Members of the Heat chuckle at the irony of it all: They are fresh off their second consecutive championship, a massive accomplishment, and yet it feels as if they are less of a "story" now than they've been at any time since their high school smoke machine pep rally in July 2010. The hate has dissipated, and the curiosity has shifted elsewhere. The Heat seem like a known commodity — a small-ball machine built to engineer rim attacks and 3-pointers, proud practitioners of a blitzing defense that is stylistically unique. They've found their identity, and the league has gradually discovered ways to attack them.
"We're not surprised," says Shane Battier. "We're an old story. There are more exciting things out there. Everyone wants to see how Houston will come together. Indiana has their new bench. What is Derrick Rose going to do?"
But here's the thing: This team is the biggest story in the NBA — in almost every sense. This season represents Miami's first chance to vault up a level in NBA history. It might also represent the team's last chance to do so. All three of its stars can enter free agency this summer, along with just about every relevant role player plucked to do a very specific job within this quirky team structure — a role that wouldn't exist in quite the same form anywhere else. LeBron James remains the world's best player; any team that sniffs a realistic chance to sign him should be doing everything possible to do it, even to the point of ripping up its current roster at a moment's notice. And that includes Miami.
Top Heat executives, including Pat Riley and GM Andy Elisburg, declined to comment for this story through a team spokesman. But Riley has always been bold, and the buzz coming from the team since the end of last season is that Riley, true to form, will not sit back and assume he has permanently won James over. The long-term pitch to James will be better than "We're going to keep running it back with these same guys until the league surpasses us." It has to be better than that.
Dwyane Wade's knees have failed him in each of the last two postseasons. Chris Bosh will turn 30 this season, he suffered from knee issues earlier in his career, and he has struggled at times to find his way as the third wheel in this star system. The Lakers and Cavaliers are lurking with cap space, and the latter offers the dual comforts of home and a very young superstar in Kyrie Irving. The Mavs will try, and top-level executives will remind you that Chicago, a James pursuer just three years ago, can very nearly open enough cap space to renew the chase by letting Luol Deng walk and using the amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer.1
Being bold to placate LeBron would translate to finding a younger star player who complements his skills, and that's where things get tricky. The Heat have very few tradable assets. Their first-round picks will fall toward the end of the round, and the pick the Sixers owe them (via the Arnett Moultrie trade) will likely revert into two second-rounders under the terms of that deal. Their younger players, including Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, don't have much leaguewide appeal. Chalmers is also playing on an expiring contract that depresses his value. Ditto for Bosh and Wade. Any team that considers dealing a disgruntled star player should be able to find a better offer than Miami can provide after just a few phone calls.
There is no salvation in free agency, either. If all three stars opt into their contracts, the Heat will land right at the projected luxury-tax line before signing a single free agent, and they'd only have two very small cap exceptions available to do that. The league has adjusted to the new collective bargaining agreement by getting leaner. A majority of teams will have either cap space or access to the full midlevel exception, worth about $2 million more in salary than Miami can offer via the "mini" midlevel for tax teams.2 Signing quality role players at a discount should be harder, since the league as a whole will have more money to throw at those players. This is how the Nets lost out on Kyle Korver last summer. How will the Heat replace Chalmers, Battier, and Ray Allen?
Things don't get much better if either Wade or Bosh opts out, allowing Miami to operate with more cap flexibility. Even allowing that player to walk for nothing would leave Miami with about $54 million in salary, counting LeBron's cap hold and charges for empty roster spots.3 That would leave Miami with no meaningful cap flexibility.
Finding the bold plan is hard, but underestimating Riley is never a smart bet. Perhaps Wade would opt out and re-sign on a smaller deal that would let Miami breathe a bit. Bosh may have some trade equity left, since he's a very good player who may not think he could draw a $20 million–plus salary on the open market if he decides to test free agency. A team confident that Bosh might play out both the option years on his current deal might swallow hard and accept him in exchange for a younger star who wants out. There don't appear to be many such young stars, which is why the rumor mill keeps churning out Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge trades. History shows that an unhappy star who announces to the league, "I want to leave and will only sign long-term with Team X or Team Y" will likely end up with Team X or Team Y. What if the Heat is on such a short list?
But, holy cow, are there are an awful lot of "ifs" in any of those scenarios. It might be years before any of them comes to fruition, if any ever do. Which is why Riley's best pitch might end up being, "How can you leave a team that just three-peated?"
If there is no alternative, winning may represent the best possible draw. "We all know the scenarios," Battier says. "We all know the contract situations of everybody on the team. We all knew the implications last year if we had lost to the Spurs — the questions of who would come back to the team."
The Heat are facing enormous pressure to win it all again, and pulling off the three-peat will be a bigger challenge. Everyone knows the Eastern Conference is better at the top. Earning the no. 1 seed is no cinch, and there will be no wounded non-contender to romp over in the second round.
And the Heat have been vulnerable in each of their three playoff runs. They've faced five elimination games combined in their two title runs, already tied for the second-most among the 31 distinct teams that have either repeated or three-peated.4 Only the Rockets of the mid-1990s, repeat champions, faced more elimination games among all 31 of those repeaters and three-peaters. The Bulls faced only two elimination games combined over six title seasons, and the Detroit Bad Boys went to the brink just once during their repeat run. And here's a cool bit of historical trivia: The Chicago repeat bridging 1995-96 and 1996-97 is the only run of back-to-back titles to not feature even a single elimination game. All hail MJ!
The Heat are a middling team when placed within the league's loftiest historical conversations. Their .696 postseason winning percentage (32-14) over their two title runs ranks 17th among those 31 repeat/three-peat winners, and 12 of the 14 teams below them on the list are iterations of the 1960s Celtics — teams that played when the postseason comprised just three rounds, allowing for less win padding. Five elimination games over two seasons is a ton for a dynastic team. The Heat do better in terms of point differential; they've outscored opponents by about 6.76 points per game over the last two postseasons, a figure that would rank 11th among those 31 multi-championship squads.
Miami's closest historical analogue might be the Kobe-centric Lakers from 2008 to 2010. Both teams lost the first Finals in which they appeared, learned some hard lessons, and won the next two titles. Their first championships came against up-and-coming teams that may have arrived ahead of schedule — the 2008-09 Magic and the 2011-12 Thunder, respectively. Their second titles came against old hands in the 2009-10 Celtics and last season's Spurs.
Both experienced very serious hiccups along the way. The Lakers in 2009 needed 13 games combined to outlast Houston and then Denver in the Western Conference playoffs, and eked out two down-to-the-buzzer wins against Orlando in the Finals.5 They won two straight elimination games against Boston in the Finals a year later, and their collective point differential — plus-5.5 points per game — ranks 23rd among those 31 multi-title winners, well below Miami.
The Bad Boys are another appealing comparison, but they were a relatively more dominant postseason team than these Heat have been.
People remember those Kobe–Pau Gasol Los Angeles teams fondly, especially in L.A. They played appealing ball when they actually ran the Triangle, Andrew Bynum was still (sort of) healthy, and Lamar Odom allowed everyone else to maximize their fit within the system. They were fun, and they accomplished a lot. But they don't come up in discussions of the truly great teams in NBA history — the teams that would make you quake in fear. They had to fight hard for almost every series, and Kevin Garnett's injury in 2009 robbed them of a chance to dethrone the strongest Eastern Conference team of that mini-era in its healthy prime. The Bad Boys were badass, but they feel in retrospect almost like a stopgap between the other great 1980s teams in Los Angeles and Boston and the Jordan-era Bulls.
They are both wonderful teams, but no one is bringing them up in the discussion of the greatest dynasty types in NBA history. None of this is fair, by the way. Comparing a great team to a super-great team comes off as denigrating the merely great, which is silly. They're all freaking awesome! But these are the stakes for Miami this season. The Heat have the chance to go from "Hey, that was a really fun team!" to "Hmm, where do we place them on the Mount Rushmore of greatest NBA dynasties?"
The Heat are aware of the teams that have come before them, but they either don't care so much or have worked to suppress the burden of historical greatness.
"You think about it, sure," Bosh says of the three-peat history. "We're all basketball fans.6 Of course we want to three-peat. But the way to do that is to take it one day at a time. This season is different from last season."
The historical import of repeating didn't even move Battier that much. "After we won last year, I thought I'd care more about the fact that we had won back-to-back," he says. "But I really didn't. I mean, the fact that we won back-to-back is cool. But it's not this euphoria, just joining this club. History is nice, but when you're going through the grind, you don't appreciate history."
That's a healthy attitude, because this season will be a grind. The league knows the Heat better now after a full season of watching Miami cement the small-ball identity it resisted in the team's first year together. Miami is already set to be among the oldest-ever teams to chase a repeat title. Rivals have slowly discovered ways big and small to attack them, especially in the hothouse of a playoff series, when teams have no one else to scout.
Being able to bully them has always helped. Miami is an average defensive rebounding team at best, and the Heat's defensive rebounding rate has dropped off in each of the last two postseasons, per NBA.com. The Pacers hurt Miami badly on the offensive glass last season, and Chicago has always done the same when healthy. Even the Spurs, who approach offensive rebounding with some combination of disdain and phobia, unleashed Kawhi Leonard as a putback weapon in the Finals.
There have been other smart X's-and-O's tweaks to puncture Miami. Last season Indiana redesigned much of its offense for the conference finals, introducing some decoy actions designed to get the ball moving in very simple ways from one side of the floor to the other.
Playing that way freed Roy Hibbert and David West for post-ups against smaller players, but just moving the ball around has value against Miami. The Heat play an ultra-aggressive defense. They have their big men trap opposing point guards on pick-and-rolls far from the hoop, and they'll often have a second defender leap out at a shooter who catches the ball coming off a pick on the side of the floor. The goal is to stall your progress — to intimidate a ball handler into picking up his dribble, holding the ball for a few fatal seconds, or even dribbling it backward toward half court. Miami can force heaps of turnovers this way or just run out the shot clock.
But teams with time to focus on Miami have gotten smarter about avoiding such mini-catastrophes. "In the regular season, teams don't really have time to scout what we do," Bosh says. "But in the playoffs, you're under the microscope a bit more. Teams can exploit things, find chinks in the armor."
For the Pacers, it was as simple as this: Run a pick-and-roll on one side, draw out the trap, and make sure a second perimeter player pops out high on the other side to act as a release valve. Toss the ball to that guy on the opposite side, initiate some action there, and you've got the defense scrambling. Indiana did this well, which is one reason it transformed a below-average overall offense into the equivalent of a top-10 outfit over that seven-game loss, per NBA.com.7
The Spurs are so well versed at ball movement, they needed no help. Get Miami moving at full speed and from a truly defensive position, and you can generate both open looks and lots of fouls as help defenders rush to protect the basket against an offense that has them beat. The Heat are typically very good at avoiding fouls, but in the past two postseasons, their foul rate has skyrocketed, per NBA.com. "We're aware of it," Battier says of the fouling. "We can't give teams free points like that."
Miami didn't help by lollygagging in transition defense on plays that would have been unbelievable had we not seen James and (especially) Wade so often leave teammates in the lurch in order to bitch at officials. "With the transition defense," Bosh says, "there's just no excuse."8
Teams have gotten smarter about attacking Miami, and they'll get even smarter this season. Miami, in turn, will have to find some new stuff of its own.
"We have to get better," coach Erik Spoelstra says. "We have to reinvent ourselves."
They'll have to do so without one key rotation player: Mike Miller, victim of the amnesty ax. Miller was largely inconsequential during the regular season because of injury, but the Heat unearthed him in crucial moments against Oklahoma City, Indiana, and San Antonio over the last two postseasons. He's a bigger wing, in the mode of Battier, and he allowed Miami to avoid ultra-small lineups in which LeBron is the only "big" wing on the floor — lineups such as Chalmers-Allen-Wade-James-Bosh. Those lineups have worked well, but they place a heavy strain on LeBron, and Spoelstra has been reluctant to use them for huge minutes. He might have to do so this season, though this is one area in which the Michael Beasley gamble (or the Roger Mason Jr. flier) might bear fruit. "That's part of the evolution of this team," Battier says. "You take out Mike Miller, and you change the dynamic."
Regardless, the super-small lineups, plus Miami's tendency to switch so often on defense, leave it vulnerable to mismatches in the post. Teams must be well-rounded to hang with Miami. They need multiple ball handlers, the ability to work on the block if necessary, and some rebounding chops. All of the top Eastern Conference teams would appear better positioned this season to mount such a diverse attack.9
This season is its own unique challenge, but Miami swears it will proceed in the same way it always has: by going at every game and practice as hard as possible. From the top down, Miami bristles at the idea that this is the season to take its foot off the pedal a bit — to introduce a Spurs-style rest program, limit Wade's minutes, or dial back the intensity of its defensive scheme. "Once you try to shortcut this league," Spoelstra says, "it has a way of paying you back for that — dearly. When you start to devalue the regular season, that sends you down the wrong path."10
The league is coming at them regardless, and what happens this season will have massive implications for the league as a whole, and for Miami's place in history. The repeat is over. Let's see if Miami can three-peat.