The Miami Heat need LeBron James. This is self-evident. If he stays, they likely compete for titles for the foreseeable future. If he leaves, he starts a chain reaction that could easily lead to Miami chasing lottery balls rather than rings in 2014-15.
This is uncontroversial. But what’s not quite as obvious is this: LeBron just might need the Heat too.
We’ve covered this at length in this space in recent days and weeks, but basketball immortality is a funny thing. When it comes to LeBron’s pure greatness—the rank he will hold among basketball’s other royalty—the ball is largely in his court.
Basketball fans are becoming increasingly sophisticated in judging players—building them more on direct reflections of individual value such as win shares and player efficiency rating than on oblique things such as titles or MVPs. We’re getting smarter about the little things that win or lose basketball games, so we’re less reliant on team accomplishments like rings to fill in the gaps.
But just because LeBron’s bid to join hoops’ most rarefied ranks isn’t contingent on the success of his team, that doesn’t mean that his success isn’t contingent on the team he’s surrounded by.
In this way, it makes a ton of sense for LeBron to stay in Miami for wholly selfish reasons. Though the foundation atrophied a bit in 2013-14, Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra have built a very good team around James—one that’s built to accentuate his broad skills. A team that’s maximally conducive to LeBron’s individual success.
Grantland’s Bill Simmons, writing in the aftermath of the Heat’s 27-game winning streak in the winter and spring of 2013, described the Miami machine—then operating at the height of its powers—most colorfully and aptly:
You’d have to say that Spoelstra succeeded here. He wanted to build a special limited-edition Formula One race car, something that only the league’s most uniquely skilled player could drive … and he did it.
It seems like a long time ago, sure, that this was written—when this felt true—but it was only 15 months ago. And the most consequential parts of the foundation that made that Heat team fly are still in place, for the time being at least.
Dwyane Wade, though he’s clearly in decline, is still in possession of a skill set that takes just enough attention off LeBron to allow him to thrive. It’s hard for a defense with five men to allocate too much of its limited attentional resources to one off-the-dribble creator, while a second is still on the floor—even when that second is LeBron.
And then there’s Chris Bosh. The list of large, defensively-oriented big people who can shoot from mid-range is very short. The list, at this point, may well begin and end with Bosh. And his abilities are especially conducive to creating an environment where LeBron can succeed.
Bosh’s mid-range acumen is strong enough that, despite LeBron’s prowess inside, it pulls potentially post-prowling mastodons outside. It's just enough, anyhow, to allow James to thrive.
It isn’t an accident that, in this environment, James posted three of the four highest true-shooting percentages of his career, per Basketball-Reference.com. Miami excels at creating space for James to excel.
A lot of this success, obviously, comes back to James. Bosh’s pinpoint accuracy from mid-range stems from the attention Wade gets. It's related to how LeBron forces defenses to adjust, which in turn gives Bosh more space to bang it from 16 feet. But this is the genius of the Miami attack.
The team wasn’t just a collection of superstars, overwhelming the league with their talent, but it was a team in the fullest sense of the word. There was, and is, and could continue to be a gestalt at play. Synergy is the thing in Miami, and it’s possible James won’t find such a friendly ecosystem in another city.
There are also more abstract concerns. A component of “immortality,” whatever it means, comes down to feel—to a sense of the man. And if James left another city in the lurch, for the second time in a half-decade, he would warp his legacy. He would not be considered a player as much as he would be thought of as a mercenary—selfless on the floor but selfish in pursuit of a personal glory—a narcissist.
LeBron has felt the sting of backlash before, and he might be leery of revisiting it upon himself again. This is how he described the aftermath of his decision to leave Cleveland, and his subsequent season in Miami, to ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst:
I play the game fun, joyful...That's what I lost last year. Going through my first seven years in the NBA I was always the "liked one" and to be on the other side—they call it the dark side or the villain or whatever they call it—it was definitely challenging for myself.
It was a situation I had never been in before, and it took awhile...it took a long time to adjust to it.
If he does it again, while he might eventually adjust, it’s possible the fans wouldn’t.
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