Ranking the Factors Needed to Keep Big 3 with Miami Heat
The Miami Heat’s Big Three era, irrespective of what happens over the next month and the tumultuous offseason that will follow it, will be remembered as an unqualified success. The last four years have been good to the denizens of South Beach.
LeBron James got his rings and his respect.
Dwyane Wade added some jewelry to secure his lofty place in the game’s long history.
Chris Bosh—though not as obviously accomplished as his two aforementioned teammates—earned accolades from hoops heads and his coach as an unselfish space-creator and enabler who made Miami’s mini-dynasty really hum.
But a four-year term might be it. Each of James, Bosh and Wade has an early termination option in his contract that, if activated, will allow him to become a free agent this offseason. The superfriends era could be over as quickly as it began.
“Could,” of course, being the operative word.
Pat Riley will surely do everything in his power to keep the core together this summer—and, based on their public remarks, that three-man nucleus seems perfectly willing, even eager, to accommodate him.
What follows are several of the factors—from the outcome of the 2014 playoffs to the perspicacity of head coach Erik Spoelstra—that the terrific trio are likely to consider when weighing a return to South Beach.
The 2014 Title
The Heat have an opportunity to make history this June.
If they're able to advance past the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals then fend off whatever battle-tested monster emerges from the West, Miami would join the rarefied ranks of NBA franchises to have won three championships in a row.
Though by merely making it to the finals, the Heat would become only the third team since the NBA/ABA merger to make four straight championship rounds, per B/R's Kelly Scaletta, it seems obvious that a third consecutive win would be hugely consequential for this group. Maybe so consequential that the Heat couldn't bring themselves to end it.
Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls only managed three straight, after all, though of course they turned the trick twice.
To use an oft-borrowed blackjack analogy, it's impossible to walk away from the table when you're riding the hot hand. And with a three-peat in their back pocket and a weak Eastern Conference making the road to compete for a fourth title look relatively unobstructed, the Heat's hands would feel mighty hot.
Heat president and architect Pat Riley explained the dynamic to ESPN's Michael Wallace last month.
"It would be very hard for me to think anybody would walk away from the possibility of making this a long-term happening that can go for 10 or 12 years," Riley said. "But you never know. You just don't know."
The Underrated Genius of Erik Spoelstra
Erik Spoelstra is not a good head coach. He's a great one.
Since working his way up from the film room, Spo has proven himself to be a master motivator and hoops tactician, consistently designing plays and constructing entire basketball ecosystems that get the most out of the overwhelming talent he has on his roster.
Sports on Earth's Elena Bergeron wrote a paean to the coach last month:
In the past three seasons, Spoelstra has worked himself into one of the league's top five coaches, capable of stealing a game or two in a playoff series on the strength of his game-planning alone. That puts him in the same company as standard-setters like Gregg Popovich, Doc Rivers, Rick Carlisle and Thibs. But Spoelstra's story is that he happens to coach the best player in the world, as well as the rest of the supremely talented Big Three. Without a better narrative than that, Spoelstra will always be given short shrift in coaching conversations.
There simply aren't a lot of coaches like him around the league. A fact the Big Three, if they're as savvy as we give them credit for being, must be cognizant of.
Restocking on Role Players
Some facts to keep in mind about the non-Big Three components of the Heat's rotation:
- Shane Battier is 35.
- Ray Allen turns 39 in July.
- Chris Andersen's next birthday will be his 36th.
- Miami is the oldest team in the NBA.
- Each member of the Miami rotation, save Norris Cole, posted a lower win shares per 48 minutes total in 2013-14 than in 2012-13, per Basketball-Reference.
- Miami has 13 potential unrestricted free agents, per ESPN, the most in the NBA.
Add it all up and it's clear that this is going to be an offseason of broad, deep change for the Miami Heat. Nearly the entire roster, with the possible exception of the Big Three, could be turned over this summer.
This change is necessary.
The Heat, regardless of the way these playoffs turn out, took a step back this season. And they took said step in large part because their supporting cast was not what it once was. This is an issue because it's this supporting cast that has long been the glue that kept Miami together.
Consider this account from Bleacher Report's Josh Martin:
No NBA team with championship expectations can subsist on superstars alone. Even the Miami Heat—with their big-name Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—might well have fallen short of snagging the Larry O'Brien Trophy in each of the past two years without the proper supporting cast.
Think of the spark Chris Andersen lent the Heat in pushing their 2012-13 regular season from merely good to historically great. Think of Mike Miller's three-point barrage in Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Think of Udonis Haslem's 8-of-9 shooting nights against the Indiana Pacers in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. Think of Ray Allen's miraculous three to save the Heat from ceding the throne to the San Antonio Spurs in Game 6 of this year's Finals and Shane Battier's outburst to seal the deal in Game 7.
The superstars still did the heavy lifting, but it's the little guys who put the Heat over the top. And it's in those contributions from the little guys that Pat Riley's brilliance as a builder of champions truly comes to light.
Dwyane Wade's Health
While Dwyane Wade closed the 2013-14 season strong, finishing with totals that resemble his career averages and making the "Wade is falling apart fast out there" crowd look foolish, there's still some concern surrounding the superstar.
Wade will be 33 in January—an advanced age in a young man's game—missed 28 games in 2013-14, and looks increasingly slowed by the injuries and wear that have accumulated in his 11 seasons in the league.
The question is: Will Wade be able to perform at a superstar level going forward?
It's important that he does. As Pat Riley acknowledged in an April interview with ESPN's Michael Wallace, you need at least two superstars and a third truly great player to win in the NBA, historically. And Wade potentially dipping below star level would leave the Heat without a third of their recipe.
"This is how I think you plan and have a vision and look forward, hoping you can do something that's special," Riley said. "Coaching Kareem and Magic and James Worthy, and playing against [Larry] Bird, [Kevin] McHale and [Robert] Parrish, and [Joe] Dumars, Isiah Thomas and [Bill] Laimbeer, you need to have three really, really great players. There's two superstars and another truly great player. You've seen that on pretty much all championship teams have had that kind of element."
Will the Heat continue to have that kind of element going forward?
Keep an eye on Wade's postseason production. If he can play at a high level, it makes it more likely Heat management, and the other members of the Big Three, will view him as a safe bet going forward.
The Big Three have been together for four seasons now, and it's clear that the mutual affection and respect that brought them together has grown into something like love. Strong bonds have been forged. It'd be difficult not merely on a professional level but a personal one to break those.
There's also the matter of the alternative. As Michael Rosenberg spelled out in Sports Illustrated, LeBron in particular doesn't exactly have a smorgasbord of impressive options arrayed before him:
James can leave Miami in less than two months, but there is really no place to go. It's doubtful that he wants to go to Chicago and answer questions about Michael Jordan every day. The Lakers have money, but that's still Kobe's franchise, and it's hard to imagine James making that leap. The Rockets could theoretically clear enough money to put him on the floor with James Harden and Dwight Howard, but I don't know anybody who thinks he will end up in Houston. James has finally buried the criticism from 2010, and you have to imagine he is wary of bringing it all back again by bolting for another team.
Though the writer went on to argue that Cleveland was plausible, given the franchise's inability to convert high draft picks into effective players or, given the unfortunate stagnation of Kyrie Irving's game, shepherd talented players into stardom, it seems unlikely the King would return home.
There is an interesting idea, however, that's present in the persistent whispers that LeBron could decamp for Cleveland: LeBron James is a deeply loyal man. This is true. He is.
This is a guy who surrounded himself, personally and professionally, with people he grew up with. He married his high school sweetheart. Imagine how painful it was for someone who's oriented this way to leave a place where he had such deep roots.
Would a person like that ever uproot himself again?
Unlikely. Miami has become James' new home. His family is there. The teammates he loves are there. A fanbase that he's grown close to and earned the admiration of is there.
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