating move for most basketball fans.

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Everything involving the Chicago Bulls –

The Bulls were in an unenviable position as soon as Derrick Rose went down with a torn ACL in the playoffs last season. Assuming their best player would be out this entire season, the Bulls tried to punt this season and build for the future. They allowed almost their entire bench to leave in the offseason and picked up several spare parts (many on one-year contracts) to replace them.

Somehow, the Bulls could still do well in the playoffs if Rose can come back healthy this season. It hasn’t always been pretty, but Chicago has held on to the 5th seed in the East, just two games away from homecourt advantage in the first round behind its defense and the emergence of Luol Deng, Jimmy Butler, and Joakim Noah.

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Here’s the debate: The media seems to be split on what to do with Rose as this season winds down. Some believe the Bulls should rest Rose until next year, since the odds are against them to beat Miami this season anyway. Why not ensure that Rose is 100%? Others say since Rose has been medically cleared, you have to play him and take your chance to win now. Miami will be good as long as they have LeBron. Are you going to hold Rose out for the next five seasons?

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The lack of urgency to get Rose back on the court tells you where Chicago falls on this debate. They are willing to trade this season for (what they hope is) a decade with a healthy Rose. Another case of next year being more valuable than this one.

Playing for tomorrow is often the wise move.  As just one example of many, a lack of foresight cost the Knicks for years. For the Thunder, Grizzlies, and Bulls, looking ahead to next year seems to have opened the door for the Heat in 2013. These teams have all become weaker just as LeBron and Miami ascended to another level. A pity for those of us who were looking forward to the NBA playoffs this season.

What’s your view, SBM Sports Fans? Do you still think OKC, Memphis, or the Bulls can challenge for a championship? Does anyone else have a shot or does Miami have the championship wrapped up? Hit the comments and let me know what you think!