Not for the players. Their legacies are largely secure.
LeBron James, almost irrespective of what happens from this point onward in his journey, will be remembered as a once-in-a-lifetime force of nature. A jolly, relentless monster; an inhuman combination of strength and agility, who could bend the sport to his will. And who, once he understood and harnessed his overwhelming powers, did.
Dwyane Wade has his three rings and status as the founding father of the modern Heat: An on and off-court alpha dog who lured the other two members of the Big Three to him. He built this. In his city. For his franchise. His first-ballot induction into the Hall of Fame is secured.
Chris Bosh, while a terrific player in his own right, will be a historical footnote, if not an afterthought, whatever happens this series. He’ll be remembered fondly, but people won’t tell their grandchildren about him. This is no slight. He’s had, and will continue to have for a few more seasons at least, a fine and lucrative career. But he isn't Wade or James; a fact he surely understands as well as anyone.
These guys are settled. But the franchise itself? Or, rather, this glorious era in its still short history? What happens in the next few weeks will determine almost entirely where it stands among the great dinosaurs of the sport’s past. The way it's talked about years and decades from now. And the Heat are close, very close, to being remembered as one of the biggest and fiercest to ever walk the earth.
Or, to barely being remembered at all.
The “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons are an instructive analog here. Isaiah Thomas’ teams won titles following the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons and competed and lost in the 1987-88 Finals. In that moment, they meant something.
They were unprecedentedly rough. In fact, in their physicality, they—temporarily—changed the trajectory of the sport. (The grueling wars between Pat Riley’s Heat and Patrick Ewing’s New York Knicks in the late '90s wouldn’t have been possible without them. They were the spiritual fathers to the hard, ugly basketball that, for a time, swallowed the league whole. Basically, they were to the late '90s NBA what Newt Gingrich is to modern political discourse.)
But they’ve been forgotten. So much so that when ESPN ran its 30 for 30 on the team this spring, the public response was a sort of novel fascination. As though some previously buried bit of history had been unearthed, brushed off and brought to life. Abe Lincoln owned a bar?
Those Pistons weren’t unknowns of course, but when debates about the great teams in league history are foggily prosecuted on bar stools—and in TV studios and radio stations—across the country, they’re entirely absent from it. Overlooked. Passed by.
The Showtime Los Angeles Lakers. Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics. Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics. Those are the squads that dominate the conversation. Shaquille O’Neal’s—not Kobe Bryant’s—Lakers might enter the running in particular area codes.
What’s the common denominator here? Why are these teams exalted, while other great units are brushed aside?
Because three is the magic number.
People like things in threes. Playwrights operate in a three-act structure. Most comedians build three beats into their jokes. Celebrities are thought to die in groups of three. And people who determine legacies—which is to say us, the fans—seem to like their titles in trios as well.
This is actually an idea that has some scientific muscle behind it. In January, the The New York Times highlighted a recent study by a pair of behavioral science researchers that suggested that, when it comes to persuasion, the third time is the charm:
A new study finds that in ads, stump speeches and other messages understood to have manipulative intent, three claims will persuade, but four (or more) will trigger skepticism, and reverse an initially positive impression.
So there you have it. While there probably isn’t a point in which a team can win too many titles to be considered among the greats, the persuasive power of three is worth considering here. Three strong points, like, say, NBA titles, and you can convince the public of anything.
The Showtime Lakers got five titles in nine seasons. Jordan’s Bulls have a pair of three-peats in eight years. Bird’s Celtics never went back-to-back—much less three in a row—but won three in six. Bill Russell’s Celtics teams won practically every title before 1969. Shaq gobbled up three rings over three seasons in L.A. in the early aughts.
And that’s the thing that’s really at stake here for the Miami Heat. Whether, they can defeat the Spurs and pledge the most elite fraternity in professional sports: the Dynasty. With a third title, they would be remembered as one of the greatest teams ever.
Conceived in sin, maybe, but third title in hand, the 2010-2014 Miami Heat would be able to boast of:
- The greatest player of his generation, maybe ever, in his prime.
- A first ballot Hall of Famer and All-NBA performer, as a second option.
- A 66-win 2012-13 season, the 10th most single season victories of all time.
- The second-longest winning streak in the sport’s history.
- Four consecutive NBA Finals appearances.
- Three consecutive titles.
That’s a resume that can be equaled, but hardly exceeded. But this might be their last chance to write it.
Even if the Heat are able to bring back all of the Big Three, if they fall short here, it's no sure thing that they'll be able to get back. Wade will turn 33 in January and is already at a fragile stage of his career. Bosh is a helpful piece, but a complementary one. Without James and Wade, would he get the same unobstructed looks he does now from mid-range? Unlikely.
And the role players are aging, fast. Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Chris Andersen are all in their late 30s. Battier has said he'll retire and its possible Allen could follow him. That would be two key, albeit fading, members of the supporting cast gone.
The team will have to be rebuilt this offseason: The Heat have an NBA high 13 potential unrestricted free agents this summer. Many, if not most, of them won't be coming back. While James is a rock to build around—assuming he returns—and no team in the East looks particularly scary, there are no sure things in sports. Miami's best chance is, obviously, right now.
There's also the funny matter of what spacing out titles does to a team's legacy. If Miami wins another, not now, but a few years down the road, it might not mean as much.
Look at their opponent. Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich are angling for their fifth championship together this month. Their fifth. Yet, because none were consecutive, and they've been spread over so many years, there is no dynasty talk in San Antonio.
If the Miami Heat defeat the San Antonio Spurs, do they deserve to be discussed with the greatest teams ever?
The coach and the player are all-timers, and the program is maybe the finest in sports, but people can't credibly isolate a particular Spurs team—a discrete group that played together over the course of a few seasons—and say: They might have been the greatest to ever play the game.
This might speak to a problem with the way the public processes sporting achievements, and I'd argue it does, but it's a problem the Heat are unburdened by. They can join the greats this month. Or at least make themselves eligible.
After his Indiana Pacers were bounced by the Heat in the final round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, forward David West explained to ESPN's Brian Windhorst what exactly had happened. His answer was bracingly honest.
"We're in the LeBron James era," he told the reporter.
No one calls it the "Miami Heat era." Not yet.