How do you go about quantifying "fun" in professional sports? Is anyone prepping a paper on fun for next year's Sloan Sports Analytics Conference?
If there were a metric for fun, both within and without the field of play, the Miami Heat would certainly be among the leaders, if not sit atop the rankings entirely.
Not that there isn't plenty of top-notch competition. FC Barcelona have long been a joy to watch in the world of club soccer. They regularly compete for (and win) trophies by way of a distinctive, quick-passing style that's crisply purveyed by some of the best players in the world, including goal-scoring phenom Lionel Messi.
Iceland hasn't enjoyed anything close to that sort of success on the international stage, though its players have done plenty to draw attention to the nation's sporting exploits with their outlandish on-field celebrations.
The Dominican Republic did well to blend excellence and exuberance during this year's World Baseball Classic. Fernando Rodney's lucky plantain emerged as the talk of the tournament as the DR captured its second medal—and first gold—at the WBC.
Elsewhere in baseball, the American League West has been home to two of MLB's zaniest teams: the Oakland A's and the Texas Rangers. The low-budget A's won hearts and minds across the country when they captured the division title in 2012, thanks to a wily style of play and a proclivity toward the "Bernie Lean." The Rangers weren't quite so charming as a team, though Ron Washington, their manager, did more than his fair share of entertaining with his iconic dugout dance.
The liveliness of the Los Angeles Clippers and the Seattle Seahawks also comes to mind. And if we're opening up the discussion to the "amateur" ranks, then we'd be remiss if we didn't at least mention Florida Gulf Coast, the high-flying Cinderellas of the 2013 NCAA Tournament.
But no team combines the chief elements of fun in sports—i.e. star power, an entertaining mode of play, camaraderie amongst the players, top-shelf success in the arena of competition, a distinct joie de vivre outside of it, plenty of style (if not outright "swag") across all facets—quite like these Heat.
Stars on Stars on Stars
Miami's star power is probably the easiest of those elements to pick out. They feature one superstar, in Dwyane Wade, who's a perennial All-NBA performer, a former Finals MVP and the star of many an ad alongside Charles Barkley. They employ another in Chris Bosh, who's been to eight straight All-Star Games of his own and ranks among the premier players at his position. This past summer, they brought in Ray Allen, a future Hall of Famer and the league's all-time leader in three-point shooting, to come off the bench!
And that's all before we've even begun to delve into the exploits of LeBron James.
At present, James doubles as both the NBA's best player (by leaps and bounds) and its biggest star. Now, I could go on and on about how ridiculous LeBron's numbers are, how he ranks among the top 10 in points (fourth), assists (eighth), field-goal percentage (ninth) and steals (10th), and how, in addition to all of that, he's also a top-25 rebounder.
I could also tell you that LeBron leads the universe in Player Efficiency Rating, and that the difference between him and Kevin Durant at No. 2 is nearly equivalent to the gap between Durant and Tim Duncan and Tony Parker at Nos. 5 and 6.
But none of that can come close to encapsulating what a joy it is to watch James put all of his formidable pieces together on the court. He's about as complete a package now as the NBA has seen, at least since Larry Bird and Magic Johnson lorded over the league. He's a superb passer, with the vision, the touch and the timing of a top-tier point guard:
Along with the handles of one:
He's a legitimately dangerous shooter from the perimeter, but is now even more of a threat in the low post:
At 6'8 and 260 pounds, he boasts the requisite size, speed, athleticism and spatial understanding to guard all five positions on the floor at an elite level and make massive plays on the defensive end:
Oh, and he's still a spectacular dunker, thanks in no small part to those aforementioned physical attributes:
The "How" Behind the "Who" and the "What"
LeBron's complete skill set both enables and lies at the center of the Heat's distinct, carefully crafted style of play. As Grantland's Zach Lowe recently discussed in vivid detail, Miami currently plays a brand of "small ball" that, with the expertise of head coach Erik Spoelstra, has been custom-tailored to fit James' particular talents.
The Heat's system, which incorporates concepts lifted from all corners of the sports world, is predicated on the attention drawn by each of the Big Three, and how that added attention opens up golden opportunities from the perimeter. Heat president Pat Riley has done a masterful job of surrounding James, Wade and Bosh with an arsenal of three-point shooters—from Shane Battier and Ray Allen to Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole—who know where to be and when to be there depending on what Miami's Big Three are up to at any given moment.
The result? An efficient offense (the NBA's most efficient in fact) predicated on an abundance of crisp passes, pick-and-rolls, powerful post-ups and pure perimeter shots. It's a symphony of spacing, timing and synergy that's rarely seen in today's league and turns half-court basketball into must-see TV.
Better yet, it doesn't infringe on the freedom of LeBron and Wade to alley and oop with one another on the fastbreak:
A break that's so frequently fueled by Miami's aggressive pressure defense, which uses its collection of similarly-sized athletes to switch screens and smother the ball at the point of attack. As a result, the Heat rank third in the league with 8.9 steals per game and third in opponent turnover ratio, per NBA.com.
Brothers in Arms
Miami's particular brand of basketball requires more than anything that superstars and perfectly positioned role players can provide on their own. Without each player having faith in and trust of all of his teammates, the Heat would only be able to climb so high.
That much was clear up until last year's Eastern Conference Semifinals. The Heat had managed to "skate by" on superior talent alone, even though they'd yet to truly gel.
Sure, they came within two wins of a title in 2011 and finished with the second-best regular season record in the Eastern Conference in 2012. But this was in spite of the LeBron-Wade partnership more closely resembling an awkward rendition of "Dueling Banjos," Chris Bosh struggling to come to terms with being the proverbial third wheel and the rest of Miami's supporting cast having its own issues with finding any rhythm whatsoever amidst Erik Spoelstra's ever-changing rotations.
There's no such confusion this time around. Bosh's abdominal injury in Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers last spring proved a blessing-in-disguise for the Heat. With one of the Big Three out, the onus fell to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to pick up the slack. Both rose to the occasion with otherworldly performances after the Heat fell into a 2-1 series hole.
But as tremendous as Wade was, LeBron clearly reached an entirely separate stratosphere of basketball excellence, even while playing "out of position" at power forward. That quickly cleared up any confusion as to which superstar should lead the Heat.
Furthermore, it cleared the way for the style of "small ball" that Miami has since used to run roughshod over The Association. Bosh returned (begrudgingly) to serve as the team's center, with all-defense-but-no-offense specialist Joel Anthony tossed to the end of the bench and Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem taking turns accompanying James and Bosh up front.
There were plenty of hiccups in the immediate aftermath of Chris' return, though that didn't stop the Heat from rattling off six wins in eight games on the way to clinching their first Larry O'Brien Trophy as a group. That experience didn't just validate the players' faith in Spo's systemic oversight; it also validated their trust in one another and brought them closer as a team.
The camaraderie established during that most triumphant of postseason runs has been on full display this season. Everyone cheers for everyone, from top to bottom. Any signs of petty jealousy of the "Disease of More" that usually consume defending champions have been all but eschewed in favor of unselfishness and teamwork. Each player knows his role, but no player's ability to explode for a big game is ever stifled if he happens to have the hot hand.
You can still hate Dwyane Wade for being a "dirty" player, or LeBron for abandoning Cleveland, or Ray Allen for ditching Boston, or even Chris Bosh for being a weirdo. But nobody who appreciates friendship and/or professional cooperative excellence can see the way these guys play with and for each other and not give a knowing nod, at the very least.
If not full-on applause as an expression of pure entertainment.
A Winning Product
All of this—the top-tier talent, the beautiful ball, the teamwork and trust—adds up to victory after victory for the Heat.
Twenty-seven in a row, to be exact. Not to mention the 29 regular-season wins that came before those, or all the other ones that led Miami to the title in 2012. As great as it is to watch superstars playing exciting ball together, none of that matters much, as far as fun is concerned, unless the ends match up with the means.
Which is another way of saying that winning trumps everything. Fancy passes, dazzling dribbles and thunderous dunks are great, but if they don't contribute to anything more than a losing effort, then they're just as easily lost and forgotten.
In Miami's case, the theatrics have thus far been part-and-parcel with winning. They've all but clinched the top seed in the East for just the third time in franchise history, and are well on their way to locking down the best record in the NBA.
As for the streak, it's managed to captivate the attention of the entire sports world during a dead time for the NBA. That's no small feat, considering how fans are usually so transfixed with March Madness and MLB spring training (among other things) amidst the thaw of the winter ice.
But that's just how much fun Miami is right now. Whether they're blowing out opponents or escaping close shaves, the Heat always make for a captivating viewing experience because they're not only winning, but also doing so at an incredible clip.
The pursuit of the Los Angeles Lakers' all-time record of 33 straight wins has only added to the excitement surrounding the Heat, as has LeBron's pursuit of a fourth MVP trophy in five seasons. Historic chases always make for riveting entertainment. They rile up fans on both sides of the aisle, pitting those who want to see history made against those who don't, and those who think the old was better against those who favor the new.
The Heat have already succeeded tremendously in that endeavor. Talk of the 2012-13 Heat and the 1971-72 Lakers has already flooded the airwaves, and discussion of LeBron being just the second player in league history, after Bill Russell, to win four MVPs in five seasons is bound to rise to the fore once he officially wraps up the award at season's end.
And if/when Miami marches to its second consecutive title, the enjoyment of those accomplishments will be complete.
Having a Ball
Not that the Heat aren't making the most of the ride, and taking the adoring public along with them. They've managed to turn every facet associated with the game into fodder for casual fans and blogospheric diehards alike.
They've turned the typical pre-game layup line into the dunk contest in which the basketball world has long yearned to see LeBron.
They've parlayed post-game interviews into photobombing opportunities on a nightly basis.
In between, they've brought laughter and celebration to the sideline, where players are more often prone to fits of boredom and the occasional mistaken identi-knee. And they've turned their own locker room into a scene for what's arguably the finest of the thousands upon thousands of Harlem Shake videos.
Professional sports are already replete with serious athletes on serious teams with serious goals and serious approaches to their jobs. It's refreshing, then, to see a team like the Heat to cultivate such a fun-loving, light-hearted personality.
If not downright impressive to see them do so, given the tremendous pressure they face every day and the intense criticism and scrutiny with which they're so often surrounded. Perhaps familiarity with these circumstances, combined with the success that the Heat have already encountered amongst them, makes it easy for LeBron James and company to rise above the potential for negativity and achieve something that's as inspiring as it is entertaining.
Style and Substance
On top of all that, like a cherry on cake, is the unique sense of fashion across the roster, sartorially and tonsorially.
Dwyane Wade has long been known for testing the limits of what's hot and what's not. Case in point: this blindingly white suit he wore while interviewing LeBron after a recent win over the Charlotte Bobcats.
Wade certainly fancies himself a fashionista, and has been known to drag his teammates into that realm along with him. At the very least, LeBron James has stepped up his game in this regard since joining forces with D-Wade back in 2010.
But the Heat's stylistic impact extends far beyond their threads. Norris Cole's foray into Kid 'n Play territory with his fantastic flat-top fade has added a new wrinkle to the rekindling of the rivalry between Miami and the New York Knicks. That is, who does it better: Norris Cole or Iman Shumpert?
Shump's is stacked higher, but Cole's comes off a bit cleaner. In any case, the comparison makes for a lively debate in any barber shop into which LeBron might mistakenly stumble.
And then there's the walking canvas otherwise known as Chris Andersen. His high-flying, energetic demeanor on the court makes him a perfect fit for the Heat, and his monstrous mohawk gives Cole's fade a run for its money. But...the Birdman's ink...is...out of control.
In a fun, colorful way, of course.
All told, the Heat are the complete package when it comes to fun. They combine the brilliance, the star power and the unique style of play of Barcelona with the wacky antics of the Oakland A's and the national teams of the Dominican Republic and Iceland, the brashness of FGCU and the sheer athletic spectacle of the Clippers and the Seahawks.
And then some. They are, in essence, about as close to the Panglossian ideal as any current sports team has yet achieved.
And, thankfully for those watching at home, they've still got a long way to go before they're finished.
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