Ball Don't Lie

Will people stop hating the Heat and LeBron James now?

Eric Freeman
Ball Don't Lie

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LeBron James poses with his new friends (Ronald Martinez/ Getty).

Since "The Decision" and the subsequent overblown welcome party, the Miami Heat have been the villains of the NBA. At first, the scorn centered on the way in which they came together, the pure arrogance and lack of competitiveness that defined the superteam approach. Then, when they fell to the Dallas Mavericks, the idea was that their moral failings represented themselves as basketball failings, too, and that they could never win as long as that character was present. They had to mature.

Like most morality-based narratives, that take was always a little too broad to define the Heat's failures completely. But conventional wisdom often works that way, and past narratives do in fact effect the substance of future expectations. So when the Heat won the title on Thursday night, we heard a lot about their maturation and the ways in which LeBron James has become a more focused, capable athlete.

The Heat seemed to have earned their championship in the ways the public wanted and, in turn, won over some new fans. So now we must ask the question: Have the Heat satisfied us? Will the entire cottage industry of Miami analysis get a little more reasonable?

In a sense, the answer is that those things have happened, and that no one will be able to make overblown statements about LeBron's inability to perform in crunch time again. Only the most determined Heat haters will claim that this championship doesn't count because it happened during a shortened season, or state with confidence that the Heat don't have the hearts of champions. Every passing accomplishment gets us closer to the truth, tearing away another layer of bombast.

In a must-read column for TrueHoop, Kevin Arnovitz hopes that we can focus on LeBron's basketball and not what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra refers to as noise:

Admiring James' talent as a basketball player has never been about unconditional worship or letting personal and professional shortcomings slide. For many who daydream about what basketball can be, James has simply been the game's most fascinating player who, at his best, offered us a glimpse of the platonic future -- size, speed, vision, finesse and intuition in a single package.

Somewhere along the way, expectations got the better of James. From the moment he arrived in Cleveland as a phenom, he was graded against a curve. He offended sensibilities by leveraging his skills and marketability to play power broker. To many, this act violated a tacit contract between player and fan, and last year's Finals were either a divine act of reciprocity or just a demonstration that James never had the goods.

All that talk is over. The next time James falls short -- and he almost certainly will at some point -- we'll measure that failure in the context of the game, not in the language of hysteria.

Kevin's very good column is more a call for reason than a prediction of the future, but it nevertheless seems a little too hopeful to me. As Bethlehem Shoals wrote after Game 4, NBA fans knocked James' greatness for being a foregone conclusion even before he became a lightning rod for criticism. No matter a player or team's greatness and accomplishments, people will always expect more of the best athletes in the world. Kobe Bryant, for instance, didn't suddenly become discussed only in terms of basketball as soon as he won his first championship without Shaquille O'Neal in 2009. Instead, he was placed in a new context, whether against the players of his era (remember, Kobe vs. LeBron was a debate for several seasons) or the history of the game (e.g. that he'd never be Michael Jordan, or that he might not be an all-time top-10 player). Perhaps the discussion centered more on the basketball we watched — TrueHoop itself has led the charge to put Kobe's late-game performances in a proper context. But narrative can't go away entirely — it simply shifts.

LeBron and the Heat, then, will still be divisive. Their detractors will expect them to become a dynasty, and for James to become one of the best players ever. (One columnist made this argument several hours after the final buzzer.) Once certain expectations are met, new ones arise. Until LeBron matches Michael Jordan and the Heat rise to the level of the best teams in history, there will still be debates. We're not done with them, because that's simply not the way that people discuss sports in 2012 (or ever have, really).

Narrative is usually a simplified way of looking at a situation, whether in terms of failures standing in for moral deficiencies (let's see what happens to Kevin Durant if he goes a long time without a championship) or impressive accomplishments wiping away everything distasteful about a particular team or player (if people were to accept the Heat wholeheartedly after two years of massive criticism, that would be a little weird). Yet, to some extent, everything is a story; narrative is always present, even in reasonably concrete discussions about a player's tendencies and trends in quality of play. Discarding it entirely would ignore one of the most common ways human beings organize the world.

If we want to be more reasonable about the Miami Heat and LeBron James, the answer isn't to get rid of an entire method of processing them. We simply need to keep a healthy perspective, attempt to avoid unreasonable hyperbole, and embrace the gray areas of opinion.

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