Miami Heat Demonstrate What Is Wrong With the NBA and Professional Basketball

Phil CaldwellCorrespondent IIIOctober 22, 2010

MIAMI - JULY 09:   LeBron James #6, Dwyane Wade #3 and Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat speak after being introduced to fans during a welcome party at American Airlines Arena on July 9, 2010 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)
Doug Benc/Getty Images

Just when you thought professional basketball couldn’t get any lower than it did two years ago when it blew off four decades of loyal fan support in Seattle and ruined an entire region of the country, now we’re to be treated with three ball hogs who all joined the same team after putting on several embarrassing off-season promotional shows. 

Each to make over $18 million per season while the commissioner of the NBA, David Stern (who is supposed to be policing this kind of thing), whines about the terrible condition of the league and uses that to justify why tax payers in Sacramento and Milwaukee should happily donate more money for new arenas to replace those where paint is barely dried.

“We can’t pay these labor costs!” Stern whimpered earlier this week, apparently forgetting that nobody had a gun to owner’s heads to pay these player salaries. 

And now this dog & pony show in Miami. Sorry NBA, but you may have finally gone too far with this latest episode!

This coming season has about the same fan appeal as NBC sponsoring a thong bikini beauty pageant on The Biggest Loser.  Self-centric one-on-one basketball when hundreds of other teams in this country understand the concept of team play and how it supposed to work?

NBA owners in this era seem to have forgotten a lesson that most coaches learned from pee wee teams.  Adding highly skilled players does not guarantee a championship.  Sometimes, for reasons that are usually a mystery to all involved, dominating players can actually make a team worse.  Teaming several dominating players together can be a disaster waiting to happen when those players are accustomed to having the ball.

This was THE lesson I learned as a rookie club coach two decades ago.  The kids on the team romped to a 24-4 record one season while playing some of the prettiest basketball I’ve ever seen. The ball flowed, there were no superstars, and each player felt both valuable and vulnerable.  Consequently the team played as a team, with each player dependent on their teammates and well aware of it.  We saw ball movement and players covering for other players, and we saw a team that worked very hard to keep up their eventual reputation that every one of them had earned.  And we saw a championship because of all of this!

Well the parents were ecstatic! So ecstatic that the next season they went out and recruited several additional highly-skilled players with expectations that the team would REALLY dominate the opposition the following year. But ironically, the opposite happened. This same team limped the entire season with three superstars, finally ending up with fifteen losses and missed the playoffs by a mile.

Parents were outraged and laid into me.  I was a terrible coach. How could I let this happen?  And to tell you the truth, I was somewhat puzzled by it all too.  How on earth could adding talented players make a team worse?

Adding superstars killed that illusive balance and chemistry that many coaches carry on about.  It was replaced by a new team chemistry that was timid and hesitant,  with all but three players reluctant to react. The former ball-movement was replaced by standing around and timidity, as players feared being scorned by the new stars. Players stopped running and started watching, and the team failed.

Curiously during that year, we had a stretch of games where the three new stars were called by their old coach to play a mid-season tournament, and for several glorious games I saw my team become what they had been the previous year.  Ball movement was back.  Bench confidence was back.  Everything worked again.

And yet just as suddenly, when the three returned we were back to sludge ball.  It was the most aggravating season I've ever experienced as a coach, and yet probably the most educational in terms of experience.  Because the lesson I learned that year is that seven mediocre players playing as a team, are far better than three superstars trying to dominate another team.  As soon as the team starts to depend on one or two players, the team is doomed.  Each guy has a role to play, and if they stop playing those roles team play falls apart.

Even though my teams were less skilled than the professionals, I've noticed this same trait on still holds.  Teams play better when certain players are left on the bench, and sometimes the players that seem to be the motivation for all the others, are not all that great of players in terms of skill.  But the chemistry, and the team balance, seems to work better when those players are in the game.

In Miami we’re already seeing the some of these same tendencies. Last night in Atlanta we saw four guys on the floor in slow motion while LeBron James performed his traditional personal highlight reel for ESPN.  It was not fun to watch, but it was very predictable in terms of the outcome.

John Wooden's coaching philosophy was that “Team spirit means you are willing to sacrifice personal considerations for the welfare of all. That defines a team player." 

Is this what we're seeing in Miami this year?  Hardly.  And yes it's early, but I'm seeing cracks in this team that would make me sweat if I was the guy writing the pay checks.

Can a team where three guys make $14 to 18 million per year while the rest make comparative peanuts, succeed on a long-term basis? When all three are healthy will this change the dynamic of the team?   Could that be a factor this year?

I'm one of the skeptics when it comes to this Miami team.  I seriously doubt we're going to see anything close to 65 wins out of this bunch, unless you're talking about the total for two seasons.   Six games now, and at least two of the three have been injured in every single game.  Pundits claim this is the exception, but I dunno.  I'd say this looks more like a sign of things to come, and on a team where it can’t afford the luxury of a deep bench I’ll be surprised if this team eeks out 50 wins this season.

Up here in Seattle we watched a team of twelve mediocre players win a championship all those decades ago once Lenny Wilkens sold them on the team play concept.  Wilkens took a team that had amassed a paltry 5-17 record prior to him being hired, and coached them to the finals.  The following year the same team (for the most part) beat the Washington Bullets to avenge the previous year's seven game series loss.   It still remains the one crowning achievement in a city where sports success is rare indeed. But the lesson of team play and “many parts working together” was not lost even after the team was. 

It’s the same for professionals as it is little leaguers. If one guy thinks he’s more important than the rest of the team, rarely will that team go anywhere. 

In Miami you have three guys who think they’re more important than everyone else, evidenced by that dopey fashion show they put on this summer.   

Will it work? I dunno. But I will say I’m about as enthusiastic about this coming season and the Miami Heat team as I am with my wife’s new color-coordinated Snuggie that matches the living room carpet!