Embracing the Larry O’Brien trophy was a task that wasn’t believed to be as arduous as it should have been for LeBron James and the Miami Heat.
A team with LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh? All analysts could do was tout how those three were going to combine to lead one of the greatest teams in NBA history, while the critics, specifically legendary gasbag Mark Cuban, claimed that the unification of three elite players was unfair to the rest of the league. It was easy to share similar feelings. This would be the equivalent of Michael Jordan teaming up with Clyde Drexler in the early-1990’s.
That’s why the Miami Heat were the targets of ire from opponents and their fanbases alike. Opponents, no matter how elite or lowly, played the Heat as if they were playing Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Faced with the constant jeering of fans of other teams and having to take on teams that were playing at maximum efficiency, the Heat were facing an even larger opponent from 2010 until they won their first title in 2012–themselves.
You haven’t seen teams attempt to sign three elite players because it’s a risk. It makes the roster extremely top-heavy and if one player gets hurt, then you may as well kiss your season goodbye. It’s why you see teams more adamant about obtaining an elite star and an All-Star sidekick and then surrounding them with quality role players who can fill specific niches on the floor.
Prior to 2012, there wasn’t an NBA champion like the Miami Heat. The Boston Celtics of 2008 were close with Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but even they had another borderline All-Star at the time in Rajon Rondo, as well as the full cooperation and understanding of each member of the ‘Big Three’. Three veterans who had been playing for longer than a decade apiece knew a thing or two more about the game than three players who simply assumed that talent would be enough.
That’s the beautiful thing about the Heat winning. It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was one of the most difficult things they’ll probably ever have to do as a team. Because not only did they overcome the overwhelming pressure of possibly being considered failures after missing two chances of winning a title, but they were constantly adjusting and making sacrifices to their bodies and playing time in order to make everything work as smoothly as possible.
And it still didn’t work smoothly. SunSports has been airing each game from the 2012 Finals and it’s a shock to see how many times the offense stalled in the fourth quarter. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh being hampered became more prevalent and obvious and the Heat still might not have come out victorious had the Thunder’s James Harden (38 percent from the field) showed up to the party.
It took so much more than talent to win the 2012 championship. It took resilience–coming back from deficits in three consecutive series; it took determination–Dwyane Wade going off against Indiana after having his knee drained; it took sacrifice–Shane Battier and LeBron James playing time at the four; it took guts–Chris Bosh coming back early from injury to beat Boston in Game 7; it took heart–Mario Chalmers going off for 25 points in a pivotal Game 4 against Oklahoma City.
Most of all, it took a team. This wasn’t just LeBron James going off time-and-time again, although it certainly played a large part. This was about everyone stepping up and sacrificing when need be. It was about creating an entirely new way of playing basketball in lineups that were deemed ‘positionless’ or throwing out a ‘small-ball’ lineup against a normal-sized opponent that became flabbergasted after their shot-blocking power forwards and centers were deemed useless.
And then they added Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis to that mix.
The Heat enter the 2012-’13 season with a chip on their shoulders. While they probably won’t be able to feed off the hate from their opponents fanbase as much as before, they will have the confidence knowing that there is no exaggerated amount of pressure bestowed upon them because their three-time MVP had yet to win a title. For the first time in three years, the Heat will be playing without the media breathing down their necks and looking over their shoulder.
No, that will be left to the new-look Los Angeles Lakers, who may have problems of their own with an ailing starting lineup and a nonexistent bench. Seriously, how much have you heard ESPN talk about the Miami Heat winning compared to last year when they lost? There isn’t much of a story to make when everything is peachy and heads are being held high.
The unorthodox lineup the Heat featured in last year’s postseason will most likely be the starting lineup that will come out October 30th against the Boston Celtics: Mario Chalmers at the point, Dwyane Wade at shooting, LeBron James at small forward, Shane Battier at power, and Chris Bosh at center.
Obviously, there are a lot of questions surrounding how Bosh and Battier will cope with being one of the most undersized four-five duos in the NBA. The purpose of this is to continue buying into the idea of spacing the floor, which is the primary reason why the team spent their limited funds on two shooters. Battier and Bosh are on the floor to create mismatches and make the opposition’s four and five of less worth, knowing that they can’t defend the perimeter.
Having the opposing bigs out on the perimeter also opens up the floor for the Heat’s slashers to drive. Miami has faced trouble in the past getting both Wade and James involved because of the opponent’s tendency to pack the paint. Having Battier at the four along the perimeter is going to force the opposition’s power forward to respect his shot, which should end up leaving the paint open more for Wade and James to do what they do best.
Miami’s offense doesn’t need to be complex. Simply driving and kicking out to the open shooter works; it just won the team a championship. Game 5 of the NBA Finals was the Heat’s offense working at its best featuring wide-open shooters hitting wide-open shots and the ‘Big Three’, mainly LeBron and his 13 assists, feeding them. The Heat realize they’re unstoppable at this aspect, but knowing that they’ll have to rely on their shooters to free up the three All-Stars is a risk.
Then again, how risky can it be? Shane Battier isn’t going to shoot as awful as he did last year and neither is Udonis Haslem (yes, I’m aware that he’s not a three-point threat, but he still plays a vital role in opening up the floor). Ray Allen has never shot below 36 percent from beyond the arc in his lengthy career and Mario Chalmers is coming off the best shooting season of his career.
Adding a healthy Mike Miller to the bench, too? Now the Heat are just pushing it. The oft-injured swingman has been dealing with chronic injuries, including back ailments that nearly forced him out of the league this summer, but has returned as healthy as he’s been since joining the Heat. In three preseason games, Miller is shooting 60 percent from beyond the arc, including a recent 4-of-5 performance against San Antonio.
He doesn’t have the same look of the ailing, lumbering zombie that stalked their way up and down the hardwood the past two seasons, either. Miller has looked spry and with the Heat having monitored his minutes, he’s going to be healthy enough to become a rotation player. The Heat may not need him as much as before, but there is always a spot for a shooter who still possesses one of the purest shots in the game.
And we all know what happens when Miller gets hot.
Whether it’s Miller or Battier or Lewis or Allen or Chalmers or Norris Cole or James Jones, the Heat are going to have at least one or two of those guys making shots, spacing the floor and creating havoc for the defense. The Heat finished tied for 9th last season in three-point percentage and that was with Battier struggling with his shot all year long. As long as LeBron is on the floor, these shooters are going to need to be prepared to hit their open jumpers.
Miami will no doubt be looking to LeBron and his post-game to be the focal point of the offense. Adding a back to the basket game was one of the most innovative things James had done his entire career and it stemmed from losing in the 2011 Finals when Shawn Marion and just about every other Mavericks defender forced LeBron into playing out of his comfort zone, which had been isolated at the top of the perimeter.
Working his way in the post puts the offense at the advantage and the defense on its heels. The objective of every team’s defense when playing against LeBron is to not allow him to penetrate and get into the paint. When he penetrates, the defense has no choice but to converge and impede his progress, but it only leaves one of the league’s top facilitators with a number of open targets to look to as his next assist.
Just like the Heat’s numerous three-point threats, it’s pick your poison when it comes to LeBron. Do you allow the defender an attempt at stopping James with his back to the basket in a one-on-one setting? Or do you double team him in hopes that he’ll cough up the ball? Defense’s will have no problem in double-teaming James, even after Game 5 against OKC, because they’d rather have the Heat shoot their way to a victory, rather than allowing LeBron to go off.
But how do you leave the perimeter open when there are so many shooters? That’s the problem for the rest of the NBA. The Heat have become impossible to guard, especially if LeBron has actually added a more versatile repertoire to his work in the post. Throw in the fact that their chemistry has only grown via Wade and James learning to play off the ball and you have an offense that’s going to rival Denver and San Antonio in efficiency.
Speaking of Wade, the pressure that was taken off of LeBron after winning his first title may ultimately transfer over to Dwyane. Although Wade had one of the league’s highest PER’s last season at 26.3, injuries played a significant role throughout the regular and postseason. He was sporadically hampered by injuries throughout the season and only ended up missing 17 games, the most he’s missed in a season in four years.
Those concerns withstood in the postseason. Wade would eventually need his knee drained after a dismal performance in Game 3 against Indiana. He would return with a vengeance in Games 4, 5 and 6, but would struggle against the series after against Boston. Because Bosh was out for the first four games, the Celtics found plenty of success in having Kevin Garnett wander out of the paint in order to help throw double-teams at Dwyane.
Without the same agility he would have with a healthy knee, Wade struggled to avoid traps, and it led to the scoring load being bestowed upon LeBron, who had no problem in stepping up to the occasion. Miami came to the brink of losing to Boston on two occasions and needed a few legendary performances to make it out: LeBron’s Game 6 against Boston and Bosh’s valiant effort in Game 7.
Now with a surgically-repaired knee, we are either going to see a slower Wade or the Wade that returned from knee surgery in 2008. You remember, right? The Wade that led the league in scoring and had a PER of 30.4? The 2008-’09 campaign was the most prolific of Wade’s career and it came only a few months after he received surgery on his knee that cut short his 2007-’08 season. He returned with more bounce in his step and the agility he possessed when he won a title three years prior.
Although Wade is no longer arguably the number one player, the Heat will still be expecting the All-Star shooting guard to contribute significantly in the form of making his mid-range jumpers and splitting double-teams that either lead to lay ups or open shots for his teammates.
If not, maybe the Heat should give Chris Bosh a shot at being the number two. I brought this up in a previous article and it holds water; why wouldn’t the Heat allow the player arguably most vital to their success to have a larger role? Too many people perceive Bosh as being nothing like the vicious dinosaur that destroyed cities while a member with the Raptors. However, those critics don’t understand that Bosh is in an unfamiliar role as a third option and doesn’t nearly get the same time of possession that Wade and James receive.
Bosh is one of the league’s most versatile players and having him as the starting center is going to be a nightmare for the opposition. There is not one center in this league who is capable of keeping up with Bosh when he’s near the perimeter. His mid-range game is too polished and he has the quickest first step in the league for a power forward. Once again, pick your poison makes another sighting as defense’s must choose to either sag off of Bosh or risk giving up a drive by crowding him.
There will be a heavier rebounding responsibility applied to Bosh as well. With the undersized Battier starting at the four, Bosh will be expected to live up to his height and to lead this team in the rebounding department, especially since he’s going to be matched up with opposing centers that include guys like Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum. Bosh must exploit them on offense and he must be able to hold his own on the defensive end and on the boards.
The Heat will employ a team effort on the boards, James as a power forward is a devastator on the boards, but there will be more expected from Bosh, who averaged only 7.9 boards per last season–the lowest he’s averaged since his rookie season. Coming from someone that had averaged over ten boards per in seven seasons with Toronto, the Heat will obviously expect more from the converted center who has finally bought into playing big.
If Miami doesn’t run the table in the East, it’ll be a disappointment. With that being said, it’ll also be a disappointment if they don’t win a second consecutive title this season. The competition in the Eastern Conference is weak outside of Boston. The Heat’s strongest competition comes out of the West and it’ll come in the form of either Oklahoma City, the L.A. Lakers or possibly even Denver or San Antonio.
All of those teams possess the attributes to beat the Heat, but they lack the sacrifice, talent and ambition the LeBron-led Heat possess. There isn’t another team in the NBA that has asked their player to do so much and there isn’t a team that has the players so willing to make adjustments that put them out of their comfort zone, either. It’s the cost of winning a championship. If you want to be the best, you have to want to be the best.
You have to want to improve your game, even though you’re already a two-time MVP. You have to overcome adversity, even though your spine will probably look like a question mark by season’s end. You have to overcome mismatches, using your skillset to offset the opponent’s physical advantages.
Mainly, you just have to want it more. LeBron James and the Heat proved that last season upon finding themselves down 2-1 against Indiana, 3-2 against Boston and 1-0 against Oklahoma City. This is a team that drives itself on heart and a never-say-die attitude and that’s surprising from a team with so many egos and personalities. It goes to show how much winning means to the team, instead of attempting to make things work by playing the game that had made them individual successes.
If Wade, James and Bosh wanted individual success, they could have stayed alone in Miami, Cleveland and Toronto. They, along with the plethora of veterans that took paycuts, thought winning meant more than putting up appealing stats. That’s why this Heat team is special and separates them from everyone else. They’re a close-knit group and they are collectively willing to put everything aside for the purpose of winning.
It’s been a long time since that 9-8 start in 2010. While I wouldn’t expect any record-breaking seasons, it is natural to expect this Heat team to be as ambitious and driven as they were last season, even if they aren’t jeered in every building or at the center of criticism on ESPN after every loss. They have their legacies to motivate them, as well as each other, pushing each other to their limit in an attempt to get the best out of everyone.
LeBron and Chris didn’t team up with Dwyane to win a title. They came here to win multiple titles. They recognize that one title isn’t going to cut it and there’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue that success with a team that’s far improved and healthier than the one from last year.
Either that or more criticism. It’s safe to say what the Heat want more.
Record Prediction: 64-18