This isn’t the year to trot out the typical banal sports clichés heard at the start of every season: “All things are new on opening day” or “A load of teams could compete for this year’s title.” Miami became the chief contender on July 8. That was the day LeBron James made The Decision, his much-hyped choice to turn free agent with the Heat.
The move created the daunting Miami Thrice, aligning James with standouts Miami guard Dwyane Wade and forward Chris Bosh, who came aboard from Toronto. James’s avowed intention was to finally win, and his team is expected to do just that.
At least that’s the way to bet. Las Vegas odds-makers have the South Beach Fab Three—“pre-Fab Three” might be more apropos—as 7-to-5 favorites. It makes sense: who has their combination of talent and youth?
Jeff Van Gundy, the ABC analyst and former coach, thinks that their talent makes them the overwhelming favorite.
“It was a monumental summer,” he says, “the greatest summer for any team since the Lakers’ O’Neal signing [in 1996] and the Jabbar trade [to Los Angeles from Milwaukee in 1975].”
But is the season over before it’s started? For the bulk of the teams that make up the NBA, it probably is. Even if we are generous with our predictions no more than six other teams have a reasonable chance at a title. But a small core of teams—the Lakers, the Celtics and the Magic—may end up deflating James’s dreams of glory.
Regardless of how this intriguing campaign plays out, it is not a year for floating false hopes. ‘Tis not the season to wonder how many wins New Jersey can add to last year’s 12. Nor will we be preoccupied with whether the Bucks can celebrate the 40th anniversary of their last title with a foray deep into the play-offs.
Or whether the Knicks can win for the first time since the Nixon administration, or even how the Cavaliers might fair with Byron Scott, but without James. Eight teams in the West won 50 or more games last year—mostly because nine teams won fewer than 50 games—and the league gained no parity this summer.
At the start, a truckload of public-relations issues emerge. Eschewing the humble approach, Heat guard Wade has proclaimed that he, Bosh, and James are “arguably the best trio in league history.” Others might prefer “arguably the best deck ever stacked.” Still others might school the 28-year-old on yesteryear trios of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor or, if a recent vintage is more to his young taste, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and James Worthy.
What does Michael Jordan think of James’s unprecedented Decision and the subsequent celebration in South Beach? “I would never have called up Larry and called up Magic and said, ‘Let’s get together and play on one team,’ ” Jordan asserts. “In all honesty, I was trying to beat those guys.” Apparently the nation sees it that way, too. Following The Decision—which aired on July 8 in an hour that made continental drift appear rapid—James’s Q-rating plummeted.
Only 14 percent of those surveyed regarded him positively, while 39 percent viewed him negatively. Both his decision and the subsequent hullabaloo in Florida were seen as selfish. That said, Jordan had an all-time top-50 player in Scottie Pippen for all six of his championships. James has been without a top-50 player for his seven professional years, and, unbelievably, has never played with anyone who was even voted first-, second- or third-team All-NBA.
Aside from James’s reputation, legacy concerns loom. Does his tattoo proclaiming “King James” indicate that the kingdom is nevermore now that he has left Ohio, or has his gaze always been set on the “Kingdom of All-Time,” a lofty space now occupied by Jordan? Is James’s current move to a stacked squad tantamount to his ceding that all-time position to Jordan, and that henceforth he will play a more subordinate role to win a title? Is it appropriate to laud the trio’s selflessness for accepting less money to make their salaries fit under the cap? After all, winning NBA titles brings money, endorsements and international branding, so where’s the altruism?
Before we assess the temperature of the 2010-2011 Heat and compare them with the field, there is this other matter of comportment that James hasn’t been called out on. How is it that less than two minutes after playing inconsistent and at times embarrassing basketball against the Boston Celtics, and getting ousted in six games, James is hugging Garnet, Pierce, and Allen—and practically everyone in a Boston uniform, but no one in his own—and palling around with Jay Z? When Jordan lost a crushing game, part of him died. The shoulders sunk, he dragged to the tunnel, not picking his head up, not seeking a consoling hand. He had to go die, alone, before he could emerge to fight again. “There are just winning and misery,” Pat Riley once said, and the Original Trinity of Johnson, Larry Bird and Jordan knew it.
Let’s look at the favored squads for a much anticipated season.
One line of thinking says the outcome of the NBA’s 65th season is a fait accompli. “I agree with a couple of people who have called me and said cancel the season,” says Jeff Van Gundy. “In LeBron they have a back-to-back MVP teamed with a top-three player in Wade, and then Bosh. It’s an incredible team. Miami has also done enough to complement these guys. They have been able to keep Udonis Haslem, and sign Mike Miller and Zydrunas Ilgauskas.”
Yes, contrary to popular opinion, Miami will not have to play three on five. Miller can hit threes and will have more open looks than a birder. Even Bosh, likely a third option on offense, should have more open real estate than a lemonade stand in the Sahara. Carlos Arroyo is the leading contender over Mario Chalmers at point guard. Both can hit the three. “Miami may have a problem with [the Magic’s center] Dwight Howard, but not as much of a problem as Orlando will have guarding their wing players James and Wade,” Van Gundy surmises.
Are Boston and Los Angeles the only squads that can muster some semblance of a defense against James and Wade? “It will come down to the offensive philosophy that Miami puts in place,” says Hubie Brown, former coach, Hall of Famer, and ESPN basketball analyst. “Defenses will double-team them off the dribble—you have to bring the double team and once it comes and the pass is made, they can split the double team. The pressure is to stop the dribbler from splitting the double team. Most teams can rotate to one or two passers. But over 48 minutes most teams make the first rotations but don’t make the second rotation. Will the Miami spot shooter hit a high percentage of threes? We have no idea of the offensive philosophy and the types of continuities that Miami will run.”
To call Miami rich in talent is damning them with faint praise. Last season Haslem posted 21 double-doubles, more than any other bench player in the league. And Bosh averaged 24 points and 11 rebounds per game. “Some people say that James needs to become Magic Johnson,” says Van Gundy. “But he’s already become that. All three have IQs and have an unselfish nature. There will be a stat decline for them, and the win total will skyrocket. They won’t play as many minutes. If they come out to dominate and they have that mindset, they will crush some people along the way.”
We will see the occasional 115-75 routs. Beyond that, Van Gundy thinks the Heat can leave a mark on history. “If they win under 70 games, it’s because they got injured or they didn’t play all out. They have a chance to go after the 33-game winning streak [set by Los Angeles during the 1971-72 season] and the 72-10 mark [set by Chicago in 1996]. It depends if going down as an all-time team matters to them. To me, wining an NBA Championship will not be a great accomplishment; it’s expected. It’s more impressive to break or challenge long-standing records and put an historical stamp on the season. They could finish 40-1 at home. I don’t know them well enough to know what type of demeanor they will have as far a being an all-time great team.”
“I don’t see 73 wins, I see 66 wins,” says Bob Ryan, who has been covering the NBA for 40 years with the Boston Globe. “The conference is so much improved that they could lose a game in cities like Washington, New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, Atlanta. These are not automatic Ws.”
In addition, Wade and others who see only stars may be guilty of a kind of additive fallacy: adding the star wattage of three players, comparing them with other squads with fewer stars, and concluding that Miami is superior because their threesome adds up to more and therefore better. That formula doesn’t always win the race. Philadelphia’s Julius Erving, George McGinnis and World B. Free were a more spectacular threesome than Portland’s Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, and Lionel Hollins in the 1977 finals. None denied it. But Portland won the last four games of that series because of team play and superior balance. Star power doesn’t always shine brightest.
“Right now, before the season, they have a lot to prove,” Brown says. “They need chemistry and must rebound with Orlando and Boston in order to get out of out the east.”
Whatever the hype-to-reality ratio hanging over Miami, they are not the team to beat, according to Brown. “The Lakers are still the favorites,” he says. “They are the two-time defending champions. They have added [Steve] Blake—since Jordan Farmer and Shannon Brown could not back up Derek Fisher and give them quality minutes in the Phoenix and Boston series. In Blake you have a true backup point guard to run, shoot off the dribble and hit the three. Matt Barnes backs up Ron Artest and gives them major minutes, which is crucial because of Luke Walton’s lower back trouble. The real luxury comes from adding 15-year veteran Theo Ratliff, a prime shot blocker and defender. He’s handy at play-off time when Andrew Bynum, Pau Gasol, or Lamar Odom gets in trouble.”
Two consecutive titles have not led the Lakers to complacency. They have geared up for a fourth consecutive foray into late June that could send Phil Jackson into the hues of a mountain sunset with a third straight title for the fourth time in his career. Who can dethrone the Lakers? “They are going to beat you [in a play-off series] one or more times in your building,” Brown stresses. “But only once [in 23 play-off games] did they lose in their building.” They lost game two of the finals at home. “I predict Los Angeles will beat Miami in six or seven games,” Ryan says.
Boston is the biggest mystery of all. Considering their age—Kevin Garnett (34), Paul Pierce (33), and Ray Allen (35)—it is appropriate to ask if they even can get to mid-April healthy enough for the NBA’s grueling two-month title run, the longest in any sport. “As my broadcast partner Mark Jackson says, “ ‘Father Time is undefeated,’ ” said Van Gundy. With a 13-point lead in the third quarter of game seven, their 18th title was in sight. Alas, they couldn’t close the deal on a night when Kobe Bryant couldn’t hit water from a boat, shooting 6-24.
“If I said to you that the Lakers would shoot 32 percent and they would miss 12 of 29 foul shots, you would think Boston would win,” says Brown. But Los Angeles pounded Rasheed Wallace, Garnett and Glen “Big Baby” Davis into submission off the glass, while snaring 23 offensive rebounds. Gasol grabbed nine. “The problem with giving up offensive rebounds is that the opponent will get a second shot within eight to 10 feet of the basket,” Brown explains, “which results in a put-back or a foul.” Boston had a brilliant defensive plan, which had the Lakers missing 56 of 83 shots. But the Lakers second shots cost Boston 17 points. They lost by four, 83-79.
But spilt milk isn’t Boston’s focus. The acquisition of two O’Neals—Shaquille and Jermaine—will fill in the center position until Kendrick Perkins returns, probably in February. “Five guys at those two positions will give them probably the best physical strength and rebounding potential they have had.” says Brown.
That surely impresses, and we haven’t even said a word about their best player, the reed-thin and inimitable one, Rajon Rondo. Two guards shot over 50 percent last year: Steve Nash and Rondo. An oddity, really, since everyone claims that Rondo must improve his shooting, meaning his mid-range shooting. “Rondo gets so many layups, and next to Jason Kidd he is the leading rebounding point guard in the league,” Brown says. “If he improves the 17- to 22-footer, he can go to another level. In every game he is a potential triple-double player.” In a league of 420 players, who else can you say that of? Rondo, James and who else?
After sweeping their playoff series against Charlotte and Atlanta, Orlando ran short on magic, getting leveled in six by Boston, a team they bested by nine wins during the regular season. Some of the pieces are in place. They hit a record 841 three-pointers, an all-time record. For Orlando to make that next step, Howard must make an improvement. He connected on 61 percent of his shots in 2010, but the best center in the league saw his points, rebounds and minutes per game dip for the third consecutive season. “Vince Carter must improve his production on a nightly basis as well as in the play-offs,” says Brown. “Carter must give them a consistency of points, rebounds and assists for his talent.” In the Boston series Carter hit only 37 percent of his field goal attempts.
The Magic will compete with the Heat for the “battle of the state.” Orlando will be playing in a new downtown arena with enthusiasm and an urgency to avenge their early exit last year.
Chicago: By signing forward Carlos Boozer the Bulls now have their own Threatening Three in Boozer, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, not to mention returning starters Loul Deng and Taj Gibson. They also added Ronnie Brewer, Kurt Thomas, C. J. Watson and distance shooter Kyle Korver. Boozer gave Utah 19.5 points and 11 rebounds per game last year. Can they take on the Miami Thrice? Consecutive 41-win seasons and first-round play-off losses should change.
Phoenix: Though Phoenix upped their win total from 48 to 54 last year, they lost scorer Amare’ Stoudemire to New York but have acquired Hakim Warrick, Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress. Phoenix can still score with the ball, but whether they can rebound it is another matter. “The question is can they defend, rebound and stop you in the paint,” says Brown. Last year they were tied at two with Los Angeles before dropping the final two games.
Oklahoma City: The Thunder has one of the best one-two punches in the league in guard Russell Westbrook and forward Kevin Durant, last year’s scoring leader and the MVP of the summer’s World Games. They matched up well against the Lakers, pushing them to six games and only losing 95-94 when a rebound got away and Pau Gasol scored on a put back. Durant was the league’s leading scorer (30.1) and was a First Team All-NBA player.
Rush to Judgement
More than the usual dicey preseason predictions, this year is about our judgment about how the three Miami players came together. “I’m not a fan of what they did or how they decided and celebrated their decision,” Van Gundy points out. “But each one of them fulfilled their contractual obligations and earned a right to decide where they work. They had the right.”
Hubie Brown agrees. “The Heat performed a magic act. They took major risks to allow others to become free agents at the end of last season, once they got James and Wade, they were able to get under the cap by convincing them to take less money. Never has this been done since the cap came into existence. There was nothing illegal here and nothing shady. They did everything by the book and the players had to sacrifice in order to make it happen.”
Each of the big three inked a five-year deal. Given that much time together, they should expect to win multiple titles. Anything less would be considered a failure, and there will be plenty of people to remind them of that.
Kenneth Shouler, a regular contributor to Cigar Aficionado, blogs at www.kenshouler.com