The Miami Heat are maybe the eighth or ninth most interesting story in the NBA this season—which has nothing to do with them and everything to do with us. Sustained excellence simply doesn’t have the pull of novelty.
Human attention, atrophied beyond all recognition by the information age, is a fragile, tenuous commodity.
Difference is the thing that grabs and holds it. Change. Alteration. Innovation. Modification. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life.
It’s why Paul George and the Indiana Pacers fascinate us. George just arrived at the superstar party and his Pacers—their game efforts in last season’s Eastern Conference playoffs notwithstanding—are likewise newly enshrined contenders.
A defense that was very good is now great. A player that was great is now better. Indiana has become a team that could plausibly win a title.
Something that wasn’t now is. Ipso facto, we lean in.
It’s in this way that Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder have captured our eyeballs, if not our hearts, in 2013-14. Durant is in the midst of an MVP-caliber (if not MVP) season, the finest stretch of basketball he’s ever stitched together, and his Thunder are tomahawking teams in a fashion that—considering the absence of Russell Westbrook—is startling.
Though they’ve been an immensely talented team for four seasons now, there’s a special character to Oklahoma City’s current domination—a marked difference in degree if not in kind. So we watch.
Even the big budget New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets, by virtue of their unforeseeably awful starts—and similarly capricious boomerangs back to respectability—have evinced a volatility, a certain unfortunate dynamism that pulls us in.
Brooklyn's $180 million roster—the most expensive ever assembled—sputters to 10-21 at the season’s outset? J.R. Smith and the Knicks stumble to an identical record in a uniquely, yet somehow equally, embarrassing manner?
The Knicks and Nets were each disasters on an epic scale—Cutthroat Island-level screwups—and these twin tragedies were unfolding at the same time, in the same city, on the league’s largest stage.
And then, suddenly, they weren’t. The Nets, minus Brook Lopez, have become something like a good basketball team while the Knicks are playing .500 ball the last six weeks and have brought themselves to the cusp of a playoff berth.
Each time we thought they’d zig, they zagged. Which is to say, they’ve been interesting.
Meanwhile, the Heat haven’t.
While there’s been hand-wringing over their defense and Dwyane Wade’s health, not to mention a bit of fatalistic speculation about how much longer LeBron James can remain the best basketball player on the planet, the conspicuous aspect of the 2013-14 Miami Heat has been their routine, relentless and almost perfunctory greatness. You could set your watch to them. They’re precisely the thing we thought they’d be.
A 37-14 record? Yawn.
A 59.7 team true shooting percentage? Boring.
A 109.5 offensive rating? What else is on?
“Could it be James is becoming so good, so far ahead of the competition that he's turned the extraordinary into routine?” the Sun Sentinel’s Shandel Richardson asked last April, before LeBron won his second ring and fourth MVP. “It's nearly reaching the point where it gets boring when he wins another award.”
Even the twin flaws that make the Heat seem as vulnerable as they have in some time—their age and defensive struggles—are problems that were both predictable coming into the season and likely to disappear come playoff time.
And so sports journalists have tried, and largely failed, to spin compelling narratives about the team. To frame Miami’s relative (to its own standards) ordinariness in fresh and urgent terms.
What they’ve come up with is, roughly: “Aging Juggernaut Slightly Less Dominant than Some Expected, Still Pretty Dominant.” Are you not entertained?
The Heat seem to recognize their new, diminished place in the sports world’s entertainment ecosystem. They might be a little relieved by it.
“There’s been a lot going on in sports,” Wade told reporters in January, per the National Post's Eric Koreen. “We were sprinkled in there somewhere with our little drama. That’s the world we live in. There’s a story everywhere. I’m glad everyone’s realized that.”
But here’s the thing. Implicit in this boredom, this disinterest with respect to the Heat, is the highest compliment the public can pay: We expect them to be great.
Their greatness is such an established fact of the modern NBA that it elicits no surprise, no reaction. Nothing. Something as spectacular as a sunset coaxes the same feeling of awe as, well, a sunset.
This is normal. To bowdlerize an old line, “Show me a beautiful woman, and I’ll show you a man who’s tired of her.”
Point being: Sustained, unwavering excellence gets old after a while.
And the Heat, like the Spurs before them, have gotten old on us. But that doesn’t mean they’re not the prettiest girl in the room.
In fact, it might be the strongest evidence that they are.
Statistics courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise noted.