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Monday, May 23, 2011

Miami's Big Three Are Two Wins Away From the NBA Finals

The 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.

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:40 PM



At Wednesday, May 25, 2011 1:55:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

I can already see potential scripts:

Case 1: Miami wins Championship

(1) Lebron James wins Finals MVP

- Lebron James is the greatest player of all time.
- The championship validates the "Decision".
- The Heat are good for the NBA, and are now a new model of how to build a franchise.

(2) Dwayne Wade/Chris Bosh wins Finals MVP

- Lebron James is the second coming of Scottie Pippen, a great "sidekick" but not "the guy".
- Lebron sold himself and ruined his legacy. Who cares if they won it all?
- He rode on Wade/Bosh's coattails and is no different from the other hanger-ons or mercenaries who begged their way onto a championship squad.
- Wade is now the gold standard and the "leader" since he has two championship rings (note, this will happen even if Bosh wins playoff MVP and Wade has a terrible series).

(3) Common to both scenarios:
- Miami Heat is the greatest team of all time.
- Miami Heat is destined to become the greatest dynasty of all time.
- Wade will build a legacy comparable to Michael/Kobe.
- Dirk is a choke-artist and the Dallas will never win a title because he's on it.
- Mark Cuban is a crybaby for complaining about the bad calls and the overwhelming free throw disparity.

Case 2: Miami Heat fails to win the championship

- Lebron James is an idiot for joining the Heat instead of building his own legacy.
- The Decision is one of the worst acts of self-aggrandizement in the history of sports.
- Miami Heat is a horrible, flawed basketball team and we should be surprised they made it this far.
- Nevertheless, the Heat just got unlucky this year and win the next five titles. They just need a new coach.
- Spoelstra is the worst coach in the NBA and should be given the axe.
- Dirk is absolutely clutch and is one of the all-time greats. Why were we overlooking him for so long?
- The fact that Dallas won invalidates any notion that the refereeing might have been biased in the past, present, and future.
- Stern and Cuban have buried the hatchet.

Moral of the story:

I think Lebron has every incentive to "play the hero", a la Kobe in the 2004 NBA Finals. He has too little to gain by sacrificing his individual stats for the greater good.

We all know that his greatest goal in life is to build his "brand" and be worshiped by others. Winning the championship without putting up ridiculous statistics will not help him progress towards the goal.

At Thursday, May 26, 2011 6:15:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

I am not sure if any of the specific scenarios you described will actually transpire but I agree completely with your larger point that, regardless of what happens, the media will create a storyline that bears little resemblance to reality.

I am not sure that I really understand what motivates James in terms of building his brand, putting up numbers, quitting/playing hard but I think that in order for the Heat to win the title he will have to put up very good numbers. He did not play particularly well during Miami's two regular season losses to Dallas but both of those games took place early in the season before the Heat really hit their collective stride.

At Thursday, May 26, 2011 12:16:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

I think Michael Jordan created a very good blueprint on how to create your own "brand", and Lebron is doing his best to follow the script:

(1) You must win championships. There is no way around that. The public loves winners.

(2) You must carefully cultivate your media image. We saw how Michael was able to build his public image despite his numerous flaws. Tiger was just as successful until the infamous Thanksgiving incident. And we see signs of Lebron trying to do the same - and he was well on his way, until the disastrous "Decision" fiasco. But I think as long as Lebron starts winning and has no further "Decisions" or "Melo-drama", it will prove to be a blip on the radar screen.

(3) You must not only play well, you must also overshadow your teammates as much as possible and make them look worse than they really are. Michael was really good at doing this while still winning. People knew all along that Bulls had a very talented squad (Pippen, Grant, Kukoc, Rodman, etc. were very solid players), but the way Jordan played made the Bulls look like a one-man team. When he left, the Bulls were still a very good team - to no one's surprise.

(4) You can never lose in the NBA Finals, nor fail to win the Finals MVP. The public and the media view seems to be rather skewed on this point. Somehow, going 6-0 in the NBA Finals is perceived better than going 6-3 in the NBA Finals. Obviously, this is completely false, since it's better to advance further in the playoffs, even if it means losing in the Finals. Finals MVP is often overblown as well; just because some other dude won the award doesn't mean you rode the guy's coattails. At the end of the day, NBA is a team sport.

(3) and (4) is going to be tricky because James has already lost in the NBA Finals. Even if James is a part of 6 championship squads and never loses again in the Finals, people will still say that 6-1 is worse than 6-0. And because of the numerous Scottie Pippen comparisons, he's under intense pressure to win Finals MVP. It's really Finals MVP or bust for him - he will damage his brand if another Heat player wins the Finals MVP award.

I agree, none of these things bear any resemblance to reality. Then again, building a "brand" and being regarded as the mythical "Greatest Player of All Time" bears no resemblance to reality, either. James wishes to be the King in a fantasy world where he is worshiped and adored by millions of followers and has few or no detractors - and he will do what it takes to accomplish that goal.

At Thursday, May 26, 2011 3:01:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

The big difference between MJ and LeBron is that MJ never put "building his brand" above winning; MJ tried to win every game, even the "meaningless" ones in the dog days of the regular season when the Bulls had already lapped the field.

At Thursday, May 26, 2011 3:53:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

I'm not sure how Michael Jordan would responded if Scottie became more assertive on offense or if he was forced to play with Shaq early in his career. He was in a situation where the two goals could coexist. One thing I do know is that in his time with the Wizards, he sabotaged Jerry Stackhouse's game and ruined the careers of Kwame Brown and Courtney Alexander. He had a successful comeback numerically but it came at a price.

But I think Lebron is in a situation a la Kobe 2004 - where the two goals could potentially conflict. It will be very interesting to see how he deals with that. Of course, he could try to play the hero, succeed anyway, and get Wade and Bosh to fall in line. If he plays the hero and fails, we could have a very ugly situation on our hands.

At the end of the day, Lebron has more on his mind than winning games and winning championships, and I think he will prove that over the course of the next couple of weeks.

At Thursday, May 26, 2011 4:46:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

I think that MJ would have clashed with Shaq just like Kobe did, because MJ and Kobe are both hard working players who focus primarily on winning rings, while Shaq did not train or practice quite as vigorously as either of those players.

I think that Kwame and Courtney probably could have sabotaged their careers without any assistance from MJ but it is true that MJ and Stackhouse clashed, which is not surprising considering that they played the same position and Stackhouse was a young guy who was certainly entitled to feel that he was at least as good as MJ was at that stage of their respective careers.

In 2004, Kobe was banged up mentally and physically but he still produced at a very high level throughout the season and he hit some very clutch shots (including ones against Portland in the last regular season game to improve the Lakers' playoff seeding and against the Pistons to, as it turned out, avoid a sweep in the Finals).

I am not sure that I agree with your take that LeBron is somehow trying to "play the hero." LeBron is the best player on his team and the best player in the league; he is performing the way that I expect him to perform when he is actually trying hard. I just thought that the Bulls could beat the Heat anyway if the Bulls cut down on their turnovers and bad shots. I never bought into the idea that LeBron went to Miami to be the second fiddle to Wade nor do I agree with anyone who thinks that he should be the second fiddle to Wade.

At Wednesday, June 08, 2011 6:34:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Lebron is a tough spot - the only way for him to improve his legacy is for Miami to win the championship AND to win Finals MVP. If Miami wins the championship and Wade wins the Finals MVP, Lebron will have to live with the "LePippen" label for the rest of his life. No matter how many championships he wins in South Beach, Wade will get all the credit for the championships while Lebron will get all of the blame whenever the team does not win the championship.

When it comes to building his "brand", it might actually be to his advantage to tank the series and re-emerge next season as the unquestioned alpha dog. I expected him to do this by hogging the ball, though - quitting I think is a questionable move that will backfire on him. An orchestrated "freeze-out" of Wade would've been a much smarter option.

At Wednesday, June 08, 2011 10:52:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

I don't see how failing to win a championship is good for LeBron's "brand" and I truly hope that he does not think that quitting is a shrewd career move but it is puzzling that for two years in a row the game's best player just quit when his team needed him the most.


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