The majority of fans, myself included, reveled in the Heat’s failures during the 2011 NBA Finals—cheering for the Mavericks as if we were all native Dallasites (I’m assuming that’s what people from Dallas call themselves). In light of their undeniably foolish pre-season hubris, LeBron’s shrinkage into temporary obscurity, Chris Bosh’s tears, and that intensely glum look on Pat Riley’s face, gave us all great satisfaction.
That kind of vicarious pleasure, derived from watching the Heat struggle with major physical and psychological issues, continued throughout last season—all the way to the NBA Finals against the Thunder, in-fact. And that’s when I believe the casual NBA fan had an epiphany of sorts.
It was a realization that we were witnessing the greatest player in the game today put together one of the greatest playoff performances ever. A realization that the Heat were dealing with injuries to two of their star players and were battling through with great resolve—and gutsy performances from their previously ridiculed bench. And perhaps most important, a realization that the Heat had overcome their internal and external demons, and had put every ounce of skill and effort they had into 4 games of fantastic basketball; basketball played the right way.
If there are still fans that hate the Miami Heat with a fiery passion that can’t be extinguished by feel-good stories, and transcendent basketball from a once-in-a generation-type superstar, then those fans are not going to enjoy the coming season. Both in terms of personnel, and in terms of team cohesion and chemistry, the Miami Heat will be better than they were last year.
And here’s why.
If you were going to try and improve the roster of a team that contains two top-5 NBA players, both of whom demand a double-team on a frequent basis, then you might not do much better than to acquire a player who can knock down an open-3 when the ball is kicked out. Of course, Pat Riley went a few steps further than simply acquiring a semi-competent spot-up shooter. He acquired the greatest 3-point shooter in the history of the game, Jesus Shuttlesworth himself, Mr. Ray Allen.
Teams that face the Heat will have to pick their poison down the stretch. Double-team LeBron or Wade, and risk leaving Allen open, or throw a man on Allen and leave those aforementioned superstars to blow by their single defender. Allen spent much of last season injured, of course, but in South Beach he’ll be coming off the bench and should be able to ease himself into his new role—no longer lugging counter-productive minutes as a member of a ‘big-3’.
The Heat also picked up Rashard Lewis (remember him?), Allen’s old teammate in Seattle, who played a big role during the Magic’s run to the NBA Finals, and subsequently fell victim to what Pat Riley has termed: “the disease of more”. Lewis, already signed to a bloated contract, tested positive for a banned substance, and was shipped off to a team where NBA players go to self-destruct: the Washington Wizards.
Despite his trials and tribulations over the past couple seasons, Lewis can offer this Heat team a lot if he’s focused. Like Allen, Lewis is incredibly dangerous from 3-point range (it’s hard to slow down a guy who can shoot 3s and is 6’10’’) and has the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive to the hoop. And just like Allen, Lewis won’t be expected to carry major minutes for this team. He can come off the bench, fulfill his specific role, and largely avoid the flak that comes with being the face, or one of the faces, of a franchise. On this Miami Heat team, he’s free to just play ball.
Of course, two of the players that WILL be expected to carry major minutes again this year are Wade and Bosh—two guys that weren’t 100% healthy at times last season. And this leads us to another reason why the Heat should be stronger this year. Wade was banged up for most of last year, particularly in the post-season. It was only until the last couple games of the NBA Finals that he truly resembled the Dwyane Wade we’re accustomed to seeing. Chris Bosh, on the other hand, missed entire games during the post-season, after sustaining an injury in the Indiana series. His absence was felt deeply by the Heat and was a contributing factor in their struggles against the Celtics.
Injuries, of course, are part of the game. Every team has to deal with them, and there’s no guarantee that Miami won’t lose major players to the injury-bug again this year. But with a full-training camp, and a much less congested schedule than last season, there’s every chance that Wade and Bosh will be far healthier in the coming months, and that will only make for a stronger Miami Heat. Remember that both Wade and Bosh enjoyed a full summer rehabilitating away from basketball, and avoided strenuous Olympic competition.
A Freer LeBron
Good physical health is just one component of a strong, successful basketball team, however. Mental well-being plays just as large of a part in a team’s success. Until Miami finally got the monkey off their back by winning the NBA championship, they were a team plagued by outside criticism and, although this is not empirically provable, inside insecurities. The central focus of that questioning, both internal and external, was LeBron James. Could he perform when it counted? Would he shrink under pressure? Would he ever be able to take the reigns from Wade and lead the Heat to a championship?
YES, NO, Yes, were the emphatic answers to the questions above, and that is crucial to comprehending the strength of the Heat going forward. People tend to forget now, but the infallible Michael Jordan faced similar criticism and uncertainty during his first seven years in the NBA. People questioned whether he could ever lead the Bulls to a championship—whether he was too selfish (LeBron’s had the opposite criticism leveled at him) and whether he could handle the pressure.
Once Jordan won his first championship, against the Lakers in ’91, the floodgates opened. A looser Jordan, more at ease with his role on the team, and less concerned with the outside noise, was able to truly explore the heights of his game.
Where Jordan was in the summer of ’91, LeBron now finds himself. He’s overcome a massive hurdle and can now play without the burden of pressure on his shoulders. In fact, we’ve already seen the tangible results of a looser LeBron James. Just check out that Olympic gold medal hanging around his neck.
The Miami Heat are truly LeBron James’ team and they will go as far as he takes them. The chemistry issues that existed when the Big-3 first came together—issues of whether two alpha-dogs could exist in the same starting-5, and of ill-defined team roles—have largely been ironed-out. Another recently formed ‘super-team’, the 2012-13 Lakers, will have to go through much the same internal process if they are to achieve a similar level of success.
With LeBron free of our constant questioning, a re-tooled roster that has addressed some of the Heat’s weaknesses from the past couple of seasons, and a schedule that is far more conducive to players staying healthy, the Miami Heat will be an even scarier proposition for the rest of the NBA in the coming season.
If you still hate watching the Miami Heat win basketball games, get ready to do a lot more hating in the next few months.