The Miami Heat are stronger this year than we could have imagined, especially after all the dramas in December about how LeBron and the coach weren't getting along. LeBron is having his usual, MVP-type season, Dwyane Wade is playing well, Chris Bosh's head remains exceedingly-small and the steadiness of Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Erick Dampier has offset Joel Anthony's growing pains as a pro centre. You get the feeling they're going to cause some grief in the playoffs - and that they may be the NBA's third best team after Boston and San Antonio.
But the Miami team wasn't built for this year. It was built for next year. The team knew it was still missing a couple of key ingredients for a title this year, namely a centre who can defend the paint while not being a complete zero offensively and a point guard who can shoot the trey. They were well aware of this when the Key Three signed in July - news to noone.
The Heat were hoping that during this offseason's Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations between NBA owners and players, the Mid Level Exception (MLE) isn't rescinded. The MLE was created a few years back to allow teams near or over the salary cap to sign players annually to try and improve their team. It's worth $5 million, and can be split any number of ways. Contending teams usually give the whole amount to one key role player, or split it between two older pros who can still help. The players like it - it decreases salary pressure ever so slightly, meaning more pie for the guys who play the game.
But it's increasingly looking like the Owners as a group don't see it helping them and want it removed. Existing MLE players like Ron Artest of the LA Lakers and Mike Miller of the Heat will still be paid what they're owed, but MLE deals are likely become as insubstantial as the Salary Cap will be hard. (Currently the cap is "soft", meaning teams are allowed to exceed it in certain ways such as to re-sign their own free-agents, but are penalised financially for doing so).
So where does this leave Miami? With a hard cap and no salary cap exceptions? With pretty much the same roster but very few tradeable assets unless a club is prepared to pay well over the odds for Anthony or the ageing Udonis Haslem. It's almost certain at some stage they will win a championship - they're just too talented not too - but the dynasty so many predicted may not happen simply for a lack of depth. The last couple of teams build around a "Big Three" - Boston and Chicago had excellent reserves of depth: the Celtics had PJ Brown, Leon Powe, Kendrick Perkins and a young Rajon Rondo. The Three-peat Bulls boasted Luc Longley, Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc, Brian Williams and Steve Kerr.
Miami may go the way of many championship contenders and try to pick up cheap veterans who have accepted salary buyouts from lesser clubs who don't need them anymore and want to avoid paying their hefty wages; but that limits the Heat to one guy per year who may or may not have anything left in the tank. What should be of comfort to the South Beach faithful is that with their current form and health, the Heat are an absolute lock to beat nearly everyone who comes knocking.
Until the playoffs, where Mario Chalmers, Carlos Arroyo and Juwan Howard will have to face up to playing serious minutes against younger or better opposition. It could be a glimpse of the future for the Heat. Not quite dystopian, but not the haven the wise guys in Florida expected on July 8th, The Decision day.