Is This Miami Heat Team the Best of LeBron James' Career?

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Is This Miami Heat Team the Best of LeBron James' Career?
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

For once, I'll answer the question straight away: Yes, the 2012-13 Miami Heat are the best team on which LeBron James has played since entering the NBA.

And it's not even that close.

To start, we can pretty comfortably set aside all seven of the Cleveland Cavaliers squads of which he was a part to start his pro career. Only once during those seven seasons did LeBron play with someone else who joined him at the All-Star Game—2008-09, when Mo Williams was selected to replace the injured Chris Bosh.

Keep in mind, Williams' trip to Phoenix that year stemmed more from the Cavs' overall success (they won a franchise-record 66 games and boasted an NBA-best 40-11 record at the break) than from Mo's own pre-All-Star exploits (17.6 points, 4.1 assists, .468 from the field, .404 from three). In essence, LeBron made Mo an All-Star that year, and Williams has hardly been heard from since.

To be sure, that 2008-09 Cleveland team was very good, if not the best on which James was featured before he bolted for South Beach. The Cavs ranked fourth in offensive efficiency (i.e. points scored per 100 possessions) and third in defensive efficiency (i.e. points allowed per 100 possessions) that year, and may well have cracked the Finals had they made a splash at the trade deadline (Shaquille O'Neal, anyone?). But Cleveland stood pat and, as a result, was sent packing from the Eastern Conference Finals in six games by Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.

Elsa/Getty Images

The Cavs came back the next year and won 61 games after adding one big name (Shaq) over the summer and another (Antawn Jamison) at the trade deadline. Unfortunately for the long-suffering city of Cleveland, that team got bounced by the Boston Celtics in the second round after LeBron purportedly mailed it in prior to his romp through free agency.

Wait, but what about the 2006-07 team that went to the NBA Finals?

Right...because a team that "featured" Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden as players 2 through 4 on the totem pole, won 50 games and finished second in a depressingly bad Eastern Conference and then went 12-4 against that depressingly bad Eastern Conference in the playoffs before getting swept by the San Antonio Spurs in the Finals (and then some) deserves consideration as LeBron's best...

Or not. Let's move on, shall we?

On paper, the first group that featured LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh looks like the best of the bunch in some respects. In 2010-11, the Big Three put up combined counting stats of 70.9 points, 22.2 rebounds and 13.5 assists while shooting a collective 50.3 percent from the field. That scoring total, at the very least, would be tough to match going forward, if only because Wade would be hard-pressed to average 25 points like he did two years ago, given his age (31) and the increasingly perilous condition of his knees.

At that point, Wade was still right near the peak of his powers, while Bosh was in the midst of his. That team tore through the Eastern Conference in just 15 games, with a record of 12-3.

That was before falling to the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals in six games, of course. That Heat team placed third in offensive efficiency and fifth in defensive efficiency, but lacked a clear and cohesive identity. They succeeded simply because they were more talented than their opponents, and ultimately failed because the partnership between LeBron and Wade still resembled the basketball version of "Dueling Banjos," with each taking turns dominating the ball.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Miami's mediocre supporting cast didn't help matters any. Udonis Haslem missed most of the season due to injury, leaving aging castoffs like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Erick Dampier and Jamaal Magloire to fill in up front, alongside Joel Anthony.

With Mario Chalmers not yet entrenched as the full-time starter at point guard, Erik Spoelstra gave Carlos Arroyo and Mike Bibby('s slightly animated corpse) opportunities to hold the fort, to little avail. James Jones, Mike Miller and Eddie House might've had the chops to constitute a shooting brigade in theory, but certainly didn't in time for this particular run.

Nor did Miami yet know that would be the way to go.

And so, the Heat won 58 regular-season games, 14 more in the playoffs and went down as arguably the most memorable losers in NBA history.

The haul of role players improved noticeably the next season, with Norris Cole, Shane Battier and Ronny Turiaf joining Mike Miller, Joel Anthony, a healthy Udonis Haslem and a consistently starting Mario Chalmers among the Big Three's reinforcements.

But that team didn't exactly dominate the league during the regular season, with "just" the fourth-best point differential (plus-6.0), and didn't find a worthwhile identity until the second round of the playoffs. That's when Bosh went down with an abdominal injury, all but forcing Spoelstra to switch to a small-ball arrangement that featured LeBron as the nominal power forward. With Bosh out of commission, the onus fell upon James and Wade to shoulder an ever bigger burden for Miami.

And Dwyane, recognizing the brilliance of LeBron's otherworldly efforts under pressure, finally ceded complete control of the team's mantle of leadership to his friend and teammate.

Which team is/was LeBron's best?

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Even then, the Heat weren't off and running entirely. They needed seven games to overcome the short-handed Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals, albeit with Bosh missing the first four, and didn't blow away the Oklahoma City Thunder until the deciding Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

That arduous sprint to the top through the lockout-shortened season set the stage for what thus far has been a historic effort for a team that'd rightly be called LeBron's best. Spoelstra and Pat Riley spent the summer of 2012 doubling down on the notion that the Heat could succeed without a traditional center—by highlighting LeBron in the post, moving Bosh to center (while also having him shoot mostly from the midrange), and surrounding the Big Three with a slew of sharpshooters. To that end, in came Ray Allen from Boston and Rashard Lewis from Orlando (by way of New Orleans).

All the Heat needed to complete their puzzle-of-a-team was an athletic big man with hands who could play both ends of the floor, unlike Joel Anthony. Come January, Miami found just that in Chris Andersen, who hadn't played since being waived by the Denver Nuggets via the amnesty clause in July of 2012. The "Birdman" proved a perfect fit in just about every sense, both on and off the court.

Mere days after the start of Andersen's second 10-day contract, the Heat were off and running on what would become a 27-game winning streak, the second-longest in NBA history. They finished the regular season with a franchise-best record of 66-16, and are within two wins of their third straight Finals appearance by way of a 10-2 postseason mark.

It's no coincidence, either. This is, by a healthy margin, the best group of players that LeBron has ever led. In addition to his two All-Star running mates, James can now turn to four deadly shooters who hit better than 40 percent of their attempts during the regular season (Allen, Battier, Chalmers and Miller), two bigs who hustle on both ends (Haslem, who shot 8-of-9 in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and Birdman, who's yet to miss from the field in the current series) and a slashing guard (Norris Cole) who's shown flashes of starting-caliber potential in recent weeks.

Not to mention Rashard Lewis, James Jones and Joel Anthony, all of whom could be quality contributors in one way or another, but who now spend most of their time as de facto cheerleaders.

Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

But what truly makes the 2012-13 Heat the best LeBron team is that 2012-13 LeBron is the best LeBron we've ever seen.

He shoots better from the field (.565) and from three (.406) than ever before. He can dominate in the post, as he did during Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, and snag extra rebounds because he's closer to the hoop. He can defend all five positions one-on-one and serve as a tremendous help defender.

And, as has been his wont since his Cleveland days, he can pass, score, dribble and fly like few (if any) ever have in the history of the game.

Six more wins, and this year's Heat team will have the ring it needs to validate its pending place in LeBron's personal pantheon.

 

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