The Miami Heat have enjoyed an improbably impressive run these last four seasons, but unless the group manages to tack on another title or two before it scatters, the Big Three era will be largely forgotten. Or, maybe worse, remembered for all the wrong reasons.
This fate can be dodged, but landing title No. 3, while possible, will require some ingenious roster maneuvering this offseason.
The stakes are high for the franchise. To become a dynasty, three truly is is the magic number. Ask the Bad Boy Pistons teams or Hakeem Olajuwon's Houston Rockets. While just a single title is what separates those groups from the '80s Boston Celtics, in the public's mind, it certainly feels like a lot more; the Celtics occupy a much higher tier.
So that's the cutoff. Three Larry O'Brien Trophies and you belong to the ages. Two and you're a historical footnote—an afterthought until, say, a cable documentary performs CPR on your brutish legacy.
Miami has four consecutive Finals appearances under its belt, which the aforementioned repeaters don't, so maybe they've earned a degree of recognition beyond theirs. But it doesn't feel that way at the moment, not with how weak the East has been during the run. So the Heat are parked—maybe even broken down—right at this consequential threshold.
So quite a bit is on the line here for Miami, in the sort of narrow way that things can be "on the line" in matters of athletics. This is a big offseason.
The Heat's first order of business is ensuring LeBron James stays. Once that happens, the other dominoes will fall into place. But this isn't as simple as it sounds: To convince James to stick around, they need to convince him he can win in Miami.
Here's how they do that.
Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are still tremendously helpful players, but not at the salaries they'll command if they continue with their current deals. Both need to accept lesser salaries, maybe even salaries below their market value, to allow the Heat the requisite flexibility to rebuild a championship-caliber roster.
Pat Riley, in a bizarre press conference after the Finals, obliquely acknowledged as much.
"You gotta stay together, if you've got the guts. You don't find the first door and run out of it," the Heat president said, according to Sports Illustrated. "I'm not dropping championship rings on the table for those guys. They can drop their own."
In a column last week, Grantland's Bill Simmons took at a stab at how the Big Three could stay together at reduced cost, freeing Riley's hand to bolster the roster:
So here's where LeBron and agent Rich Paul have to throw their weight around — they have to convince everyone involved (not just Wade and Bosh, but Miami's owners, too) to restructure those deals. Let's say Wade and Bosh opt out of their 2014-15 deals, then sign for $58 million apiece over the next four seasons.
According to Simmons, if LeBron then exercises his 2014-15 player option of $20.6 million and the Heat manage to convince Udonis Haslem to retire and take a lucrative front office position, Miami frees up $20 million in cap space.
The Heat can do a lot with this $20 million, as veterans will likely still be willing to take a slight discount to come to a place where they can chase titles, play with LeBron and be young and rich in Miami.
The biggest name that's been bandied about is Carmelo Anthony, who sources told ESPN's Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst the Heat may pursue. But while the idea of that much talent on one roster is doubtlessly tantalizing, Melo doesn't really address any of the Heat's weaknesses. The San Antonio Spurs rocked Miami because it couldn't defend them, and Melo—for his many strengths—is not much of a defensive presence. Anthony is a luxury item at a time when the Heat have much more urgent needs.
What probably makes a bit more sense for Miami, as Simmons and others have pointed out, is to pursue a handful of lesser stars. This approach would allow the Heat to plug multiple holes.
Pau Gasol would, for one, be a tremendous option. He and Chris Bosh have a broadly similar skill set—big guys with mid-range games who can pass out of the post—so Miami could let the two spell one another, keeping Bosh and Gasol fresh for the playoffs without missing a regular-season beat.
Gasol, still a strong rebounder, also helps the Heat address what's maybe their biggest weakness: the glass. According to ESPN, Miami finished 27th in rebounding rate during 2013-14. That's a lot of extra possessions to give to your opponent.
Rumors of the center's demise may also be a bit exaggerated. While he isn't the caliber of player he was just a few seasons ago, neither is he in rapid decline. According to Basketball-Reference, Gasol's 15 rebounds per 100 possessions was the second-highest rate of his career, and his 26.9 points per 100 was the gaudiest figure he'd posted since 2006-07. He can still help. And with $156 million in career earnings, he might be willing to do it at very steep discount to add another title or two to his resume.
Cleveland Cavaliers swingman Luol Deng is another name to watch. Deng is a stalwart defender who comes from a winning culture in Chicago and, even in a down season, was above league average by measure of player efficiency rating and wins produced, per Basketball-Reference and Boxscore Geeks.
Trevor Ariza and Kyle Lowry should also get a look from the Heat. Both players enjoyed career seasons—Ariza finished 25th in the NBA in win shares and 11th in wins produced, while Lowry placed eighth and 12th—and are regarded as top-shelf defenders.
If Miami could land one or two of the above-mentioned veterans, then use the rest of the leftover change to supplement the roster with title-hungry vets, suddenly a title window that appeared closed is creaked open just a bit.
A rotation led by Wade, James, Ariza, Bosh and Gasol could be a monster in the Eastern Conference. The team would be at least as good offensively as the 2013-14 Heat, and with the infusion of athleticism and depth, the Miami D could return to its hyper-frenetic, trapping roots. It would require many of the players involved to make financial sacrifices, sure, but it's a plausible scenario.