There are always one or two teams in the NBA that are more polarizing than all the others. The past couple of seasons, one of those polarizing teams has been the Miami Heat. Yet, the Heat have also been the league’s best team during that time in the one area that matters most: championships. Ultimately, winning championships is what the game is all about. Plenty of players and teams can have great statistics, but relatively few are able to hoist a championship banner in their arena. The Miami Heat have already made a mark on the NBA, but they will face a tough road ahead if they want to win another championship. The Heat are obviously a good team, but there are several legitimate contenders to the NBA throne.
The Heat’s opponents from last year’s NBA Finals have been set back considerably by injuries. The San Antonio Spurs will not be able to get a re-match with the league’s defending champions unless they can get their roster healthy before playoff time. Manu Ginobili and Kahwi Leonard are each out for at least three weeks. All the injuries have hurt the Spurs’ depth and consistency, but they have already proven they can be a tough opponent for the Heat when healthy, as they took the Heat to seven games in the Finals last season.
Another potential challenger to Miami’s throne is Oklahoma City. The Thunder currently have the best record in the league at 42-12. They are led by superstar forward Kevin Durant. Durant may well be the front-runner for the league’s Most Valuable Player award. Lebron James recently made some waves when he claimed he would go down as one of the top four NBA players ever by the time his career is done. Only time will tell if Lebron’s prediction will come true, but for the current season it might be Durant, not James, who is the league’s best player. Kevin Durant lead’s the NBA in points per game at 31.2, he is shooting over 50 percent from the field, and more importantly, his team is playing good basketball. One thing that could be a problem for Durant and the Thunder, were they to face the Heat in the Finals, is the health of Russell Westbrook. Oklahoma City’s star point guard is out indefinitely after knee surgery. While the Thunder have had an excellent regular season so far, they will likely need Westbrook in a tough playoff series.
If the Heat play the Spurs or Thunder in the playoffs, it will only be in the NBA finals. Neither of those match-ups would be a shock, but the Miami Heat will face a tough road ahead of them before they can even get that far. The Indiana Pacers, a fellow Eastern Conference team, might be Miami’s biggest hurdle. Indiana has a fairly strong low-post presence, which has not traditionally been a strength of Miami in the Lebron Jame’s era. Roy Hibbert is only averaging 11.1 points per game, but with his size he can give the Heat quite a bit of trouble in the paint. However, it’s not just an inside presence that the Pacers have, they have a very well-rounded team. Paul George, the Pacers’ leading scorer, is himself one of the league’s best players. He might not get all the publicity of James and Durant, but he is quietly putting together an excellent season. He is averaging 22.2 points per game along with 6.4 rebounds per game. In addition, his size makes him a tough match-up at the shooting guard or small forward positions.
There are certainly quite a few teams that have the potential to end Miami’s reign at the top of the basketball world. It seems that the Miami Heat will face a tough road ahead of them once the playoffs begin. Of course, games are not played on paper and nothing is set in stone. There are all kinds of factors that contribute to a team’s success, or lack thereof, and a lot can change between now and the playoffs. However, the Heat will not have an easy road.
Op-Ed By Zach Kirkman