Miami's hold on Eastern Conference could be weakening

Miami's hold on Eastern Conference could be weakening
June 4, 2013, 5:00 pm
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Although the Indiana Pacers wilted under the pressure of the Game 7 spotlight Monday night, their performance in the Eastern Conference Finals -- along with the short-handed Chicago Bulls’ showing against Miami Heat in the semis -- suggests LeBron James might not be able to deliver on his boast of an NBA dynasty on South Beach. Who will ever forget James at the introductory party in July of 2010 predicting “not five, not six, not seven” championships. Well, James and company might get number two in the upcoming series against the Spurs, but after that, all bets are off.

The Bulls and Pacers proved that a physical, inside attack can be successful against Miami. Pacers center Roy Hibbert averaged 12 points during the regular season, but he was dominant against the Heat, posting 22 points and 10 rebounds per game. The Heat also had problems defending David West, Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer at various points during the postseason.

But an even bigger issue for the Heat is the health and effectiveness of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh going forward. Wade has been slowed by a variety of injuries over the last two years, and he went through a stretch of 13-consecutive games without scoring 20 points before putting up 21 in Miami’s Game 7 victory over the Pacers.  Wade will turn 32 years old midway through next season, and it looks like his superstar days might be in the past. Like most aging greats, he can summon a big game from time to time, but don’t expect him to routinely dominate at his position like he did over his first 10 NBA seasons.

As for Bosh, don’t be surprised if Heat team president Pat Riley looks to trade him during the offseason, whether Miami wins another title or not. Bosh had his fourth-straight single-digit scoring total in Game 7 against the Pacers, something he hasn’t done since his rookie season in Toronto. But with his position currently as a center, Bosh averaged fewer than five rebounds per game for the series. With Miami desperate for a rim protector on the defensive end, scrap heap pick-up Chris “Birdman” Andersen has turned out to be their most effective center option in the postseason.

My friend Sam Smith at Bulls.com wrote the Heat might look to send Bosh to Houston in a trade for former Bull Omer Asik, if the Rockets are able to sign Dwight Howard in free agency. That would be a nightmare scenario for John Paxson and Gar Forman, who drafted and developed the Turkish big man, only to lose him to Houston in free agency last summer.  With the addition of Asik, Miami would have the defensive presence and rebounding needs met in the middle while greatly increasing their chances for future titles. But without the addition of a quality center, Miami’s small-ball attack could become less effective going forward, even with the league’s best player in James.

Indiana figures to be an Eastern Conference contender in the next several years, particularly if they can re-sign West – who is heading into the free agent market on July 1. At age 32, West is probably looking to sign a 3-year deal in the $30 to $36 million range, and it remains to be seen if the Pacers will want to commit that kind of money, given they’ll need to max out Paul George after next season, and Hibbert is already making max money. George has established himself as a future superstar in the league, and with Danny Granger returning from injury next season, Indiana figures to be in position to make another title run.

Same with the Bulls, who will finally get former league MVP Derrick Rose back for the start of training camp in October. With the 24-year-old three-time All-Star running the show, the Bulls figure to compete with the Pacers and Heat for the top seed in the East next season. Paxson and Forman still need to solidify the bench, especially with Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli probably headed elsewhere via multi-year free agent contracts. Still, the Bulls should be able to find some competent veteran replacements, willing to join a championship contending team on one year deals. My colleague, Aggrey Sam, recently put together a pretty comprehensive list of available free agents, and guys like Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow, Dorell Wright, Jodie Meeks and Randy Foye would look pretty good coming off the Bulls’ bench, alongside Kirk Hinrich, Taj Gibson and a young big man the team will draft later this month.

[RELATED: An early Bulls free agency preview]

This year’s draft is very deep in center prospects, and picking at No. 20, the Bulls should be able to find at least a couple of players available from a group that includes Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk, Pittsburgh’s Steven Adams, Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng, France’s Rudy Gobert, Kansas’ Jeff Withey and Duke’s Mason Plumlee. There’s also the chance the Bulls could bring Nazr Mohammed back for another season, or pursue a group of modestly-priced free agent big men that includes Ronny Turiaf, Brendan Wright, Jason Collins, Samuel Dalembert and former Bull Elton Brand.

Bottom line, when NBA training camps open in October, the Heat might be defending champs again, but their hold on Eastern Conference supremacy will be a lot less secure than LeBron imagined when he signed on in 2010. Remember, James can opt out of the final two years of his contract in the summer of 2014, possibly joining a free agent class that could include Wade, Bosh, Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Rudy Gay and Danny Granger. Free agency can bring seismic shifts in the power balance of professional sports leagues, and the NBA could be feeling the winds of change as early as next season.