The Los Angeles Lakers are NBA champions, and the Miami Heat are not.
But what would it take to get an NBA Finals rematch between these two teams next season?
A lot more for the Heat than for the newly-crowned league champions.
THE LAKERS ARE BUILT TO LAST
With LeBron James and Anthony Davis, how could they not be?
The numbers will tell you that James and Davis were the fourth best duo in the playoffs with Clippers star Kawhi Leonard and big man Ivica Zubac ranking two slots above.
The eye test tells the truth: James and Davis are the best duo in basketball and in the playoffs, and it wasn’t particularly close.
The pairing of The King and The Brow was just as lethal as anyone imagined, and the immediate championship that ensued validated the Anthony Davis trade haul. Lakers GM Rob Pelinka deserves his respect, dealing not one, not two, but three first-round picks, along with Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram and Josh Hart to put together a star-laden championship team.
But does he have to do it again?
Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the Golden State Warriors will be back next season with a vengeance. Reminder: The Warriors have the No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, and they traded D’Angelo Russell to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Andrew Wiggins. If the Bucks ever want to pull the trigger on a Giannis Antetokounmpo trade, the Warriors have a compelling offer.
So do the Nets, and whether you like it or not, they’ll be a force to be reckoned with. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving have three NBA championships between them, and both want to prove they can win big, and do it their way. Brooklyn’s duo could also become a Big 3 if Nets brass (and their stars) deem another major piece is still necessary to compete for a title.
The Clippers were the most disappointing team in the playoffs. They traded the kitchen sink to pair Kawhi Leonard with Paul George only to lose Game 7 to the Nuggets in the second round. They’ve since fired Doc Rivers and other wholesale changes are expected on that side.
Speaking of the Nuggets, just how good were they in the playoffs? Jamal Murray and Nikola Jokic are top-15 players in this league. That much is no longer up for debate.
The Lakers proved they don’t need a third star to win a championship, but they proved so on a road favorable to them. They didn’t go through the Warriors, Clippers, Antetokounmpo’s Bucks or an Eastern Conference juggernaut.
Instead, they beat each of their conference playoff opponents in five games — first the Trail Blazers, then the Rockets and finally the Nuggets — before defeating the Heat in six games.
The Lakers could stand pat and defend their title with the same roster. Their core players — with the exception of soon-to-be free agents Markieff Morris, Dwight Howard and Jared Dudley — have player options and could choose to stay in Los Angeles another season. The Lakers also have the full non-taxpayer mid-level exception of $9.76 million, or a four-year, $42 million deal, which can be split between multiple players or given to just one.
Pelinka could also decide dynamic duos are tacky, that Big 3s are the new in and pull off a trade for another star player. The Lakers would have to trade Danny Green to make the salaries add up to a max or near-max player, but if we’ve learned anything about Pelinka, it’s that he’s not gun shy and will pull the trigger if it means winning another championship.
THE HEAT NEED MUCH MORE HELP
Jimmy Butler is a star in this league, much to the chagrin of the Chicago, Minnesota and Philadelphia franchises that failed to build a contender around him. Butler proved this season he can lead a team to a championship.
He also proved he can’t win it all on his own — no one can.
The Heat were shorthanded. Adebayo sat Games 2 and 3 with a shoulder/neck area injury. Goran Dragic tore his plantar fascia in Game 1 then returned for the elimination Game 6 and never fully caught his stride. Butler played 47 minutes in a must-win Game 5 and was completely gassed two nights later.
Miami needs another star. But where can they find one?
Provided the salary cap at least maintains its current $109 million level, the Heat project to have about $30 million in cap space to sign free agents. That’s if they renounce all their free agents, including Dragic and Jae Crowder, two integral pieces to the Heat puzzle.
The issue? There are no franchise-altering superstars on the opening market. Provided Davis re-signs in Los Angeles, the next best available player will be former Raptors star DeMar DeRozan. Jazz guard Mike Conley Jr. has an early termination option and could become a free agent if he chose, but he’s not turning down a guaranteed $34.5 million.
The Heat need to make a trade if they want another chance at the Lakers and if they want a chance to defend their crown as Eastern Conference champions. Miami caught teams by surprise: Neither the Bucks nor th Celtics were ready for the whooping that came their way.
The NBA isn’t just a make or miss league, it’s a league of adjustments. Good teams adjust when they lose in the playoffs.
The Heat just lost on the biggest stage, and they must adjust their roster accordingly. Miami is a team that spaces the floor with lethal shooters on the wing and oftentimes at the five. They have been tied to Antetokounmpo as a team that may attempt to poach him from the Bucks if he ever requests a trade.
For the Heat, however, their bubble may have burst. It’s back to reality in an East they caught slacking. In the NBA, it’s fool me once, shame on you. It’ll take another star in town for Miami to fool the conference twice. The Heat are a contender. Next season, they’ll be treated like one.
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