One of the many things that disturbed NBA fans in the summer of 2010 was Miami’s “Big 3” of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh celebrating their union. Worst of all was James’ pronouncement of “Not one, not two, not three …” championships, as if expecting that titles was a foregone conclusion.
Well, if that didn’t sit well with fans, you can imagine how the other 29 NBA teams took it.As that fateful offseason came to a close, the rest of the league had decidedly recognized the target on Miami’s back, one that was placed there by media, fans, players and even the Heat. The only goal was to win championships and Miami didn’t mind letting other teams know they were only minor obstacles in the way.
The Heat were successful, winning two titles over the four years of James’ short-lived tenure in South Beach. He’s moved on and the team finds itself in unexpected waters, trying to stay afloat as the rest of Eastern Conference does more than just paddle helplessly as they have during past seasons.
Clearly, expectations are lowered and Miami, although capable of contending for a title, won’t be perceived in the same way by other NBA teams. And this will only be a benefit to Wade, Bosh and company as they embark on this new era of Heat basketball.
Miami’s approach to the regular season has been a Jekyll-and-Hyde affair, getting geared up for prominent games in the regular season even as they couldn’t care less about “lesser” opponents. The same lineup that could beat other contending teams might lose to the woeful Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics; squads that couldn’t sniff the .500 mark, much less make a playoff run.
Take for example a six-game West Coast road trip that was a perfect example of Miami’s dual nature. They went 5-1 in that span, knocking off the Clippers, Warriors, Thunder, Mavericks and a Phoenix team that was just shy of postseason contention.
Their one loss was a blowout to the Utah Jazz.
But for those lower-rung teams, beating Miami in November or March was as close as they’d get to playoff success. Taking down a team stacked with four Hall-of-Famers was the added cherry on the Tank-a-Thon Sundae.
This season, Miami finds itself in a new position along the NBA food chain, not quite the top predator nor among the herds of certain prey. And it’s a position that will likely benefit the Heat, who will no doubt be taken lightly as losing teams circle games against the Spurs and Cavaliers on their calendars.
Expect opponents to regurgitate the basic clichés about Miami …“They’re still a dangerous team,” “Great players and coaches” …some might go as far as to say the Heat are still a threat even without James dominating the box score. But it won’t ring true, nor should it.
Players, despite what fans think, are human, too, and can get caught up in the same narratives as everyone else.
A Wednesday night matchup against the Heat just won’t have the same sizzle to it as a Sunday afternoon affair on national television against James and the new-look Cavaliers.
So, with lowered expectations comes taking a team for granted, an absence of thought that might just yield an extra six to 10 wins over the course of a long, grinding season.
And with the Eastern Conference wide-open and up for grabs, that could put Miami among the top predators in the league. Once they’re back in familiar territory, the hunger instinct that drove them to four straight trips to the NBA Finals might make them, as Earvin “Magic” Johnson recently noted, a team that no one wants to face.
For a team that is trying to define itself in the absence of James, Miami’s skulking in the shadows and out of sight makes them much more dangerous. And while the target moves on to Cleveland, the perception will be much closer to reality than everyone expects.