Long memories are in short supply amongst 21st-century basketball fans—which can be pretty annoying, since we’re the same generation that feels compelled to immediately put everything and everybody in proper historical perspective.
From the moment LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh became Miami Heat teammates, the race was on to define the new entity. Would they unseat the ’90s Bulls and win 70-plus games in a regular season? Would they top the ’60s Celtics and win two handfuls of consecutive championships? Would they channel the ‘80s Lakers and redefine a style of play? Would they find a better nickname than “The Heatles”?
But the most polarizing question is one that, almost one year to the day of The Decision, remains unanswered: Whose team is it?
Bosh, prodigious talent and glittering resume notwithstanding, received about as much consideration as Cee-Lo Green would for an Abercrombie & Fitch ad. That left Wade and James as the two candidates.
Which one is Batman and which one is Robin? Which one is the Green Hornet and which one is Kato? Which one is Dora and which one is Boots?
Or the one that has been beaten into the ground: Which one is Michael Jordan and which one is Scottie Pippen?
In the aftermath of Wade and James’ first season together, that answer is no clearer this summer than it was last summer. Wade’s preseason hamstring injury paved the way for James to play MJ right off the bat. Then, after some well-publicized crunch-time struggles, Wade stepped into the MJ shoes for a midseason stretch.
James resumed the lead position late in the regular season, eventually finishing third in league MVP voting. But then, just as James seemed ready to lock the “1” spot down by closing out the Celtics and Bulls in the playoffs, Wade rose from the “1A” ranks and looked more like Mike during the NBA Finals.
And for his much-maligned Finals performance, James now has the basketball world—the same people anointing him the new Jordan a couple weeks ago—replacing his King’s crown with a Pippen jersey.
But what if Wade and James have been miscast all along in the Jordan and Pippen roles? Having watched the pair for more than 100 games now, it looks to me like the more accurate comparison is to another pair of Hall of Famers.
Forget Mike and Scottie: LeBron and D-Wade are the modern-day version of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor.
For 10 full seasons covering the 1960s, West and Baylor got buckets together like the Ambani brothers get dollars, when they weren’t dominating every other facet of the game.
West averaged 27.0 points, 5.8 rebounds and 6.7 assists per game during his career, receiving 12 All-NBA and five All-Defensive Team nods. Baylor averaged 27.4 points, 13.5 boards and 4.6 dimes on his way to 10 All-NBA selections. West and Baylor also led the L.A. Lakers to seven NBA Finals appearances as teammates—losing all seven times.
But despite what happened Sunday night in Miami, that is not why D-Wade and LeBron resemble West and Baylor more than they do Jordan and Pippen. It’s because the Miami stars are such an even pairing. Whereas Jordan and Pippen always had a sizable chasm between them—if not in skill, then definitely in stature—West and Baylor were closer to equals.
Earlier this year, SLAM magazine ranked Jordan the No. 1 greatest player in NBA history, while Pippen was 27th. West and Baylor were, respectively, 11th and 12th. In their decade as teammates, Baylor led the Lakers in scoring three times, while West led the team seven times. On five occasions, the difference in West and Baylor’s season scoring average was less than four full points. Six times they were fewer than four field-goal attempts per game apart.
Baylor was not West’s sidekick, nor was West a co-star to Baylor.
That is Wade and James. (Meanwhile, Bosh plays the role of Rudy LaRusso, the Lakers power forward who averaged 16.9 points and 10.2 boards and made five All-Star games during his tenure playing alongside West and Baylor.)
West was able to move seamlessly from point guard to shooting guard, lit up defenses all over the court and became famous for his big-shot ability—hence the “Mr. Clutch” nickname. Wade fits the same profile.
More importantly, the Wade/James combo works—don’t forget, they won 58 games in their first run together and made it to the NBA Finals—because it doesn’t matter to them whose team it is. If Wade is having an off night, James doesn’t have to force-feed him the ball because Miami’s offense would otherwise fall apart. If James can’t make a jumper one night, Wade doesn’t have to stay in second-fiddle mode because that’s what he’s been conditioned to do.
For all the criticism and nit-picking Wade and James have been subjected to, nobody has been able to accuse either one of being too selfish; if anything, Miami fell short of a championship this year because their two best players were so unselfish and overly willing to step aside so the other could shine.
Last week I went to a jazz concert. On stage were five horn players: three trumpets, a sax and a trombone. As often as basketball has been compared to jazz, this band was the classic example of what the game should be. Each player had his solos, each had his time to engage the crowd, but no one was more important than the other when it came to making music.
It was a true team effort that true basketball fans claim is the sport’s ideal. But somewhere along the way, we decided every team had to be Diana Ross and The Supremes (maybe that’s why there are so many divas in the NBA). And when that superstar-and-the-backups scenario doesn’t unfold, like we’ve seen in Miami, we don’t know how to digest it.
Of course, West and Baylor never won a championship together. Jordan and Pippen won six. So while LeBron and Wade’s abilities and eventual legacies may lean more toward L.A. than Chicago, when it comes to their ring count, landing somewhere in the middle would be ideal.