The Superteam Model Validated
What about escalation? We start carrying semi-automatics; they buy automatics. We start wearing Kevlar; they buy armor-piercing rounds. You’re wearing a mask and jumping off rooftops. Take this guy ... armed robbery, double homicide, got a taste for the theatrical ... like you. -- Batman Begins
More than anything else, the public perception of the Miami Heat was shaped by their infamous "Welcome Party". One day after "The Decision", LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were dancing and showing out in front of a cheering crowd like they already won the championship and the games themselves were mere formalities.
The clip of LeBron guaranteeing "not four, not five, not six, not seven" has been replayed endlessly over the last two years as he became a celebrity bigger than even the sport he played in. The Heat have lived under a 24/7 microscope ever since, where even the slightest bump on the road generates panic and every molehill becomes a mountain.
But, if you take a step back and put their last two years in perspective, it’s hard to call them anything but dominant. In the regular season, they've won 71% of their games and finished first (+7.5) and fourth (+6.0) in point differential. In the playoffs, they've won 70% of their games while winning seven of eight series.
Their loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals is widely seen as an epic failure, but it was an extremely close loss to a team almost perfectly constructed to beat them. Their struggles against the Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics this year, meanwhile, make sense when you realize how important Bosh's role is. In two years, their playoff record with all three All-Stars in the starting lineup is (!!) 23-7.
LeBron knew what he was saying two years ago. The amount of talent that's been assembled on South Beach is incredible: their top three players have made 23 of 27 possible All-Stars Games in their careers. And after two years of tinkering, the Heat's lineup finally clicked in the 2012 Finals, resulting in an offensive onslaught even an Oklahoma City Thunder team with three All-Star caliber-players of their own couldn't withstand.
Miami’s biggest problem has always been their lack of floor spacing. Since neither LeBron nor Wade are consistent jump-shooters, playing them with most traditional centers creates lineups with three non-threats from their perimeter. In their wildly hyped Opening Day loss to Boston two years ago, they were starting two non-shooters (Joel Anthony and Carlos Arroyo) next to their Big Three, and the result was a disjointed mess.
In the 2012 Finals, Erik Spoelstra embraced his inner Don Nelson, playing an ultra small-ball lineup with Bosh at the 5 and LeBron at the 4. Now, all of a sudden, the paint went from crowded to wide open, with Bosh and two out of a combination of shooters (Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, James Jones, Norris Cole) stretching the floor for two of the NBA’s most dynamic playmakers.
Most importantly, for the first time in his career, LeBron has embraced playing in the post. James Harden has a chance of staying in front of him and making him shoot a contested jumper; a 6'5, 220 shooting guard doesn't have a prayer of defending a 6'9, 265 power forward playing with his back to the basket. From the middle of the floor, with shooters spotted up all around him, LeBron played like a freakish hybrid of Magic, Michael and Malone. In the Finals, he averaged 29 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists on 47% shooting, while still defending all five positions at a high level.
In a league increasingly devoid of big men, Miami has the biggest "little man" in the sport. And after the way the Heat handled Chicago and Oklahoma City in consecutive seasons, it's hard to imagine them losing to a team built around a perimeter star.
Dallas had the formula in 2011, with an elite offensive 7'0 LeBron couldn't guard (Dirk Nowitzki) and an elite defensive 7'0 he couldn't demolish at the rim (Tyson Chandler). You can't beat the Heat by playing their own game; you've got to play a different game governed by an entirely different set of rules.
That's why the biggest long-term threat to the fledgling dynasty in Miami has always been just a few miles up the road. Dwight Howard, an uber-athletic 6'11, 265 center and three-time Defensive Player of the Year, is the one player in the NBA who makes LeBron play in the shade. Now, at the lowest moment of his career, he must be pretty envious of his Hall of Fame counterpart across the state. Howard made the NBA Finals with a team whose best scorer was Hedo Turkoglu; imagine what he would do with Bosh and Wade or, for that matter, Westbrook and Harden.
When the Heat had their "Welcome Party", the one thing they couldn't predict was how the rest of the league would react to them. Just as they formed partly in response to Boston's Big Three, their presence has already begun changing how their rivals build teams. The difference? Sam Presti built the team in Oklahoma City; Carmelo Anthony built the team in New York.
The Heat were built on a practice court and not in a boardroom, and that is the real game-changer at the heart of this grand experiment on South Beach. Wade, LeBron and Bosh weren't brought together by the vagaries of ping-pong balls, reverse-order drafts and lopsided trades. They took control of their own destiny, decided to play together and looked for a franchise who would hand them the keys.
The NBA Finals now double as open run at the Olympic tryouts, with superstars approaching free agency the way a player who has "next" in a pickup game tries to assemble the strongest team possible. Once Miami's stars took less than the max to play together, which is already far less than what they could make on the open market, the era of the superteam was upon us.
It may take an All-Star team to win a title or even a conference championship these days, but LeBron, Wade and Bosh weren’t the only All-Stars on the 2008 Olympic Team. The bar has been raised; Deron Williams and Dwight Howard are now on the clock. The story of the Miami Heat has just begun.