Looking back through NBA history, there has been a common thread to all the great teams. A similar pattern has emerged repeatedly throughout the years, no matter the era.
On all great teams there was a definitive hierarchy. A top dog. An alpha male.
All great teams had a clear leader.
When LeBron James made "The Decision" to join his two pals, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, on the shores of South Beach, immediate discussion erupted as to who will become the leader of the Miami Heat.
When the threesome were introduced together for the first time the next day, Dwyane Wade used the word "sacrifice" as the key for the three to thrive together.
However, if one looks throughout NBA history, a clear leader was out in front of each successful team.
George Mikan. Bill Russell. Jerry West. Bill Walton. Julius Erving. Magic Johnson. Larry Bird. Isiah Thomas. Hakeem Olajuwon. Michael Jordan. Tim Duncan. Kobe Bryant.
Sure, each of these players had very good talent surrounding them. For instance, Russell had such greats as John Havilicek, Tom Heinsohn, Bob Cousy, KC Jones, and Sam Jones—and these were only some of the Hall of Fame players he played with! But clearly, it was Russell's team.
Which player will emerge to lead Miami?
Sometimes, a great young player joins an older veteran.
A few such instances were the Spurs drafting Duncan onto David Robinson's squad, the Rockets draft of Olajuwon to play alongside Ralph Sampson, the Bucks drafting young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to star alongside Oscar Robertson.
If one looks at the Showtime-era Laker teams as an example, it is clear that Magic was the star seemingly from his first game in the league. Kareem's Lakers had floundered for several years, but with Magic's arrival, the squad was rejuvenated.
Magic's Game Six performance in Philadelphia in the 1980 Finals, the legendary game in which he played all five positions, while Kareem was home in L.A. nursing a badly sprained ankle cemented his position as top of the Lakers hierarchy.
Magic wisely even continued to call Kareem "Cap," short for captain, throughout his career. However, there was no doubt to anyone who the real captain of the team was.
The Heat have brought together three players whom were drafted in the same year, and whose ages vary by only two years, so clearly leadership through age differential is not the case here.
There are also examples of complementary stars coexisting together, players whose positions do not overlap on the court. History says, such instances lessened the necessity for a clear leader to emerge.
Examples are the Robertson/Abdul-Jabbar Bucks, the West/Wilt Chamberlain Lakers, the Erving/Moses Malone 76ers. The Karl Malone/John Stockton Jazz.
The 76ers acquiring Malone is a good example of a star-laden team bringing in another star to join them. In this case, however, such 76er stars as Erving, Mo Cheeks, and Andrew Toney were receptive—the result of having lost two of the previous three NBA Finals to the Magic-led Lakers.
Malone mostly though played a position they needed to shore up, center. Malone came to them as reigning league MVP, and through his assertive nature was quickly embraced as a leader. Malone's famous "fo fo fo" prediction previous to the start of the '83 playoffs followed almost true to form—they only lost one game during their title-winning run.
The 2000-2002 Lakers showed that even feuding superstars, as long as they play differing, complementary positions, can triumph.
However, the Miami Heat have two players in Wade and LeBron whose games somewhat overlap.
Both have fairly similar skill sets. Both play essentially the same position on the court, necessitating a position move by one or both. Both have also been the focus of their teams' offenses prior to their union. Perhaps more importantly, one or both will need to change their style of play.
Bosh is the complementary piece of the trio. It is Wade and LeBron that will need to coexist in order for the team to thrive.
This will be the biggest challenge that the Heat face, but Miami was Wade's team before both of the other big-three components arrived. LeBron though is the two-time reigning MVP, and clearly is the one under the most pressure due to the way he handled his free agency.
In some ways, this Heat squad is charting through uncharted waters. Never have we seen a team put two backcourt players with such similar skill sets together—at least not at this elite-level caliber. Wade and LeBron are both arguably top three as far as talent.
There are a lot of questions that need to be answered. Who takes the last shot? Which player subjugates his game more? Who emerges as team leader?
The Heat hope their final script is written similar to the New York Knick championship teams. Those squads featured some of the finest, most unselfish play the league has ever seen. Bill Bradley, Clyde Frazier, Earl Monroe, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed. Those squads even featured a young Phil Jackson, ironically losing to and then beating Pat Riley's Lakers in successive Finals.
Sacrifice is a word that sounds great in theory, but in this time we live in it remains to be seen if it takes a back seat to such words as marketability, status, and branding.
The fact is, for the Heat to succeed they will need to break the historical mold in the NBA, and tread a new historical path through the jungle.
Succeed, and they will be looked at as pioneers. Fail, and it's their respective legacies that will have been sacrificed.