Which Previous NBA Title Contender is Poised to Falter?

Which contenders from the 2013-14 season are poised to falter in 2014-15?

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Title contenders in the NBA come and go, except for the San Antonio Spurs of course. Their 15 year span of being a serious title contender is almost unprecedented. In today’s day and age, having a reign that long is quite difficult. And, in 2014-15 a few teams seem bound to fall from the ranks of contention. Basketball Insiders’ Jessica Camerato, Jabari Davis and Moke Hamilton debate over who those teams will be.

For years the Miami HEAT were NBA championship favorites. But after losing their cornerstone — not to mention the best player in the league — they have fallen from title contention.

The power shifted immediately this summer when LeBron James decided to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. The outcome for the HEAT’s season quickly changed from “Who will they face in the NBA Finals?” to “How far will they be able to make it in the playoffs?”

Even though Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade still remain in Miami, there is there is no replacing the void left by James. New additions Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger will contribute, but there is not an individual who can pick up where James left off.

The upside for the HEAT is that they play in the East. The injury of Paul George will bump the Indiana Pacers down the standings, leaving room for the HEAT to finish the season as one of the top teams in the conference.

James departure does not mean the HEAT will struggle to win games. What has changed, however, is their dominance in the East – and the NBA.

– Jessica Camerato

This is always a difficult subject given the fact that positive vibes and elevated expectations generally run rampant at this time of the year, but the Rockets and HEAT are two teams in danger of faltering as we head into 2014-15. To be clear, each of these teams are still filled with talent and could very well end up being formidable squads, but each team is not without a certain level uncertainty or at the very least a few unanswered questions and concerns as the regular season approaches.

Obviously things are going to be significantly different when you lose a player like LeBron James, but the HEAT were not a team that sat around in a stupor as though left at the altar. They outbid an $85-88 million offer from the Rockets to retain the services of power forward Chris Bosh to the tune of five years and a reported $118 million. De facto GM Pat Riley was far from done, as he also re-signed longtime franchise favorite Dwyane Wade (two years, $31.1 million) and brought in free agents like Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger. While the team did a solid job of bringing in additional talent, they are still in the unenviable position of having to find a way to adjust to life after LeBron James.

Clearly, they are in a better position for the transition than James’ former ‘ex’ (See: 2010-13 Cavaliers), but the jury is still out on whether Wade’s body will permit him to “flip the switch” and return to the form we all once knew and loved when he was the unquestionable leader of the franchise. Bosh will likely shoulder a great deal of the burden as well, but the concern over Wade’s ability is more than fair given the fact that he only played 53 games last year and still looked a step slower throughout the postseason. In fact, health will likely be a major factor in this team’s overall success when you consider that Deng has averaged missing double-digit games over the past three seasons and Granger still has yet to return to form following a run of injuries and set-backs dating back to 2012. If Coach Spoelstra can manage the roster and responsibilities in order to keep everyone relatively healthy, these HEAT (sans James) should still be a competitive team, even in an improved Eastern Conference. If hit by the injury bug early and often, then Miami could be in for a significant drop from the level of success and expectations fans enjoyed throughout that four-year run.

The Houston Rockets are a slightly different story altogether. Of course, like with all teams, relatively good health will be a key component in 2014-15, but the concerns with this team run a bit deeper in terms of the makeup and dynamics. While the team’s two stars may not feel as though Chandler Parsons’ exodus to join forces with the rival Dallas Mavericks isn’t that big of a deal, that isn’t something that should be disregarded altogether. GM Daryl Morey addressed one of the team’s needs in bringing in a defensive-oriented perimeter player that can still stretch the floor on the other end of the court in Trevor Ariza, but team chemistry can be a tricky thing in the NBA. Losing “glue-players” and positive locker room guys like Parsons and Jeremy Lin can have more of an eventual impact than initially anticipated if other players don’t step into those roles and provide a similar type of support.

Although some of the criticism over the summer was a bit overblown, both Dwight Howard and James Harden did at least raise a few eye brows with some of their comments about the roster and a few other topics. Supreme confidence is actually vital when it comes to truly accomplishing greatness, but these two team captains have yet to prove they can both lead and rise to the occasion as a duo. Howard is generally liked by his teammates (especially younger players), but the time has come for him to differentiate being buddies off the court from what should be his natural position as an all-out leader while on the court. Harden, to his credit, performed well and acted as one of the veterans and leaders on that young Team USA team that won this year’s FIBA World Cup Tournament. Rockets fans can only hope some of that experience carries over into this year, as another first-round exit simply should not be accepted from a duo that claims to be at the top of their respective positions. If they cannot put it all together and act as stronger leaders on the court and behind the scenes, then Houston could also find itself in trouble in what continues to be a strong Western Conference.

– Jabari Davis

Often, in an attempt to come across as profound thinkers and intelligent minds, one ignores the most obvious answer.

Riddle me this: How in the world do we not anoint Indiana Pacers?

A team that was, for the most part, built and successful by utilizing a strength in numbers approach has lost its two most skilled pieces. Lance Stephenson has emerged as one of the most productive and impactful two-way shooting guards in the conference, but instead of flanking Paul George, Stephenson is down in Charlotte with fellow New York City native, Kemba Walker. The Hornets are considered to be a team on the rise out East, but the Pacers, obviously, are now the opposite. They were considered so even before George’s gruesome leg injury sustained over the summer.

In time, George will return, but there is almost no chance of him returning at any point during the regular season. The Pacers will attempt to qualify for the playoffs without him, and that will be no easy task. While the club does have a few things going for them—David West, Roy Hibbert and Frank Vogel, the latter recently signing a three-year extension with the club—they are now functioning with at a talent deficit.

A look around the Eastern Conference reveals that things are getting a bit tougher. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls look to be the head of the class, while the Miami HEAT, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors will likely round out the top five. Stephenson and the Hornets will almost certainly be a playoff team, which means that the Pacers will likely be vying for one of the final few playoff spots amongst a mix of teams that includes the New York Knicks, Brooklyn Nets, Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons.

Under the recently re-signed Vogel, the Pacers have become one of the league’s top defensive teams, and if there is one thing that Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls teams have taught us, it’s that a good defensive coach can get good defensive play out of anyone. West will do his best to lead this team and lead by example and together, if they play as a team, share the ball and execute a good offensive game plan, they can be a greater sum together than they are individually.

Still, though, the odds are stacked against the Pacers. A team that has struggled to score at times in the past has lost its two best offensive weapons in Stephenson in George. The team that went 105-58 over the past two seasons and appeared in the Eastern Conference for two consecutive years will not make it to three. After losing their two most valuable pieces, the Pacers will need increased contributions from both West and Hibbert and their playoff chances may hinge on the productivity of C.J. Miles, Rodney Stuckey and Chris Copeland.

No disrespect to Vogel, his staff or the members of the Pacers, but if the discussion is team most likely to falter, the easy answer is the Pacers.

– Moke Hamilton

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