Hardly three years ago, the Miami Heat were being told to break up the band.
They were coming off a championship run in 2011 that ended in a shockingly disturbing manner and were now a game away from being sent home, facing a 3-2 deficit as they went into TD Garden, the home of the Boston Celtics and the site of a pivotal matchup that would make-or-break several careers and a franchise.
The ‘Big Three’ experiment was a failure at the time. The trio of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh that had joined forces for the sole purpose of winning titles, and making it look easy while doing so, was a year removed from missing out on their first chance and were now on the brink of elimination again.
That ensuing Game 6 changed a lot of lives. It might have changed the entire NBA. Because if LeBron doesn’t put together the 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists he had in a blowout victory that would enable a Game 7 back in Miami, the Heat would not be the subject of discussion leading into the 2013-14 season.
48 minutes changed everything. 48 minutes fluctuated LeBron’s title from choker to champion. 48 minutes converted the claims of the Heat being fraudulent to being on the precipice of creating a dynasty.
Two years after those 48 minutes passed, the Miami Heat are looking to win a third consecutive title. Since defeating the Celtics in Game 6, as well as the Game 7 that followed, they defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder in the ensuing NBA Finals, and are most recently coming off a trying, arduous seven-game series victory over the San Antonio Spurs.
There was nothing given to this team. They earned each of their past two titles, just as LeBron earned the past two league and Final MVP’s. If anything has been proven by poorly thought-out Frankenstein rosters of All-Stars brought together, such as the New York Knicks or the Los Angeles Lakers, it’s that winning with stars is as difficult as winning with a traditional, well-balanced roster.
However, this third consecutive run is going to be like no other. The past three years featuring the Heat playing their patented brand of basketball has led to the rest of the NBA attempting to play catch-up. As a result, you’ll get teams responding with small lineups to match Miami or the exact opposite with a big lineup in hopes it’ll beat Miami on the glass.
Chicago and Indiana both employed the latter. The Bulls attempted to bully the Heat with Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson, while the Pacers utilized Roy Hibbert, David West and Tyler Hansbrough. Although neither team was able to secure a series victory, they both proved Miami has its flaws that can be exploited.
Both teams improved over the offseason, too. The Bulls get back Derrick Rose to fill in a spot that was formerly filled by Nate Robinson, and the Pacers sign Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson to bolster a bench that ranked among the league’s worst last season.
One can’t forget about the Brooklyn Nets. Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry and Paul Pierce and the Heat have grown to have a mutual disdain for each other, meaning the rivalry between these players and the Heat will last, but in a different location now.
If any contender makes a move in the offseason, they have to realistically think, “How does this help us beat the Heat?” Miami has dominated the Eastern Conference playoffs since 2011, representing the East in the NBA Finals each year, and it should come as no surprise that Brooklyn added on three players notorious for pushing the Heat.
But what about the Heat’s offseason? There’s plenty of talk with how Chicago, Indiana and Brooklyn have improved, but have the Heat received any credit for their signings in an offseason where they were strapped for cash?
Greg Oden, Michael Beasley and Roger Mason, Jr. will replace Mike Miller, Jarvis Varnado and Juwan Howard to give Miami their deepest bench and rotation in franchise history, but even that is now the most harrowing aspect of this franchise going into the 2013-14 season.
Here’s the most jarring fact about the Heat: The ‘Big Three’ wasn’t healthy in either of their title runs of the past two years. Chris Bosh was extremely limited in the Heat’s final series victory over the Thunder and Dwyane Wade was under a similar spell in Miami’s recent triumph over the Spurs.
You can count LeBron James in the 2011 Finals as a mental ailment, since the cause of what occurred is still under suspicion. Still, it’s strange how each member of the ‘Big Three’ has had their own personal shortcomings in each of Miami’s three Finals visits.
The Heat have made a significant run at the past three titles, but have yet to boast a fully healthy ‘Big Three’, as well as a bench that can provide support. They will need both if they want to get out of the East this year with Chicago, Indiana and Brooklyn as fierce as any competition the Heat has seen before from their own conference.
This comes a year after the Heat took on the Bulls and Pacers in extremely physical series, before having to go seven games with both Indiana and San Antonio.
Plus, whose to say LeBron hasn’t improved? It seems improbable based on just how efficient he was last year, but we also went into the 2012-13 season under the same impression when judging his performance the year before.
He’s admitted to getting better. I’m inclined to take his word for it.
Don’t assume that Miami is going to be complacent in its approach to the new season. They have completed the initial goal of winning a title, but they have yet to approach the murmurs of dynasty that encroach upon a team once they reach the threepeat mark.
If you heard Dwyane Wade two days prior to the Heat’s season-opener with the Bulls, you’ll know that nobody on the Heat roster is going to take any minute this season lightly:
“Don’t get bored with trying to be great. We have to understand that we’re champions and we’re going to get every other team’s best shot.”
Winning a championship or two wasn’t in the cards for this Heat team when first brought together. LeBron’s infamous “Not one, Not two…” speech may have been a tad overzealous, but there was a part of the then-two-time MVP that honestly and full-heartedly believed what was coming out of his mouth.
He thought so because it wasn’t that absurd of a thought.
When he looked over at Wade and Bosh through the smoke and the strobe effects, he saw the potential. Along with himself, he saw three bonafide All-Stars that were entirely motivated by the prospect of winning. Three All-Stars that came from similar, frustrating backgrounds that were shadowed by sudden endings and insubordinate help.
It’s been the recurring theme of the free agents that have joined the Heat. Shane Battier had never gotten out of the second-round; Ray Allen was a year removed from being the focal point of trade rumors; Chris Andersen went nearly a full half-season without a job because he was deemed to be toxic.
15 players that were signed as much on account of their character than their prowess on the court. The Heat franchise has created a tight-knit family environment that prides itself on keeping its gripes and concerns within the people involved with their team, as a family is supposed to do.
15 players that were signed to win championships, not make money. Look around the entire Heat roster and you’ll find that nearly every player has signed a smaller deal than they could have received elsewhere. Money and stats were sacrificed, and bigger aspirations, which required to have the entire team in mind, were put in place.
That’s why it’ll be a shock to see any member of the ‘Big Three’ depart this summer, even if not all comes to fruition. There are few franchises with as respectable a reputation as Miami’s, nor are there many front offices that can time-and-time again deliver free agents that are vital to the future postseason run.
Miami’s convinced Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Chris Andersen, Greg Oden and Roger Mason, Jr. to sign all for less since the summer of 2012. It took two years for the Heat to transform a bench that once featured Eddie House, Juwan Howard and James Jones as key contributors to one that now features several of the league’s top shooters and shot-blockers.
Trust is key, especially when it comes to the relationship between the front office and its players. No franchise has created more of a trusting environment than the Heat. The front office delivers on its promises of bringing in talent and the players and coaching staff handle the rest.
As a result, you get the elite product that inhabits the current roster, destined to make yet another championship run and live up to expectations that don’t seem as far-fetched.
What the Heat are attempting to do this season is what they envisioned when first brought together. They wanted to be more than just a one-hit wonder or even a back-to-back champion. There were far heavier aspirations than that, evidenced by LeBron’s overzealous declaration.
Miami looks to become the sixth instance where a team has won three consecutive titles and the first since the Los Angeles Lakers did so between 2000 and 2003. If the Heat add on another title, they’ll join the ranks of such teams as those Shaq-led Laker teams, the Jordan-era Bulls, the Bill Russell-led Celtics, and the George Mikan-led Lakers.
That’s some lofty company. But what’s even more heavy is if Miami just simply makes the Finals. If they’re able to complete that feat, they’ll be the first team since the Lakers circa 1982-85 to make it to four consecutive NBA Finals.
The only other team to perform such a feat were the Celtic teams of the 1960’s, making it to ten consecutive titles from 1957 to 1966. It was a different time.
Miami probably won’t make it to a decade’s worth of NBA Finals. But they can still make the history and create the legacies as a team they wanted to create, starting with 48 high-intensity minutes the Heat are likely to see all year.