No, the games and the talent on the court are perfectly fine, exemplary actually, but the disparity of quality between the East and West and there being only five teams capable of winning a title this year is something that needs to be addressed.
It is historic how poor the Eastern Conference is right now, which is leading to a two-team race to the top between the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat. At the moment, there are are only three teams in the East with a winning record (Toronto is 15-15), with the third, the Atlanta Hawks, not a threat to either of them.
There are younger teams that will eventually challenge, but many of them are in rebuild mode and will not be ready to contend for a few years.
The West has been, by far, the superior conference. However, there are only so many teams out there with a legitimate shot at winning a title, too.
Teams like the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers have those aspirations and want to be recognized as a legitimate shot, but several factors come into play. Can the Rockets last through the playoffs with the defense of James Harden and a limited bench? Can the Clippers make any sort of advances if Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are nonexistent once the playoffs start? It’s led to only five teams currently recognized as those who can actually win the title this year, and we take a look at those squads and what separates them from the rest of the league.
*** *** ***
Don’t look now, but with a 24-7 record, the Miami Heat are off to their best start in the Big Three era. Perhaps it’s because they’re the two-time champions and it’s expected of them, but the Heat hasn’t been this accustomed to starting off the season this well. Just last season, actually, they started off with a 29-14 record, before running off their historic streak of 27 consecutive wins.
Only one of their seven losses on the season came by more than ten points, while the other six losses came by a combined 27 points, including two by only a point. None of their losses — outside of a tilt in Sacramento that has to be considered a fluke — have come at the hands of a Western Conference opponent.
It’s just another season for the Heat, which means there’s also going to be the usual talk of breaking up the team. With the way things have been going this season, however, the threat of having the Big Three broken up is seemingly becoming more and more of a pipe dream.
They’ve started out the season playing some of the most efficient basketball in NBA history on the offensive end. Their 104.5 points per 100 possessions is good enough for sixth in the league, but their effective field goal percentage of 56.6 percent is the best in the league as is their true shooting percentage of 60.1 percent, per Hollinger.
Although their offensive efficiency from last season, by year’s end, was actually superior to this year’s current total, both their eFG percentage and TS percentage lacked in comparison to this years.
Their assist ratio, or the percentage of a team’s possessions that end in an assist, of 19.1 percent is second in the league, heralded by LeBron James‘ 6.6 assists per, Dwyane Wade‘s 4.9, and Mario Chalmers‘ current career-high of 5.3.
Even Norris Cole is garnering a career-high in assists, as well as in field goal and three-point percentages, rebounds per and points per. His numbers from this year are significantly greater than any of the numbers he put up in his previous two seasons, making him a likely candidate for the league’s Most Improved Player award.
But Cole is only one of many reasons why this may be the best Heat team in the Big Three era yet. Far from it.
While most analysts will look at LeBron James’ shooting percentages, currently at .590 overall and .415 on three-pointers, and Dwyane Wade’s 19.5 points per game on 54 percent from the field, it is also of importance to take a look at their minutes per game and notice a trend that should make opponents weary.
LeBron and Chris Bosh are both averaging career-lows in minutes, while Dwyane is averaging the second-lowest of his career. With these three playing fewer minutes than ever and the coaching staff being able to rely on the bench, it means the depth and quality of the bench is allowing the team’s most talented players to not overexert themselves in the regular season.
Michael Beasley has also played a role in this sudden bench revival, averaging 11.1 points on 53 percent shooting and providing the team with a scorer who can create on his own, a rarity to come off the Heat bench over the past three-and-a-half years. He’s already earned back the admiration of the Heat fanbase, who were clamoring for Beasley to play during their win over the Lakers on Christmas.
The Heat are also receiving their usual contributions from Ray Allen, shooting 39 percent from three this year, and Chris Andersen, averaging 6.4 points on 64 percent shooting and 4.4 rebounds, but have also earned a boost from Rashard Lewis, who has been playing surprisingly well on the defensive end and is shooting 34 percent from beyond the arc.
All this, and Greg Oden has yet to step on the court in the regular season, as well as Shane Battier having a rough start to the season, shooting below 34 percent from three.
At the moment, and considering the Heat’s astounding dominance over the Western Conference, there appears to be only one team that can stop them from making the three-peat happen.
What separates them: Does having the best player in the world help? As long as the Heat possess LeBron James, who also happens to play alongside fellow elite stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, Miami will possess the edge when speaking of the favorites for the title.
The Heat are the defending two-time champions — just in case you haven’t heard — and are playing as well as they ever have in the Big Three era. With LeBron, Dwyane and Chris receiving either career-lows or near career-lows in minutes per, a rested Big Three is the last thing any opponent wants to see. Don’t forget that Miami limped into the past two NBA Finals they won. Wade was hardly himself in the 2012 Finals, Bosh was brought back early from an abdominal strain he suffered in the 2012 semifinals, and Wade went into the 2013 postseason having come off a knee injury near the end of the year.
If Wade maintains his health, the Heat are going to end the season with a third consecutive title.