The 2014 NBA Finals won't tip off until Thursday, June 5, but history has already been made.
For LeBron James and the Heat, this is a stepping stone—not the ultimate destination. When James gave his infamous "not one, not two, not three..." declaration after this basketball superpower was first formed, he was speaking of titles, not tickets to the biggest dance.
There's work left to be done—plenty of it if one takes a strict interpretation of James' bold words—but this is already an accomplishment worth recognition. A well-versed student of the sport, the four-time MVP is able to see it as such.
"We won't take this opportunity for granted," James told reporters, via Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press. "...We're going to four straight Finals and we will never take this for granted."
Nor should they.
This is already a notch in the history books. It's already given the Heat control of this decade.
Historical Significance of Four Finals Trips
Securing the title of "decade's best" just four years into the 10-year stretch isn't easy.
It requires historically significant, wildly consistent success. And that's precisely what the Heatles have enjoyed.
Not only has Miami accomplished something unseen in more than two decades, but this remarkable run could put this group in even more exclusive company.
It's hard comparing different eras in professional sports, but attempting that imperfect science here puts the Heat in a special kind of light. Not only are they the fourth team to make four straight Finals runs, they're the first to do so in a 30-team league.
While Bill Russell's Celtics steamrolled to a mind-boggling 10 consecutive championship rounds from 1957-66, there were far fewer hurdles to clear. The NBA had just eight clubs when the run started and only nine when it finished.
Boston picked up nine titles in the process, but eight of those championship bouts were held against two different teams: the St. Louis Hawks (three times) and the Minneapolis-Los Angeles Lakers (five times). For fans clamoring for more parity in the league now, imagine that type of competitive climate.
The field was thicker when Magic Johnson's Lakers (1982-85) and Larry Bird's Celtics (1984-87) made their runs, but there were still seven fewer teams than today. There might be some diluted talent at the bottom of the league standings, but the number of teams with a sub-.300 winning percentage was the same in 1986-87 as it was this season (three).
The Heat have a chance to further separate from this pack if they can secure three world titles from these four Finals runs. That's something neither the Lakers nor the Celtics did during their historically special four-year stretches in the 1980s. Ditto for securing back-to-back titles, which Miami wrapped up last season.
If Miami can kick off the 2014-15 campaign with a championship ring ceremony, it will be only the sixth team in the NBA's 67 years to successfully orchestrate a three-peat. Of those clubs (the 1952-54 Lakers, the 1959-66 Celtics, the 1991-93 Chicago Bulls, the 1996-98 Bulls and the 2000-02 Lakers), only Russell's Celtics did so during a stretch of four (or more) consecutive Finals appearances.
The Heat aren't simply the top team of this decade, they're one of the best the NBA has ever seen. That prompts the question: How was such a significant dynasty even formed?
How the Heat Made This Possible
As scarce as this level of sustained success is in NBA annals, it's even more striking given the current climate of the league.
The basketball world suffered through a 161-day lockout in 2011 for many reasons, not the least of which was the league's desire for more parity. Although iconic superteams littered the list of previous NBA champions (Russell's overstocked Celtics, Johnson's "Showtime" Lakers, the Larry Bird-Kevin McHale-Robert Parish Celtics, Michael Jordan's Bulls, the Kobe Bryant-Shaquille O'Neal Lakers), the league wanted to level the playing field.
"Throughout the labor dispute," ESPN.com's Larry Coon wrote in 2011, "the league has tried to improve competitive balance."
Although James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh had teamed up the previous summer, they still felt the grip of a tightened collective bargaining agreement. All three took less than max money to come together, freeing Heat team president Pat Riley from pinching pennies with the rest of his roster.
"I think teams understand that you need three guys to do big things, the 'big three' thing is pretty cool if you can get it," James said in February 2013, via ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst. "To keep teams like this together, you may have to take even less because of the new CBA."
Now, the three-headed monster in Miami isn't hurting for spending money. James and Bosh had the eighth-highest salaries in 2013-14, via ESPN.com, while Wade checked in right behind them at No. 10.
Still, these players left something on the table. And Riley has been able to transform that something into key contributors like Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Shane Battier and Ray Allen, all of whom left fingerprints on at least one of the last two championship banners hung from the AmericanAirlines Arena's rafters.
The professional sports world, as we're so often told, is a business. And the Heat's talented trio made a bad business decision.
But this magical ride has never been about economics. Or statistics. Or spotlights.
Or anything that doesn't lend itself to collective success.
"We had fun with [scoring] early in our careers," Wade said, via Shandel Richardson of the Sun Sentinel. "It's cool to be in the top 10 in scoring and everything. But what we want is to win."
All players say they want to win, but these three proved it. Not only did the trio take a financial hit by coming together, but all three also willingly sacrificed statistics.
James was only 25 years old when he joined forces with the then-26-year-old Bosh and then-28-year-old Wade. These were the prime years of their careers, when consistent production can secure a Hall of Fame spot.
Numbers haven't come as easily since they all came together. All three have seen statistical slides when comparing the four seasons leading up to their partnership to the four years since.
|Tracking the Sacrificed Stats of Miami's Big Three|
|Bosh from 2006-10||22.9||16.0||10.1||2.5|
|Bosh since 2010||17.3||13.0||7.4||1.6|
|James from 2006-10||28.9||20.7||7.4||7.2|
|James since 2010||26.9||18.2||7.6||6.7|
|Wade from 2006-10||27.4||20.0||4.7||7.1|
|Wade since 2010||22.2||16.4||5.3||4.7|
All three have benefited from those sacrifices in the form of championship bling, but none of that diminishes what these players have given up. Opportunities have come less frequently, roles have changed.
Still, all three have proceeded almost without a hitch, led by the example of the former mayor of Wade County.
"Like any other superstar, Wade claims that all of it is worth it to win, and we should take him at his word," Yahoo Sports' Eric Freeman wrote. "But he has had to make sacrifices, and we shouldn't act as if they have been easy. It's rare for a player who's proven so much to give up something he worked so hard to achieve."
It's even rarer to see three players so willing to share a spotlight previously in their sole possessions.
But these players are just different. They're standard-setters in every sense; the precedent they've set is one that will go unmatched for a long time.
Any Threats to 'Team of Decade' Title?
Before teams can unseat the Heat as the "Team of the Decade," someone first has to break their championship hold. The San Antonio Spurs will try to do just that for a second straight season, in a series that has all the makings of being coin-flip close:
If the Spurs cannot stop the Heat, someone may well have to take up the challenge in the 2015 NBA Finals. Miami motored through the Eastern Conference playoff field, suffering just three losses total in three rounds.
The Indiana Pacers, Miami's largest threat these last two seasons, gave the Heat less of a fight this year than last. Indy could be heading even further in the wrong direction with limited funds and no first-round pick to address a second team in desperate need of tweaking. Not to mention the unanswered question of should-he-stay-or-should-he-go regarding the mercurial Lance Stephenson.
If the East doesn't have a "Team of the Decade" candidate, might one be lurking out West?
No. Not at first glance, at least.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have a young, talented core, but they sit just 1-2 in the conference finals since 2011. OKC could conceivably clear that hump as soon as next season, but it might hit a snag when it comes to sustained success. The Thunder can only hope neither Kevin Durant nor Russell Westbrook start itching for a larger market when they hit free agency in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
The Golden State Warriors seem ready to start winning—especially if they can land Kevin Love without giving up Klay Thompson—but they've invested heavily in competing for something of substance right now. Their financial books are tied up through at least 2016, and they'll be paying draft debts until 2018. Assuming this group ever opens its championship window, keeping it open could be incredibly difficult.
If anyone pries this title away from the Heat, expect it to come out of left field. Few saw the Heat striking it so rich in free agency four years ago, so maybe there's another franchise plotting its own superstar splash.
For now, the Heat's status as the team of the 2010s seems a near formality. All that remains is seeing just how Miami can climb up the historical ladder of NBA greats before this wild ride is finished.
Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.