Maybe LeBron James was Right about Winning "Not One" Championship"I feel sorry for whoever gotta guard both of us."--Dwyane Wade, July 9, 2010 interview during the Miami Heat's preseason coronation
"We're going to challenge each other in practice. And the way we're going to challenge each other to get better in practice, once the game starts, I mean, it's going to be easy. I mean, with me and Dwyane Wade running a wing, Pat could come back and play like he was back in his Kentucky days. Just throw it up there, we're going to get it."--LeBron James, July 9, 2010 interview during the Miami Heat's preseason coronation
"Not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven."--LeBron James, July 9, 2010 interview during the Miami Heat's preseason coronation
Unless LeBron James is planning on playing in the NBA until he is 50--and somehow convincing Commissioner David Stern to allow him to team up with the other four members of the All-NBA First Team--it does not seem likely that he will fulfill his pledge to win more than seven NBA championships. Boston's aging, infirm Big Three (plus young Rajon Rondo) defeated James' Miami Heat 94-90 in Miami in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals to take a 3-2 series lead. We keep hearing that the Celtics are about to break up their Big Three but, ironically, James' Heat may be one loss away from seeing their Big Three broken up; the Heat were considered in many circles to be overwhelming favorites to win the East--if not the NBA title--as one potential rival after another (including Chicago and Orlando) fell by the wayside due to injuries but now they have to win two games in a row to stave off elimination. If the Heat fail to make it to the NBA Finals, team President Pat Riley will justifiably have to wonder if it makes sense under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement to pay max dollars to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
In Greek mythology it is called hubris: an overbearing pride or presumptuousness that precedes dramatic failure. In the NBA, it is called the Miami Heat--specifically, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Winning a championship in any sport at any level is never easy--and winning a championship at the highest level of a sport is particularly challenging. That is why Andrew Bynum sounded like such an idiot early this postseason when he declared that closeout games are "easy"; Shaquille O'Neal got it right on TNT recently when he said that closeout games are the toughest games. Bynum should know better but maybe it is easy for him to talk out of the side of his neck because his primary role during the Lakers' 2009 and 2010 championship runs was to put up Luc Longley numbers before sitting on the bench in the fourth quarter and watching Kobe Bryant go to work.
Wade should know better as well; even if he got things twisted in his mind during the 2006 NBA Finals when he faced single coverage while the Dallas Mavericks focused their defensive attention on Shaquille O'Neal, the ensuing four year postseason drought should have reminded Wade how challenging the championship chase really is: after Miami's 2006 championship season, Wade did not win another playoff series until he, James and Bosh teamed up last year. James and Wade talk and act like all they have to do is just stroll into any NBA arena and the players on the other team will bow down to them; that approach may work to some degree against inferior teams during the regular season but--as Magic Johnson has repeatedly noted--the Heat lack toughness and mental fortitude: when the going gets tough, James, Wade and company don't dig down deeper and fight harder. They just seem to lack the indefinable but essential character traits of champions--but James and Wade lack more than just those intangibles: they also appear to be incapable of executing a half court offensive set against elite defensive pressure, instead running what I call a "clown car" offense because it is about as organized and efficient as clowns piling out of a car at a circus. It is easy to blame Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra but James is the best player in the NBA and Wade is supposedly a top five player--yet James and Wade are repeatedly stymied when the opposing team uses a basic zone and challenges James and Wade to move without the ball and/or consistently make an outside shot. I seriously doubt that Coach Spoelstra is drawing up sets that involve no ball movement and that station James in the corner as a passive bystander; the Heat's problem is that James and Wade are so used to just overwhelming opponents with their athleticism that James and Wade do not consistently have a good counter to opponents who get back on defense, stay in front of them and are not intimidated.
Yes, I predicted that the Heat would beat the Celtics--and it is still possible that the Heat will win the series--but I also said that the Celtics could emerge victorious if Rajon Rondo is the best player on the court for an extended period of time, if the Celtics execute the correct anti-Heat game plan (limiting Miami's paint points and free throws through good shot selection, a low turnover rate and excellent transition defense) and if LeBron James quits. So far, Rondo has performed magnificently and the Celtics have executed their game plan reasonably well. It would not be fair or accurate to say that James has quit but, despite his gaudy statistics, James has not made an imprint down the stretch in the past three games as the Celtics grabbed control of the series. All of the overheated nonsense about clutch shots is irrelevant; what LeBron James should be doing is what Kobe Bryant did during the 2009 and 2010 postseasons and what Dirk Nowitzki did during the 2011 playoffs: controlling games down the stretch, a quality that may not be definable by a specific score/time remaining parameter but that is more significant than just making clutch shots.
When James played in Cleveland, he had the support of a fan base that enthusiastically cheered for him, unlike the late arriving Miami fans who sit on their hands for most of the game. If James had been willing to commit to the Cavaliers the way that Kevin Durant committed to Oklahoma City and the way that Derrick Rose committed to Chicago, the Cavaliers would have been perennial championship contenders (and if James had not quit during the 2010 playoffs then he likely would already have won at least one championship); I said it right after James left Cleveland and I'll say it again now: while it is possible that James will win a championship in Miami, it is also possible that after James retires we will look back on his career and say that the best all-around teams he played for were the 2007-2010 Cavaliers. James handpicked his destination and his teammates in the summer of 2010 yet all we keep hearing is how he supposedly does not have enough help. Whose fault is that? James could have stayed in Cleveland, played for a team that annually won well over 60 games and then recruited any number of players to bolster the roster--and he could have played for Mike Brown, a defensive-minded coach who took the depleted Lakers to the second round this season, matching what Phil Jackson did in a regular length season with a deeper roster.
If the Celtics defeat the Heat in this series, the media spin will focus more on "Heat lose" than "Celtics win" so it is important to give full credit to Doc Rivers--the brilliant Boston Coach who was repeatedly and foolishly criticized for years by supposed basketball expert Bill Simmons--and Boston's players, particularly Kevin Garnett, Rajon Rondo, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen. As ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy mentioned during the game five telecast, Boston's star players mesh together well because their strengths and weaknesses are complementary. This is a marked contrast with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who arguably are the three most talented individual players in this series (when Bosh is fully healthy) but whose skill sets are not complementary: James and Wade are primarily isolation players, which relegates Bosh to a glorified Horace Grant role on the weak side despite his abundant skills as both a post player and a face up player. Even though James and Wade have yet to figure out how to fully utilize Bosh's skills, it is striking that the Heat's record is much better with Bosh (in both the regular season and the playoffs) than without him. While the Heat run the "clown car" offense and often loaf back on defense--a point that Van Gundy repeatedly emphasized during game five--the Celtics space the floor and maximize each player's talents on offense while also playing rugged, tenacious defense.
The Celtics are gritty and mentally tough; the Heat are, as Joakim Noah so memorably and aptly put it, "Hollywood as hell"--a team that values style over substance, a team that takes its cue from superstars who had a coronation party before they had even played a single game together and who used that occasion to brag about how the whole basketball world would have to bow down before them. What do you think Rivers, Garnett, Rondo, Pierce and Allen thought of that spectacle? I guarantee you that they were not impressed or intimidated by it.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:54 AM