We Won't Appreciate This Year's Miami Heat Until 3-Peat Masterpiece Is Complete

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We Won't Appreciate This Year's Miami Heat Until 3-Peat Masterpiece Is Complete
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Somehow, it took a 22-point blowout of the Oklahoma City Thunder to put the Miami Heat front and center in the NBA's collective consciousness again.

Even though they've won the last two titles and played in three straight Finals. Even though they feature LeBron James, whose four MVPs point emphatically toward his primacy in the basketball world. Even though Dwyane Wade has long been one of the league's biggest "villains."

And even though Chris Bosh is the darling of every message board and meme factory in the NBA's corner of the Internet.

In truth, you don't need a Carmen Sandiego-style search to find reasons to replace the "somehow" at the front of that first statement. There's no great mystery behind Miami's supposed disappearing act.

Think of it like "voter fatigue." For the uninitiated, voter fatigue is a phenomenon with origins in the political realm, whereby turnout at the ballot box declines when the electorate is asked to vote too often.

In sports, voter fatigue more often refers to a desire among media folks to hand an award to "someone else" when one person has dominated such proceedings for a period of time. For instance, in the NBA, voter fatigue can go a long way toward explaining why Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest player of all time and certainly the best of his era, didn't take home the MVP Trophy at the conclusion of each of his six championship seasons; Charles Barkley captured the Maurice Podoloff Trophy with the Phoenix Suns in 1992-93, and Karl Malone practically stole it from M.J. in 1996-97.

Likewise, fans and journalists alike seemed to lose interest in Jordan's Chicago Bulls at times, particularly toward the end of what became their second three-peat in 1997-98. As great as the Bulls were that year (62-20, tied for the best record in basketball), close observers of the Association couldn't help but be distracted by the myriad "shiny objects" in their midst—from Reggie Miller's rough-and-tumble Indiana Pacers in the East to the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal Los Angeles Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs of Tim Duncan's rookie season and, of course, those pesky Jazz, in search of a long-awaited title for the aging duo of Malone and John Stockton, out West.

 

Most Voracious Peers

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The parallels between those Bulls and these Heat are, well, obvious.

Like Jordan before him, LeBron James has cemented himself as the defining player of his era. The importance of today's other greats-in-the-making—from Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony to Chris Paul, Paul George and beyond—is magnified by their relation to and pursuit of the throne that James currently occupies.

The public (media included) seems to flock to and fawn over whoever's next in line. George rose up to challenge James in last year's Eastern Conference Finals and carried that growth into what's been a transcendent 2013-14 season. His tremendous efforts on both ends of the floor have not only solidified his place as one of the very best players in the game today, regardless of age, but also put the Pacers ahead of LeBron's Heat in the standings for the entirety of the current campaign.

Yet, seemingly everyone other than former Indy assistant and current Denver Nuggets head coach Brian Shaw would agree that George, as good as he is now and as great as he could be, still ranks behind James among the league's best two-way players. And as well as the Pacers have done to challenge the Heat in each of the last two postseason and as great as they've played since the opening tip in late October, it's still tough to pick Indy to knock off Miami this spring, when push comes to proverbial shove. 

But George is a Johnny-Come-Lately to the party of James' chief individual challengers, even if his Pacers are pushing three years as rivals to the two-time defending champs.

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Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony have been battling James since their high school and AAU days. Anthony, in particular, has gone toe-to-toe with LBJ for some time, dating back to their faceoffs when the former starred at Oak Hill Academy and the latter wore the green and gold of St. Vincent-St. Mary.

Despite rising to championship stardom before James did (see: Syracuse, 2003), Anthony has never been his draftmate's equal. James swiped Rookie of the Year honors out from under Anthony, even though 'Melo's Denver Nuggets made the playoffs while LeBron's Cleveland Cavaliers fell short of that mark. Anthony's long been regarded as one of the NBA's premier scorers, but James claimed his first scoring title five years before Anthony notched his and has averaged 2.3 more points per game over the course of his career.

Not until he joined the New York Knicks did Anthony become anything close to a worthy rival to James, and even then, 'Melo could do no better than swipe a single first-place vote from LeBron in the MVP balloting. To Carmelo's credit, he was the only one to do so in 2012-13; James claimed 120 of a possible 121 first-place nods last season.

Anthony isn't about to usurp James' place atop the NBA this season, what with the Knicks scrambling for a playoff spot in the weak East. Nor would Anthony, who turns 30 in May, appear to be in a position to do so going forward, unless he opts for a change of scenery as a free agent this summer.

Then again, at least Anthony's been to the conference finals, albeit back in 2008, when he was with the Nuggets. Chris Paul, who's been buddy-buddy with James since their days as precocious teens, has yet to lead a team that far since entering the league in 2005. He may well do so this year with a loaded Los Angeles Clippers squad.

But even Paul could be overshadowed in that endeavor by one of his own teammates. Blake Griffin carried the Clips while CP3 was out with a shoulder injury, all the while making the leap from dunk artist to all-around threat at the very peak of the power forward position. In fact, Griffin could siphon of some MVP votes from LeBron's stash as soon as this spring.

That won't happen, though, unless Griffin and Paul's Clippers solidify themselves as more than a dark horse to win the West. They've made significant strides in that regard this season, Doc Rivers' first as L.A.'s head coach/personnel guru, but will have to wait their turn until they overcome Kevin Durant's Oklahoma City Thunder.

 

A Worthy Challenger?

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Durant now stands as the MVP frontrunner in the minds of many, and rightfully so. KD's well on his way to his fourth scoring title in five seasons, with a cushion of nearly four points per game standing between his 31.4 and Anthony's 27.5—and another 0.6 points ahead of James' 26.9.

Durant also outpaces James in rebounds (7.8 to 7.1), three-point percentage (.405 to .366), free-throw attempts (9.7 to 7.6) and blocks (0.8 to 0.3). LeBron still owns the edge in assists (6.5 to 5.5) but not by much, and he can only claim a tie with Durant in steals (1.5 apiece).

KD's excellence was on full display while Russell Westbrook, his partner-in-crime and a top-10 talent in his own right, was out of action. Durant averaged a line of 35-7.5-6.3 with two combined steals and blocks and more than 10 free-throw attempts while leading OKC to a 20-7 record in Westbrook's injury-related absence.

That run included a 17-point trouncing of the Heat in Miami, during which Durant piled up 33 points, seven rebounds, five assists and a bajillion or so new acolytes to support his MVP cause.

Durant's isn't new to the debate. He's played bridesmaid to LeBron's MVP bride in three of the last four years. Perhaps voter fatigue will work in his favor this time around—since writers might be tired of putting Durant second year after year.

As enticing as it may be to hand the hardware to KD after the stellar months he's put together, it's still to early to wrest the MVP from James' grasp completely.

That is, if their most recent run-in is any indication. James scored Miami's first 12 points on Thursday and had 14 to his credit before Durant had so much as attempted a shot. The reigning MVP finished the evening with 33 points on 15-of-22 shooting, with seven rebounds, three assists and four steals in just 33 minutes of action.

Durant's numbers (28 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals) weren't too shabby either. But his OKC team, proclaimed as arguably the title favorite coming into the evening, were jammed up from the jump. Westbrook's rust-filled return from knee surgery (16 points on 4-of-12 shooting, two assists, four turnovers) had something to do with it. So, too, did uneven performances from Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb, who combined for 11 points on 4-of-17 shooting while settling back into their prior roles.

 

Still the Ones

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But to chalk that result up solely to OKC's momentary deficiencies is to ignore just how great Miami was, is, has been and likely will be when it matters most. The fact remains, the Heat are darn near impossible to beat when the Big 3 are in sync.

Which they certainly were against the Thunder. Chris Bosh got the line 12 times, converting 11, on the way to a 24-point night, with eight rebounds, three assists, three steals, a block and a three-pointer for good measure. Dwyane Wade looked like the Flash of old while tallying 24 points, 10 assists, seven rebounds and three steals of his own.

At this point, there's no telling how often Wade will be able to play that way over the next three-to-four months. His knees have been balky and unpredictable all season, even with regular rest worked into his schedule by head coach Erik Spoelstra. Realistically speaking, this battle with his own body is one in which the 32-year-old Wade will continue to lose ground—not just this season but in the ones to come.

Likewise, it's unclear whether or not Bosh will be a part of Miami's future beyond this spring. Bosh can opt out of his current contract this summer and peruse the open market as a free agent if he so chooses.

The same goes for Wade and James. Wade doesn't figure to leave Miami, in part because he's known no other team in his career, but also because the nearly $42 million he's owed over the next seasons might be too much for a player of his age and physical condition to pass up.

James seems a solid bet to stay on South Beach as well. As he told Steve Smith during his All-Star interview on NBA TV, James can't envision himself playing anywhere other than Miami if the Heat complete their three-peat this spring.

 

While It Lasts

But LeBron was quick to admit that even he doesn't know what will happen this summer. His focus, like that of the Heat as a whole, is on the stretch run of the season and the long, grueling playoff push thereafter.

That's what we at home should be training our attention on, as well. This team may not be together for much longer, and even if it is, Wade's health and the impending free agency of most of the supporting cast could yield a Heat squad that isn't quite up to par with what we've seen from this franchise since the summer of 2010.

That probably comes as a welcome thought to those many corners of the basketball world whose constituents have grown tired of seeing Miami maraud its way through the NBA.

In the grand scheme of things, though, there's no reason everyone can't at least appreciate what the Heat have done and might do going forward. With the way business is done in the Association under the latest collective bargaining agreement, we might not see a collection of talent quite like Miami's for a long time, if ever again. 

Take the CBA out of the equation, and this Heat team's constitution still counts as something just short of a hoops miracle. Never in NBA history had superstars come together via free agency quite like they did in Miami four years ago. It took the guile of Pat Riley, the camaraderie of James, Wade and Bosh and a heaping helping of luck to bring this team to fruition.

Had Miami delivered a title in its first trip to the Finals, there might be no need to point all this out right now. Instead, we could be talking about a team that's already wrapped up a three-peat and has its sights set becoming the only team other than Bill Russell's Boston Celtics to win four championships in a row.

As it stands, the Heat are trying to match Larry Bird's C's in booking their fourth trip to the Finals in as many seasons.

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It's entirely possible that James and the Heat wouldn't be even back-to-back champs had the Dallas Mavericks not given them such a stunning comeuppance in 2011. James suggested as much after Miami's 117-106 win in Dallas coming out of the All-Star break.

"This team has been a reason why I am who I am today," James told Bryan Gutierrez of MavsOutsider.com after the game. "Because they beat us. When they beat us, I went into a place I haven't been before in a long time. I went back to the fundamentals of the game. I went back to breaking down every aspect of my game to get better because I didn't perform at the level I know I could have or should have during those Finals."

Would James have achieved his current transcendence without that lesson? And would the Heat have resorted to the "small ball" tactics that now define their style of play if not for the misfortune of losing Bosh to an abdominal injury during the 2012 playoffs?

We'll never know, though counterfactuals like these go a long way toward illuminating just how lucky even a team as talented as these Heat have to be to do what they've done, and how much more good fortune they'll need to keep doing it.

So, rather than spend the rest of the 2013-14 season in search of who or what is next, it might not be so bad to appreciate the who (LeBron James) and the what (the Miami Heat) of the here and now.

If the end of Jordan's second three-peat is any indication, that may be easier said than done. But if the past is, indeed, a learning tool, then perhaps that hindsight will bring greater perspective to each zig and every zag that demarcates Miami's path back to the top of the NBA's championship mountain.

 

Love 'em or hate 'em, come appreciate the Heat with me on Twitter!


 

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