Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The 2010s Miami Heat: Finally an Heir to '80s Lakers/Celtics?

Six days later, I'm still trying to make sense of the Miami Heat's coup, and I still can't really believe it happened: I can't believe LeBron James left to go to another superstar's city, I can't believe all three stars were willing to take less than max money, and I especially can't believe all this happened while all three players are in their primes, in their 20s. I can't believe that, after such an ego-engorging exercise of free agency, these players have chosen to pursue the course which requires ego sublimation.

I think the new Miami paradigm is difficult to grasp because it throws off our reference points for how things are supposed to work. LeBron's career had been following the arc of the early Jordan narrative, and we could evaluate ultimate success or failure based on whether he became a perennial champion. Even after LeBron's oddly detached performance in the Celtics series, when his legacy seemed to be taking a left turn, there was a precedent in the Wilt narrative: was James on the road to a similar career of overwhelming regular-season statistical dominance and strange postseason failures?

Now, James seems to have forfeited his pursuit of all-time top 5 status, and we have something essentially without precedent - the Heat's signings are a reminder that each narrative in sports is new. The main comparable to me is Wilt Chamberlain forcing a trade to the Lakers in the summer of 1968 to join forces with Jerry West and Elgin Baylor, but those players were 30, 32 and 34 at the time, so it's really not even close. The Heat are poised to dominate with three stars in their primes, and anything less than, I would say, 4 or 5 championships will be viewed as failure.

-- After an initial reaction to how clumsily the soap opera of these transactions transpired, and a feeling of sorrow for the long-suffering fans of Cleveland (something I'll try not to ever forget)... well, I have to say that the fan of the game in me has taken over as I look forward, and I'm thrilled at the potential basketball ahead of us.

The Miami three - especially James and Wade - were key players on one of the most beautiful basketball teams I've ever watched, the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, and with LeBron and D-Wade both being such unselfish players, I think we have the potential to see some of the most beautiful - and best - basketball of all time by the middle of this decade.

I expect it to take a year or two to all come together (though I am shocked at how quickly the Miami roster is filling out with quality players like Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem following the superstars' lead and accepting lesser money), but I think that we will eventually have a team which can make a run at joining the 1986 Celtics, 1987 Lakers, and the 1996 Bulls - the three best single-season teams ever, in my opinion - as the greatest of all time.

If there's one thing that's been missing from the NBA over the last decade or so, it's that we haven't had a team truly take a run at all-time greatness - we're coming up on 15 seasons since the '96 Bulls. I'm not yet ready to call the Heat the favorites for 2010-11 (I think I still favor the Lakers because of superior size), but in future seasons, when they can use salary-cap exceptions to add more depth of quality bigs next to Chris Bosh, I do think we'll get a 70-win team at some point. I believe that the combo of two of the top three players in the league, at the very least, plus another top 10-15 guy will just be too overwhelming for the league in time, once they get used to playing together and finish filling out the roster.

Lots of times I hear complaints that the NBA just isn't as good as it was back in the glory days of the '80s, when the Celtics and Lakers fielded teams full of Hall of Famers (while, in my opinion, conveniently forgetting how much worse the quality in the middle and bottom of the league was).

That's the thing: in the 2010s Heat, we finally have a team loaded enough to be a potential heir to the '80s Lakers and Celtics. Yes, they still need to make it happen on the court, but the potential is there. I do also expect it's likely that we'll see another mega-team or two emerge to counter Miami as their dominance becomes evident in a couple years, though SuperTeam2 may develop in the East, which would mitigate the Lakers-Celtics effect a little bit, by not being a Finals matchup.

Getting beyond the supreme awkwardness of "The Decision", that's a pretty damn cool thing for an NBA fan to dream about, isn't it?

-- I will also say that my dream for the upcoming couple seasons, while the guys are still young, is for Miami to run, run, run. I hope the Heat play like the 1990-91 Bulls, known as "The Dobermans" for how Jordan, Pippen and Grant attacked teams with aggressive, trapping defenses - one of my favorite teams ever to watch. C'mon, Erik Spoelstra, give us a chance to see LeBron and D-Wade out in the open court.

-- What can stop a budding Miami dynasty in the 2010s? I think there are two main things to watch:
1. New collective bargaining agreement. If the new CBA clamps down on the availability of exceptions like the mid-level, Miami may have a tough time replenishing its roster as guys like Haslem and Miller (who are both 30 already) age.

Sam Amick of AOL Fanhouse also noted that, if the NBA makes major changes, to a hard salary cap with no grandfathering, the Heat could be forced to shed Bosh next summer.

2. Dwyane Wade's health. D-Wade is not only three years older (28) than his All-Star teammates, but he also has the longer injury history. While Wade's stayed healthy for the past two seasons, he played just 51 games in both 2006-07 and 2007-08, and broke down in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2005. With a team so top-heavy, a major injury to the Big 3 could be devastating. Wade's fearless style of attacking has long been considered an injury risk, not to mention the fact that he's had so much responsibility to carry the Heat on his back. One would think that the help of the SuperFriends trio should take significant strain off his body.

-- LeBron James certainly transformed from a hero to a villain in the blink of an eye - or, at least, in an hour of made-for-TV spectacle. Is there a way for him to restore his image - is there a way for LeBron to restore himself back in the running for one of the top-five players of all-time?

In terms of the all-time debate, I think it's going to be tough for LeBron to shake the perception that he took the easy way out. Charles Barkley captured the conventional wisdom:
    The notion that you can be born in your hometown and rise from the ashes, that would mean ... First of all, I think for these guys as reporters, if somebody said to you guys, I want to bring a championship to Cleveland. Even 15 years from now, if he hadn't won a championship, everybody would respect him more. Saying, you know that guy wanted to win a hometown championship.

    I talked to a bunch of players, and they all say, "If he would have took the challenge of staying in Cleveland..." Now, if he wins one in Miami, it's "Okay, congratulations."
On a recent edition of the B.S. Report podcast, Bill Simmons noted that Michael Jordan would have wanted to vanquish Dwyane Wade, not team up with him. I think there's some truth to that, and more truth to the fact that that's what fans want from their athletes.

So, how can LeBron change this perception, especially when D-Wade will presumably always have one more ring than him? Well, LBJ's obviously going to have to pile up some stratospheric accomplishments. I would say that he needs to lead Miami to a 72+-win season at some point, and at least 6 titles, or maybe at least a royal flush of 5 straight. I also think that averaging a 20-10-10 triple double or two - something which I believe is within his range - would capture the imagination of NBA fans and create a debate about whether he's comparable to - or better than - Magic Johnson.

Also in LeBron's favor is the age difference between he and Wade. As Wade becomes 33 and 34, LeBron could re-emerge as a true no. 1 carrying his team, rather than as a sidekick to another no. 1, and give extra weight to his number of championships, much as Kobe Bryant has done by adding 2 championships as a no. 1 to his 3 earlier championships as a no. 2.

-- Of course, all this is wildly premature. LeBron still needs to get to championship no. 1, after all, especially after his disappointing performance vs. Boston in May. We still have to play the games, and again, I wouldn't be surprised if it takes a year or two to coalesce in Miami.

Still, one thing that I'm interested to watch will be how the Miami SuperFriends affect NBA fan interest. I would imagine that this combo will be fantastic for capturing the imagination of fans - especially casual fans - in the first year or two, but if the Heat become an untouchable dynasty, with seasons feeling like mere formalities to Heat coronations, what will happen? I tend to think that fans are always captivated by greatness more than anything else, but, in the immortal words of Heat legend Timmy Hardaway: "We gunna see."

Other thoughts:
-- Kevin Durant's quiet handling of his contract extension has been widely praised as a sharp contrast to the free-agent circus of "The Decision" and beyond. Here's something to consider: if LeBron and the Heat take on the role of villains... and assuming that the Lakers remain a polarizing giant... does that mean that the Oklahoma City Thunder could take on the role of the league's ultimate white-hat good guys? It would be quite a quick 180 in image for a franchise so recently vilified for the circumstances of its move to OKC.

-- I don't really care that much about media scoops in this day and age, but I don't think Stephen A. Smith got enough credit for calling the James-Wade-Bosh move to Miami far earlier than others. As evidence emerges that the Big 3 made their decision earlier rather than later, Smith looks better and better. As much as I've never cared for Smith's on-air persona, I have to give credit where it's due.

Meanwhile, I'd like to tip The Painted Area's cap to John Hollinger, who wrote on August 6, 2009 that:
    The biggest winner of all, however, might be Miami.... They have virtually no money on the books beyond this season and could add one max contract and another fairly expensive star, all while keeping Dwyane Wade.
Out of what I read, Hollinger was the earliest, by far, in terms of national writers seeing what Pat Riley was fixing to do. As usual, Hollinger was ahead of the game, and that's one of several reasons I think he is the finest NBA writer working today.

-- Speaking of outstanding NBA writers, Brian Windhorst has already written the best story looking Inside "The Decision". I'm hoping Windhorst writes the definitive book detailing the long, winding road from Beijing (or wherever) to Miami for James, Wade and Bosh. It's a fascinating story about modern sports in so many ways, but unfortunately, I wonder if it's untenable for a Cleveland-based writer such as Windhorst.

-- If I may make another request to the esteemed Mr. Windhorst, I still really want to know exactly what happened in Game 5 of the Celtics-Cavs series. It was possibly the strangest basketball game I've ever seen, and certainly out of character compared to what I've seen from LeBron James' career. That said, there's no doubt James was strangely aloof and seemingly disinterested in Game 5, and it has colored my view of him. What the hell happened?

-- "The Decision" was bad, OK. But I've been trying to figure out why it didn't bother me that much. I think it's because, perhaps sadly, I'm inured to reality-TV culture. I find Survivor, The Bachelor, Jersey Shors, The Hills and on and on and on far more offensive. I guess I find no-talents desperate for celebrity less offensive than narcissistic talent. It's a race to the gallows, I know.

It's the same reason the Barry Bonds reality show didn't bother me that much. Yes, it was ridiculous, but I was at least curious about Bonds as a character. I view this all as entertainment, and find LeBron/Bonds/etc to be interesting characters. The average no-talent reality-show participant just engenders pure disgust from me.

-- Last, but not least: I'm sorry, Cleveland. You deserve better, really. As much as I might gush about and revel in the basketball played in Miami in years ahead, I'll try to never forget.


At 8:50 AM, Blogger aneebaba said...

Great post with a a lot of great talking points.

Yes, it has been crazy how fast the roster has been filling up, not to mention anther defection from Cleveland by big Z - another player who is leaving the only team he has played for to join LBJ and try to win that elusive first ring.

I think James definitely tarnished his standing with that strange performance vs. Boston this year, so that will surely take the shine away from his career in terms of playoff performances - no way that MJ does that - even if you are losing, you still try your hardest, leave it all out on the floor.

That is for sure - LBJ has given up his place among the top 5 - if he would have done it himself, like Charles Barkley said (I can't believe I am agreeing with him) I and other fans would respect him more and that we would see him as a true competitor. As you mentioned, MJ wouldn't want to team up with those that were possibly preventing him from getting a title, he would do his best to BEAT them.

Yes, it will be exciting for us as general basketball fans to see how this plays out and if a dynasty develops and as you said, if we see that running game.

I am proud to say I didn't watch that ill-advised one-hour special - how ridiculously immature and insensitive was that!

Yeah KD - what a stud! I'm a Blazers fan and they've given us trouble, but I respect him and the Thunder as a whole.

Yeah, not a fan of Mr.Smith's personality, but hey, if he got it, then props to him.

Those are my thoughts on your thoughts! :-)

Go Blazers!!

At 9:22 AM, Anonymous Tony C. said...

James, while an absolutely exceptional athlete, has a great deal to prove. He has been wildly overhyped to this point, and has also clearly been immature as a player. Taking off-balance threes while double-teamed is never the way to win championships; Kobe came a whisker (or a Perkins injury) away from learning that (apparently) hard lesson yet again last season.

Being willing to pass the ball may be a sign of unselfishness, but it isn't in any sense proof. LeBron's ego has obviously impeded him thus far, and it remains to be seen whether or not he will actually be capable of relegating it sufficiently to become a consummate team player.

Along those lines, it remains to be seen whether or not the Heat will produce the sort of chemistry, or be well enough coached to allowed them to reach the heights that the Celtics have reached in recent seasons.

I'd argue that the Bulls are the biggest danger to the Heat both now, and for years to come. They are in the process of building a true Team, and will be led by a coach who almost certainly will get them to fulfill their full potential.

At 9:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If MJ refused to play against his peers, why did he allow himself to play on a team with Pippen? Shouldn't he have demanded a trade to a team with an entire roster of substandard players so that he could be assured that he would have a chance to take down every good player from his era? This argument is such a total load of crap.

LeBron is 25, an age at which most NBA players haven't even begun a legacy. The Heat haven't played a single game yet. There are some awfully prescient bloggers out there. Maybe LeBron comes out in the first game and drops 40-15-15. There's absolutely no reason it can't happen. But for anyone to think they can even make an educated guess as to what LeBron will accomplish over the next decade is astounding.

At 2:53 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The 96 Bulls would never have beaten the 84-87 Celtics or the Lakers of that era. I'm so sick of hearing about how great they were.

And please don't ever think that Chris Bosh could ever play on any of those teams. Wade and James are great players, Bosh is getting a free ride on their coattails.

The Heat are still an inside defender away from winning any title.

At 7:31 PM, Blogger john marzan said...

the LA Lakers and Celtics of the 80s, aside from having multiple hall of famers, have quality role players on their bench.

let's take the 86 celtics. aside from the big Three, we have DJ, ainge, sichting, wedman, walton.

the 1988 lakers: magic kareem worthy scott rambis AC green mychal thompson, cooper

At 7:35 PM, Anonymous Jamie Sweet said...

Sooooo the Lakers winning 5 banners in this deacde puts the where on your great teams list? What does it take for a team as great as the Lakers are right now to be recognized for what the Buss family has achieved since Y2K?

You say this in your thread:
"The Miami three - especially James and Wade - were key players on one of the most beautiful basketball teams I've ever watched, the 2008 U.S. Olympic team, and with LeBron and D-Wade both being such unselfish players, I think we have the potential to see some of the most beautiful - and best - basketball of all time by the middle of this decade."

Yet you don't take into account that they had other All Stars around them. All Stars like Kobe Bryant. Nowhere do you mention how Wade and James both fell flat on their faces in the 2004 Olympics, embarrassing themselves, USA Basketball and pretty much the entire country. It took a TRUE NBA winner (ie Kobe) to show those guys what dedication, passion and trust in the team truly means.

Will it be fun to watch those three play together? Maybe. If they rack up un-godly free throws because they barrel into defenders it won't be. If they bicker two months in about touches it won't be. If they get bounced in conference playoffs it won't be.

Strange thread, but I'll be tuning in on XMAS to see how the Corner Market Trio fares against LA.


At 2:10 PM, Anonymous Stephen Kammerman said...

I just don't think LeBron wants to win as badly as Jordan did. It took more than talent to win 70, it took an insane drive that today's players don't have. One the Bulls have done it, it's unrealistic to think these guys will.

At 10:07 PM, Blogger sophomorecritic said...

Listen, I'm not even a humongous fan of LeBron James, but here's what he should do:

He should stop giving a shit about comparing to Jordan or caring what anyone writes or says about him. He should just play and play the best he can.

Here's what you and the entirety of sports media should do:
Stop comparing him to Jordan, stop making the major storyline of the past 12 years "Can Anyone compare to Jordan? Can anyone match his accomplishments of 6 titles, and whatever else" I started watching the NBA in 1999. I don't give a shit about Jordan. I'm impressed with what I see. I don't see it as an inferior product because it wasn't as good as the last version of the NBA to come along. I don't need to see it ruined either by all this speculation.

You guys are also missing hte point: For about a year or two after Jordan retired, the NBA was absent of major star power. The Spurs won. Look around you and many different kinds of people have carved niches throughout the league. It's survived without Jordan, so there's no need to harken back to Jordan as some messianic figure (in this messianic analogy, the messiah will come and we'll have heaven on Earth, pretty much everyone who writes about basketball thinks that once someone matches Jordan's accomplishments, The NBA will once again return to glory)

At 3:22 PM, Blogger jfarbman said...

LBJ is more like Magic then MJ. No one could be compared to MJ and players come into this league and become unfairly compared to MJ.

At 1:32 AM, Anonymous Hazel said...

Thank you for your post, pretty helpful material.

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Thanks for putting this perspective the situation of these players. A great opportunity for the Miami Heat ... It will be a great season and we are hopeful

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