Miami's Big Three Are Two Wins Away From the NBA FinalsThe Miami Heat started the season slowly but they hit their stride after the All-Star break and that improvement--combined with the self-inflicted implosions (via ill-advised trades) of their two presumed main Eastern Conference rivals, Boston and Orlando--has carried them to a 2-1 lead over the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat are a long way from winning "not one, not two, not three..." championships but they are just two victories away from creating a rematch of the 2006 Finals (assuming that the Dallas Mavericks win two more games against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals); of course, this would be a rematch in name only, because just two current Dallas players were on the 2006 Mavericks (Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry) and because Dwyane Wade won the 2006 Finals MVP for Miami but has now clearly settled into his role as the Heat's second best player behind free agent acquisition LeBron James. The Heat have three perennial All-Stars who are in their primes--James, Wade and the underrated Chris Bosh--a luxury that few teams have ever enjoyed and it is even rarer when two of those All-Stars are among the top five or six players in the league; the mid-2000s Pistons had multiple All-Stars in their primes but none of those guys were All-NBA First Team caliber performers. Each of the Heat's All-Stars is capable of carrying the team for a quarter or even an entire game but it is very clear who is the leader of the pack.
The media is obsessed with trying to define who is the man on a given team--from championship winners (Shaq versus Kobe during the "three-peat" years) to young upstarts (Durant versus Westbrook)--and yet the media often chooses the wrong guy while focusing on the wrong things. Prior to this season, two manufactured storylines asserted that Dwyane Wade is the man for the Heat: storyline one claimed that because James joined the Heat (as opposed to Wade joining the Cavaliers or both players teaming up on a different squad like the Bulls) he had accepted a secondary role to Wade; storyline two asserted that Wade's 2006 Finals MVP (and James' corresponding lack of championship hardware) proves that Wade is a better "closer" than James. A corollary to the second storyline is the persistent fiction that James is a better passer than scorer and/or James prefers passing to scoring, assertions that may help to create popular books but blatantly defy the reality that James ranks third in regular season career scoring average and fourth in playoff career scoring average, trailing only Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain in the former and only Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson and Jerry West in the latter (West "passed" James during this postseason); Jordan, Chamberlain, Iverson and West were all excellent passers but none of them would correctly be termed "pass-first" players, a classification that also should not be applied to James because it fails to credit him with being one of the greatest scorers in basketball history.
When Moses Malone joined the Philadelphia 76ers in 1982 the 76ers may still have symbolically and spiritually been Julius Erving's team--that squad was very devoted to helping the good Doctor win his first NBA title--but Malone established himself as the team's leading scorer and best player, winning regular season and Finals MVP honors as the 76ers cruised to the championship; Malone was the reigning MVP prior to joining the 76ers and at that stage of their careers he was a more dominant player than Erving, even though Erving had won more individual and team hardware (including ABA MVPs in 1974-76, an NBA MVP in 1981 and ABA Finals MVPs in 1974 and 1976). Most analysts would consider Erving to be both more historically significant than Malone and a greater player than Malone overall, but Malone was clearly the man for the 1983 76ers.
Similarly, James joined the Heat as a two-time reigning regular season MVP and his best player in the game status trumps Wade's impressive individual and team accomplishments. James should have won the MVP this season as well but the backlash he incurred for quitting against Boston in the 2010 playoffs and then turning his "Decision" into a farcical spectacle induced the media voters to search long and hard for another candidate. While Erving stands above Malone overall historically, it would be difficult to argue that Wade stands above James historically, so the fact that James and Wade teamed up in Miami instead of Cleveland, Chicago or somewhere else has nothing to do with who is the man for the Heat.
While Wade deserves a lot of credit for authoring an historically great performance in the 2006 Finals, those six games have somehow blinded many people to the reality that Wade not only went four straight years without winning a single playoff series but he also presided over perhaps the worst collapse ever by a championship team. Wade is a great player--one of the five or six best players in the NBA--but a handful of great games versus Dallas in the 2006 NBA Finals do not prove that Wade is a better player than James or even that Wade is a better "closer" than James.
Some writers have tried to cherry pick certain statistics and/or craft biased narratives to "prove" that Miami's rise in the latter portion of this season somehow corresponded with a conscious decision to take the "closing" role from James and give it to Wade but--as I noted in my First Round "Midterm" Report--that is nonsense. James led the Heat in scoring, minutes, assists and steals during the regular season while ranking second in rebounding and his contributions in those categories did not magically cease at some arbitrarily designated time in the fourth quarter so that Wade could become the "closer." The same thing has held true in the playoffs as well: James leads the Heat in scoring, minutes and assists while ranking second in rebounding and steals. The writers who hyped Wade as the "closer" have had to pump their brakes and come up with a different narrative in the wake of James' great late game performances in playoff victories versus Boston and Chicago. The truth never changed--James was Miami's best player the moment he signed with the team--but now that it is glaringly obvious that James is dominating games and is the focal point of opposing defenses, the writers (who never, ever will admit to being wrong) are scrambling to come up with explanations for how James has supposedly blossomed into being a great "closer." This is very similar to how the media spent years wrongly bashing Bill Belichick until he won three Super Bowls and then the media declared that Belichick had changed, refusing to admit that their original take on him had been dead wrong; Belichick revitalized a moribund Cleveland franchise and led the Browns to a playoff win in 1994, while the New England franchise provided the requisite stability for him to build a perennial contender.
James could have and should have won a championship in Cleveland, where he had the
league's deepest roster and an excellent, defensive minded head coach. I will never understand why he quit against Boston or why he handled his free agency decision so shabbily (I don't fault him for leaving Cleveland per se--he had the right to do so--but rather for the way he conducted himself and the way that he immediately recruited players to come to Miami after refusing for years to do so for the Cavs); however, those things do not change the reality that James has been the best regular season player in the NBA for the past three seasons (Kobe Bryant has dominated the playoffs during that period of time) and that James is the driving force behind the Heat's emergence as a legitimate championship contender.
The way that James ended his Cleveland career made me skeptical about whether he has the right mindset to be a champion but I never doubted that he possesses the necessary talent and skill set to lead a team to championship if he is focused on that goal. The Bulls still have one more chance to get back in the Eastern Conference Finals--game four is obviously a must win situation for them--and even if the Heat get past the Bulls they will face a tough challenge in the NBA Finals but James is now just six wins away from inducing lot of media members to engage in significant historical revisionism; a Heat championship would supposedly justify the "Decision" and define who is the man on the Heat, even though the truth is that the "Decision" was wrong even if James wins 10 championships and even though James has clearly been the man on the Heat all along.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 PM