LeBron James and the Miami Heat: Potential barriers to the next great NBA dynasty
The night after LeBron James’ infamous “Decision”, he appeared on stage at American Airlines Arena in a welcome to Miami celebration with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. After some strutting and pyrotechnics, the Miami Heat’s newly minted Big 3 sat down for an interview in which LeBron impulsively forecasted his team winning “not 2, not 3, not 4, not 5, not 6, not 7” championships (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pT-I8jQDQ7c&feature=related). Titles aren’t won on paper, but after locking up these three superstars during the prime their careers, it was obvious that the Heat would be formidable for years to come and have a great opportunity to win multiple championships.
Fast forward a year. Despite some early season struggles, the Heat eventually steamrolled their way to the NBA Finals by making the Boston Celtics look old and then beating the Chicago Bulls at their own game. The ESPN hype-machine jumped on the “LeBron is better than Jordan” train quicker than fist pumps are dealt on the Jersey Shore, and all the prognosticators were anticipating a Heat victory over the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. LeBron’s decision to go to Miami was going to be vindicated in his first year with the squad, and the self-proclaimed “Heatles” would be on their way to dominating the league for the foreseeable future.
However, in a surprising turn of events, the Mavericks proved to be the better team and Dirk Nowitzki (culminating an unbelievable playoff run) was the best player in the series as the Mavs upset the Heat in six games. LeBron was deemed a choker after his unexplainable drop-off in production during the Finals, and his legacy and the premature Jordan/LeBron comparisons took a permanent hit. His drop off in points per game from the regular season to NBA finals was the largest in league history, and left him with a 0-2 record on the NBA’s biggest stage.
Many view the Heat’s Finals debacle as merely a temporary setback to future championships for King James and his squad. The chemistry between LeBron, Wade, and Bosh should be better in their 2nd season playing together, as each player’s role will be more clearly defined and understood. Playing with a makeshift roster of veteran journeymen during the 2010-2011 season, most figured it would take a year before Heat President Pat Riley could bring in more suitable complementary players to play with the Big 3. The wiseguys in Vegas like the Heat’s chances, and have positioned them as the heavy favorite to win the NBA title this year. Despite this, there are many factors in play that will influence not only the Heat’s chances of winning the title in 2011-2012, but also in the years to come.
The new CBA/Future role players: Once the lockout NBA was resolved, basketball fans were anxious to find out what the new CBA and salary cap structure looked like and how would it impact teams around the league. Given Miami’s favorable financial situation, they should be able to grab decent mid-level players to surround their Big 3 with for years to come. This off-season the team signed veteran Shane Battier, a solid role player who will provide defense and leadership. After Battier though, the roster as a whole looks very much like the one that lost in the Finals last year. They will be talented enough to run through most teams during the regular season, but unless Riley makes some additional moves we could very well see the Heat having to go into playoff wars with the Mario Chalmers’s and Juwan Howard’s of the world for the foreseeable future. This would place a heavy workload on James and Wade and continually put them at a competitive disadvantage against deeper opponents (i.e. 2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks).
Health of LeBron and Wade: Nothing can derail a championship team’s aspirations quicker than an injury to a key player. A freak physical specimen, LeBron has been remarkably durable throughout the first 8 seasons of his career. Will this trend continue during the 2nd half of his career? Wade’s long-term health is more of a concern, as he is vital to the Heat’s success. He was by far the Heat’s best player in the Finals, knocking down big jumpers, slashing to the rim, and rebounding and blocking shots like a man possessed. A few years older than LeBron, he has battled through some injuries in past years, and his explosive (sometimes reckless) style of play is conducive to future ailments. I don’t see the Heat winning it all without these two remaining healthy throughout the duration of their future playoff runs together.
The competition: Between veteran teams that still have a championship run or two left in the tank (Lakers, Mavericks, Celtics), and young teams poised to take it to the next level (Bulls, Thunder, Clippers, Knicks), there are a number of rosters with the personnel capable of challenging the Heat in the coming years. Factor in the possibility of Dwight Howard going to the Lakers or the Melo/Amare Knicks landing another All-Star, and the level of competition for the Heat come playoff time could be even stiffer. As a Knick fan, I hope we see 4-5 years of classic playoff series’ between the two teams reminiscent of the Heat/Knicks battles of the late 90’s.
Attrition due to age: Few players in NBA history have been blessed with the combination of speed, power, and athleticism of LeBron James. In his eight NBA seasons, LeBron has dominated a majority of his opponents with his god-given physical tools. Although only 26 years old, the amount of games he has played in his career is slowly starting to add up. LeBron has never played in less than 75 regular season games, and has played the equivalent of another seasons worth of games in the form of playoff contests. Over time, even the greats suffer through erosion of their athletic ability, either through age or gradual wear and tear. Given his reliance on his extraordinary physical skills, one must ask if his all-around game will regress as he approaches the later portion of his career when he won’t be the most athletically gifted player on the court. Will he make the changes necessary to expand his repertoire and remain a dominant force? Will he ever be a consistent enough jump shooter, or develop a low-post game? If LeBron doesn’t put in the time to improve other aspects of his game over the next few years, the Heat’s dynasty window might only be the next few years.
Despite all these factors, I think at some point the Heat will put together a run of championships, perhaps even beginning this year. As much as I enjoyed LeBron’s self-destruction against Dallas last season, at some point the stars will align and LBJ will break through and put together a monster NBA Finals. He is too talented not too. However, given the difficulty of winning NBA titles in such a top-heavy competitive league combined with the continued development of Rose’s Bulls and Durant’s Thunder, I believe they are destined for two or three championships, “not 4, not 5, not 6, not 7”.Follow us on Twitter:@PACsSports