The world instantly judged the Miami Heat as Not Worthy after losing the opening game of the season to the Boston Celtics. Despite them wining the next night in Philadelphia, Bill Simmons, aka The Sports Guy, published an early eulogy for LeBron James and company. Now I’m no fan of LeBron or the Heat, but this seems like something many men suffer from: premature evaluation.
It kinda reminds me of the scene in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail where an undertaker walks through a town calling “Bring out yer dead!” but after a body is dropped on the heap it chirps up, “I’m not quite dead yet.” When the undertaker reveals he won’t be back for a while, the person who dropped off the body decides it’d just be in everyone’s best interest to kill this person and get it over with now. Luckily for the Heat, there are still 80 games left, not to mention that playoff thing, so there’s no need to rush to conclusions and cold-cock ‘em over the head (much as many of us would like to do). That said, c’mon, I’m a guy, so I want to jump to some conclusions too. Here are mine, none of which will corpsify the Heat:
1. The Heat looking awful against the Celts says more about Boston than Miami. Last year during the playoffs, the men in green made, in order, the following players look awful, one series at a time: Dwayne Wade, LeBron James, Dwight Howard and finally Kobe Bryant. Since the Celtics had been putrid during the second half of the season, at first the chorus of refrains was that Wade came apart, that ‘Bron just wasn’t himself, and only once Boston started to do the same thing to a third team in a row (the Magic) did everyone finally give them the credit they deserved. By the time Kobe hit only one of five hundred shots in Game 7, no one questioned whether he was secretly hurt or why he stunk because we finally accepted that the Boston D was just that good. But just ‘cuz their D made Orlando, Cleveland and the Lakers look awful, it didn’t mean that those were three bad teams. Ditto for this year’s Heat, which as has been pointed out, had only 3 minutes of real court time together before due to Wade’s injury.
2. The Heat have no depth. With Mike Miller injured, after the big three they only have one player (Udonis Haslem) who would definitely get minutes on any team in the league. Players like Carlos Arroyo, Joel Anthony, James Jones and Zydrunas Ilguaskas would be permanently affixed to the bench if they were on the Lakers, Celts or Magic (and probably many others too). Pundits have used Boston’s Big Three of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen as a template for the Heat, but it misses the point of the great supporting crew they had. Rajon Rondo has now become recognized as an All-Star and often the best player on the team. I don’t think in a few years that Mario Chalmers will be at the All-Star Games. Likewise, Kendrick Perkins is perhaps the best big man defender in the game. Heat center Joel Anthony is getting less minutes than his backup, 53-year-old Ilgauskas. And the Celts have always had some solid backup players with James Posey, PJ Brown, Glen Davis, Tony Allen, Nate Robinson and more. That said, by the time Boston’s big three got together, they were all on the downside of their careers, while the Heat’s threesome is just hitting their peak. Plus only KG was ever really a top 5 player in the league, while both LeBron and Wade have been and still are.
3. Defensively, the Heat were pretty solid in the Celts game. The Celtics looked like a true team on offense, moving the ball from one side to other, finding the open man, and yet still they struggled to score. Yes, the Heat don’t have great big men defenders, but James, Wade and Chris Bosh are very mobile and should be able to scramble all over the court, enabling them to pack the paint, doubling near the basket, and still be able to close out on shooters.
4. Offensively, team-wise, the Heat stunk. Yes, the Celts have great defense, but the Heat mostly played isolation ball. When LeBron passed the ball to Wade, it was usually because he sorta made a move, didn’t quite get a wide open shot, then swung it to Wade so he could get a chance. Instead it needs to be that LBJ makes a move, causes the defense to react, and while the D is off-balance and over compensating in his area, he passes it to Wade/Bosh who can further attack and compromise the other team’s D. They did it together on the Olympic team, so there’s no reason to believe that they won’t be able to eventually gel enough to do it here.
5. A big one, stemming from an interesting point from Simmons:
Actually, nobody likes Miami. On Tuesday, I was stunned by how many people (friends and readers) e-mailed me just to say, “I don’t like Boston, but I’m a Celtics fan tonight.” I heard from Sixers fans, Lakers fans, Knicks fans, Pistons fans … I couldn’t believe it. Their new-found antipathy for Miami trumped a lifetime of hatred for Boston.
I myself was in that same boat. I can’t stand the Celts. But I was watching the game with a friend and she asked me who I was rooting for. At first I said, well, neither team, I just am curious to see how this Miami team looks, but then I realized, no, I was actually rooting for Boston. I felt dirty and ashamed. Simmons’ main point in his article is that the main thing that ails the Heat is the lack of a defined alpha dog between Wade and ‘Bron (a common concern amongst many), but I don’t think that’s an issue. Before I explain what I think it is, read this description of the team’s psyche from Simmons’ 2nd “epiphany”:
I attended Miami’s first two games and my biggest takeaway was the team’s collective joylessness. Even during the Heat’s first victory in Philly — an infinitely easier game because the Sixers stink and their crowd was mostly catatonic — nobody seemed happy except for James Jones, who was making open 3s like it was a pop-a-shot game. There was a distance between everyone. I noticed it. My father noticed it. My friends on Wednesday night noticed it. The vibe was undeniably weird. I thought the Heat would be as close-knit as Oklahoma City; instead, they acted like like they had been introduced 45 minutes before the game.
[...] So … why?
The easy explanation: They’re adjusting to that “everyone hates us, now it’s us against the world” mentality and it’s going to take some time.
The overthinking-it-but-maybe-I’m-right explanation: Maybe everyone slowly realized during the preseason, “Good God, LeBron is MUCH better than Dwyane. What do we do? How do we handle this? Do we wait for Dwyane to admit it? Do we … wait, what do we do???”
I think his overthinking-it explanation is silly, but the easy explanation is closer, yet there’s a slightly deeper part to it. It connects more with some stuff Simmons wrote in his 1st epiphany:
The best thing about Pre-Decision LeBron? How he connected with his teammates and fans. He wanted to win, he wanted to have a good time, he wanted to put on a show, he wanted to be liked, and most of all, he wanted to amaze. Watching Post-Decision LeBron talk cryptically about taking mental notes, retweet vicious messages, broach the race card and prance around preseason games with an Eff You edge was like seeing Will Ferrell play a war criminal or something. It just didn’t feel right.
Simmons is correct that one of LeBron’s biggest strengths was that he did create a sense of joy amongst his teammates. Great players make the others around them greater in various ways. Jordan and Kobe demand the best and leave their teammates too terrified to give any less. Magic Johnson’s joy was infectious. Tim Duncan’s quiet workman-like no-nonsense demeanor has created a serious hard-working atmosphere where everyone else equally falls in line. A big part of how LeBron made his team better is by making the game and everything around it fun. They had their silly little photo poses during introductions and he’d often be dancing on the sideline (much to Joakim Noah’s chagrin). He made them feel so beloved that Mo Williams even thought of retiring after he heard LeBron was leaving Cleveland. The ironic part of that is that apparently Mo was one of the players who had most frustrated LeBron during the playoffs, yet LBJ never let that on to Mo because he kept his team together through happiness and fun.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason why they collapsed in the playoffs the last two seasons. LeBron got overly serious and the game was no longer as carefree and fun as it had been during the regular season. But if Bron isn’t happy-fun ‘Bron, he loses the way he rallies the troops. Even if you watch his high school footage you see that they’re all about having a great time. In fact, that’s the reason many have considered as the prime reason why he came to Miami. He wanted to re-create that high school experience by hanging out with his best friends and having a fun time. But due to all the anger aimed at him, due to the fact that now he and Wade realize that they have to produce and win title(s) immediately, they’re in a situation where it’s almost impossible to just have a ball.
6. As Simmons also points out, Bosh has looked a little overwhelmed, disappearing often. Bosh has never played in big games, nor has he ever had to be just the number three. It’s not that he’s bothered or upset by being the #3, it’s just that he doesn’t know that he still needs to constantly go balls out even in that role.
7. It’s possible that the points mentioned in 5 and 6 will be solved by having a few games at home in Miami. There they will feel the love from the crowd which should help the team bond/experience joy on the court. Also, once they start playing better together as a team and winning more games, that also should bring the love of the game back.
8. Even with both Wade and Bosh being extremely, extremely, extremely awful in that opening game while LeBron was merely solid and the Celtics looked great, the Heat were still in it near the end. Once Wade’s fully healed from his hamstring injury, Mike Miller returns, and this crew actually learns how to play together as a team, they could easily be as unbeatable this Spring as many have predicted/feared.
Me, I’m hoping this is the Orlando Magic’s year so I can have a team I actually like to root for, rather than being forced to again pick the lesser of two evil, evil teams.