“Don’t you remember the time you told me ‘if you ain’t first, you last’?”

“Oh hell, son. I was high that day. That doesn’t make any sense at all, you can be second, third, fourth … hell you can even be fifth.”
-- Talladega Nights

In analyzing why the Miami Heat came up short in the 2011 NBA Finals, it’s easy to forget how much they did right. They didn’t win a championship, but judging a team based solely on a “championship or bust” mentality invites the lack of nuance (LeBron is better than Jordan! LeBron will never win a championship!) so deftly skewered by the character of Ricky Bobby.

The Heat, while figuring out how to incorporate three stars accustomed to dominating the ball into an offense and dealing with key injuries to role players through most of the regular season and a revolving door of marginal veterans at the end of the bench, finished with a 58-24 record, third best in the NBA. Their +7.5 point differential, a more accurate gauge of a team’s strength, was best in the league.

In the last two rounds of the Eastern Conference playoffs, they demolished their two main competitors for conference supremacy (Boston and Miami), beating both 4-1. They proceeded to play in one of the most closely contested Finals series of all-time against a Dallas Mavericks team that had swept the two-time defending champion Lakers and went 12-3 in the Western Conference playoffs. With 3:00 left to go in Game 5 of the 2-2 series, the cumulative score was Miami 456, Dallas 451.

The Mavericks were a nightmare match-up for Miami. The Heat’s defense was built around the defensive versatility of their star power forward, small forward and shooting guard, leaving them vulnerable to players at the opposite extremes of the height spectrum -- seven-foot scorers (Dirk Nowitzki) and speedy point guards (Jason Terry, JJ Barea).

It’s hard to overemphasize how little Mike Bibby gave them at the point guard position last year. An unathletic 32-year old 6’1 190 guard, he was a defensive sieve who Barea treated like a traffic cone. He wasn’t much better offensively either, as his once reliable jump-shot abandoned him in the post-season. In 20 playoff games he posted a 3.2 PER, a historically awful number.

Mario Chalmers eventually took over the position, starting and playing for 38 minutes in Game 6 of the Finals. But while he was more reliable offensively, he still lacked the type of lateral quickness necessary to stay in front of the speedy Barea and prevent Terry from creating airspace for his jumper.

At center, Joel Anthony was almost as inept as Bibby, posting a 7.6 PER in the playoffs. Undersized at 6’9 245, his high motor made him an effective contributor as a help-side defender and rebounder, but his lack of height put him at a disadvantage against low-post scorers over 7’0.  

Addressing Miami’s hole at the point will be much easier, as 6’1+ point guards are the most fungible asset in basketball. Cleveland State’s Norris Cole, their first round pick, could end up having a huge role on the Heat.

Cole, a 6’2 170 combo guard, tested out as one of the best athletes in the 2011 draft. He’s steadily improved his perimeter jumper in his time at college, and he should be a much better match-up for the small, lightning-quick breed of point guards like Barea and Darren Collison than Bibby and Chalmers.

However, by the end of the first round, big men ready to step in right away are nearly impossible to find. To find an athletic seven-footer capable of protecting the rim and the low block, the Heat will have to go on to the free agent market. And even before the owners institute a new CBA designed to prevent them from adding more talent, Miami’s lack of salary cap space means they would have had to shop at the bargain bin, with their best-case scenario being someone like Sam Dalembert and worst-case a player like Kwame Brown.

Miami’s troubles with seven-footers weren’t just on the offensive side of the ball though. LeBron’s dominance stems from his ability to dominate the paint offensively, and the common theme throughout his playoff losses has been teams with athletic seven-footers who can control the paint: Tim Duncan in 2007, KG in 2008 and 2010, Dwight Howard in 2009 and Tyson Chandler last year.

With his jump shot still streaky, LeBron’s most comfortable taking the ball to the rim in and end-of-game scenario. But when someone like Chandler can wall off the paint, LeBron’s lack of a post-game becomes even more glaring. The debate about his fourth-quarter “clutch” ability has been generally overblown, but there is some merit to the point that he has no go-to offensive move .

The good news is a drop step, a jump-hook and a turnaround jumper are not incredibly difficult to learn, especially for a 6’9 270 forward with a 7’0 wingspan. A few underwhelming playoff series should not detract from how special a player LeBron is: in 92 career playoff games, LeBron has averaged 28 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists on 46% shooting.

Many of the Heat’s most vocal critics would have you believe LeBron’s presence is one of the primary reasons why they won’t win a championship. Yet if history shows us anything, from Dirk’s career resurrection in these playoffs to MJ battling questions about his ability to get past the Bad Boy Pistons, it’s that over time, talent will eventually trump narrative.

Year 2 of the LeBron era, even if it happens in 2012, will feature a significant improvement at the point guard position. The bench should be cleared of dead-wood as well: the Heat put far too much stock on veteran experience last year, as the presence of Bibby (32), Jamaal Magloire (32), Eddie House (32), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (35) Erick Dampier (35) and Juwan Howard (37) indicated.

Finding a good seven-footer will be extremely difficult, but fortunately for Miami, Dwight Howard is the only seven-footer who can even approach Dirk’s offensive dominance in the East. Orlando’s team has fallen apart since their run to the 2009 NBA Finals, and the Magic have to worry more about keeping their franchise center from departing in free agency than keeping up with the Heat.

Despite their extremely top-heavy roster, the Heat had a successful 2010-2011 season. LeBron’s failure to live up to an impossible standard of expections Jordan himself couldn’t meet shouldn’t obscure the fact that they are only a few role players away from reaching their lofty goals.

- This is the latest in a ‘Missing Pieces’ series of articles from Jonathan Tjarks. Click on the following links to read his examinations of the Lakers, Thunder, Spurs, and Bulls.