Falling short of an NBA championship in 2011 was not part of the plan for LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the Miami Heat. But it may have been exactly what the NBA’s super-team needed to truly become a dynasty, starting with a title in 2012.
Here is the cover story from our newest issue – Dime #68 – on the Miami Heat and great expectations…
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First, we’ll look at the last one.
The man who, once upon a time, represented the NBA for an entire country as the face of the league’s only Canadian franchise. The man whose career numbers mirror basketball legends, yet to call forth his name in a Hall of Fame discussion could get you laughed out of barbershops from Oakland to Orlando. The man who should, by all rights, be today what David Robinson was yesterday â€“ intelligent and iconic, as graceful on the court as he is gracious off of it â€“ but still can’t catch a break with a demanding and increasingly hypocritical public.
He’s No. 1 in your program, No. 3 in the trinity. Ladies and gentlemen: Chris Bosh.
In the traveling super-group that is the Miami Heat, Bosh is the unsung yet unexpendable bass player. The 6-11 power forward stands firmly outside of the spotlight created by his two more famous teammates, small forward LeBron James and shooting guard Dwyane Wade, making beautiful music that only true connoisseurs of the form can fully appreciate. If LeBron and D-Wade are the Wesley Snipes and Denzel Washington in this Mo’ Better Blues remake, Bosh is Bill Nunn, the big man in the background pulling everything together and making this collection of remarkable talent an actual band.
Through the first third of this truncated 66-game NBA season, Bosh averaged 19.7 points and 7.7 rebounds, connecting on 50 percent of his field goals and 82 percent of his free throws. During a January stretch in which Wade was in and out of the lineup with injuries, Bosh put up four games of 30-plus points and four games of double-digit rebounds. He owned the fourth quarter of a Jan. 24 win over Cleveland, scoring 17 in the final frame and finishing with 35 points. The next night, late in the fourth quarter at Detroit, Bosh turned a two-point Miami deficit into a three-point lead with a pair of reverse layups and a free throw, then forced Pistons center Greg Monroe into a critical miss that helped preserve a win for the Heat.
So far, while Wade struggled to stay healthy and James still struggled to score in the fourth quarter, Bosh was the most consistently productive member of a team that at press time owned the second-best record (18-6) in the Eastern Conference, and was picked by 74 percent of NBA general managers in a preseason poll to win the 2012 NBA championship.
And look at where it gets him.
“When you say ‘big’ to me, I think of certain players … (Bosh) doesn’t fit in with those certain players,” said future Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal earlier this season in his new gig as TNT studio analyst. “Don’t get me wrong, I respect his game and he’s a great player, but part of the ‘Big Three’? No way. Dominant big man? No way.”
Biased? That too. O’Neal is the same one who, after all, called Bosh “the RuPaul of big men” following a 2009 matchup between Bosh’s Toronto Raptors and Shaq’s Phoenix Suns.
“I’m not a popular guy, I guess,” Bosh was quoted in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in early February, the day after James and Wade were named starters for the NBA All-Star Game. Bosh finished fifth among forwards in the East. “I don’t think I am. I don’t appeal to the popular crowd.”
When asked why â€“ and he’s been asked that question ad nauseam by local beat writers, GQ and Dime, among others â€“ Bosh repeats what seems like an answer he’s rehearsed many times: I don’t know … That’s a good question … It doesn’t really matter to me … I’m just trying to be the best I can be.
He already might be the best teammate. When this version of the Miami Heat formed its nucleus during an unprecedented period of NBA free agency in 2010 â€“ a trio of proven superstar deciding to sign with the same team when each could have chosen to be “The Man” on separate teams â€“ Bosh took the biggest risk. He put his athletic legacy on the line by making the biggest sacrifice to see if this experiment could work. Because as much as NBA fans and media have argued over the Batman-or-Robin status of James and Wade, Bosh has always been cast as Aqua Man. He is the bronze medalist. In DimeMag.com columns following the signing, I took to calling him “And Bosh,” because his name is always mentioned last.
LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh.
D-Wade, LeBron and Bosh.
There’s no other way.
Whereas James endures arrows of criticism for allegedly conceding that he couldn’t win a championship as the clear-cut No. 1 marquee superstar, Bosh’s move to Miami meant that during his prime years, he would never be able to disprove the more damning accusation: That he was never a No. 1 star to begin with.
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But how bad can a team be whose third-best player is a top-20 talent in the league? Or to put it another way: How great can they be?
There was a reason why James, well-versed since his early days as a high school basketball phenom in the art of media savvy, felt confident enough to tick off predictions of six and seven and eight NBA championships for the Heat at the now-infamous post-signing, preseason party at Miami’s AmericanAirlines Arena.
And there was a reason why Year One for the Big Three â€“ which would have been considered a resounding success for any other NBA team â€“ has gone down in the Easy-Bake version of history as a flop. Putting a team on the floor that was completely remade from the season before, bringing together three superstars for a jam session when each has grown accustomed to being a bandleader, and expecting a championship right away probably was too much. But the Heat just had so much talent and so much confidence, a championship was the only acceptable outcome.
Miami still made it to the 2011 NBA Finals. When they lost to the veteran Dallas Mavericks in six games, however, the media and message board harpoons aimed at the three big fish would have one believe the Heat were an utter failure.
Because negativity is the fuel that powers sports media in the 21st century. Because some 90 years after the Golden Age of sports journalism, we are now drowning in the Mother-In-Law Age, where finding something to complain and nag about has replaced the art of storytelling. Where controversy lives longer than celebration.
LeBron James knows this. The two-time NBA regular-season Most Valuable Player averaged 26.7 points, 7.5 rebounds and 7.0 assists last season for the Heat. He was named All-NBA First Team and All-Defensive First Team. He led the league in field goals made and Player Efficiency Rating, and finished in the top 10 in scoring, free throws and steals. He was Miami’s best player throughout the playoffs, and even in the NBA Finals series after which his name was tied to the word “choke” more than a mixed martial artist, James still averaged 17.8 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6.8 assists and 1.6 steals.
This season, James has been even better. He averaged 29.2 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.8 assists through early-February, hitting a career-high 55 percent of his field goals and 41 percent of his three-pointers.
Still not good enough to keep James off this year’s Forbes list of “America’s Most Disliked Athletes.” The King ranked sixth.
“I’m an easy target; if someone wants to get a point across – just throw LeBron’s name in there,” James said after his reactionary tweet to Blake Griffin‘s instant classic dunk on Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins (among the rest of the world’s 13 million or so reaction tweets to the same dunk) drew the ire of Perkins. “You could be watching cartoons with your kids and you don’t like it, you say, ‘Blame it on LeBron.’ If you go to the grocery store and they don’t have the milk you like, you just say, ‘It’s LeBron’s fault.'”
The newly-acquired villain label is especially fascinating when you consider that, when he was coming out of high school nine years ago, James was being called the next Magic Johnson not only because of his third-eye passing ability, but also because of his winning smile and childlike enthusiasm on the court.
Now in his ninth pro season, he sees exactly why his image has gone from the kid in the white suit on Draft Night to the man in the black hat. He sees that from here on out, anything less than a championship, anything less than historic crunch-time playoff performances, and this season will mean less than the last.
And nobody ever accused LeBron James of not having amazing vision.
“That’s the problem with our league. Sometimes people just evaluate the last minute of games, or you evaluate the last 30 seconds of games, and forget about this is a complete 48-minute game,” James told assembled reporters after a Jan. 29 win over Chicago in which he had 35 points and 11 rebounds â€“ including a Play of the Year candidate in which he hurdled Chicago’s John Lucas III in mid-air for an alley-oop dunk. However, James and Bulls superstar point guard Derrick Rose each missed crucial free throws down the stretch.
“But we understand where you guys come from,” James added. “We understand what makes the headlines, and D-Rose had an unbelievable game. But you guys are all talking about his missed free throws. You also talk about my missed free throws. It’s the league, it’s the world we live in.”
The Mother-In-Law narrative of 2011, of course, says that LeBron was a failure. That Wade, who averaged 25.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists last season, was a failure. That the Miami Heat were a failure.
That narrative was the preface to this season.
“It’s kind of good that that year is over,” Wade said early in Miami’s abbreviated training camp. “Now we can move forward and focus on the team that we want to be.”
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Dwyane Wade wasn’t even supposed to be here.
Perhaps because it’s been six long years since he led the Heat to the franchise’s only NBA championship, winning Finals MVP as an exploding supernova. Or because he’s been one of the league’s most in-demand corporate pitchmen since that championship. But the beginning of the D-Wade story has been almost forgotten: Unlike James, the most hyped-up high school basketball player of all time, and unlike Bosh, the near seven-foot prep phenom who was good enough to go one-and-done at Georgia Tech, Wade started as an underdog.
Only three colleges recruited Wade at Richards High School in Oak Lawn, Ill. He sat out his freshman year at Marquette University as an academic non-qualifier. It wasn’t until a breakout junior year that he showed the makings of an NBA star, and even after Miami selected him No. 5 in the 2003 NBA Draft â€“ James went No. 1 to Cleveland and Bosh went No. 4 to Toronto â€“ some doubted Wade’s ability to thrive in the pros as a shorter two-guard without a consistent three-point stroke.
Leading the Heat to a championship, and holding status (in the eyes of some) as a level better than LeBron, was somewhere between a surprise and an impossibility. So if any of Miami’s Big Three had an excuse to temper expectations and cruise on his resume, it would be Wade. He is the one, after all, who already has a ring. He’s the one who has already overachieved.
But going into the 2011-12 season, Wade was front and center as the vocal leader of the Heat. And nobody is more invested in the success of this team than the player who has seen it grow from a lottery squad to a title contender, back to lottery and back to the top again.
He’s not talking (at least publicly) about winning six or seven titles. One more will do for now.
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LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh need more than each other to fulfill the promises made in the summer of 2010, which was the original goal of buying into the all-for-one concept.
They need head coach Erik Spoelstra. They need point guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. They need defensive shutdown specialist Shane Battier, big men Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem, and wing snipers Mike Miller and James Jones. The best collection of three teammates in the NBA still needs a team to make it happen.
They need the talent, obviously, but also the defense and the clutch shooting and the rebounding and the forced turnovers and the focused resolve when games are on the line. They need the keys to any NBA championship that cannot be bottled: chemistry and continuity. And they need a reason to get up every morning and work toward delivering the results that will ultimately weigh heavier than the hype.
Your job? Just watch, and between searching for a reason not to like the Miami Heat, at least try to realize what you’re witnessing. This is Jordan and Pippen remodeled, with a smoother Rodman on the side. This is Kobe and Shaq being friendly with each other; Earl Monroe, Clyde Frazier and Willis Reed emerging from a human growth chamber. Should you spend all your time nitpicking and complaining about it, you’re going to miss something special.
“Being so close and coming up short, it kind of sparked something in me,” Bosh told reporters after a December training camp session. “We have a short window of time to play this game, so I feel like I can play the best basketball of my life for the next six, seven, eight years. And that’ll be it.”