By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
When LeBron James hoisted the championship trophy last Thursday after the Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs 95-88 to claim a second straight world title, it marked an end to a long, exhausting NBA season.
James, the league’s dominant talent, scored 37 points in the title game to lead the talented Heat to a hard-fought win over the experienced Spurs, clinching the best-of-seven series, 4-3.
The championship was James’ second in four trips to the NBA Finals, and he did it at 28 1/2 — an age when the legendary Michael Jordan only had one title ring. Of course, Jordan added five more titles, including two threepeats, before he retired. But if James can stay healthy, he may make a serious run at MJ’s six rings.
The incredible feat by Jordan, however, is that he won all six finals that his Bulls played in. And if he didn’t take almost two seasons off to try to play pro baseball, Chicago might have pocketed eight straight titles.
James was the NBA Finals’ most valuable player for the second straight year and earned his second league MVP in a row, giving him four MVP awards in a so far brilliant career. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar holds the NBA record with six league MVPs, and the powerful 6-foot-8 James might eventually surpass the mighty Abdul-Jabbar in that category if he can stay healthy.
The Heat will try to threepeat next year, to join the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls as the only NBA teams to ever win three titles in a row. The Celtics, led by Hall of Fame center Bill Russell, hold the record for most consecutive titles at eight — from 1959 to 1966. Russell also won an amazing 11 titles in 13 seasons with the Boston club.
But give James and his teammates credit. They had to earn this year’s NBA crown and came within an eyelash of being eliminated by the big-hearted Spurs. Without Ray Allen’s clutch 3-pointer in the waning seconds of Game 6 to tie the contest and force overtime, Miami would have been headed for an uncertain summer of what might have been while Tim Duncan and San Antonio celebrated their fifth NBA title.
The Heat rallied in OT to claim Game 6 and then James led them to a solid victory in Game 7 to clinch the coveted championship.
The current Spurs, led by Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, may have made their final grasp at an NBA title, with age becoming more of a factor and Ginobili’s skills diminishing at a rapid pace. The rest of the roster is solid but probably not strong enough to help San Antonio make another run next year.
But almost as soon as Miami had claimed the NBA title, Heat president Pat Riley said the team would look to fortify its roster and hoped to make a serious run at a threepeat next year. Riley said the Heat wanted to add size and depth to an already talented roster.
Miami had a hard time in the Eastern Conference finals with Indiana’s 7-foot-2 Roy Hibbert, so signing a big man to protect the paint is a priority for Riley & Co. The young Pacers pushed the Heat to seven games before falling in the series finale.
Interestingly, one name that popped up was 7-foot free agent Greg Oden, the former No. 1 draft pick of the Portland Trail Blazers who was hampered by injuries and never fulfilled his promise coming out of Ohio State in 2007. But the athletic Oden is reported to be healthy and would like to return to the NBA. Riley and the Heat are interested in what might be a steal if Oden can remain healthy for a season.
Riley will have to go through free agency or seek a trade in order to strengthen the Heat’s roster. Miami doesn’t have a first- or second-round pick in this year’s NBA draft, having used them in previous trades. Phoenix will get Miami’s 30th pick in the first round and Memphis the Heat’s 60th pick in the second round in Thursday’s draft.
But Riley has been a master at manipulating the salary cap while getting talented players to sign lesser deals to play on a championship-caliber team. So don’t feel sorry for the Heat because Riley will surely pull more than one lucky rabbit out of his NBA cap this summer. Last summer, he plucked Ray Allen from the Boston Celtics and that move paid off big this past season.
Cleveland has the No. 1 pick in Thursday’s draft and most experts predict the Cavaliers will take either Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel, Kansas’ Ben McLemore or Maryland’s Alex Len. Some media reports say the Cavs have health concerns about Noel, a 6-foot-11 center, and questions about the 6-foot-5 McLemore, a shooting guard who played up-and-down in the NCAA tournament.
Len, a 7-1 center with a good upside, has raised eyebrows in Cleveland with his promise and may be the Cavs’ top pick.
Other top prospects include, in no particular order, Georgetown’s Otto Porter, UNLV’s Anthony Bennett, Michigan’s Trey Burke, Syracuse’s Michael Carter-Williams, Lehigh’s C.J. McCollum and Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo.
Orlando has the No. 2 pick and is followed in the top 10 by No. 3 Washington, No. 4 Charlotte, No. 5 Phoenix, No. 6 New Orleans, No. 7 Sacramento, No. 8 Detroit, No. 9 Minnesota and No. 10 Portland.
NBA runner-up San Antonio has the 28th pick in the first round and 58th selection in the second round.
This year’s draft is not considered deep in talent or with a definite can’t-miss potential superstar. But, according to NBA scouts, there could be several players drafted that can play productive roles on most of the 30 clubs in the league.
One of the interesting draftees is Shane Larkin, a 5-foot-11 point guard out of the University of Miami and the son of former Cincinnati Reds’ superstar Barry Larkin. In workouts, he had a running 44-inch vertical jump, the highest among any of this year’s potential draft choices.
Larkin is predicted to go in the top 15 picks by most NBA analysts.
Still, the NBA offseason will be important for several teams looking to reach contender status in the league and challenge for a conference or NBA title. There are some high-profile free agents available, led by Los Angeles Lakers center Dwight Howard.
And with a handful of teams seeking that one or two outstanding player to lift them over the top and into an elite team — like the Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State, Houston, Memphis, Indiana or Oklahoma City, it’s time to offer up a lot of money and try seal the deal on who’ll be the team to challenge the champion Heat in 2014.
You can also be sure that LeBron James will be there to accept the challenge — and with the way he keeps improving, it’ll be hard to bet against him for the next four or five years.
Email Tribune-Herald sports editor Bill O’Rear at email@example.com.