James didn't win a title in 2012 or 2013. The Heat won. The Heat won.
Last year's title push saw Miami approach one-man-show status. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade were reduced to inefficient bystanders for much of the playoffs. The Heat predictably struggled, stumbling their way through the Eastern Conference Finals and into the Finals as James attempted to shoulder the load of an entire super team.
That cannot happen again. Not during a crusade in which Miami is facing the wrath of opponents playing to unseat the three-peat-seeking champs.
"Just going out every night where you’re the target and everyone gets up for you and we have to find our own motivation every single night," James said, via The Palm Beach Post's Jason Lieser.
Such are the perils of greatness. Such is the cost of a dynasty.
There is no shortage of motivation when facing Miami. The opportunity to derail the Heat's championship quest puts even the most tank-tastic teams on high alert. Look no further than the Heat's 10 losses to sub-.500 teams—one less than they've suffered against teams .500 or better (11)—to understand how engaged their opponents can be.
But again, that's reality. This is nothing new. The Heat have had targets on their backs since 2010, when the Big Three dared to unite and forge one of the most star-studded rosters in recent memory overnight.
There are no excuses. The Heat lost four games all last year to sub.-500 clubs. They've been here, done this.
Recent disappointment is something else entirely. Seven losses in 11 games isn't a freak accident. Miami's current despair can be attributed to a lack of execution and unity.
The Heat, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick, have long considered themselves a "family," a group of individuals acting and winning as one. Over the last 11 games, they've appeared disjointed and completely lost on both ends of the floor.
|Trouble in Miami|
|When||Off. Rtg||Off. Rtg. Rank||Def. Rtg.||Def. Rtg. Rank||Opp. PPG||Opp. FG%||Opp. 3P%|
|Before March 4||110.6||1||102.8||13||97.4||45.5||35.9|
|After March 4||104.3||18||106.3||18||99.2||47.5||38.0|
When looking at the difference in performance over the last 11 games, Miami's recent ineptitude is hardly a mystery.
Last year, the Heat were attempting to disprove history. This year, their defense has regressed considerably. They were a top-10 defensive team last season. Now, they check in well outside the top 10.
The last time an NBA champion ranked outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency was 2000-01, when the Los Angeles Lakers finished 21st, so the Heat weren't in good shape defensively to begin with. Lately, they have been even worse: disorganized and seemingly disinterested.
Allowing opponents to bury 38 percent of their three-pointers is huge for this team. When the Heat allow opposing squads to drill at least 38 percent of their treys, they're an unimpressive 16-15.
That's not going to win them any championships.
Offensively, the Heat have been equally disturbing, relying heavily on James, who has been less than perfect of late:
|Living and Dying by LeBron: The Miami Heat Story|
|When||PPG||FG%||3P%||REBS||ASTS||STLS||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.|
|Before March 4||27.5||58.3||38.4||7.0||6.4||1.5||112.6||104.5|
|After March 4||22.8||50.0||36.8||6.1||6.7||2.1||105.4||104.0|
By strictly LeBron James standards, the King has been off his game since March 4. Back spasms certainly haven't helped, but James won't use injuries as an excuse. And just as James won't make excuses, the Heat's performance cannot be excused because of him.
Nights like we've seen from James are going to happen. He won't flirt with triple-doubles daily. The Heat must be prepared for nights when LeBron is not himself.
Receiving 22 points, six rebounds and six assists on 50 percent shooting per game from James shouldn't be a harbinger of mediocrity for a team that's supposed to be about more than one player.
But as we found out during James' previous shooting slump, the Heat have a tendency to go only as far as LeBron can carry them. They're just 1-4 this season and 11-15 since 2010 when he shoots under 40 percent from the floor, another sign of how valuable he is to their cause.
As I wrote before:
Let's not turn James' recent stretch of games into something more than it actually is. In two of his last three contests, he's gone up against a pair of pesky defensive teams in Chicago and San Antonio that house dominant perimeter defenders in Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard.
This is not a sign of things to come, no matter how long it lasts. Not now.
If James is still clanging jumper after jumper off the back, front and side of the rim come April, then feel free to lose sleep.
Until then, recognize his brush with inefficiency for what it is: proof the Heat's biggest pratfall is that James remains the ultimate solution to all their problems.
There is truth to that now more than ever.
Bosh and Wade have been unable to provide the impetus while James vacations from superhuman production. Their numbers haven't been bad, they're just not enough.
|Not Enough Support|
|PPG||FG%||3P%||REBS||ASTS||Off. Rtg.||Def. Rtg.|
|Wade Since March 4||20.3||50.4||0.0||3.8||5.2||102.0||106.6|
|Wade Overall in 2013-14||19.3||54.6||32.1||4.6||4.9||108.5||102.6|
|Bosh Since March 4||15.4||49.6||29.5||6.8||0.9||102.8||104.1|
|Bosh Overall in 2013-14||16.6||52.4||35.3||6.8||1.1||110.6||101.6|
Nothing is especially wrong with those numbers, other than that they're coinciding with a dip in James' production. And if James is—for lack of a better word—'struggling,' the Heat need more from Wade and Bosh, not less or even more of the same.
No one else is going to supplant any void James leaves when he's not destroying opponents. Ray Allen is the only other player scoring in double digits over the last 11 games, and Miami's once-lethal three-point shooting attack is waning under collective misfires, most notably from Bosh and Shane Battier.
That creates a certain James-does-everything-or-bust dynamic that isn't going to fly come playoff time. It will get the Heat through the regular season, but it won't land them a No. 1 seed. It could even get them through to the first and second round, maybe even past the Indiana Pacers and into the NBA Finals.
But it won't get them a third championship.
One player isn't going to solve Miami's problems.
The defense will not be righted by James alone and the offense will not function properly without each superstar playing like a superstar.
Defending a title gets more difficult with each passing season. Opposing teams adjust. Rival superstars exploit. The grind becomes tedious, the margin for error narrows.
Miami must know this. Last year showed them this.
Last year cannot happen again.
The Heat won't win another title riding James into the ground while Bosh and Wade register career-playoff lows in multiple categories. They won't complete their three-peat by being a team of one or intermittently two and three players.
None of this means it's time to panic. Established powerhouses and recurrent championships are above grieving a loss it hasn't suffered yet.
But it is time to sound the alarm, to emphasize the importance of everyone improving on both sides of the ball.
"We're not accustomed to this type of play, these types of standards, particularly on the defensive end," Coach Erik Spoelstra said, per the Sun Sentinel's Ira Winderman. "And if we want to change, we have to look inward. Every single one of us, including the staff, including the players, have to make changes."
If the Heat want to win, if they want to actualize the dynasty they set out to build four years ago, it's going to take everyone—not just James—doing everything they possibly can.