Two summers ago, the mere thought of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, or Chris Bosh being dealt seemed almost as absurd as the idea of a team celebrating free-agent signings as if they won the NBA title (oh wait).
But flash forward 23 months later. After an NBA Finals flame out against the underdog Dallas Mavericks last year, the Miami Heat run the very real risk of not even returning back to that stage in year two.
The Big Three looks very vulnerable, returning to Boston almost shockingly down 3-2 to a Celtics team that was not even their No. 1 threat going into the truncated 2012 season. No, after Derrick Rose's knee was torn, it appeared the path to the NBA Finals was a formality for Miami.
Instead, this team is staring down the gun barrel at a second straight disappointing finish to their season. Only extreme homers will use Chris Bosh's abdominal injury as a serious excuse for why they might lose to Boston.
No, the reality is that Boston has out-executed, out-hustled and outmaneuvered the Heat in the last four games, winning three. If Miami is defeated Thursday night, the question becomes, what is next?
The conventional thought is that Miami would trade Chris Bosh, the "Ringo Starr" of the self-proclaimed Heatles. You know, scapegoat the lesser of the three stars and try to return something tangible for that player.
The only problem with that train of thought is that the last two years have shown us this: LeBron James and Dwyane Wade play great individual games on the same court. That is not the same as meshing abilities to make a team better.
Losing two straight seasons without the flexibility to make an impact in the offseason could lead Heat executive Pat Riley to make a huge decision. Riley may have to trade one of his two best players.
But which one? Wade is not the player he was three years ago. But he is still a borderline first-team NBA guard, the de facto leader and closer for Miami and the face of the franchise. And unfair as this might sound to some, he has delivered a championship to the city of Miami.
If Miami is eliminated Thursday night, what should Pat Riley do in the offseason?
In contrast, LeBron James is the unquestioned best talent in the game of basketball. No one has his athletic ability, skill set, and open-court game.
The problem is, for whatever reason to this point, it has not translated into being a player that consistently ends the game for his team. From his maddening disappearing act in the fourth quarters of the 2011 Finals, to the tentativeness he has shown in Games 4 and 5 against the Celtics, James at times looks like a player who worries about failing instead of seizing the opportunity to win.
What that leaves you with is a player who can dominate, who can take your breath away and, as such, has won three regular-season MVPs in nine full seasons—but also a player who has yet to win an NBA championship and could very well come up short.
This contrast actually reminds me of another player who did things people never saw before but could not quite bring home a title in his prime years: Julius Erving. Like Erving, James has a tendency to freeze in the moment, lacks a reliable outside jumper and will miss foul shots in the clutch.
That dichotomy leaves you with this question if you are Miami's front office: Do you cut your losses and risk being remembered as the team that moved away from a sure-fire, top-10 all-time player?
Or maybe, you use that player as a chip to acquire the type of player who helps mesh with the parts you have in house (realistically, the Heat are very close to a title even as constructed)? Dwight Howard, for example.
The 2012 NBA Eastern Conference Finals were predicted to be an epitaph for The Big Three. The only problem is, Thursday night could very well prove that right—but for the wrong team and players.
And if that does happen, Pat Riley has to ask some very hard questions about the capacity of his best player to win a championship.