After one month of play to start the 2010-11 season, the Miami Heat were stuck at 9-8. The team had added LeBron James and Chris Bosh to a core already featuring Dwyane Wade the previous offseason, promising championship and championship along the way, and yet after 17 games the team was barely above .500.
In the midst of that eighth loss, to the eventual 2010-11 champion Dallas Mavericks, LeBron James even infamously and possibly accidentally bumped coach Erik Spoelstra on his way back to the bench. The offense wasn’t working, the team wasn’t working, and it was clear that James and Wade were having issues attempting to develop chemistry as co-go-to guys.
James, in a video snippet from an interview will air on NBA TV over next week’s All-Star break, admitted that even he and Wade had initial misgivings just a month into their on-court partnership. Via Pro Basketball Talk, here’s the clip:
It was more than a fair assumption. Because for all the predecessors LeBron and D-Wade had in hand – Scottie and Michael ham and egging in Chicago, Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe going gestalt over everyone’s rear end in New York – there just wasn’t a lot of precedence behind this sort of setup.
Because of expansion and a real paucity of go-to franchise stars in the years following the Jordan Era’s limp off into the sunset, players like James, Allen Iverson, Vince Carter, Wade, and to some extent Kobe Bryant had to work as standalone perimeter icons on teams without a clear Number Two. Wade won a ring in 2006 with Shaquille O’Neal, but by then the big man was far removed from the brilliant MVP turn he worked in tandem with Bryant with over half a decade before. And James’ supporting cast on the 2007 Eastern champs in Cleveland had to be one of the worst working rotations in NBA Finals history.
By the time the two hooked up in 2010, a lot of instincts had to be worked over. Not selfish instincts, mind you, but timing issues. The two were alternately deferential and aggressive, seemingly in all the wrong places. Then you toss in Chris Bosh, a year removed from scoring 24 a game with the Toronto Raptors, and you have a bit of a well-heeled mess. Even Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra will admit that his brand of 2010-era offense didn’t exactly help things, as his strong side screen and roll game allowed for opponents to key in on one player at a time, as they just about took turns dominating the ball.
There’s a reason All-Star games aren’t the prettiest to watch, and it doesn’t usually come down to players attempting to take over and pad their stats. There’s overpassing, and endless attempts to set people up, or back off in the face of a fellow franchise guy that you respect and admire. That’s passable in an exhibition contest in February, but not from October until June – and that’s part of the reason Chicago (with its single-minded go-to guy in MVP Derrick Rose) took the best record in the NBA that year.
Now, this is all quibbling in the face of a team that eventually dumped Chicago in the playoffs, and took two games away from the champion Dallas Mavericks in the NBA Finals. Dallas’ modified zone confused the Heat and pushed James into places he wasn’t comfortable scoring or creating in, and it did genuinely take nearly a full year after that Finals loss for James and company to find their footing, and for LeBron to take over as he should. The Heat did take the 2012 title, but it was dodgy there for a few months. Chicago (prior to Rose’s ACL tear) again took the East’s top seed, and Miami was down 2-3 to Boston in the third round, and 0-1 to Oklahoma City in the Finals.
It was fair to wonder about whether or not this would work. In many ways, both James and Wade combine the best attributes of both Jordan and Pippen, so to combine those all-around games with the instinctual scoring flourishes was always going to result in a potentially combustible mix. Luckily for Heat fans, neither James nor Wade took their worries to the written record, and both kept their head down while things slowly evolved into something special.
And on the less tangible sphere, both decided to eventually eschew the black hat approach, something that both lied about embracing during 2010-11. Basketball – and, by extension, winning – is supposed to be a spiritual exercise. There’s nothing to be taken from pretending to play in strict defiance of what sparked you to pick up the ball in the first place.
Happily, third straight championship or not, both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have figured that out. Amongst many other things.