LeBron is still the MVP of this team, but the Heat are never going to actualize their dynasty ambitions as a ruptured unit. And right now, this unbreakable convocation suddenly appears brittle, at least from the sidelines.
It's not just about Miami getting manhandled on the glass (40-23) by the Utah Jazz en route to losing their sixth game in 10 tries. It's not just about the team playing sub-.500 basketball (8-9) on the road. It's not even about the Heat ranking dead last in rebounds per game (38.6).
It's about the frustrations that have clearly mounted on the sidelines to the point where faith in one another is seemingly fractured, bordering on nonexistent.
Miami was down by as many as 21 points against the Jazz, but it battled back, nearly stealing the game in the waning minutes. However, the Heat came up short. James' 32 points weren't enough, and the team left Utah with another loss under its belt.
That loss wasn't important, though—how they got there, how they finished the game was.
Coach Spoelstra benched Wade for the entire fourth quarter of this near comeback, and Chris Bosh himself played just 40 seconds.
Confused? Well, so is Wade (via FoxSports.com):
Wade, who finished with 11 points on 5-of-11 shooting, had no explanation for why he did not get off the bench in the fourth quarter.
''I don't know,'' Wade said. ''I just always stay ready.''
With the Heat trailing by 19 heading into the final period, one cannot crucify Spoelstra for changing it up. Clearly, whatever Miami was doing wasn't working.
The method to Spoelstra's supposed madness was only validated once the Heat went on a run of epic proportions to bring themselves back within striking distance—without Wade (and Bosh) on the floor.
LeBron guarding Favors then Al Jefferson, running the offense and anchoring 22-9 run w/o Wade-Bosh on court. Insane.— Tom Haberstroh (@tomhaberstroh) January 15, 2013
Miami pulled within two points in the final three minutes, but the Heat were unable to finish the comeback, leaving many to question as to whether Coach Spo had actually made the right call.
OK. Spoelstra needs to get Bosh and Wade in. Proved his point. Reserves battled hard for 8 mins. I like his guts, tho.— Michael Wallace (@WallaceNBA_ESPN) January 15, 2013
Right or not, the Heat lost and it was time for the team to put their latest failure, the latest of unforeseen events behind them.
Except they can't.
This isn't an isolated incident; this isn't something an allegedly tight-knit group is going to brush off.
Internally, Miami's strength is crumbling. The foundation of the Heat's very existence has weakened, and as Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com notes, it shows:
Right now the Heat have some more prickly issues that go deeper than winning and losing. Not playing well in midseason is troubling, but not season-altering. The Heat are experiencing some internal issues, and it's showing up in their attitude and their play. And it's really showing up in the things they're saying publicly, which makes you wonder what they're saying privately.
The Heat are out of focus and they're sniping. At their coach, Erik Spoelstra. At each other. Probably at their friends and loved ones, too.
A faction as talented and star-studded as the Heat is bound to have its share of issues. When egos of Miami's caliber are assembled under the current expectations this aggregation is held to, players and coaches are going to clash.
For the Heat, we've seen it before, specifically between Spoelstra and Wade. They've had their problems in the past, most of which culminated in an irate Wade and submissive Spoelstra.
But not this time. Never before has Spoelstra taken this kind of stand.
We all remember the confrontation that took place only last spring. Wade was late getting back on defense, Spoelstra confronted him, and the All-Star guard went off.
Afterward, Spoelstra quelled any concerns, assuming the "it's all a part of the game" stance (via ESPN.com):
That happens. Anybody that has been part of a team or has been a coach or been a player, you have no idea how often things like that happen. That was during a very emotional part of the game. We were getting our butt kicked. Those exchanges happen all the time during the course of an NBA season.
There's going to be a lot of times where guys say something, you don't like it. You get over it and you move on. We're all connected. Dwyane and I have been together for a long time, a long time. We've been through basically everything. A lot of different roles, a lot of different teams. That really is nothing. That is the least of our concern. That type of fire, shoot, that's good. That's the least of our concerns.
We all know what happened next: Wade went on to drop 30 the very next game, and the Heat went on to win the NBA title. Obviously, such struggles are just the cost of doing business—especially in Miami.
And yet, this time was different.
There were no words of encouragement offered by Spoelstra after the game, no definitive explanation or solution as to what is transpiring within the psyches of South Beach's finest.
Instead, Spoelstra merely acknowledged (via Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel) the existence of underlying issues at hand:
Of sitting his starters, with power forward Udonis Haslem also held out of the fourth quarter, Spoelstra said, "I'll probably be thinking about that on the flight.
"Everybody in our locker room, staff, players, everybody included has to give more, and that's the bottom line.
"We have to give more to get us over the hump and get a quality win.
"There are certainly more stretches during the course of the game where we were not quite committed as we were in the fourth quarter."
The definitiveness behind Spoelstra's assertion should come as no surprise. His issue with his team's effort isn't anything new. Remember, this is the same coach who steadfastly believed the Heat's rebounding woes can be attributed to a lack of will, not size.
Spoelstra is not alone, either. Like his coach, James wouldn't point a finger at specific players but did conclude (via Winderman) the Heat can't continue to "play with low energy."
Just as importantly, though, the Heat can't continue to play, can't put up an adequate defense of their title without Spoelstra and Wade getting on the same page.
Miami's coach wants more from his guard, yet Wade believes he is on a team where he can't possibly give anymore, where he is unable to be the aggressor. And he admitted as much (via Windhorst) prior to the Heat's road trip:
Wade's body language said enough. Before the Heat left on this trip, Wade was asked if he missed the days of taking 20 to 25 shots a game. The days before James and Bosh and being relegated to the third option some nights. Wade's response: "Every day."
That Wade could publicly concede to such a disposition is troubling. I don't believe for a second he regrets teaming up with James and Bosh, but I also don't believe he's happy.
Something has to give. Spoelstra needs to re-establish the dynamic of this team, and Wade (and Bosh) needs to embrace his role once again.
The Heat need to regain that sense of unity. That same sense of concurrence that carried them to a title last season. That same sense of intimacy that dictated success was unconditional, that stated it didn't matter how they won, just as long as they did.
And that same sense of propinquity which is currently eluding them and forcing them to (via Windhorst) compete against each other, not the opposition:
Most basketball minds would say this team is the best team, talent-wise, James has ever played on. ... But James, who is in the middle of perhaps the greatest all-around season of his career, has been right with his teammates in passively complaining about the state of the union.
"It was low energy. Against a team like this, on their floor, with their crowd -- you can't have low energy," James said of the first half, in which he had his best scoring first half of the season with 20 points.
This isn't just about Wade and Spoelstra; it's about the entire team, their lack of cohesion and subsequent absence of avidity, of devotion.
At the heart of this discord, though, is the solution.
Spoelstra and Wade aren't the only members of this franchise whose relationship is mangled. But their association is the symbol of all that's wrong in Miami and all that needs to be repaired.
Must Erik Spoelstra and Dwyane Wade reach a mutual understanding for the Heat to build a dynasty?
If these two can take a stand, put an end to their oft-conflicted ways and band together (once again), their reunion stands to solve everything. It serves as the crowning example of a pairing that doesn't always agree but will stand together no matter what.
From there, the rest of the Heat's internal defects will be resolved. From there, Miami can return to building the dynasty it set out to construct more than two years ago.
"With this team, it doesn't matter," Wade said (via Windhorst). "If we win, we're supposed to win. If we lose, we shouldn't lose. We have to figure it out."
Indeed they do; otherwise, that dynasty the Heat once referred to with such conviction will forever remain what it is now: hypothetical.
*Stats in this article are accurate as of January 15, 2013.