All year I've been back and forth with it in my brain. Perhaps that's why I've found this NBA season so enjoyable. I like being challenged by concepts that can't be tied down or easily traced. I haven't been able to convince myself, one way or the other, whether or not this experiment is succeeding or failing. Is this the start of a new order in the NBA or just an example of young athlete's naiveté? Of course, I'm referring to the Three Blind Mice that are the Miami Heat.
Back in July, when I got the news that LeBron would announce the team he planned to sign with from a YMCA in Connecticut for a one-hour special on ESPN, I knew he wasn't staying in Cleveland. And even if he wasn't leaving, this showed he wasn't really one of them. Cleveland, like Buffalo, is a blue-collar town. We like our athletes to be no-nonsense tough guys who carry themselves as we do, with few complaints and very little flash. And no athlete who connects with and understands such a place would need to announce that he was resigning on national television, hundreds of miles away.
But the depth of LeBron's ignorance is a conversation for another post. The question that intrigues me more than any other is this... has LeBron James irrevocably altered the landscape of the NBA? Is every superstar in the league now planning on forming their own super group?
These aren't the only examples of evidence to the shift in player power. In Orlando, the GM blew up the team they had worked on for years and made severals moves, including taking on the outrageously long & expensive contract of Agent Zero, in the hopes of keeping their superstar, Dwight Howard, happy. Whether or not that works won't be discovered for a few more years, but clearly it's proof that the GMs of the league are willing to take serious risks to try and keep their players happy.
Of course, the concept of players leaving their original teams for bigger and better things is not new. Kareem left Milwaukee, Barkley left Philadelphia and Shaq left Orlando. Even Kobe Bryant tried to get himself traded to Chicago. In the end, the desire to win a championship in many of these players is far stronger than any loyalty to a place or fan base. And while fans understand this for the most part, when forced to come to grips with it, we can't help becoming enraged at the players who leave us behind in search of bigger, better things.
For example, I think it's fair to say that if Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen weren't viewed as elders nearing the twilight of their careers, there may have been a lot more animosity towards them when they shipped off to Boston in search of championship glory. But in the end, they succeeded. Not only did they win a title, but they made it back to the Finals the following year and are a clear favorite to return this season.
But there's a counterpoint to this idea and it comes in the form of teams like the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls. For these teams, there have been no earth-shattering trades or big time signings (unless you consider Carlos Boozer big time, which I don't). They have simply built teams from the ground up that know, understand and compliment each other. Their GMs haven't been rattled by the Heat and why should they? All three teams have gone undefeated against the Heat and in San Antonio's case, handed them the worst loss of their brief history. (Plus, it provided me with my favorite moment of the season, as seen below. Even the quietest star in the game revels in beating this team.)
Are these losses simply an aberration of ill will and inexperience? Are the Heat simply so oblivious to their flaws that they are getting outsmarted by better prepared teams? Or is the fact simply that this collection of great players isn't that great of a team?
If you need further proof that talent alone won't get you there, look at the new-look Knicks. Already their fans are dreaming about the days to come when they'll battle the Heat for supremacy in the East. Now if only they could figure out a way to beat the 12-50 Cleveland Cavaliers.
Yes, you read that right. The Cavaliers have only won 12 games and the Knicks account for a quarter of them.
But how is that possible? How could a team with Amar'e Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups lose to a team with Baron Davis and... um... Anthony Parker?
The obvious answer is that in the end, it is better to be great when you play together than be greater as individuals than you are as a collective.
All the arguments that have been made to this point are totally fair. Since LeBron seemingly has no interest in being the next Magic Johnson (which is frigging absurd since it's exactly what his team needs) and Spoelstra hasn't gotten them to agree to any kind of plan, they're stuck at the end of close games trying to wing it when it comes to a final play. And that strategy will lose against strong team defense 100 times out of 100.
Still, it's impossible to ultimately know what's going to happen. History is littered with examples of teams that struggled mightily during the regular season, only to rise up and crush the opposition when the playoffs began. So maybe the Heat are just having a bad regular season and we'll see a much tougher team once the playoffs start.
But this is much easier said than done in the NBA. It's not like baseball or hockey where a team with seemingly no shot discovers a pitcher or goalie has suddenly caught fire and is ready to carry his teammates through. And it's completely unlike football where you only get one game at a time to prove yourself. In the NBA, who you are in the regular season is who you are in the playoffs... plus defense. And that's where the Heat should be worried. Thanks to their hubris, they've seen playoff caliber defense from the elite teams and they have come up lacking time and time again. Sure there will be nights when Dwyane or LeBron will have an offensive explosion that carries the day, but in a 7-game series, that will only take you so far.
And so the best statement I can come up with after all this is, we'll see. We'll see how far the Heat can get this year. But everyone, players, fans, GMs, will be keeping an eye on them. And if they should find their way into the Finals, then for many the point will be proven and the announcement will go out. If you want to compete in the next few years, you better forget about loyalty and find yourself some superfriends. For your sake, I just hope your team doesn't have any superstars you've grown attached to.