It's been nearly two years since LeBron James carried out his plan to guarantee himself his first championship—actually, not one, not two... but I digress. Armed with the greatest athletic gifts ever seen, and the most star-laden roster ever rigged, it's not even a question any more whether LeBron has the qualities of a champion; it's just a question of how soon.
Many say "soon" is 2012... but what if it isn't?
This team was rightfully considered too talented—superficial flaws notwithstanding—not to win rings immediately, and it took a convergence of freak occurrences to keep them from doing just that in 2011. Considering the unlikelihood of such a rare set of circumstances arising yet again on cue, there is no good reason why Miami—LeBron especially—shouldn't be hoisting the Larry this June.
And so, with a championship all but expected, the question asked here is: What happens if LeBron once again finds a way not to finish the job? The consequences would be many...
In the wake of Miami's free-agent coup (what a painfully appropriate word) in 2010, it seemed like every team in the NBA went on a quest to form a team around their own super-mega-nucleus. The message around the league was clear: How can anyone compete with Miami unless they fight fire with fire?
The Knicks dreamed a dream of having Amare Stoudemire, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul. The Lakers wanted Kobe, Paul and Dwight Howard. The Nets envisioned Deron Williams, Howard and Anthony. All were prepared to completely gut their rosters, as well as throw away roster stability to make it happen.
The concept of traditional team-building was losing all credibility, while talent overload was fast becoming the new cure-all.
If the Heat were to embarrass themselves yet again in these playoffs, this new league paradigm of winning with super-teams would lose a great deal of steam. Star players themselves would be less quick to give up on their teams for greener pastures if the Heat's failure shows them that said pastures are not so green after all.
"Never let me go."
When a team comes in promising an immediate, uninterrupted string of championships, how much rope do they get before the experiment is considered a failure?
The Heat already failed to keep their initial promise once, and their fans excused it on the grounds that this team had only been together a year—never mind that the Heat didn't think that mattered when they made their little prediction.
But to make such drastic roster moves and come up empty two years in a row, the Heat would have to acknowledge that their plan failed. The plan wasn't to win one ring at some point in the next six years, it was to dominate early and consistently. Failure would require the Heat to formulate a plan B, which would force them to trade away at least one of the Three Banditos for any kind of roster flexibility.
The question is: Who goes first? The third wheel (Bosh) or the least shiny of the super-twins (Wade?)
For most fans, LeBron James already did irreparable damage to his legacy the day he took the easy road to a championship, and yet there are still those who feel that winning a title could validate LeBron's personal scheme.
This completely ignores the fact that people criticize LeBron precisely for how he's going to win one, with everyone both pro and con conceding that he's guaranteed to win at least one with this team.
An NBA title will not prove anything; it's a foregone conclusion at this point.
When you have the biggest head start—both athletically and team-wise—in NBA history on your side, success is cheap. Failure, on the other hand, is an impressive feat.
Which leads us to the other side of this coin: What if LeBron finds some way to stay ringless another year? He had everything it needed to win right away, and he's already failed once. So to fall short two years in a row despite being the most heavily favored player ever to bounce a ball would cement LeBron's legacy as the single most spectacular underachiever in NBA history.
Imagine being given two bazookas and a mini-gun to drag into a fist fight, and then criticized for getting knocked out while you were trying to fire them all at the same time... that's kind of how Spoelstra feels.
He's been thrown into the driver's seat, armed with more firepower than anyone in their right mind could ever need, and instantly expected to gracefully keep a lid on this puffy-chested, fire-breathing hydra of egos.
To make things worse, when Team Overkill defies the odds and actually loses, the blame seems to always trickle down to him first. This is despite the widely glossed-over fact that Spo's meager coaching skills make as much of a difference to this team as a single drop of oil does to a Sherman tank.
Still, as per the unspoken rule in sports, the first person in line for the axe after a crushing defeat—or in Miami's case, a historically embarrassing choke-job—is the head coach. As with the rest of the team, Spoelstra got a first-year pass when the Heat threw away the 2011 Finals, but he's now out of credits.
For better or worse, after this summer, you will never see Erik Spoelstra on the Heat bench with naked fingers.
In a thinly-veiled PR campaign, LeBron James started the season telling people how he was back to his old self—i.e. the guy from before everybody "turned" on him. A surprising amount of people simply turned a blind eye to his obvious vested interest in convincing us whether it was true or—more likely—complete horse manure.
Why the latter?
Because in this writer's opinion, there's a direct contradiction between these two LeBrons (the heel and the babyface). One of them has to be made up, and common sense tells us he would have no reason to fake being a jerk.
Still, LeBron would have us believe he's all better, ready to put the villain label behind him. He clearly doesn't understand how he got it in the first place. Deep down, he will be praying that we would all do the same... at least long enough for him to be comfortable in his own skin as he claims the championship that defines his entire existence.
He's keeping up the nice guy façade for now, but should he once again LeFail, I suspect he'll ditch that plan too, at which point the petulant, standoffish, self-pitying prima donna—i.e. the more believable LeBron—will likely make a comeback.
Ah, the old standards.
Miami fans will point to the Heat's lack of depth at the one and five—emphasizing the glaring mismatches in favor of either the Spurs or Thunder—as the reason for their defeat. They will contend that a championship can't be won without a viable bench unit.This will, of course, require them to completely ignore how they first proclaimed themselves the next champs on the strength of only three players.
Their fertile imaginations may even conjure up some brand new cop-outs over the summer, however being largely detached from actual fact, these are impossible to predict.
As for LBJ himself, we all know the hit song: His teammates will have let him down—including, perhaps, his two bosom super-buddies—and he will have tried to be a facilitator. He will remind us at least once, accordingly, of his non-scoring totals.
He will insist that the minutes he plays are too grueling, the scoring load too burdensome and the time spent out of position too "taxing." He'll no doubt once again fall back on the law of averages ("sometimes you've got it...") or even blame the Almighty Himself, a tacit attempt to disown his own failure as if he's powerless to do anything about it.
Who knows who else will be to blame...perhaps a voodoo curse of some kind?
All in all, expect LeBron and his fans to step up their dodging game to Keanu-Reeves-in-the-Matrix levels.
This one is easy to predict.
In the movies, if you save the world from a super villain, ipso facto you're the hero. By the same token, if you save pro basketball from being overtaken by the super villain of the NBA, then you're the hero in the hearts of NBA fans everywhere—except Mouth Beach, of course.
Furthermore, in the wake of last year's inexplicable LeMeltdown, most fans felt as though the NBA had narrowly dodged a bullet, which is less and less likely to keep happening. Nobody wins the lottery and then expects to keep winning.
In short, the longer the Heat go without a ring, the more ripe they are to take it home.
As such, people rooting against Miami feel increasingly pessimistic about their dry spell continuing for too much longer. This in turn means anyone who can "save the day" stands to be showered with commensurately greater amounts of gratitude and adulation in the process.
Perhaps we'd see a Kevin Durant statue erected in Cleveland or something.
LeBron James has long had to deal with the stigma of a guy who can't close out the big one—which is what drove him to join the Heat in the first place—however, Dwyane Wade has yet to grapple with this image.
After all, he not only owns a championship ring, but also a Finals MVP; he's a reputedly formidable closer—or at least he once was and has yet to be proven otherwise—owing to his one-man dismantling of the '06 Mavericks.
Since 2010, the Heat's fortunes—especially the bad—have been pinned on LeBron first and foremost, while D-Wade got the least flack. This dynamic isn't likely to persist, as the stink of continued failure would gradually cling to the rest of the team rather than being written off as yet another freak setback.
Even a guy with Wade's on-court reputation can't go on forever with no accountability, and as the second-most instrumental guy in this team's fortunes, he'd also be second in line to answer for the Heat's underachievement—which at this point could only be described as uncanny—and could find his once bulletproof rep in need of serious repair as early as next season.
"Okay... you've suffered enough."
The majority of LeBron's (and Miami's) detractors root against them based on what they represent for the future of basketball: the ambassadors of a disturbing new trend that threatens to forever change—for the worse—the competitive landscape and the way championships are won in the NBA.
They see Miami as ushering out the "Where amazing happens" era in favor of the "Just gimme my ring" era, which is bad news for fans looking to be wowed by on-court heroics and lion-hearted playoff battles like in the olden days (i.e. two or more years ago.)
This means that, although seeing the self-proclaimed king lose at the end of the year is a treat in itself, it provides no lasting comfort since the Heat will just come back the following year and threaten the fabric of basketball again until they succeed.
And then there are those who are in no way emotionally invested in the state of the game, who apparently only wish to see LeBron put in his place a few times, after which they're more than satisfied regardless of how the game goes.
These people will eventually grow silent simply because they feel he's lost enough for their liking, despite the continued threat he and his super-friends pose to the future of basketball.
You most likely don't need this pointed out to you.
Should LeBron once again fall at the relatively simple task of delivering one-eighth of what he promised, his critics—those not addressed in the previous slide—will rejoice with all their hearts as the Larry O'Brien is spared the indignity of being hoisted in Miami for one more year.
It will once again feel like a victory for the good guys in the face of dire odds, and though each new season brings another chance for the worst to happen—a Miami title, that is—the subsequent eight to 10 months of not fearing for basketball itself will be the greatest gift of all.
It will also be a time to talk at length and in depth about what exactly is wrong with LeBron that he can't even take the pot with a royal flush. His already well-known lack of mental toughness, heart and so on will be turned, twisted, magnified and scrutinized from every angle, and made into the laughingstock of the league. Again.
I, for one, will be too busy savouring what precious little time I still have left of the NBA where LeBron's schemes still go unrewarded.