From the frying pan to the fire: The Miami Heat’s biggest obstacle

12.02.10 8 years ago 24 Comments

I’ve never been one for self-help books, but over the last couple weeks I’ve been reading Rebound Rules, a motivational guide to getting one’s life in order written by my main man Rick Pitino.

Though it was printed in 2008, there is at least one chapter, “Surviving and Thriving in the Microwave Culture,” that becomes even more timely and relevant as 2010-11 sports media moves closer into tabloid territory, and jumping to premature conclusions becomes as natural as Northwestern missing the NCAA Tournament.

“In this era of rapid rewards, there is little thought given to the long haul,” Pitino writes. “Fans don’t want to give a coach time to painstakingly develop a program, and shareholders don’t want to give a CEO time to painstakingly improve the company’s bottom line.”

This isn’t Pitino’s first self-help book, so he knows he’s addressing an audience that includes a lot of businessmen who are willing to listen to a respected sports figure. But his lessons shouldn’t be lost on sports figures who are also businessmen, nor on sports fans who are willing to listen to reason.

Pat Riley is one of those businessmen, and this past summer Riley broke the normal business mold in constructing his Miami Heat roster. But innovation doesn’t buy extra leeway, and so the Heat are the co-defendants in the biggest trial-by-microwave of the sports world right now.

Nineteen games in, Miami’s 11-8 record wouldn’t be too bad by normal standards — they are firmly in playoff position and have the sixth-best scoring defense in the League — but this isn’t a normal team. This team has LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, a.k.a the defending two-time league MVP, the former Finals MVP, and the five-time All-Star who may be the most talented young power forward in the game.

Fifth place in the East isn’t good enough when you were predicted to win about five championships. James, Wade and Bosh entered the season as a popular pick to win the East at least, so by microwave logic, 11-8 is probable cause for “What’s wrong with the Heat?” debates to be waged after every loss, every clash (real or perceived) with coach Erik Spoelstra, every time an unnamed source delivers a report or rumor. LeBron and Bosh haters (Wade doesn’t seem to have any haters) are basking in smugness, analysts are backing off their preseason predictions of instant success, and voices are getting louder calling for Spoelstra to be fired so Riley can take over on the bench.

Settle down.

No, really. Settle down.

It’s 19 games in. Nineteen. Nine. Teen. Less than a quarter into the first year of a six-year run (under the current contracts of the Big Three). Last night, the trio of Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett played their 200th regular-season game together with the Celtics. James, Wade and Bosh have played 19. Of course we all envisioned something closer to 17-2 than 11-8 at this point. So did they. But that’s not how this elite-level basketball thing works.

Every great team has continuity, and every great player who leads a great team thrives on that continuity. Ten times out of 10, that continuity is built up over more than a quarter-season.

Michael Jordan‘s Chicago Bulls were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs three straight years before MJ got Scottie Pippen at his side, and then they went through three more years of playoff losses before winning their first championship. When the Bulls added Dennis Rodman for the second three-peat, “The Worm” was added to a group with continuity in place. Shaq and Kobe fell short in the playoffs three times before they cracked the championship ceiling. Isiah Thomas took seven years to reach the Finals, and eight years to win it, which was three years after Rodman and Joe Dumars played with him for the first time. Hakeem Olajuwon, the last superstar to arguably carry a team “by himself” to a ring, was a 10-year veteran when he reached the mountaintop.

“I’ve learned how to balance impatience with realism and perspective,” Pitino wrote in his book. “I strive for success every day, but I’m more aware than ever that most of life’s important, long-term goals cannot be achieved at the snap of your fingers or the click of your mouse – even if society wants it that way.”

Championship basketball teams need time. Not time to figure each other out, as good players can learn each others tendencies in a matter of a few pickup games, but rather time to go through the prerequisite hard times and adversity. In the pros, that takes years. Maybe months. Certainly it takes more than 19 games. Lakers fans sit in the catbird’s seat now — where two championships sit in the recent rear-view and a four-game losing streak is no reason to panic — but they wouldn’t be there had Kobe not shot those air-balls in Utah or watched those first-round series against Phoenix slip away. Championships are not built solely on a foundation of drafting and trading and signing. They are also built on a foundation of losing and frustration.

These Miami Heat are facing adversity. As good as James, Wade and Bosh may be, the team is weaker in roster spots 4 through 12 than their toughest title competitors. Injuries have decimated their rotation. They have played an especially tough schedule for a brand-new group. And honestly, Spoelstra is not yet a great coach on-par with Phil Jackson or Gregg Popovich or Riley.

But is this early-season stretch of adversity enough to take off from here and form a title team? With the speed in which the microwave culture has aimed to define the Heat, it may have to be.

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