Heat’s competitors warm to the challenge
There was defiance, not resolution. There was optimism, not panic.
There is no question that NBA executives, especially those who work in the Eastern Conference, are suddenly paying more attention and expressing more concern about the goings-on in Miami, as the Heat have put together the most devastating trio of a generation, bringing in LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade.
It stunned those around the league who believed until moments before “The LeBron James Hour’’ that he would re-sign with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
There is no way he would break the hearts of an entire state, his home state, during a nationally-televised special, would he? Well, the reaction to James’s league-altering decision is, bring it on. The Heat’s foes hardly appear intimidated or daunted. At least that’s what they’re saying.
“I watch all the teams and what they did for LeBron, and [the Heat] still have to go through the Lakers with Kobe Bryant out there, who’s been my favorite player for a long time,’’ said Pacers president Larry Bird. “And I don’t think whatever they do in the East is really going to concern him that much.’’
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert overcame his anger enough to facilitate a sign-and-trade deal with the Heat, which enabled his club to gain four draft picks and a $16 million trade exception. But it also allowed James to sign a six-year deal in Miami, meaning he, Wade, and Bosh will be together at least until 2017.
The Raptors swallowed their pride and worked out a similar deal for Bosh. Heat president Pat Riley’s biggest challenge now is signing at least seven players to join the trio. After he basically gave Michael Beasley to Minnesota, Riley has four players on his roster.
The NBA’s collective bargaining agreement says that teams over the salary cap can sign players to league-minimum contracts to replenish rosters. So the new “Big Three’’ likely will have substandard players around them, unless four or five free agents jump at the opportunity to win a title, for a little more than $1 million per season. Tough sell, even for Riley.
While James can play point guard (not full time), and Bosh can play center (although he would get crushed by bruising big men), the Heat badly need two more capable starters. And let’s forget about Mario Chalmers suddenly transforming into Rajon Rondo.
New 76ers coach Doug Collins’s view represented the sentiments of the lower-tier teams in the East, who now can overtake Cleveland and Toronto as they move toward respectability. The Sixers are in the early stages of a rebuilding plan, so they weren’t going to compete with Miami in the short term anyway, so why not step on the Cavaliers and Raptors on the stairs to a playoff berth?
“I was talking to [Magic coach] Stan Van Gundy earlier, and for a team like Orlando that’s fighting for a championship, it affects them a lot more than it affects us,’’ Collins said. “Because now you start talking about adding them to the championship mix of the Eastern Conference, if they can fill out their roster. For us, the decision actually helps us. It took a few teams out of the mix. It will give us a chance to get competitive.’’
There is no question the trio can work together. Wade is a superior scorer, but also led the Heat in assists last season, while James is a walking triple-double. Bosh was the primary scorer in Toronto, but seems willing to accept a complementary role.
“I’ve always said that LeBron James is more like Magic Johnson than he was like Michael Jordan,’’ Collins said. “He wants to pass more than he wants to score. In Cleveland, he had to score because of the way the team was set up. He can be their point guard. He’s not a selfish player, and neither is Wade.
“I’ve always said paper looks good, but now you’ve got to put it together. Pat Riley right now is saying, ‘We’ve got to add some pieces.’ They’ve got a lot to sell. You’ve got those three great players, you’ve got Miami, you’ve got a fantastic organization. They’ve got a lot to sell down there, so we’ll see what happens.’’
Miami’s rivals to the north aren’t even convinced the Heat will win the Southeast Division. Magic general manager Otis Smith seemed to indicate that James bolted from Cleveland because he felt he couldn’t win a championship as the primary star.
“They’ve already got a ring, according to most people,’’ Smith said. “Are they a favorite to win because you combine those three together? Sure. But they’ve got to go play the games. That’s the beauty of sports, there’s one thing to put it together and another thing to make it work. I am a competitor and we compete. You don’t back away from [the Heat], you look forward to [the challenge].’’
Van Gundy has no problem declaring the Heat the favorites.
“I think any time you have to go against a team that has that much talent, it definitely motivates you to get better,’’ he said. “Miami is in our division. They are in our conference, it’s a team we’re going to have to face at least four times a year. They’re going to be the favorites. It’s funny. We’re the underdogs one minute, then for like 90 seconds we’re the favorite, then after LeBron goes to Miami we’re going to be the underdogs again.’’
That same day, Williams was indicted on four counts of possession of a controlled substance and four counts of attempting to manufacture, deliver, or sell a codeine-based syrup commonly called “purple drank.’’ Williams was booked and sent to a diversion program. If he stays out of trouble through August, the charges will be dropped, so the 17th overall pick in the 2006 draft is trying to work back into shape and revive his career, spending last week with the Charlotte Bobcats in the Orlando Summer League.
Williams’s brief career — he’s been with three teams in four seasons — has been marred by brushes with the law. Tabbed as a potential cornerstone by Pacers president Larry Bird, Williams is simply trying to make a roster, attempting to prove to an unforgiving league that he can stay clear of trouble.
“I feel like I have many years of basketball left,’’ he said last week. “I feel like I haven’t even reached the peak of my game. If I can just get settled and get into a groove, everything will be all right.’’
The league hasn’t had much of an opportunity to determine if Williams can be a productive player. He was stopped by police in two marijuana-related incidents that were eventually changed to traffic violations while with the Pacers, and after being traded to Dallas before the 2008-09 season, he was told to stay away from the team because of his constant immaturity.
Williams now will have to prove — for more than a week — that he has changed.
“I feel like that’s a tough situation because I feel like the only way you can prove that is just time,’’ said Williams, who has averaged 5.2 points and 2.4 rebounds in 126 games. “As time goes by, just stay under the radar, and that’s how I can prove myself on that. I made a lot of bad decisions and mistakes and I learned from them and I’ve just got to let my actions speak louder than my words.’’
Williams, a Memphis native who played one season at the University of Memphis, said he had to reevaluate his circle of longtime friends.
“I feel like it’s really impossible to be with the same friends you grew up with unless you have friends willing to sacrifice the same things you sacrifice,’’ he said. “Basically, your new friends are your teammates and your organization. That’s how I have to look at it. As long as I am in the gym, trouble is not going to find me.
“I feel like the stuff in New Jersey was something that got blown out of proportion, but I feel like everything happens for a reason. I am grateful to be back playing ball, back in the circuit.’’
One of Williams’s biggest supporters is former Memphis coach John Calipari, who, he said, keeps in constant touch.
“I feel like he’s going to support me because I know I’m a great kid,’’ said Williams, who averaged 5.5 points in four summer league games. “I feel like he’s going to support me 100 percent. All of my skills are there, I just have to find something I do very, very well and be the best at that. So I am going to work hard and wait for a call and try to get back.’’
Turner played as many as four positions at Ohio State, but Collins would like him to play 2-guard, which makes the Philadelphia backcourt quite versatile. Holiday, entering his second season, was one of the top players in the summer league, while fifth-year veteran Williams is a scorer in a point guard’s body.
“The thing I like about [Holiday and Turner] is they can both make plays,’’ Collins said. “And Evan, what we’re really teaching him right now is playing off the ball because most of his career he’s handled the ball because he’s most comfortable making plays for other people. He’s very, very unselfish.
“We’re going to run our offense, hopefully in the open court, and you add Andre Iguodala to our group and we think we have a chance on the perimeter to make some good things happen. That’s where we are going to have to score.’’
Holiday went to Orlando for a chance to work with Turner and the duo blended well together. Collins, who was watching intently from courtside, has a solid core of talent entering his first season.
“Jrue is a fabulous young guy,’’ Collins said. “We are putting a lot on him. We want him to be the quarterback of our team and we think he’s got an incredibly bright future.’’
Turner has no trouble with the expectations in a city dying for a winner.
“I expect a lot from myself in general,’’ said Turner, who averaged 9.4 points and 5.6 rebounds in Orlando. “And I know a lot is expected of me and I have to be ready to perform.’’
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.