MIAMI — Even Mario Chalmers preferred not to entertain the question.
Yes, Chalmers, whose confidence is swollen enough to require ice packs, didn't care to consider the prospect of trying to win for an extended period without LeBron James.
"It would be hard to play without him, but we could do it if we had to," Chalmers said cautiously.
So what would be different?
"Honestly, I don’t even want to speak that into existence," Chalmers said. "Yeah, I don’t even want to speak that into existence. Can’t do that. Yeah, stand over there."
So, naturally, it's not a preferred subject around these parts. But it was a scenario worth exploring Saturday, as James took a maintenance night in advance of the regular season. The Miami Heat beat the San Antonio Spurs 121-96 anyway, not that anything could be read into that outcome.
Miami is 7-6 without James the past three seasons, after winning five of six without him last season. What's more significant than the record, however, is the rarity. James has never missed more than seven games in any of his 10 seasons and, of the 13 absences the past three seasons, 10 were more or less by choice, coming after the Heat had secured their playoff seeding.
So maybe it's silly to stress that this season will be any different.
Or maybe he's human, after all, and one of his spills to the floor will result in a severe ankle twist he can't simply shake out.
"It's OK for LeBron to take one off," James said with a smile before skipping Saturday's game.
Even in the regular season, one, two, three or even 10 might not be too traumatic.
But what if James missed months?
Where would the Heat stand in the Eastern Conference?
It says here that they would still be a top-four seed, in the mix with the Chicago Bulls, Indiana Pacers and Brooklyn Nets. They'd likely be ahead of the New York Knicks, whose second-best player (Tyson Chandler? J.R. Smith? Raymond Felton?) isn't of Chris Bosh or Dwyane Wade's all-around quality.
So yes, that call comes with a caveat.
The rest of the Heat would need to be healthy, and that would need to start with Wade. He would need to resemble the dynamic, Eurostepping guard on display Saturday night, when he scored 25 points, with four rebounds, seven assists and three steals in just 27 minutes, back in his old role of directing the action on offense.
Or, as Wade put it later, "You talking about the things I still can do?"
"It will hold me over for a little while," Wade said, smiling.
But what if he needed to do them every night, with James sidelined?
What would be this team's upside without the four-time NBA MVP?
"We'd be competitive," Shane Battier said.
"We'd be pretty good," Bosh added.
A top-four seed?
"I believe it," Udonis Haslem said. "I think that’s realistic, safe to say. We definitely don’t want to lose (No.) 6. But our team is built on next man up. That’s coach’s slogan, and that’s our motto. When we lose a guy, the next guy steps in. We have the ultimate professionals."
"We have avoided the catastrophic injury the last two years, but our depth has been tested for stretches," Battier noted. "That’s one of the beauties of our team, one of the strengths of our team, we can go to the bullpen and put guys in there. But we can still be effective and still be competitive."
But no one has anyone like James.
And talent can trump professionalism.
Without James, and with Mike Miller in Memphis, Battier, James Jones or perhaps even the more offensively gifted Michael Beasley—who showed progress defensively Saturday—would start in his spot. Miami would need to make up for James' rebounding, defense and passing as well as his scoring.
"Obviously, one of our main trigger-creators, Chris, D-Wade or LeBron is missing games, we have to rely on ball movement that much more, because we don’t have creators," Battier said. "And the way we do that is a little bit different, we run different sets, we run different actions, but we can create those situations with the roster that we have."
"We can make it a little ugly," Bosh said. "As long as you have good defense, you have a chance every night."
Mostly, though, if James is missing, more of Miami's burden would fall to Bosh and Wade.
They were on different sides in 2006-07, when Bosh secured an Atlantic Division title (and third East seed) with the Toronto Raptors and Wade's Heat won the Southeast Division (and fourth East seed, even if they had the fifth-best East record).
Those Raptors finished 47-35 with Bosh as their leading scorer, and the likes of T.J. Ford, Anthony Parker and rookie Andrea Bargnani filling out the next three spots.
This team, even without James, would be better than that one.
"Yeah," Bosh said. "I mean, yeah. That's no disrespect to my team in Toronto. But this is different."
Bosh pointed to the coaching and system stability. And he pointed to the players.
"A lot of guys coming off the bench here could start in a bunch of other different places," Bosh said. "We have a team where it’s like, hey, we’d be better than half the league if they made up a team of just bench guys. You know, we’re pretty good, still."
They've been pretty good in small doses without James, and even without James and Wade.
Two seasons ago, Bosh scored 33 in a triple-overtime victory in Atlanta. Last season, he scored 23 and made a late three-pointer to stun the Spurs.
Bosh, speaking of the March 31 win in San Antonio, recalled: "Before that game started, I said, look, man, we expect to win. I know (No.) 6 is not playing, (No.) 3 is not playing. OK, we expect to win. And you have to have that expectation."
On that evening, the expectation was fulfilled.
"He's proven he can do it," Haslem said.
The challenge would be doing it regularly, with defenses keying on him.
"I’ve always been a scorer my whole life," Bosh said. "I’m not going to get a bunch of touches on the block like I did in Toronto, those days are over. But I molded my game into the system and made sure I know what I’m doing. So if it’s time and I need to score, I know where my spots are going to be."
For Bosh and the Heat, a decent playoff spot would still be well within reach, even without James for a spell. Championship chances? To paraphrase Chalmers, "can't do that."
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