LeBron James, during Tuesday's Game 5 (Getty Images)
If you've taken a recent drive around town to the soothing sounds of sports talk radio, or spin around the cable dial since Wednesday night, you've likely heard the chattering work of endless analysts and their goading talking-head cohorts attempting to anticipate what fallout will result when the Miami Heat eventually let us all down again. After all, the Heat are a loss away from being eliminated from the playoffs for a second straight season — a result that befalls 15 other teams every single postseason, but an ending that doesn't seem suitable for a squad that boasts three players who often look as if they're the best to play their respective position on any given night.
What if we're wrong in our expectations, though? What if a team featuring the best player in the game, the best shooting guard in the league and an All-Star power forward just isn't up to the task? Not because of some failure in philosophy or defect in their collaborative process, but because the Miami Heat just aren't good enough?
Whether or not the Miami Heat lose in Thursday night's Game 6 against the Boston Celtics or Game 7 on Saturday or in the NBA Finals isn't the point. The nagging question doesn't have anything to do with when the Heat will lose, assuming they fail to take the title again, or how. The real point, at this juncture, has more to do with the idea that we were just as ill-conceived in our judgment of the Heat as a unit as this team's players, ownership and front office was in putting this group together. Take away the bluster or those frightening week-long spans that made the group look like world-beaters — were the Heat ever proper championship contenders?
This isn't even working under the assumption that the Heat's season will end in Boston on Thursday, or at some point earlier than Boston or Oklahoma City's season in the days to follow. Though the Celtics have taken the Heat down in six out of nine attempts so far this regular and postseason, any NBA team featuring a player or two that can barrel his way toward 15 free-throw attempts in a game (the Heat, as you've noticed, feature two in LeBron James and Dwyane Wade) can manage to overcome. This wouldn't make Miami the better team, were they to beat Boston and Oklahoma City; it would just mean that the Heat's superstars led them to a series of wins at the absolute right time. Not unlike what we often see in Major League Baseball's playoffs.
Should the Heat go out, though, the group is leaving itself wide open for all sorts of ridicule. Based on the tactless way this group was organized, with James' showy and needless ESPN infomercial and the ridiculous arena-filling introductory extravaganza that followed, all are more than welcome to criticize both the Heat front office (remember, team president Pat Riley and owner Mickey Arison didn't exactly get in the way of this group's brazen initial moves), and the Heat players.
At some point, though, we have to realize just how lacking a roster this is, though. The talent on this team, from the coaching staff on downward, is formidable. But 185 (combined regular-season and playoff) games into its run, can we at least admit defeat with this team? Even if it finds a way toward five more wins and the 2012 NBA championship?
Consider our reaction to Game 5: LeBron James, that disappointment to all, paired brilliant fourth-quarter play and a fantastic final stat line (30 points, 13 rebounds) with momentum-killing work on offense in the final quarter (standing motionless in the corner while Dwyane Wade dribbled away) and defense (failing to properly cover someone, anyone, in a pair of transition runs from Boston). This is both unfair and completely fair to harp on; it's impossibly tough for LeBron to live up to these levels of perfection, but he made his own bed by signing on with a capped-out and top-heavy team that demands he play every possession with a fervor and fanaticism that would leave even Michael Jordan asking him to take it easy on a play or two.
This is what happens when you pair LeBron, who has never learned how to work away from the ball, and another player of his ilk in Dwyane Wade. Neither have mastered anything more than a two-man game. This isn't to say that either is selfish offensively, far from it, but neither superstar has the vision and prescience to see beyond the obvious open man. It's either a score or an assist for these two, and never the play that leads to the pass that leads to the screen that leads to the second past that then leads to the assist.
Add to that the way the team has disappointed on defense against Boston, as their legs appear to tire in the wake of the poor play from that thin rotation. Pair that with coach Erik Spoelstra, who hasn't been able to develop (or, to give Spoelstra the benefit of the doubt, encourage) a less obvious offense, and you have a recipe for a team that is only as good as the sum of its parts. Championships can be won that way, to be sure, but it takes a whole lot of luck and a whole lot of beneficial whistles along the way.
Toss in a supporting cast that has been a major disappointment — not because of James, Wade or Spoelstra's failings, but for a litany of reasons mostly having to do with age, injury or inability — and you have a team that is more or less right where it should be. Unable to advance even to the conference finals without a major struggle, unless James and Wade play every possession expertly on both sides of the ball.
Don't excuse either player for falling short in that regard, because nearly 200 games into this experiment both should know what it takes to overcome these Miami-made obstacles, but do understand just how significant a task this is. And that no amount of overhaul — trades, coaching changes, roster upgrades, or some sort of Michael Jordan-brand salve applied to the jutted-out chest of these stars — will change things.
Miami might eventually win a title. Miami might win an NBA title even by June 19, the date of Game 4 of this year's NBA Finals. And it wouldn't be a "stranger things have happened"-situation. In the NBA, where top-heavy talent will often win out, a transcendent fortnight can often make the difference, and bring home the hardware.
Miami will never be something to rely on, though. Laugh at LeBron all you want, but he wasn't wrong in thinking that this team should have the potential for a Michael, Magic or Larry-level of championships; and Miami will never fulfill that promise. There are several reasons why — reasons pragmatic, disappointing, expected, intangible and excusable.
The overriding theme, though, is that this experiment just isn't working. This roster, these stars, these helpers, those coaches, and these opponents all add up to make this possible — even if the Heat find a way to force that square peg into a round NBA title sometime this month.
And we're never going to see the Miami Heat, unlike their championship predecessors or the Dallas and/or Boston-types they've seen over the last 12 months, play better than the sum of their parts.
Which is a shame. A self-designed shame.
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