Are We Witnessing an NBA Dynasty in the Making for the Miami Heat?
Three NBA Finals appearances. Two titles. A 66-win regular season. A 27-game winning streak.
But does it constitute a bona fide NBA dynasty? If not, what more must LeBron James and company do to establish their run as one of the greatest pro basketball has ever seen?
Those are difficult questions to answer, especially without a clear-cut definition of what constitutes a dynasty. Back in October, Grantland's Bill Simmons took a crack at it—while also taking a jab at Bleacher Report, ironically enough—and came up with just four teams that unequivocally qualify for the sport's most coveted label:
—The George Mikan-era Minneapolis Lakers, the NBA's first dynasty, who won five titles in six seasons.
—The Boston Celtics of the Bill Russell vintage, who won a whopping 11 championships in the span of just 13 seasons.
—Magic Johnson's "Showtime" Los Angeles Lakers, who cracked the Finals nine times and won five titles therein between 1980 and 1990.
—Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls, who strung together two separate three-peats in an eight-year period.
He took the time therein to loosely articulate what a "high-end dynastender" actually is ("a team that contends for a solid decade while winning somewhere between two and four titles"), but at no point did Simmons explicitly describe what makes a dynasty a dynasty.
For that, we turn to our trusty friends, Merriam-Webster:
: a succession of rulers of the same line of descent: a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time
The first definition doesn't really make sense for our purposes, since each dynasty (and high-end dynastender) was embroidered into our collective consciousness as the product of one great player in particular, with the Shaq-Kobe Lakers as the lone exception.
(Unless you include Scottie Pippen in the discussion with MJ.)
The second, though, suits our purposes pretty well. In that case, the key isn't just excellence, but rather sustained excellence over time.
The Heat have achieved tremendous success in just three years together, but, again, that's just three years. None of the NBA's major dynasties/dynastenders lasted fewer than the five-year flameout of the dysfunctional Lakers to kick off the 2000s.
In that case, Miami needs at least two more years of top-tier championship contention on its resume to be considered a true dynasty. "Dynastender" status might be easier to register as far as hardware is concerned, but time is still a crucial ingredient.
On the flip side of these just-completed Finals, the Spurs seem to embody something more closely resembling Merriam-Webster's first definition. They've handed the reins from Tim Duncan to Tony Parker and appear to have a clear line to the future after watching Kawhi Leonard average 14.6 points (on 51.3 percent shooting) and 11.1 rebounds while playing stellar defense on LeBron and Wade.
In his very first trip to the Finals...as a 21-year-old.
But San Antonio doesn't quite qualify as a dynasty, and for good reason. The Spurs have never won back-to-back titles. Only twice since winning their first championship in 1999 have they played in consecutive Conference Finals: 2007 and 2008, and 2012 and 2013. In fact, 2008 marked the only time that the Spurs had advanced past the second round after winning it all the previous year.
And, of course, there was the three-year stretch between 2008 and 2011, during which San Antonio was twice upset in the first round.
This isn't to diminish what the Spurs have put together with Duncan and Gregg Popovich. They've been to 16 straight postseasons, won at least 50 games every year (except for during the strike-shortened 1999 campaign), competed in five finals, and won four championships.
Calling them a dynasty, though, might be a bit much. They're more of a (if not the) defining team of an amorphous era that followed Michael Jordan's retirement from the Bulls.
The Heat, on the other hand, will have the opportunity to be the team of the 2010s, if for no other reason than the fact that they have LeBron and everybody else doesn't. He's well on his way to being the best player of his generation. And, with two championships, two Finals MVPs, four regular season MVPs, two Olympic gold medals and myriad other honors already under his belt, the 28-year-old may challenge for a spot alongside Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the NBA's Mount Rushmore before he loses his headband for the final time.
So long as LeBron is head and shoulders above the competition, Miami will be a threat to collect the league's "Dynasty" merit badge. But the task of sustaining their current pace will only become more difficult for LeBron and the Heat from here on out.
Playing in three straight finals, with a trip to the Olympics tossed in, is a taxing endeavor, to say the least. That's doubly true when the team in question plays a style of ball that incurs as much punishment and requires as much physical and mental sacrifice as does Erik Spoelstra's unconventional "small ball" arrangement.
The toll of forcing the likes of Chris Bosh and Shane Battier to guard bigger, stronger opponents night in and night out is already evident in the way the games of these two players deteriorated at times during the 2013 playoffs.
When role players of all shapes and sizes (as far as productivity is concerned) begin to falter, the burden ultimately falls on LeBron. When Mother Nature attacks Dwyane Wade's knees and Father Time tangles with the rest of his 31-year-old frame, it's James' job to pick up the slack.
How soon will it be when LeBron starts to feel the adverse effects of doing everything all the time and at full speed to propel his team to the top? Or is he already?
And how much longer do Battier, Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, and Chris Andersen realistically have left on their respective career clocks? How will the Heat handle the future hungers and ambitions of youngsters like Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole?
Such are the challenges that face contenders like the Heat in this day and age of harder salary caps, more onerous luxury taxes, and tighter restrictions on player acquisitions for teams that, in the NBA's mind, too flagrantly flout best-business practices in pursuit of on-court success.
For how many more years will LeBron's Heat contend for titles?
In reality, though, these problems aren't new. Every dynasty—and dynastender, for that matter—requires an architect, a patriarch who evaluates and re-organizes his chess pieces to fit around a central superstar or superstars.
The Lakers had John Kundla in Minneapolis and Jerry West in L.A. The Celtics were famously Red Auerbach's baby, even after he stepped back from the bench and into the front office. The Bulls wouldn't have dominated had Jerry Krause not had the foresight to refresh his roster on the fly, with characters like Steve Kerr, Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc moving through the milieu as though they were the bit players at Sterling Cooper and Associates, tip-toeing around the madness of another Don Draper type.
Dynasties don't exist without talented players, but those players don't become part of the same outfit without a mastermind pulling strings behind the scenes.
Pat Riley has already proven himself a worthy schemer. He's won championships as a player, as a coach, and as a front-office executive. He built these Heat with quick-dry cement during the summer of 2010.
Now comes the hard part for Riles: unsticking his feet and finding new players to serve as sidekicks for LeBron. This team could clearly use some fresh blood after three bruising years together. The Heat have proven that they can win big with "Pace and Space"—but for how much longer and at what cost?
These are the questions and concerns that Riley will have to address in the summers to come, with a limited toolbox from which to build. How he goes about this particular job—or whether he hangs around long enough to see it done—may well determine whether LeBron's Heat go down as a dynasty, a dynastender or just an unusually eye-popping flash in the pan.
For now, though, they're off to an incredible start.
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