On July 8, 2010, free agent superstar basketball player LeBron James appeared on a live television special called "The Decision", wherein he announced that he was going to sign with the Miami Heat1. The next day, he took part in a truly obnoxious celebration in front of Heat fans, alongside longtime Heat guard Dwayne Wade and newly acquired power forward Chris Bosh. The trio, unoriginally christened the Big Three by the media (and the Three Kings by locals in Miami), promised the city of Miami that they had arrived not to win one championship, but at least seven championships2. It was not a prediction or a guarantee - it was simply optimism on the part of a new core of basketball brilliance in Miami, believing that their talent would inevitably bring them to the promised land. Last night, the Heat came up short in their first attempt at glory, losing on their home court to the Dallas Mavericks. LeBron will take the brunt of the criticism, as his poor play contributed to the loss, and his status as the face of the NBA makes him the first choice for finger pointing. But the failure of the Heat (and it is a failure, despite reaching the NBA Finals) extends beyond LeBron's performance on the court and earlier than "The Decision".
The impetus for building the Miami juggernaut can be traced back to two events - the success of the Boston Celtics in 2007-2008, and the U.S. Men's Olympic Team victory at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Digging deeper into both of these success stories, LeBron and company should have been more cautious, or perhaps less self-confident. They were blind to a number of things that were intuitively obvious to anyone who was able to evaluate them objectively.
In the two seasons prior to 2007, the Celtics won a combined 57 games3. The team had a young core of talented but inexperienced players around All-Star Paul Pierce, including Al Jefferson, Kendrick Perkins, and Rajon Rondo, but little depth or veteran presence. During the 2007 NBA Draft, the Celtics traded their first round pick, Jeff Green, to the Seattle SuperSonics along with Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West, and a draft pick for a second round pick (Glen "Big Baby" Davis) and future Hall Of Famer Ray Allen4. The acquisition of Allen convinced another Hall Of Famer, Kevin Garnett, to waive his no-trade clause to join the Celtics, as Boston delivered Jefferson, Ryan Gomes, Gerald Green, Theo Ratliff, Sebastian Telfair and draft picks for the Big Ticket.5 With three all-stars on the team, experts predicted an immediate turnaround for the Celtics, but questioned how well three superstar players would mesh together and how the team would fill the remainder of the roster, having taken on large salaries and traded away seven players from the previous season.
The Celtics responded by finishing 66-16, seven games better than any other team, and defeating the rival Los Angeles Lakers in six games, the last of which was a 39 point blowout6. The Celtics seemingly proved that alpha dogs placed on the same team could not only coexist, but thrive in the NBA. But the Celtics' seventeenth NBA championship wasn't raised to the rafters simply because they were able to put three All-Stars on the court.
The Celtics' "Boston Three Party" was a set of complementary players with different skill sets. Paul Pierce was the scorer, a slashing small forward equally confident in shooting outside shots as he was taking a defender off the dribble. Ray Allen was the shooter, a lights-out shooting guard deadly accurate from beyond the arc. Kevin Garnett was the low-post workhorse, a power forward with unmatched intensity on defense. Combined with one of the best pure point guards in the league (Rondo) and an excellent defensive center (Perkins), the Celtics starting five was formidable even without any bench depth. But depth they had, with tough-minded defensive players like Tony Allen and James Posey, spot-shooter Eddie House, and strong, big bodies like Davis and Leon Powe down low. The team added veterans Sam Cassell and P.J. Brown in mid-season, giving the roster twelve players who could legitimately contribute to the team in one fashion or another. It was not simply the Celtics' big three that brought home a championship. It was the supporting cast as well. And in retrospect, while Pierce, Allen, and Garnett were future Hall of Famers, none of them had an ego that prevented them from sacrificing their stat sheets in favor of wins and losses. The new additions deferred to Pierce as the team captain and everyone accepted their roles. Head coach Doc Rivers had no small role in this, stressing the concept of ubuntu to the team repeatedly throughout the season, and putting a stop to what he called "hero basketball" whenever he saw it. Rivers was a former point guard, accustomed to being the leader on the court, and is well-known for being able to draw up specific plays for the offense to run.
This is in contrast to the Miami Heat, as will be visited later.
"They set the blueprint for us when they decided to make the trade for [Kevin Garnett] and for Ray [Allen]. Seeing guys make sacrifices to come together and play as one. They set the blueprint and went out there and did it. They won a championship. They competed every year." - Lebron James7
A little more than a month after the Celtics raised their banner, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh were playing together on the U.S. Men's Olympic Team in Beijing, a team that was largely untested in their run to the gold medal game, where a sound Spanish team put up a good fight before fading in the final minutes. It's generally agreed that it was during this period that the trio (and perhaps others) decided on playing together in the NBA when their existing contracts expired. When Wade resigned with Miami, the die was cast - James and Bosh put on a public display of interest for other clubs, notably the Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks, but in the end signed with Miami (or more accurately, due to salary cap issues in the NBA, were signed by their original clubs and traded to Miami in exchange for six draft picks)8,9.
The events in Beijing showed exactly what can happen when a team has too many alpha dogs on it. The embarrassment of the U.S. team in Greece four years earlier was due mainly to the failure of the country's best to step up and play for the international team. Of the twelve Americans who made the All-NBA teams that previous year, only one (Tim Duncan) played in Greece (Duncan was also the only player from the All-NBA Defensive Team in Greece as well).10, 11 In 2008, the United States sent six of eleven (Wade, who missed part of the season to injury, would certainly have been the seventh if healthy).12, 13 The team ran roughshod through the preliminary rounds, finishing with a perfect 5-0 record and an average margin of victory of 32 points. The quarterfinals saw the U.S. blow out Australia by 31, the semi-finals a 20 point victory against Argentina.14 These games were like NBA All-Star Games, where everyone on the roster gets their proverbial fifteen minutes of fame.
The came Spain, who the United States had beaten by 37 points in the preliminary round. Spain caught fire in the fourth quarter -- a three-pointer by Rudy Fernandez with about eight minutes left cut Uncle Sam's lead to just two points15, and confusion reigned during the ensuing time out. The U.S. team looked tentative and lost (much like the Heat did during fourth quarters in this most recent series), but the problem resolved itself. Wrote ESPN's Bill Simmons:
"Even during the final quarter of the 2008 gold-medal game, when everyone on the American team was staring at each other wondering who was going to step up against a red-hot Spain team, there were a few minutes of tentative, "I don't want to step on anyone's toes here" basketball before Kobe said, "Screw it, get out of my way" and took over the key portion of the game."16
Kobe Bryant was the alpha dog among alpha dogs, the player willing to take over a game, win or lose, because he cares more about winning than making friends, and has the talent to generate the desired outcome. Had Kobe not been on the team, it may very well have meant the silver medal for the Americans. Added Simmons in another column, "Know that in the history of the NBA we have never had the best-player-alive argument resolved so organically. Incredible. Kobe, you have the Lord of the Flies conch. Use it wisely."17
How does this all relate to the failure of the Miami Heat? Let's return to how Miami's team-building parallel (or, more precisely, did not parallel) Boston's approach.
The Heat's big three are a set of players with essentially the same skills at different positions. Wade is a quick and athletic scorer. James is a quick and athletic scorer. Bosh is a tall and athletic scorer. None of them are particularly good outside shooters, and none of them define themselves by their play in the low post - even Bosh prefers the Garnett approach by facing the basket (and does not play defense like Garnett does). In contrast to the Celtics who had a cog, a sprocket, and a spring in their basketball assembly, the Heat had just three cogs. The basketball experts had the same concerns as they did with the Celtics - how would they fill out the roster? Hampered by three large contracts, the Heat signed shooting forward Mike Miller with their mid-level salary cap exception, then filled the rest of the team with role players, with Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem the only others with any significant level of skill. The Heat were clearly talented enough to mop the floor with the bottom half of the NBA, but were extremely vulnerable to any team with a skilled center (Orlando, Dallas) or a playmaking point guard (Boston, Chicago). Adding to the problem was head coach Erik Spoelstra. Spoelstra is considered a young, dynamic coach with excellent technical knowledge of the game, but he seems overwhelmed at times by the team he has been given to lead. Earlier in the season he caused embarrassment for his team by revealing that one of his players cried in the locker room after a tough loss. In other instances, plays that he has drawn up have been ignored by the players on the floor, who opt to run their own play instead. In the fourth quarter of NBA Finals Game Six, an elimination game for the Heat, Spoelstra stressed that his players remain "mentally stable"18, which is akin to trying to win a World Series by reminding your star pitcher to "just throw strikes".
Returning back to Beijing, we revisit the alpha dog mentality and how it affects the Miami Heat. On an Olympic team with both LeBron James and Dwayne Wade, Kobe Bryant was the obvious alpha and showed as such by taking over the gold medal game while the rest of the team stood and watched. The Heat's major problem in this Finals, which will remain a problem moving forward, is that they have two alpha dogs, neither of whom can defer, each for a different reason.
Chris Bosh, the third man in the big three, is content with a contributor's role. Despite griping about getting more scoring chances earlier in the season19, it's clear that Bosh knows that he can deliver a victory every once in a while, but he cannot carry a team for an entire season. If that weren't the case, the Toronto Raptors would not have been a perennial lottery team during his tenure. The competition for alpha is between Dwayne Wade and LeBron James, and the criticism for the Heat's failure must fall upon LeBron.
Prior to James' arrival, the Miami Heat were Dwyane Wade's team. He won a championship with the Heat in 2006, was in the annual discussion for "best current player in the NBA", and when healthy was able to carry the Heat to 50-win seasons and playoff berths. James filled the same role on the Cleveland Cavaliers. When the two joined forces, the immediate question became whether it was Wade's team or LeBron's team. The answer is that it's Wade's team, but the problem is that LeBron James is a better basketball player, is a higher profile athlete, and finds himself in discussions not just for "best current player in the NBA", but "best player of all time". He's been groomed from an early age to be the go-to guy, and his talent alone drives him to success more often than not. There's just one problem.
He doesn't want it.
LeBron is a sidekick in an alpha's body. This is clear from his performance in big games. In Game 5 of the 2010 Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, LeBron took only three shots in the fourth quarter20, finished 3-of-14 from the floor in his final home game for the Cavaliers, and was soundly booed by the crowd in a game in which observers felt he simply gave up when faced with a 17 point deficit21. In Game 6 James responded by filling the stat sheet with a triple-double, scoring 27 points, grabbing 19 rebounds, and dishing out 10 assists, but had nine turnovers as well22 and was content in the fourth quarter to shoot three-pointers rather than drive to the basket.23
In the 2011 NBA Finals, James played 68:30 of a possible 72 fourth quarter minutes in the series, and scored a total of 18 points24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29. In Game 4 James not only didn't score in the fourth, he did not attempt a shot27. Over the series, Bosh had a plus/minus of -8 and Wade a -12, to be expected for a team that lost the series, but James tallied a -3630, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35. But Game 2 tells the real story. Down 17 to the Celtics at the start of the fourth quarter a year ago, LeBron chose to mail it in for the rest of the game. In Game 2 of the Finals, a three-pointer by Wade put the Heat up by 15 with 7:13 remaining, and both James and Wade performed a celebration dance in front of the Mavericks bench as time out was called. Instead of mailing it in themselves, the Mavericks outscored the Heat 22-5 the rest of way, stunning the Heat in their own arena. James? 0-for-4, one assist, zero rebounds.25
Make no mistake - this is for lack of will, not lack of skill. Great players have bad performances, but the key is that they don't shrink away from the task at hand. In 2010 Kobe Bryant shot an atrocious 6-for-24 in the final game, but still scored 23 points, grabbed fifteen rebounds, went to line nine times in fourth quarter36, and won the NBA Finals MVP. At crunchtime, the true alphas want the ball in their hands. Jordan, Kobe, even Larry Bird took matters into their own hands and either scored on their own or facilitated another player because it was the right thing to do on the court at the time. LeBron plays against his own strengths when the chips are down (shying away from the basket, overreaching on defense) and passes not because it's a smart basketball play but because he wants desperately to defer to someone else.
It's "The Decision" that further illustrates the point. LeBron is the only NBA player who could have turned his impending free agency into a highly rated television event. With at least seven suitors, he had his choice of where to cement his basketball legacy. Staying in Cleveland was an unlikely choice given the failures by ownership to construct a championship team around him, but many believed it was the sentimental choice, guaranteed to make LeBron a legend in his hometown. Going to the Knicks would have presented a similar challenge, but he would have been the biggest star in a city full of big stars, furthering his goal to be seen as a global icon like Michael Jordan. Chicago was the best fit for LeBron, with a core of talented young players ready to make the leap, but LeBron could never have surpassed Jordan in that town. Miami was championship ready as well, but had already signed their superstar.
In the end, LeBron was true to his word - his goal was winning a championship, above everything else. What people misunderstood was that LeBron didn't necessarily want to be the one who led the team to the promised land. He was fine going along for the ride, to play hoops with some of his best buddies and surf the wave of success into the shore. This is the strange dichotomy of LeBron. His talent and his words and the way he is marketed suggest that he's the alpha, but his actions, both on the court and off, say otherwise.
This presents a dilemma for the Miami Heat moving forward. The team did reach the NBA Finals, which is no small feat, but there must be concern for how lost the team looked at the end of close games, both regular season and playoffs. They are committed to three huge salaries through 201437, restricting their ability to sign players through free agency, and the acquisition of Bosh and James limited the number of draft picks they'll have moving forward. Chicago isn't going anywhere and has more room to get better. Oklahoma City's starting five are all younger than LeBron and won 55 games last season.38 An uncertain labor situation could eat into the 2011-2012 season and significantly change the salary structure of the NBA, perhaps giving the Heat more freedom but perhaps crippling them further.
Perhaps a change in leadership is all that's needed, but it seems as though the roster is a real issue and will continue to be so moving forward unless contracts are reworked or one of the Big Three (probably Bosh, although the better - and blasphemous - choice is LeBron) is shipped to another team. Simply put, surrounding three All-Stars with a bunch of chumps can win you the NBA championship, because in the NBA the team with the best player typically wins, but it's not quite as easy as the Big Three thought it would be. For the near future, LeBron is going to have to live with "The Decision."