Between the two of them, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh boast five NBA championships, 19 All-Star appearances, nine All-NBA selections and enough ancillary honors to fill a wing of the Smithsonian.
Both are bound for the Hall of Fame. Both will go down as generational greats. Without them, the Miami Heat would have two fewer banners in the rafters.
You don’t earn that kind of clout by evading challenges. On that front, Bosh and Wade have been around that block too many times to count.
Validation without LeBron James—that might be their toughest test yet.
After James announced Friday his plan to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, longtime Heat president Pat Riley found himself in a last-second scramble to assure the King’s sidekicks remained in the fray.
First and foremost on Riley’s radar: making sure Bosh didn’t up and take his talents west.
Source close to situation says Rockets believe they will have commitment "soon" for Chris Bosh to come to Houston— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 11, 2014
Eventually, finances and familiarity won the day:
Chris Bosh is finalizing an agreement to return to Miami on a five-year, $118M deal, league sources tell Yahoo Sports.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 11, 2014
Meanwhile, Miami and Wade likely remain in talks to re-sign the 32-year-old shooting guard to a multiyear contract, albeit shorter in both duration and dollars than what Bosh ultimately fetched.
Throw in Danny Granger, Josh McRoberts and Luol Deng (per ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh), the Heat will, by all accounts, walk away from the James grenade—somehow—able to walk.
How good they’ll be, however, remains an open question.
Fate seldom looks kindly upon teams that lose a once-in-a-generation superstar. Still, there’s one exception the Heat would be wise to heed: the 1993-94 Chicago Bulls.
By now we all know the story: Michael Jordan—at the top of his game and three straight rings to his name—up and walks away from a surefire dynasty to fulfill a lifelong dream of batting .202 for the Birmingham Barons.
There were certainly plenty who believed His Airness would eventually return. Until he did, though, Scottie Pippen and head coach Phil Jackson were left to navigate the NBA landscape without their trusted North Star.
Much like these Heat, the Bulls were believed to be a postseason shoo-in—no more, no less.
But something strange happened on the way to tempered expectations: The Bulls managed to rattle off 55 wins with a full-time starting lineup of Pippen, B.J. Armstrong, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright and—Jordan’s “replacement”—Pete Myers.
Chicago would eventually bow out to the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. And even that took seven games.
On paper, it’s hard to deny next year’s Heat—Mario Chalmers, Wade, Deng, McRoberts and Bosh—are at least as good as, if not outright better than, those Bulls.
But paper does not the playoffs make, and if Miami has any hopes of registering some serious postseason noise, head coach Erik Spoelstra must permanently solve for the game’s biggest possible X.
Spoelstra certainly has his work cut out for him: According to NBA.com (subscription only), of the nine five-man units that logged over 50 minutes and registered a positive net rating, eight of them included James. More scary still, none of them featured Bosh and Wade without James.
There’s no earthly way Miami will ever make up for James’ offensive contributions—his genius was simply too great for any peer to duplicate. Defensively, however, Deng offers something of a promising analog and a potent antidote should the Cavs and Heat ever meet in the playoffs.
Still, Deng at least gives Spoelstra the strategic cover to continue apace with his “pace and space” philosophy. Deng can conceivably wreak a defensive havoc similar to that of LeBron. It’s in getting out in transition—as well as in the half court—where the deficit gets damning.
This much is clear: With James gone and Wade’s longevity a legitimate concern, the Heat now belong to Bosh. For good or ill.
If you ask the man himself, as ESPN.com’s Haberstroh recently did, he’ll tell you it’s the former:
I think sometimes you miss it. You wonder if you can still do it and step up to the challenge. I haven't had to be that guy. I played with the best player in the world. I didn't have to be the alpha. But now, I get to see if I have it in me, and not many people are going to believe I have what's necessary. But that's what makes it exciting.
To Bosh’s point, all those critics need do is scope his and Wade’s pre-LeBron stats. Perhaps there they’ll find the grounds—eight playoff appearances and statistical greatness between them—to believe in the Heat once more.
Beyond that, Bosh and Wade by now understand the invisible hand behind the Miami machine. It’s 19 years in the making—the span of Riley's tenure—and, as NBA.com’s Lang Whitaker notes, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon:
No matter which way they go, what the Heat already have in place is a strong organizational structure. Riley may have swung and missed on keeping the Big Three together, but he did put them together to begin with and has the bona fides to build another championship organization. Coach Erik Spoelstra has spent just six years on the Heat sideline but has won two titles and never missed the playoffs, even when the Heat were setting up to go after the Big Three.
It might sound absurd to compare Spoelstra to Jackson, why with a river of rings between them. But don’t forget that Jackson was only one title ahead, and five years older, when he marshaled the Bulls to a double nickel’s worth of wins all those years ago.
Institutional knowledge isn’t a term that gets bandied about the basketball world very often. Yet that’s exactly what these Heat have: a pair of seasoned soldiers ready to recruit, as part of a greater force governed—through Coach Spo—by some truly tantalizing basketball tactics.
That the Heat lost their most valuable warrior is bound to take its toll. So long as Wade and Bosh are set on soldiering on, though, Miami's path forward won't be marched in vein.