LeBron James is often depicted as the South Beach superstar under the most pressure, because he is. The NBA's greatest player hotfooted his way out of Cleveland to build a dynasty in Miami. Falling to the San Antonio Spurs shatters those hopes, eliminating almost any chance James has of building a Tim Duncan-esque regime with the Heat.
Should that happen, should James' vision be ruined, his decision to join forces with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade won't just be scrutinized (again). It will be denounced.
They banded together to win titles, not to make three straight NBA Finals appearances, and not to win one championship. Their merger represented something bigger—something better. Fair or not, losing now renders them a failure.
Yet another blemish on James' finals record will hit him hard. His legacy will be tarnished, and next year, win or lose, he'll find himself right back in 2010—searching for hope elsewhere.
Never again was that supposed to happen. Playing alongside Wade (and Bosh) was the ultimate safety net. Pitting himself next to two other top-10 superstars ensured he would never have to worry, never have to cling to fleeting ambitions the way he did in Cleveland.
Then he blinked.
Miami's Big Three has been reduced to a Big One. James finds himself fighting a battle he wasn't supposed to wage on his own ever again. And that's not his fault.
For all the hits a finals loss would force James to incur, for all the uncertainty he will endure, he can still rise above it. He's the best player on the planet, the kind that makes any team an instant contender. He would rise again.
At 31 and playing through constant pain, there is no tomorrow for Wade. There is only now, and "now" hasn't been too kind to him.
Expectations for Wade are dwindling as he averages a career-low 14.3 points per playoff game. Few care to admit it, including Wade himself, but he's failed James. He's not playing like a superstar, or even close to it.
Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers allegedly signified a new beginning. Wade dropped 21 points on 7-of-16 shooting. He was back. Disaster had been averted.
Since when is 7-of-16 shooting a sign of hope for a superstar not named Carmelo Anthony? And since when is 17 points on a 7-of-15 showing from the floor enough to exonerate him from any blame outside the fourth quarter of Game 1 against the Spurs?
The Heat don't need Wade to shoot under 50 percent from the field or struggle to eclipse the 20-point mark. They need him to score efficiently, to back up James like a superstar. Yet he hasn't, which puts his very standing in the league in jeopardy.
Questioning his status within the Association isn't an overreaction. This demise was always inevitable. Whether you consider his recent diminished exploits to be permanent or not, he was never going to outlast his age or his knees. But he was always supposed to be enough—for James. The absence of a championship this year means he is not.
James is having one of the most dominant seasons ever. Of anyone. Ever. Think about that. If the Heat can't close out his campaign with a championship—even against an incredible Spurs team—that says volumes about his supporting cast, most notably Wade.
He was never supposed to shrink in the moment, the way James' teammates in Cleveland did. Never.
"I wanted to team up with some guys that would never die down in the moment," James said back in 2011 of his decision to sign with Miami, according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com.
Any doubt in the Heat's ability to win now originates in Wade more than it does James. He has improvements of his own to make against the Spurs—like posting up more in the fourth quarter—but James still notched a triple-double in Game 1. It's Wade's contributions that are being questioned; it's his future on the line.
For him, it's not about the third championship (entirely) or preserving Miami's dynasty-caliber aspirations. He didn't abandon another team en route to creating this Big Three, nor was he ringless upon its formation.
Will Dwyane Wade's legacy be tarnished if the Heat fail to win a title in 2013?
This is about proving he's still a superstar, the one James teamed up with nearly three years ago. His ability to do so hinges on Miami's ability to win it all.
Beat the Spurs, and the Heat are set. Their dynasty hopes remain alive, James is spared from further derision and Wade is more than just a sidekick.
Lose, and the Heat's visions of absolute dominance are blighted. James is forced to embark on another self-preserving reclamation project. And Wade's legacy suffers a blow it won't ever be fully able to recover from.