NBA Finals Preview: Does the Heat Dynasty Begin This June?

NBA Finals Preview: Does the Heat Dynasty Begin This June?

Going into this year's post-season, it seemed like chances were pretty good that the Heat's predicted dominance over the NBA would not start for another year or two, if indeed it started at all. Health, chemistry and mental makeup issues dogged the team all regular season, and a number of high-profile late-game meltdowns—often in marquee matchups against elite teams—made it look like this was a team that was still a long way away from competing with the league's top dogs. Hell, even their five-game, first-round victory over the Sixers, a series that while close in parts left no doubt as to who the better team was, made them look vulnerable due to their tendency to let the Sixers get out to early leads, and their inability to put the games away in the fourth quarter. Surely a veteran team with championship pedigree like the Celtics, or a young, talented, versatile squad like the Bulls would be able to exploit their flaws in a seven-game series.

But unfortunately for the rest of the NBA, this ended up being pretty damn far from the case. The Heat congealed at exactly the right time, partly due to the return of valuable role players like Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller from injury (or general ineffectiveness), and partly due to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seeming to find their balance playing together, reminding the league that these are two of the three or four best players in the NBA right now and that stopping a team that has both of them turns out to be a mildly tricky proposition. They made the Celtics look old, and they made the Bulls look predictable. Now only one team stands between them and all heavenly glory: The Dallas Mavericks.

As doubted as the Heat were before the playoffs started, at least everyone predicted them to get safely to the second round. When the post-season started, the limping Mavs were forecast by many to drop their first-round series to the younger, trendier Portland Trailblazers. But after eliminating the Blazers in six, the Mavs went on to really shock the NBA world by taking out the two-time-defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in a four-game sweep, an upset that rivaled even the eighth-seeded Grizzlies' takedown of the top-seeded Spurs in terms of playoff intrigue. And thanks to some late-game magic and a couple peerless performances from ex-MVP power forward Dirk Nowitzki, the Mavs were also able to silence the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference finals, to move to their second finals in franchise history, the first since 2006.

Of course, 2006 was also the last time the Heat were in the finals, back when LeBron and Chris Bosh were still biding their time in Cleveland and Toronto, and Shaquille O'Neal and a cast of ringless veterans on their last legs (Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton, Antoine Walker) provided the support system for Dwyane Wade. Though the Mavs won the first two games in Big D, the Heat went on to take the next four, largely thanks to a couple superhuman efforts from Wade. Many claimed, however, that Miami's victory was largely referee-assisted, as Wade averaged an unthinkable 16 free throw attempts a game, and several late-game calls came under particular scrutiny for being alleged phantom fouls, particularly one towards the end of game five that allowed Miami a series-swinging victory.

So will the Mavericks be able to re-write history five years later, allowing Dirk (whose play in a couple of the finals losses, as well as the next season's first-round upset at the hands of the "We Believe" Warriors, was highly subpar) to exorcise his demons and bringing Dallas and owner Mark Cuban their first-ever Larry O'Brien trophy? Well, conventional logic would certainly seem to point against it. From a talent standpoint, the Heat have the Mavs crushed, with Miami boasting three guys who were considered legitimate franchise players in the '10 off-season, and Dallas not even having a single player besides Dirk on the roster who was an All-Star this year. The Heat had a better regular-season record, ranked higher in offensive and defensive rating for the year, and have home court advantage in this series. It shouldn't even be a contest.

That said, the Mavs do have a couple things to cling to. For one, they were two-for-two against the Heat in the regular season, and in fact have never lost to the Heat in the ten head-to-head regular season games the two have played since Miami won the '06 finals, though obviously those were against some very different teams than the one they'll be playing in the finals. And as hot as the Heat have been this post-season (no pun intended), the Mavs have been just as scorching, matching Miami's 12-3 post-season record, sharing the ball brilliantly and getting big contributions from every player, from super-over-the-hill veterans like Peja Stojakovic and Jason Kidd to younger energy guys like J.J. Barea and Tyson Chandler. And of course, Dirk has been the single most unguardable player this post-season, averaging over 28 points a game on unconscious 64% True Shooting, with no single Heat player likely to be able to contain him.

What will the Mavs need to be able to beat the Heat, then? Well, there's a lot to analyze, from player matchups to team defensive strategies to coaching substitution patterns, but in my opinion, the thing that Dallas is going to need most is plain old luck. The Heat's two big guns—and even Bosh's play in the Chicago series has arguably nudged him back into that headliner discussion–are so ridiculously talented that if they make a high percentage of the tough shots they're forced to take (which they have so far this post-season, as they have with unnerving consistency for most of their careers), there's really no way to beat them whatsoever. The Mavericks need the Basketball Gods to be on their side, and to have significantly more of those fall-aways, powered-through layup drives, and shot-clock-beating three-point heaves rim out than not, because otherwise, the Heat are just gonna win no matter what. Hardly the most sabermetrically astounding analysis, but I really believe it's that simple—force them to take tough shots, and then pray.

Personally, I don't think the Mavs are going to get enough good fortune to have much of a chance in this series. It's possible that some combination of Jason Terry, DeShawn Stevenson and Shawn Marion can hold Wade and LeBron reasonably in check for stretches, and that Dirk can just go nuts for 30 or so a game on the other end. But considering that Dallas has already been playing ridiculously over their heads for the whole playoffs—Terry, Marion, Stojakovic, and Barea have all been playing their best basketball of the season through the first three rounds—and that most of those guys are well past their prime at this point, I think a far more likely scenario is that Dallas's supporting cast starts to slip, and there are one or two games where their shots just don't fall and Dirk is left holding the bag on his own, like he was for most of the last two NBA post-seasons. As great as Dirk is and has been, he can't win a title on his own, not against a Heat team this skilled on both sides of the ball.

However, if you're an NBA fan, I do believe it's something of a moral imperative for you to watch this series and pull as hard as you can for the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat may or may not be evil in the traditional sense—my judgment on this matter is too clouded to speak objectively—but their eventual reign over the NBA, whenever it comes, will be one of arrogance, athlete-as-celebrity hype, and general insufferability. (Though to be fair, it will also be one of some of the best, most lyrical basketball we've ever seen played.) Meanwhile, the Mavericks are a squad with four or five of the best players of the last 15 years to never win a ring shooting for that first taste of championship glory—led by Dirk, one of the league's greatest, most lovable and most singular superstars, who in all likelihood will never get a chance like this at a title again. Oh,
and if all that's not enough, I shouldn't have to remind you that the Heat did beat the Sixers in the first-round this year, with LeBron referring to wrapping up the series in Game Five as "finishing [the team's] breakfast." You shouldn't need to do too much debating about which team to be rooting for in these here finals.

Regardless, I gotta say Heat in five for my series prediction. I pray that I'm wrong, but I think the dawn of the South Beach chapter of basketball history begins this post-season. If not...well, maybe there is some sort of divine NBA power after all.

(Photo: Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE)

Howie Roseman: Darren Sproles signing about culture, which is expensive to build

Howie Roseman: Darren Sproles signing about culture, which is expensive to build

The Eagles didn’t need to sign Darren Sproles to a one-year contract extension on Friday morning. 

Sproles is 33, not getting any younger, and his production dropped off significantly in 2015, at least from an offensive standpoint. Sure, he’s still quick and elusive and a dynamic punt returner, but he’s a running back well on the wrong side of 30. 

The Eagles could have waited. They could have gambled — with decent odds — that Sproles, by season’s end, wouldn’t be worth the reported $4.5 million extension they handed him on Friday. If they still wanted him after this year, they could have re-signed him then. 

But they didn’t wait. They signed him now (see story).

Why? 

“I think it’s the message that you’re sending to the team and the players,” vice president of football operations Howie Roseman said on Friday after practice, inside the bubble. “That you do the right thing here, and you’re productive, and you have a chance to stay here. And we want people to feel that way on and off the field, that this is a place that, if you do the right thing, you have an opportunity to continue to be here. And when you look around the team, he’s a great example of that. 

“That’s part of it, we’re trying to kind of build that culture of having guys here who feel like, ‘Hey, I can be here if I do the right thing and I play well.’ For us, Darren, we had been having these discussions for a while and to get it done is a great relief on our part.”

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about the “message” or the “culture” the Eagles are trying to breed by sending it. In fact, since Roseman reascended into his power position, it’s been a theme of the offseason. The Eagles are trying to keep their own, instead of ousting them the way Chip Kelly once did. 

During the offseason, the Eagles went out and signed some free agents; Brandon Brooks, Leodis McKelvin and Nigel Bradham, just to name a few. But Roseman has continually said the most important moves the team made were the ones that brought back their own players, like Brent Celek, Zach Ertz, Vinny Curry, Lane Johnson, and, of course, Fletcher Cox. 

In Sproles and Celek, the Eagles have now extended two players over 30, and they’ve elected to keep Jason Peters, who is 34 (more on Peters here).

“I think we’re kind of looking at each individual case as it comes,” Roseman said. “And when you talk about those guys, we know they still bring to our football team on and off the field. When you’re implementing some young players, it’s good to have a nice mix of guys who have done it before and also understand what it was like when teams have had success.”

With all the contracts the Eagles have handed out over the last several months, they’ll be up against the cap soon enough. As PhillyVoice.com pointed out, the Eagles, as of now, will have the least amount of salary cap space in 2017. 

Roseman is aware. 

“Yeah, I think for us, when you’re looking at this, it’s never in a one-year window,” he said. 

The contract Sam Bradford signed this offseason is pretty easy to get out of this year, but if he goes out and has a Pro Bowl season and the Eagles want to keep him on the roster next year, he’ll have a $22.5 million cap hit. It seems like it would be tough for the Eagles to keep him at that number, but Roseman said there’s “no question” they’d be able to figure out a way to do it. 

Aside from Bradford, several players, most notably starting defensive tackle Bennie Logan, will be free agents at the end of 2016. 

“We love Bennie Logan,” Roseman said. “Bennie Logan’s a heckuva player and a great person off the field. He’s someone that we see here. Just because, like I said, someone doesn’t have a contract right now, it doesn’t mean that they’re not in our plans going forward.”

Doug Pederson Q&A: Coaching philosophy, off-field Issues, QBs & more

Doug Pederson Q&A: Coaching philosophy, off-field Issues, QBs & more

As Eagles training camp kicked into gear, head coach Doug Pederson sat down with Comcast SportsNet's Quick Slants crew earlier this week at the NovaCare Complex and addressed a number of Eagles topics with co-hosts Derrick Gunn and Reuben Frank.

In a nine-minute interview, Pederson talked about his philosophy of handling off-the-field issues when they arise, he spoke of how he wants this team to be different than a Chip Kelly team and — of course — he talked about his quarterbacks.

Here are some highlights of that conversation:

Quick Slants: What do you feel needs to change the most about the team from last year to this year?

Doug Pederson: "The biggest thing and really what I want to get across is we need to be a smarter football team, a tougher football team and we need to be a better-conditioned football team. That said, that covers a lot of ground, but it’s very simple when you break it down. Smarter means we need to eliminate penalties, a tougher football team is just that, we’ve got to find ways to win football games. And conditioning is just how well you perform in the fourth quarter and down the stretch. We need to be a better-conditioned football team and it’s something for them to work on."

QS: A lot of people are going to doubt you because of your lack of coaching experience. How do you handle that?

Pederson: “I’m OK with that. My life’s always been that way. Sort of been the underdog and sort of come out swinging. You just go day by day and you just work hard and you study tape and you put your players in great positions and you build relationships with your guys and eventually they’re going to run through walls for you and that’s what you want and that’s the type of coach I want the team and the players to see. And at the same time you’re fair and you’re honest and you’re up front with guys and when you come to Sundays, man, those guys are eager and ready to go.”

QS: Two of your players, Nelson Agholor and Nigel Bradham, were involved in off-the-field incidents this offseason. Agholor’s situation has been resolved but not Bradham’s. Generally speaking, what is your philosophy with this kind of thing? What message do you give to the players?

Pederson: “When the players step on the NovaCare property and they’re in the building, my message is always: ‘You’re representing the Philadelphia Eagles and the entire organization, guys, you’ve got to make smart decisions. You’re in a high-profile business. Everybody out there is a reporter, everybody’s got a cell phone, everybody wants to take your picture or antagonize you or do whatever they can do to see if you respond. You just have to be the bigger man, you’ve got to turn your back and walk away.’ And if something happens, we as a staff have to gather all the information we can and they will have to suffer the consequences if there’s going to be any down the road. So learn from your mistakes. We all make them. But let’s be smart about it and move on.”

QS: You’ve made it clear Sam Bradford is the No. 1 quarterback, Chase Daniel is No. 2 and Carson Wentz is No. 3. Why line up the depth chart that way?

Pederson: “For me, really when I evaluated the 2015 roster and the quarterback position, I felt like Sam Bradford was the guy for me. I felt like in conversations with Howie [Roseman] and when I hired [quarterback coach John DeFilippo] and [offensive coordinator Frank Reich], that he's going to be our guy. And it started there. … And then I wanted to go and get somebody. I didn't know I was going to get Chase Daniel, but I needed a quality backup and it just so happened that a Chase Daniel was there who knows the offense. So now you bring in a guy who knows the offense, who can help Sam, can help a young, third-string quarterback. At the time, I think we were picking [13th] in the draft, and then some things happened, some trades, some moves and now you're up to No. 2 and you take a quarterback. And the beauty of that is he doesn't have to play the first year right now. And we can develop him and focus our attention on Sam and getting him ready to go and get ready for Cleveland on Sept. 11.”

QS: The last 11 quarterbacks taken with a top-five pick have started at least 10 games. That goes back to JaMarcus Russell, who started just one game in 2007. So why make Wentz No. 3? What is the benefit of giving him a likely redshirt year?

Pederson: “The benefit is that he gets to learn our system, he gets to learn our players, gets to learn the city, gets to learn our fans. And gosh, coming to Philadelphia and that being your first year and you get thrown to the wolves right away? That can be very mind-blowing for a young quarterback. So being able to sort of protect him that way I think gives the longevity of his career, whether it's here or eventually somewhere else, who knows what's going to happen, but it gives the longevity and the confidence level that he'll have going into Year 2, becomes that much more important for him and really us as an organization.”

QS: What about Wentz made you think he could be the eventual franchise quarterback?

Pederson: “Well when you look at him, you kind of had flashes of Donovan [McNabb]. The athleticism, the big arm, the size, the whole thing, the way he can run and move. And the fact that he's a proven winner, he knows how to win. I know he had an injury his senior year but he was able to bounce back and win some championships. He knows how to win football games, and just watching him these last couple days with the rookies and his communication level with them, where he is mentally with our offense, is everything we sort of knew and read and studied and researched in the offseason before we drafted him and felt like he could definitely be potentially the quarterback of the future, whenever that is. But right now, like I mentioned, we're full steam ahead with Sam and we'll let everything kinda settle whenever it settles.”

QS: You’re an offensive coach and have never worked on the defensive side of the ball. Now as a head coach, what will your involvement be with the defense?

Pederson: “Yeah, I definitely want to have a hand in not necessarily game-planning but knowing and understanding the game plan and how [Jim Schwartz] plans on attacking an offense. And if there's any particular insight I have on the offense we're playing that week, I'll throw that information at him and vice versa. If he has knowledge of a defensive game plan then I'd love to hear that. Having those conversations on a weekly basis, staying plugged in, in-tune and open lines of communication and understanding how he's going about his defense that week and understanding what I'm doing.”

Jordan Matthews values impact of hard-working veterans like Darren Sproles

Jordan Matthews values impact of hard-working veterans like Darren Sproles

A year after coming just three receiving yards short of 1,000, Jordan Matthews didn’t want to talk about himself.

Matthews wasn’t willing to discuss the possibility of 100 receptions, 1,000 receiving yards or other lofty personal goals when asked about his individual ambitions for this season following Friday’s training camp session at the NovaCare Complex (see Day 5 observations).

“I don’t even talk about that,” Matthews said. “This is a city where we ain’t about talking, we’re about working.”

As soon as Darren Sproles’ name was mentioned, however, Matthews started gushing about the versatile 33-year-old veteran, whom the Eagles signed to a one-year, $4.5 million extension on Friday (see story).

“I love D, that’s my boy,” Matthews said.

“He comes out here and practices hard every single day. He’s a great role model, not just for the running backs but for me, when I see him go out there and make plays I’m like, ‘Shoot, I need to do that.’ I know Zach [Ertz] looks up to him, too. It’s crazy, we look up to a guy that comes up to our knee, but all of us were excited that he was able to sign back with us. He’s a tremendous asset to this team, great teammate, great brother, so I’m excited to have him back.”

Matthews repeatedly stressed the importance of veterans such as Sproles who set a great example for their teammates. For this Eagles team in particular, Matthews believes that Sproles’ elusive running style and versatility will be a tremendous model for several of the team’s young running backs to follow.

“If you look at all of our backs, Kenjon [Barner], Byron [Marshall], [Wendell] Smallwood — they’re versatile guys, and they can all learn from Sproles," Matthews said. "They got some shiftiness to them, especially Byron, I like what I’ve seen from him, so I think all those guys can learn a lot from Sproles.”

The Eagles would also love if one of those backs shows some ability as a returner and eventually assumes Sproles’ duties in that department. Sproles led the NFL in both punt return yards (446) and punt return touchdowns (two) last season. At the moment, the team is trying out a handful of players during return drills, including Oregon products Barner and Marshall, though we’ll have to wait until the pads appear on Saturday to start seriously evaluating talent in that role.

Another unique attribute of Sproles is his skill as a receiver. Since 2007, he ranks No. 1 in the league in receiving yards (4,146) and receiving touchdowns (28) out of the backfield. In the team’s new West Coast-hybrid system, there should be more opportunities for running backs, especially Sproles, to thrive catching the ball. Running backs coach Duce Staley, a dual threat out of the backfield the last time the Eagles ran a West Coast scheme, took several of the young backs aside during drills Friday to tweak their route-running techniques. 

In the competition for the final one or two running back spots on the roster next to Sproles and Ryan Mathews, who missed practice for a second straight morning and is day to day with a mild ankle injury, small distinctions between players as receivers and returners could determine who makes the team.

“We got a lot of talent there,” Pederson said. “Kenjon Barner is a kid who has shown some good strides this offseason, picking up the offense. You got Ryan there, you got Darren, and you got the young kids — Wendell we picked up, Byron Marshall, we got some guys with some talent.”

Returning his focus to his own position, Matthews continued to highlight the impact of veterans passing on their knowledge to younger players. According to Matthews, the offseason signings of Chris Givens and Rueben Randle, each of whom has four years of NFL experience, should help Nelson Agholor’s progression after a disappointing rookie season in which the USC product posted just 23 receptions. 

“[Agholor] didn’t have a Jeremy [Maclin] when he came in, a guy that was older, who had played five years, like I did," Matthews said. "But now you got Rueb, he’s got some experience, Chris has been around so he knows a couple things … he’s learned from guys like Steve Smith and other guys he’s played with, so we’re going to continue to help bring him along, but Nelson’s done a great job, he had a great practice today, so I’m definitely really optimistic about his maturation.”

For all his emphasis on first- and second-year talent learning from experienced players like Randle, Sproles or even the 24-year-old Matthews himself, don’t confuse Matthews’ reverence for Sproles and the veterans on the Eagles' roster with the sentiment that this year will be more about “maturation” than competitive success.

“I don’t look at this as a rebuilding thing or like a lot of chemistry has to get rebuilt,” Matthews said. “We’ve secured a lot of guys and it really does feel like family. … Guys genuinely love to be around each other.”

Matthews probably won’t get to spend more than two more years with his role model Sproles (see story), but the consistent work ethic and knowledge the 11-year veteran has passed on should definitely serve Matthews and his next generation of teammates well.