Seeds planted for tougher Heat chal­lenge this sea­son

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Nba Insider - Ira Win­der­man

MI­AMI — There are two ways to look at a sea­son for teams not look­ing ahead to the next lot­tery: Good enough to con­tend for a cham­pi­onship? Good enough to make the play­offs?

The Mi­ami Heat stand in the lat­ter group, which makes the math a bit sim­pler when it comes to the Eastern Con­fer­ence post­sea­son equa­tion: eight teams make it, seven don’t.

Some of the arith­metic is rel­a­tively sim­ple: The New York Knicks are fac­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of most or all of the sea­son with­out Kristaps Porzingis in the wake of last sea­son’s knee in­jury. The At­lanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Or­lando Magic con­tinue to op­er­ate tak­ing the long view. The Brook­lyn Nets have pri­or­i­tized re­stock­ing draft picks.

That takes care of five of the non-play­off seven.

The Cleveland Cava­liers, for the mo­ment, are stand­ing by Kevin Love and play­off as­pi­ra­tions. But we all know how it went in North­east Ohio the last time LeBron James left.

And the Char­lotte Hor­nets re­main trapped with bad con­tracts and the pos­si­bil­ity of hav­ing to deal Kemba Walker be­fore he walks in 2019 free agency.

So as­sum­ing those seven are out, a look at how the Eastern Con­fer­ence is set­ting up two months be­fore camps open.

1. Bos­ton Celtics: With Gor­don Hay­ward and Kyrie Irv­ing to be in­jected into a mix that ad­vanced within one game of last sea­son’s NBA Fi­nals, an ar­gu­ment could be made that the

2018-19 Celtics stand to dis­tance them­selves more from No. 2 in their con­fer­ence than the Golden State Warriors could in the West (if the Warriors ac­tu­ally choose to go for the top seed this sea­son).

No one in the East comes close to a start­ing lineup of Al Hor­ford, Hay­ward, Jayson Ta­tum, Jaylen Brown and Irv­ing. Plus, the fact that the Celtics re­upped with Mar­cus Smart shows that Danny Ainge very much is liv­ing in the mo­ment.

2. Toronto Rap­tors: There will be chem­istry Dion Wait­ers and the Mi­ami Heat may find them­selves in the mid­dle of the pack of Eastern Con­fer­ence again this sea­son.

is­sues to sort out in the wake of swap­ping out a go-to scorer, in DeMar DeRozan, for a player com­ing back from a lost sea­son, in Kawhi Leonard.

But there still are Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet and the rest of a ros­ter that has to be en­er­gized and en­cour­aged by LeBron’s shift west. Danny Green should help, as will the abil­ity to shift OG Anunoby to a po­tent sec­ond unit that also fea­tures Delon Wright, Pas­cal Si­akam and C.J. Miles.

3. Philadel­phia 76ers: The 76ers went into the off­sea­son seek­ing to make a ma­jor splash. In­stead, LeBron James signed with the Lak­ers, Paul Ge­orge re­turned to the Thun­der and Kawhi Leonard was dealt to the Rap­tors.

In­stead, all of that cap space went to the likes of JJ Redick, Wil­son Chan­dler, Amir John­son and Mike Mus­cala.

Philadel­phia, in fact, might take a dip if they fol­low through with the plan of start­ing Markelle Fultz at point guard, shift­ing Ben Sim­mons to the wing and play­ing Redick off the bench. Sim­mons off the ball is an en­tirely dif­fer­ent equa­tion for a team that pushed to last sea­son’s No.

3 seed.

4. Milwaukee Bucks: Some might view this as a bit too high for a team that fin­ished No. 7 last sea­son and then lost Jabari Parker in free agency.

But the best player in the East (LeBron) has won the

East each of the past eight sea­sons. The best player in the East now is Gian­nis An­te­tok­oun­mpo.

Brook Lopez and Er­san Ilyasova will help, but what will help most is the huge coach­ing up­grade to Mike Bu­den­holzer.

5. In­di­ana Pac­ers: The view here is that many have over­stated the ad­di­tions of Tyreke Evans and Doug McDermott. Evans has ap­peared in four ca­reer play­off games; let’s see if his stats trans­late to vic­to­ries. McDermott has strug­gled to gain an NBA foothold as any­thing more than a shooter.

What con­tin­ues to mat­ter, though, is what Vic­tor Oladipo and Myles Turner have be­come — two of the best play­ers in the con­fer­ence. And there al­ready was plenty in place to com­ple­ment, in Darren Col­li­son, Thad­deus Young, Bo­jan Bog­danovich and Do­man­tas Sabo­nis and Cory Joseph.

6. Washington Wizards: There is no pre­tense here — it is win or wilt by the wing. And the Wizards have plenty of them, adding Austin Rivers and Jeff Green to the mix of John Wall, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter.

While Dwight Howard might not be what he once was, he fig­ures (at least in the short term) to in­ject more into the mix than Marcin Gor­tat. If the Wizards get any­thing close to what Howard of­fered last sea­son, they could surge to home­court in the first

round.

7. Mi­ami Heat: The mid­dle of the pack is where en­sem­ble bas­ket­ball got the Heat two sea­sons ago

(41-41), last sea­son (No. 6 in East, one game ahead of No.

8) and likely where it will place the Heat again.

If Has­san White­side can get back to where he once was (and if Erik Spoel­stra can find a way to make that hap­pen) and if Dion Wait­ers proves to be more than a two-month rev­e­la­tion, there then could be hope for more.

Oth­er­wise, you likely are look­ing at a team with­out an All-Star, when ev­ery­one else above and even some below will have one.

8. Detroit Pis­tons: This is some­what of a de­fault pick, based on who likely won’t make it (Cleveland with Love com­mit­ted to his ex­ten­sion could push), sim­ply be­cause of the fullsea­son pres­ence of Blake Grif­fin, as well as An­dre Drum­mond and Reg­gie Jack­son, pack­aged with the op­ti­mism of Dwane Casey.

For years, the Pis­tons have set up bet­ter on pa­per than on the court. As for the in­jec­tion of Zaza Pachu­lia, Jose Calderon and Glenn Robin­son III? Meh.

8a. Cleveland Cava­liers: The wild­card. Could be Dan Gil­bert be so com­mit­ted to mak­ing it work with­out LeBron that he again will go all-in with the lux­ury tax? In that case, Heat-Pis­tons-Cava­liers could in­volve two play­off spots di­vided by three. STEP­PING IN:

LYNNE SLADKY/AP FILE

Michael Beasley said he was so ex­cited to be con­tacted in free agency by Magic John­son that the former Heat for­ward told Lak­ers.com that he had to put his phone on mute just to col­lect him­self. “A guy I’ve dreamed of meet­ing my whole life,” Beasley said of the Lak­ers’ pres­i­dent and former Show­time point guard. “To play for him is sur­real.” Beasley spoke fondly of again be­ing LeBron James’ team­mate, with the two to­gether on the Heat in 2013-14. “He’s one of the few guys that doesn’t have to, but plays the game the right way,” Beasley said. “And not only knows, wants to play the game the right way.” Part of an eclec­tic Lak­ers remix that in­cludes him­self, Ra­jon Rondo, Lance Stephen­son and JaVale McGee, Beasley warned not to sell short this new LeBron sup­port­ing cast. “You have 14 guys other than LeBron James who know how to play bas­ket­ball,” he said. “And I think you have 29 teams over­look­ing the fact that they know how to play bas­ket­ball.”THE RING THING: Hav­ing boosted his own cham­pi­onship legacy with his move to the Heat, Shaquille O’Neal said at a ben­e­fit ap­pear­ance in New Or­leans that he viewed James’ shift from the Cava­liers to the Lak­ers as a life­style move. O’Neal said if win­ning was the pri­or­ity, there likely would have been a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. “When I had my three rings, I wanted to get four be­fore Kobe [Bryant] did,” O’Neal told the Times Picayune. “Now, we got four, then Kobe got five. I didn’t want Tim Dun­can to get five. So, I thought LeBron’s process was go­ing to be, ‘I got three, Steph Curry’s got three. I’m go­ing to stay here, bring some peo­ple or go to a team I can get four be­fore he got four.’ I don’t see that hap­pen­ing be­cause Golden State just added [DeMar­cus] Cousins. So when I was play­ing, I didn’t want any­one say­ing they had more rings than me. Seems to me Golden State is go­ing to get at least two more.”

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