Two NBA championships and three Finals appearances ago, LeBron James signed with the Miami Heat. He teamed up with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade—two NBA All-Stars who complemented James' game, executed fast breaks as dangerous as category 5 Hurricanes and allowed the Heat to play "position-less" basketball.
What drew him to the Heat was the idea of playing with Wade, a top-5 player at the time, and Bosh, an excitingly athletic big who was hiding in Toronto under dreadlocks and irrelevancy.
James had not yet developed the killer instinct needed to become the NBA's alpha dog. The daily competition with Wade would force him to carefully craft his talents and mentality to truly become the leader of the Heat and the unquestioned best player in the league.
Bosh's inconsistent and undeveloped post game forced James to come down from the wing and into the post, where he developed robot-like efficiency. Bosh's ability to spread the floor with his length and outside shooting gave James more room to operate.
Wade and Bosh, in a lot of ways, were the perfect teammates for him.
But anyone who knows anything about the NBA will tell you James is a very different player and person now than he was three years ago. So what about 2014? Are Wade and Bosh still the perfect teammates?
Even though James has refused to talk at length about next summer, the four-time MVP has a player option he could use to opt out of his current, less-than-max contract.
He wouldn't talk about it during the offseason or media day, where James was seemingly at ease when talking about chasing his third title and the next offseason.
According to Bleacher Report's Ethan J. Skolnick, James had this to say.
"For me, being a leader of this team, I owe it to this organization, I owe to my teammates to really not get involved in it, to not talk about it."
He has and will continue to deal with his second free agency differently than he did the first time. Like in 2010, he will enter a flooded market of All-Star caliber players and excellent teammates.
Ultimately, where he decides to play will come down to his teammates. Wade, as currently constructed, is not James' perfect teammate. And Bosh playing center and forcing James to slide into the post will not be good for him in the long run.
So let's construct the perfect teammate for LeBron. The Pippen to his Jordan, if you will.
The building blocks:
- We want him to be able to run the floor and fast break with James. I have a hard time seeing anyone doing this as well as Wade right now, mostly due to the duo's established chemistry.
- We need someone who can defend at an elite level. James values good defense as much as good offense. He won't play with someone that makes him work harder on that end. Wade is an excellent defender and Bosh defends people his size or smaller at an elite level during crunch time. However Wade's knees and Bosh's size hurt them on that end from time to time.
- He has to have a respectable three. Why not elite? Because James' perfect team would have three or four guys who can nail a three-pointer. We need someone who would force defenses to respect his three, not necessarily fear it. He needs to shoot around .330. This is where Wade falls short and crowds the paint, but where Bosh has worked to improve.
- The player needs to have that rare "sidekick" mentality. He needs to be willing to play the Pippen role and embrace being a sidekick, but also save the day when the hero is on the bench or having an off-game. Someone who can play at an elite level, but not demand to be treated that way.
In the NBA, more than any other sport, that is hard to find. A true sidekick is rarer than the true alpha dog.
These are All-Star guys with alpha dog attitudes, and they won't work in a pairing with James. Heavy lies the crown and LeBron is the King. We are looking for Goose, not Tom Cruise.
Last thing. He can't be a point guard. James handles the ball too well, and point guards inherently need the ball to, well, do their job. It won't work and you can't talk me out of it, Cleveland.
So who is it?
How about Andre Iguodala?
He can defend, he's athletic, he can score, drive, pass, run the pick and roll, play the 2 when James plays the 3 and slide over seamlessly when the team goes small. He shoots .329 from three for his career, is an elite defender and, when I think of sidekick mentality, he fits the bill better than any other player in the NBA. How do I know? Because he signed a four-year $48 million deal with Golden State this summer to play next to alpha dog Curry.
Could LeBron convince his team to trade for him? I don't see why not. But that's another variable in what is an already muddled future.
Let me throw this name at you. Bradley Beal.
Beal, the third-overall pick by the Washington Wizards last year, won't turn 21 until June of next year, he is an athletic 6-5, 210 pounds and his jumper has been compared to Ray Allen's.
Translation: This guy has big-time scoring talent, has All-Star potential and is young enough to mold.
Beal is saddled by wanna-be alpha dog John Wall right now. Pair him up with LeBron, who can show him the ways of elite defense and and steer him away from the dark side of the force (a.k.a. bulk scoring) and he could fly higher. But he's locked up through 2016 and the only way I can get this to happen is on NBA 2K14. Sigh.
Honorable mentions include Anthony Davis, Klay Thompson and Dwight Howard. But they all have issues. Davis can't score. Thompson is a scorer but can't do anything else. Howard is in Houston with alpha-dog Harden and I don't think LeBron would play with him anyway. Not pickup ball. Not even if there's a fire.
As I said, the problem with the two players I picked is that they are locked into long-term contracts. So where do we go from here?
If Wade can start shooting 33 percent from three and not hesitate to put it up, then he becomes the perfect teammate for the time being. Wade has the sidekick mentality only for LeBron. Any other team and he becomes an alpha dog. It's like, you know you don't have a thing for red heads, but you like that red head.
However, Wade's durability is the major concern. And LeBron knows that.
What about Bosh? No, I'm not joking.
He has made a concerted effort to work on his three (last post season, he shot a ridiculous 40.5 percent from beyond the arc on 1.6 attempts per game), plays the transition well and has the sidekick mentality. But he can't defend centers and disappears in games too often.
But if Greg Oden bounces back from his injury and can play 25-30 minutes per game, the Heat could move Bosh to power forward.
Now imagine an offense that uses Bosh in a Dirk Nowitzki-type mode, giving him the freedom to shoot from wherever, spreading the floor for James on offense and consistently being paired with players his size or smaller on defense.
Unlike Wade, Bosh doesn't have any long-term injury concerns. Unlike Iguodala and Beal, he is available (all the Heat have to do is resign him, assuming he opts out too).
But right now Bosh is the third option on a team that features James and Wade. The perfect sidekick would be the uncontested second option. 1A and 1B, even, clearly elevated above the rest of the team but working within the team together to make the unit better.
Sort of like James and Wade.
A lot of that is due to chemistry on and off the court as the two alpha dogs bonded off the idea of multiple championships. But LeBron is still peaking, and the end of Wade's career is on the horizon.
What have we settled? Very little. But at least now we know what to look for.
2013 is all about another ring, but in the summer of 2014, LeBron's future will be all he thinks about.