Heat Check
Zach Lowe [ARCHIVE]
February 20, 2013
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The trade deadline on Thursday will provide answers to some of this season's central questions — whether certain big names (Josh Smith, Andrea Bargnani) will move; whether teams with high-profile veterans on expiring contracts will deal them to make way for younger players (Utah); whether teams with enticing young players stuck behind all-world vets will cash in now (Clippers); and whether teams with long playoff odds and cap-room dreams will finally punt the season (Dallas). Trades are fun, but elite teams rarely make moves, and few trades alter the in-season big picture in a dramatic way. With that in mind, let's look at five questions that will define the second half of the season, with some nods to trade possibilities along the way:

1. Do the Heat have another gear?

In Years 1 and 2 of the LeBron experiment, Miami was more reliable on defense than offense, where they were explosive but prone to stagnant droughts. In Year 3, Miami has blown up on offense and regressed on defense; the Heat have surged past Oklahoma City into the no. 1 spot in NBA.com's points per possession rankings, threatening to become the first Eastern Conference team to lead the league since the 2000-01 Bucks.

Their defense has slipped to a pedestrian 11th in points allowed per possession, and while some talking heads have greatly exaggerated Miami's issues on the boards, the Heat are merely an average defensive rebounding team — just as they were last season.

Teams can win the title with an elite offense and borderline top-10 defense; the Mavs did so just two seasons ago. But the Heat would obviously be safer if they rediscover the hyper-alert swarming defense that won them last season's title.

It is a safe bet that they can. Their defense has gradually improved after a listless start, and the Heat have played with visibly better effort in high-stakes situations — in the fourth quarter of close games, and against top opponents on big stages. Even more telling: Miami's core lineups, the ones that will play more in the postseason, are killing teams; the Heat have outscored opponents by nearly 13 points per 100 possessions when their three stars play together, and their three or four most important lineups are destroying everyone, per NBA.com's lineup data.

Bottom line: The Heat have been dominant when their key guys are in the game, and their key guys will get more time when things really matter. They showed a greater attention to detail in last season's playoffs, cleaning up a regular-season turnover problem. A Heat repeat remains the safest bet on the board, especially since they seem to have Oklahoma City figured out — for now.

2. Can anyone in the Eastern Conference mount a real challenge?

Things are not looking good. Most league executives pegged Chicago as the most dangerous challenger, but it's unclear if Derrick Rose will come back this season, and now Joakim Noah is dealing with some (perhaps minor) plantar fasciitis. The Bulls are still just 21st in points per possession, and though their defense will always be a menace, it's just hard to beat a top team four times in seven tries with a bottom-10 offense. There are also rumblings that the Bulls have intensified their search for a way to get under the luxury tax, which would likely mean dumping Richard Hamilton on a team with the cap room or a trade exception to absorb his salary. Hamilton is shooting just 44 percent on a minutes limit, but ditching him would put more pressure on other players to assume a larger scoring burden — a dangerous thing for a shaky offensive team.

And speaking of shaky offensive teams with great defenses: Indiana, the league's best defensive team so far, has crept from 29th to 24th in scoring over the past couple of weeks, and should get Danny Granger back in short order. That presents an interesting dilemma for Frank Vogel. Starting Granger would send Lance Stephenson to the bench and break up one of the league's most productive lineups; Indy's current starting group has logged more time than every lineup in the league save for Oklahoma City's starters, and they've outscored opponents by nearly 12 points per 100 possessions — a better point differential than Oklahoma City's league-best overall mark (plus-10.3). Bench units featuring Stephenson as the focal point have mostly failed, though the sample sizes are small. If Vogel can figure this out and coax at least an acceptable stretch run from Roy Hibbert, the Pacers, not intimidated even a smidgen by Miami, stand as an intriguing potential challenger.

But not as intriguing as New York. The Knicks can just about match Miami in terms of scoring and, having (mostly) committed to using Carmelo Anthony at power forward, can approach Miami's small-ball units without any awkward matchup issues. The Knicks have kept right on firing 3s, and while their shooting percentage from deep has declined after a red-hot start, it has settled in at a very good number — 38 percent — that more than justifies the chucking.

New York is also scoring like gangbusters when they go big with Amar'e Stoudemire, Tyson Chandler, and Anthony on the floor together — a 180-degree turn from last season, when New York couldn't function with the Max Contract Brothers playing together. Mike Woodson's creative sets have helped, as has Raymond Felton, but the uptick in scoring is mostly the product of slight but sophisticated improvements among those three stars. Stoudemire is better at hunting cuts to the basket, and Anthony has refined his timing as a passer.

Alas: New York has been playing well-below-average defense after a stingy first dozen games. They're down to 15th in points allowed per possession, and they've been unwatchable defensively when Melo and the always flat-footed, switch-prone Stoudemire play together. The Knicks have allowed more than 109 points per 100 possessions when those two share the court, worse than the league's 30th-ranked defense, and Chandler's presence alongside them hasn't moved the needle at all. Units with Anthony at power forward and no Stoudemire haven't been much better since the start of the season, and for those to work well, Anthony's help defense along the back line has to be in top form.

Can they find that form? If they can, the Knicks are the most dangerous team in the Eastern Conference.

No one else merits mention at this point. The Nets have a nice record, but they've outscored opponents by only 28 points total on the season; their underachieving point guard just underwent platelet-rich plasma therapy on both ankles; their $10 million small forward, Gerald Wallace, has been a bust, and the Nets have often looked better when Joe Johnson slides to the 3; they're starting a classic backup in Reggie Evans; and they've actually thought about acquiring Andrea Bargnani (for Kris...
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