One of the more anticipated NBA playoff matchups in recent years might come very early.
Ever since LeBron James first made the jump in free agency to the Miami Heat in 2010 from the Cleveland Cavaliers and then the reverse in 2014 a playoff series between the two teams has been seen as an attractive TV option. Now in what has been a chaotic season for both teams that series could become reality in the first round.
While the intrigue of a Heat-Cavs series still focuses on James there are other similarities both teams share. Whether it’s been by injury, drama, or necessity neither team is the same as when Opening Tipoff took place. The difference has been to what degree of those factors each has gone though.
For the Heat the main culprit has been injury. The projected starting lineup of Dwyane Wade and Norris Cole at guard along with the front line of Chris Bosh, Loul Deng, Josh McRoberts never saw much time together on the court. McRoberts was tentatively shut down for the season with a torn meniscus while Wade and Deng exchanged spots on the disabled list early on. The biggest blow however came after the All-Star break when Bosh was diagnosed with blood clots, ending his season mere days after Miami was able to acquire Goran Dragic from the Phoenix Suns at the trade deadline.
The injury bug has also bitten the Cavaliers with the loss of defensive anchor Anderson Varejao but the main culprit of their change has been drama. Chemistry issues between James and his new star teammates Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love along with a mini mutiny seeking to unseat first year head coach David Blatt has reminded many of the early drama 2010-11 Heat although with much less media salivation. Adding to that were the issues between Irving and Dion Waiters from previous seasons and the clout assistant coach Tyronn Lue had with veteran players that Blatt lacked.
Due to these issues each team has gone through a metamorphosis that has been beneficial on both ends particularly at center.
For Miami the injuries to Wade and the Dragic trade opened roster spots that were filled by Tyler Johnson, Henry Walker, and Michael Beasley. Johnson and Walker came up though the NBA D-League while Beasley, in his third stint with the Heat, came after spending most of the season in China. Each has had moments where they played key roles in needed victories for Miami. Dragic has helped pushed the Heat’s tempo of play with his ability to get quick points near the basket and has developed quick chemistry with Wade. The biggest surprise though has come from the emergence of Hassan Whiteside, the NBA’s biggest revelation at center along with Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz this season. Added to the roster after Chris Andersen was injured in November, Whiteside has shown to be a force on both ends of the court with the stats to back it up. His rise allowed Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra to move Bosh to his more natural position at power forward when he was playing. Even as he has shown bouts of frustration, including a suspension, Whiteside has grown steadily enough to make the Heat’s decision of having him signed through next season a wise one.
For Cleveland the changes came through trades early on in January. To defuse chemistry issues the Cavaliers traded Waiters to the Oklahoma City Thunder for a protected 2015 first-round draft pick. To fortify their defense on the wing and add bench scoring lost with Waiters gone Cleveland sent benchwarmers and a 2019 second-round draft pick to the New York Knicks for Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith. Finally to fill the vacuum left with Varejao out the Cavaliers flipped the pick it got from the Waiters trade along with another 2015 first-round pick to get Timofey Mozgov from the Denver Nuggets. Shumpert has done his part since coming back from injury to help on both ends while Smith has shown more restraint with his shot selection than in seasons past. Mozgov has been especially helpful as he didn’t need much time adjust to his new situation thanks to his familiarity with Blatt’s system due to their time together on the Russian national team.
While both teams won’t change much more as the regular season ends the aspects leading to the changes they have gone through still hover over them.
The Heat still need Wade to be as healthy as possible to remain a playoff team. Also, while the team is downplaying it, there is a small possibility that McRoberts might come back before the playoffs begin.
The Cavaliers are still surrounded by speculation over the team’s chemistry, particularly between James and Love. Social media posts indicating that James is frustrated with Love not buying into his and by default Cleveland’s vision along with the opt-out clause in Love’s contract still feed the perception that he might be bound for the West Coast in free agency.
Now with the Atlanta Hawks securing the top seed in the Eastern Conference making the prospects of a Heat-Cavs series more concrete, the intrigue only grows. The teams have played three times this season with the home team winning each game by comfortable margins. They will face off again on April 2.
And that may not be the last time this season.