Lamar Odom was the first to go on that fateful spring evening in 2011, when the NBA’s last true dynasty shattered into a thousand pieces before a national television audience.
The Los Angeles Lakers—winners of two straight NBA championships and three straight Western Conference titles—were about to be swept out of the playoffs by the Dallas Mavericks. Humiliated and frustrated, Odom slammed a purposeful shoulder into Dirk Nowitzki, earning a quick ejection.
Andrew Bynum was the next to go, ejected for crushing an airborne J.J. Barea, just 45 seconds after Odom had tackled Nowitzki.
A parade of deflated luminaries would soon follow them—albeit more gently—into that good night. One by one, they disappeared into the tunnel after the final buzzer: Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson, Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher.
It was the end of the Lakers as we knew them, a sad final glimpse of the last NBA team to attempt a fourth straight trip to the NBA Finals. Their fall was quick and stunning, and wholly unbefitting their stature.
It happens that way sometimes. We so revere our champions and superstars that we rarely see the end coming. It all just comes apart, without warning, before our mystified eyes.
The Miami Heat’s fabulous run—two straight championships, three straight conference titles—might not end as violently or as shockingly, but it will very likely end this season. The history books say so.
No team has made four straight trips to the Finals since the mid-1980s, when the Boston Celtics (1984-87) and the Lakers (1982-85) each accomplished the feat.
In the quarter-century since then, two franchises have had a chance to match it. The Chicago Bulls won three straight titles from 1991-93 and three more from 1996-98, but their Finals streaks stopped there. The Lakers won three straight titles from 2000-02 and returned to the Finals in 2008, 2009 and 2010, winning titles in the final two years.
Then they flamed out spectacularly.
Chances are, LeBron James and Co. will be similarly derailed—by injuries or fatigue or faltering chemistry, or by the sudden surge of talent atop the Eastern Conference, where the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets are all built to contend.
We cannot know how or why the Heat’s run will end. We only know that, in all likelihood, it will, and soon.
“I’d be surprised if the Heat won it again,” said TNT analyst Steve Kerr, who believes the Bulls will take the East. “I just think it’s so difficult to do it year after year after year.”
Kerr, who played for Chicago’s second three-peat team, said the elite teams eventually suffer from an “emotional fatigue” after pushing themselves through multiple playoff series, against the league’s best teams, in consecutive seasons.
“There is a lot of stress that comes with that kind of a run that Miami has been on,” he said.
Then there is the physical fatigue.
James has played 67 postseason games over last three springs—about 82 percent of a full season. He has, so far, appeared nearly indestructible, but there is no telling how the extra miles will affect him.
Dwyane Wade, who turns 32 in January, has played 66 postseason games over the past three years, with diminishing returns each spring. He was slowed by a knee injury last season, and his declining health is such a concern that George Karl, the former coach-turned-ESPN analyst, proclaimed Monday, “Dwyane Wade might not be an 82-game player anymore.”
Chris Bosh, the third member of the celebrated Superfriends trio, has logged 58 postseason games with Miami, having missed part of the 2012 playoff run because of an abdominal injury.
“Yeah, it takes something out of you,” Bosh acknowledged. “But being a champion is about digging down when you don’t have anything left, and still getting more out of it, and giving one of the best performances of your life when you don’t have anything else left to give. It’s extremely difficult.”
The San Antonio Spurs are one of the most successful franchises of the modern era, with four titles and five Finals appearances in 14 years. And yet San Antonio has never made it to consecutive Finals.
“It’s extremely difficult,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, whose team lost to the Heat in seven games last June.
Popovich cited the obstacles: “Too many talented teams; too many talented people; circumstances that can’t be controlled always seem to arise.”
Sustaining excellence has only become tougher in this era of unrestricted free agency, salary-cap constraints and ever-stiffer luxury-tax penalties for the top spenders. In the past, a defending champion might acquire a new role player or two to refresh the rotation and infuse a new energy in the locker room before things get stale.
For a variety of reasons—including those cap and tax constraints—the Heat largely stood pat this summer and will bring back their top nine rotation players from last season. Their two biggest acquisitions, Greg Oden and Michael Beasley, are both reclamation projects with uncertain futures: Oden because of his knee health, Beasley because of his character. If either one becomes a productive player, the Heat could get a nice boost to the rotation. If not, Miami will be relying largely on the same group that won the title in June, with age becoming a much greater concern.
Ray Allen, who saved Miami from certain defeat with his last-gasp three-pointer in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals, turned 38 in July.
Shane Battier, a key defender and shooter in Miami’s back-to-back title runs, just turned 35. Chris Andersen is also 35. Udonis Haslem is 33. All have shown severe signs of wear. There are no clear replacements on the roster.
Financial considerations also prompted the Heat to waive Mike Miller, whose three-point shooting was critical to both of their championships. The Heat are hoping that Roger Mason Jr., a 33-year-old shooting specialist, can replace some of Miller’s perimeter production.
Miami hit 64 three-pointers over seven games against the Spurs last June. Miller, Allen and Battier accounted for 36 of them.
“Their good-luck piece for the last two years has been Mike Miller,” said Shaquille O’Neal, who believes the Heat will miss Miller’s presence. “I’m anxious to see who’s going to be their piece.”
The fact is, superstars are not entirely in charge of their own destiny, or their own narratives. That includes James, who, for all of his otherworldly talents, still needs teammates who can rebound, defend and shoot.
Indeed, it is often the bit players, particularly shooters like Miller and Battier, who decide a playoff series. We view the early-2000s Lakers as a dynasty. But that third title never happens if not for Robert Horry’s buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat Sacramento in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.
“I have four championships,” O’Neal said, “but two was because of luck.”
The luck, and the Lakers’ health, ran out in 2003. They lost Rick Fox to a season-ending foot injury in the first round. And Horry, their perennial postseason hero, lost his touch, going 0-of-18 in a second-round loss to the Spurs.
In 2011, it was Gasol who lost his touch and his confidence. Afterward, Odom would say the Lakers had lost “that bond we had in the past, that cohesive drive in order to overcome adversity.”
These are the glitches and unfortunate turns that no one can foresee, or guard against. They simply happen. Can Miami overcome an Allen shooting slump next spring, or a serious injury to Battier? Or a further decline in Wade’s athleticism?
The Heat’s depth and stamina will be severely tested this season, by an Eastern Conference field that is stronger than any in the last decade. The Bulls, Pacers and Nets all have the talent and experience to contend. That means, for the first time since James and Wade joined forces, they will have to defeat at least two high-quality teams just to make the NBA Finals.
The Heat are, nevertheless, heavy favorites to repeat, with oddsmakers listing them at 2-1 and an overwhelming majority of media pundits picking them to win a third straight title.
Worth noting: The Lakers in 2010-11 were also the overwhelming choice to repeat. ESPN’s panel of experts—all 25 of them—picked the Lakers to win the West and make a fourth straight trip to the Finals. Experts often suffer from recency bias, reflexively deferring to the defending champions.
James, Wade and Bosh have earned that deference with back-to-back titles, even if their margin for error is much smaller than generally acknowledged. They needed seven games to beat the Pacers in the conference finals and seven more to beat the aging Spurs. They came within seconds of losing the championship in Game 6.
“They looked like they were running on fumes,” Kerr said. “And looking at Wade and Bosh, they didn’t look like a team that was just ready to come back and win another title.”
The consequences for failure this season (however that may be defined) could be severe. James, Wade and Bosh can all enter free agency next summer. They might need another title to justify staying together.
The reward for winning it all is also clear. James would have his three-peat, securing his place next to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and O’Neal in the modern era. With a fourth straight trip to the Finals, he would do them one better.
James could make history next June. But first, he must defy it.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Ethan Skolnick, who covers the Heat for Bleacher Report, contributed to this report.