Perhaps more than any team in the NBA, the Miami Heat are an unproven team that is difficult to judge. While they have reached the NBA Finals for four straight seasons, the removal of the league’s best player renders past accomplishments meaningless and so many are left to wonder if this team will remain a legitimate contender in the near future and beyond.
Subtracting LeBron James from the equation of analysis has only been done once before; when he first left the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2010. In the previous season, the Cavs had won 61 games and been considered a championship threat, despite glaring weaknesses.In James’ absence the following season, the team only reached 19 wins. And while James’ departure clearly had the greatest impact on the team, other role players fled Cleveland’s sinking ship and buried any hope of success.
Free agent acquisitions Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts are expected to join that trio in the starting lineup. And while no one player can replace the impact of the four-time MVP, Deng and McRoberts might be able to duplicate certain aspects of James’ diverse skill set.
Various outlets have waffled on Miami’s upcoming chances, ranging from declarations of assured success to just-as-likely abysmal outcomes. Such is the impact of James.
And while the future is justifiably uncertain, there is reason for optimism in both the short- and long-term for Miami.
Miami has assembled a quality team and, in a star-driven league, the Heat’s three best players (you’ll notice they’ll never be the “Big 3″) should be able to lead the team to success. Bosh, Wade and Deng all seem motivated and ready to prove themselves, both in the absence of James and to show they were a significant part of past successes.
Chalmers’ other-worldly confidence will erase the memory of a terrible postseason and his skills should be more obvious this season as a primary ball-handler. And McRoberts has the tools to be an immediate crowd-pleaser, as well as a valuable facilitator and distributor.
The Heat’s coaches should also be up to the challenge of discovering how to blend new and old pieces while maximizing individual skills. Head coach Erik Spoelstra, who has managed to become both over- and underrated, must remind naysayers that he guided a weak team of Wade and other NBA journeymen to the playoffs in two seasons prior to James’ arrival.
He will be tasked less with massaging the bloated ego of a superstar and more with motivating a team that has much to prove to fans and critics alike.
Perhaps the greatest X-factor in Miami’s likely continued success is the team’s president and former coach, Pat Riley.
In Riley’s 19 seasons with the franchise, the team has only missed the playoffs three times, an impressive run to be sure. As other team’s have wallowed in mediocrity or chosen to rebuild through the draft, Riley’s willingness to pull the trigger on a blockbuster trade has always kept the team in contention.
Even this summer’s moves have all given the team much-needed financial flexibility that should make the team a factor in 2016 free agency. That’s hardly a guarantee but the combination of proven track records, sandy beaches and no state income tax certainly help Miami’s odds.
It’s one of the defining aspects of Riley’s tenure and one that is so difficult for other teams and their fans to understand. While free agency is a longshot for franchises in Minnesota, Boston and Utah, the draft has been, for a team that has been in the playoffs so frequently as Miami, twice as unlikely a path to success.
Riley doesn’t place his hope on 19-year-old phenoms with potential; he goes after — and gets — proven athletes.
The “Big 3″ era is over and so, in truth, that window to success has closed. But with Riley as the team’s master architect, finding new ones to open won’t be a problem in the years to come.