Roundtable: What's next for Heat, Thunder after NBA Finals?
The Heat and Thunder could be right back in the NBA Finals again next year
LeBron James silenced his critics by dominating on the game's biggest stage
Steve Nash a fit for Miami?; OKC faces decision on its coach, but roster is intact
SI.com's NBA writers analyze what's next for the Heat and Thunder and assess the significance of LeBron James' first championship.
Ian Thomsen: The biggest threat is from the Heat themselves. They must continue to find cheap help in free agency and the draft that will enable them to compete athletically around their three stars. Somehow they need to come up with an agile big man to provide length defensively around the basket. They must also hope for continued good health from 30-year-old Dwyane Wade, whose body has been hammered over the years. The length of Miami's title run is going to depend on Wade. At the same time, the Eastern Conference figures to be theirs to take without much of a fight because the Celtics will be yet another year older (if they're able to bring back Kevin Garnett) and Derrick Rose will be coming off major knee surgery for the Bulls. The Heat will believe they can deal with Oklahoma City, based on the lopsided 4-1 result of the NBA Finals, and there are no other credible title contenders likely to show major improvement apart from the possibility that the Mavericks could assemble a Big Three of their own around Dirk Nowitzki.
Zach Lowe: The team they just beat. The Thunder can bring the whole band back next season, plus point guard Eric Maynor, who sustained a season-ending torn ACL in January. Maynor is a crucial little piece, a quality backup for Russell Westbrook who renders moot the need for a non-threat on offense such as Derek Fisher to round out small lineups. Oklahoma City could also upgrade via the mid-level exception, though that could get tricky, given the salary commitments this team has ahead of it. Still, with the Celtics in flux, the Spurs a year older and the Bulls potentially missing Rose and Luol Deng for a huge chunk of next season, the Heat and Thunder will start as huge favorites to meet here again in 2013.
Lee Jenkins: The Thunder. Three years ago, they opened the season 3-29. Two years ago, they made the playoffs but lost in the first round. Last year, they reached the conference finals. This year, they made it all the way to the Finals. No one in their core four -- Kevin Durant, Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka -- is over 23 and their progression has been steady. The next step is the title. They will grow from this, just as the Heat grew from their loss to the Mavericks. The Thunder will return hungry while the Heat will combat the same hangover as any other champion, maybe more severe, considering the struggle to get to this point. The Bulls are also a threat depending on Rose's rehabilitation, but he is a long way from a return.
Chris Mannix: Oklahoma City, easy. The Thunder's Finals loss did not diminish the fact that this is a team to be reckoned with. It was all too much, too fast for the Thunder this season, but next year they -- like Miami this season after its Finals loss -- will be better, stronger and play with a chip on their shoulders. They don't lose much, and the continued maturation of Durant, Westbrook and Harden will only make them better. Miami will certainly be the favorite to win the title in 2012-13, but OKC won't be far behind.
Sam Amick: The Thunder, of course. As anyone paying attention to the league surely knows by now, this version of the Thunder is in jeopardy because it will be very tough for general manager Sam Presti to hold on to Harden and Ibaka long term. But both 22-year-olds have one year left on their deals -- they are eligible for extensions this summer -- so Oklahoma City can bring back all of their key players for another run. And those tears that Durant fought back after losing Game 5 said it all about how hungry he'll be to return.
Thomsen: Everything has changed. Instantly he has earned the benefit of the doubt after two years of pessimism. He is now, simply and unquestionably, the best player in the world. He couldn't claim that title until he won a championship. Fans may hate him but they'll also have to respect his achievement, especially because he adapted his game and taught himself to play out of the post in order to win.
Lowe: The ring shouldn't matter as much as the process and his play in earning it. After all, was Jerry West some sort of loser before finally securing a ring late in his career? What about Garnett? And with some years to think now, do we really hold the lack of a title against, say, John Stockton? The quality of player is what should matter, and James has finally produced on the biggest stage. He crumbled in the Finals against Dallas last season but thrived for the entire 2012 postseason on a team whose other stars needed him more. He played to his level -- even above it -- in the one round in which he had never done so. Well-earned ring (and Finals MVP) in hand, there is no more empty check box in the career ledger of LeBron James. The noise can fade, and he can take his rightful place among the greatest players in league history. In that sense, the perception of James will change -- at least among rational human beings who don't "hate" strangers whom they have never met. But the perception of James has always been out of whack as he has taken an early-stage career path not all that different from Michael Jordan's.
Mannix: In a word, immensely. LeBron is a champion now, and no one can ever take that away from him. Sure, some of the biggest cynics will continue to deride him for winning with basketball's Voltron, for not being able to win on his own in Cleveland. But he has a ring. He is a winner. And it wasn't like he was along for the ride, either. This was LeBron's team, which he carried with a masterful two-way performance.
Jenkins: Some, especially in northern Ohio, will hate him forever. Some will need more time. But in modern sports, nothing improves an image quite like a championship. The perception that James wilts in big moments, either stumbling or deferring, is gone forever. He's done a lot of the right things this season. On the court, he's improved as a post player, rebounder, cutter and passer. Off it, he's taken some steps to make amends for the fiasco that was "The Decision." I think a lot of people have noticed.
Amick: James' falling-out with so much of the NBA universe wasn't just about his inability to win a title. It was about his lack of humility, self-awareness or maturity -- the adage about how it's not what you say, but how you say it. But to his credit, the run-up to his redemption wasn't just about the championship, either. He seemed to change both personally and professionally, growing in ways that should do wonders for his once-tattered image. He spoke often about letting his love of the game inspire him again as opposed to the hatred of his critics. The days of LeBron's being the NBA's top villain, I would imagine, are over.
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