I’m finally able to watch ESPN again. Since the Miami Heat faltered against the Dallas Mavericks, I avoided the 24-hour sports network because I couldn’t stand the coverage of the Heat. I say “faltered” and not “failed” because, although it’s been a tough loss to swallow, and perhaps a more difficult one to digest, I can’t see this season as a failure. They were within 2 games of the championship. While they may not have reached their ultimate goal, I still think the team can look back and be proud of what they were able to accomplish (Eastern Conference championship) and overcome (unprecedented national scrutiny). And, having watched parts of Thursday’s NBA Draft, I fear that I won’t be able to watch the further development of this team with the dark spectre of labor strife on the horizon.
From the beginning, I looked at the roster with uncertain. I saw a few holes: lack of depth, ball-handling, and size. I wasn’t sure Spolestra could handle the load, either. And, staring at the train-wreck of a start, the nay-sayers in the national Media could be heard at their loudest. They said Wade and LeBron were too similar, that Spo didn’t have the experience, that the team didn’t have the right pieces. At 9-8, it seemed they were right.
Then I saw the dunk. This dunk changed everything for me. I was at the game, early in the season, against the lowly New Jersey Nets. I had spent the afternoon coaching on the AAA floor, my middle school varsity squad had lost its only game of the season. (Technically, we went undefeated, because the AAA game was an exhibition game. We won the All-Catholic Conference 1A-2A championship that December.) They had shown flashes of greatness early in the season, but being able to witness that play live, albeit sitting basically on the roof of the American Airlines Arena, it was incredible.
|Talk about capturing the moment.|
The validation for different fans came at different points in the season. (This full court alley-oop may have been it for many.) For me, I still had lingering doubts from time to time, like during the five game losing streak when Spo mentioned players may (or may not) have been crying in the locker room. It wasn’t until the playoffs that I felt this team was actually ready to win it all. The entire regular season felt like the Prologue to an epic novel that, at times, read like a Spanish novella. Once the playoffs (particularly the series versus Boston) had arrived, we could finally judge this squad.
I remember feeling uneasy at times during the Philadelphia series, but once the Boston series started and James Jones poured in three-pointer after three-pointer in Game 1, the team seemed to surge to the next level people had been waiting for. Danny Ainge’s inexplicable trading of Kendrick Perkins certainly helped the cause, but the bully big brother Celtics could not match the up-and-coming Heat. My heart still thundered in my chest as these games played out late into the fourth quarters and beyond, but deep within me was a quiet certainty that they would win. And they did. Resoundingly.
LeBron’s play during that series proved to me that I was watching the best player in the world and the greatest player of this generation. However, for as much as the Eastern Conference Finals against Chicago cemented that idea, his maddening performance in the Finals showed that the concrete had not quite set in place. Still, its such a luxury to witness (pardon the marketing pun) greatness. As a child watching Dan Marino play, I had no idea I was watching one of the best passers to ever play football. But now, as a (still) young man, I know what I am seeing. What might be the most incredible part of all this is, LeBron is only 26 years old. Typically, basketball players enter the prime of thier careers at age 27. Now, LeBron has logged many a minute on those young legs, so I can’t say with absolute certainty he will get markedly better, but even if he’s been in his prime for say, three seasons, we’re likely to see another 3 to 5 years of League MVP-level greatness. Jordan didn’t win his first title until 27. Kobe Bryant had his best statistical season at age 27. Magic Johnson scored the most points per game of his career at age 27.
I think, with slight roster adjustments here and there, this Miami Heat squad, led by a 27 year old LeBron, should win the NBA title next season. Granted, nothing is for certain when considering aspects of the game like injuries (see Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller for an example), I still think the Heat should win. (As long as the new collective bargaining agreement doesn’t hamstring the finances of the team.) Hopefully, Spolestra will not ride a veteran player like Big Z, or Bibby, or Erick Dampier, for long stretches of games before dumping them from the rotation like an ex-girlfriend. Hopefully, Spolestra can develop a reliable Zone Offense that the players feel comfortable executing. (I say this with the following caveat: He may already have a suitable Zone Offense, but maybe the players didn’t execute the plays to completion, as some league scouts have reported.) In the end though, it’s the players that play.
I hope Riley (and Spo) realize this team should be built around LeBron and his, hopefully, still-developing talents. I’d like to see them develop Dexter Pittman into a suitable rotation player, and hopefully the guard they nabbed in Thursday’s NBA Draft, Norris Cole, will also as well. I can’t say I’m excited about Cole, because I know nothing of him, but I’d like to think he can help. This team can improve, these players can improve, and these coaches can improve.
All in all, I write this after having unwillingly digested a very bitter end to the Miami Heat season and I feel that this season was maddeningly enjoyable to watch. I may have been throw-the-remote frustrated from time to time, I may have been apoplectic watching a game or two, I may have had heart palpitations, but in the end, I truly enjoyed the season. I’d like to think the NBA can solve their labor issues before hurting the positive momentum built up after this season’s great playoffs, but some people, like Charles Barkley, think next year’s entire season could be lost. I don’t think I can suffer through an extended lockout, because if the only other choice is watching the Marlins, Food Network, here I come.