There's no easy answer why the Miami Heat, the team some experts had winning 70 or more games, are off to a disastrous 8-7 start. Sure, Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem are big losses, but they shouldn't exactly need them to beat the Memphis Grizzlies or, particularly, the Indiana Pacers. After all, last year's Heat team beat the Pacers by 13, 34, 30 and 9 in the four games they played them, and that Heat team featured both Carlos Arroyo at point guard and Joel Anthony at center -- the two players who are now considered albatrosses on Miami's roster, and who some see as the prime reason they're unable to compete against the top contenders in the NBA.
Miami's start flies in the face of conventional wisdom, that the union of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh would be anything but a potential dynasty. In Cleveland, James had managed to take a team with a mediocre supporting cast deep into the playoffs every single year. And while the Cavs never did win it all, few would say they weren't overachieving. But now James and the Heat find themselves in conjunction and, oddly enough, it's not working. Somehow, the Heat could beat the Pacers on the road by 9 with Arroyo, Wade and Anthony in the starting lineup, but in 2010, they couldn't beat them with LeBron James and Chris Bosh taking the place of Michael Beasley and Quentin Richardson. In fact they got destroyed... by 16... at home. Somehow, LeBron James is less successful with the help he's been dreaming of for seven years than he was with the Cavaliers, when arguably the second-best player on the team -- Zydrunas Ilguaskas -- is with him now in Miami.
Most are reluctant to pin any of the blame on LeBron James since he's been by far the Heat's most consistent player. With 23.6 points, 8.3 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals a contest, it's hard to look at the two-time defending MVP as the reason they're off to such a horrendous start. But maybe it is. Maybe James isn't as similar to Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson as we thought, and that if anything, he's the second coming of Allen Iverson -- a great regular season performer who, for whatever reason, can't get it done in May and June.
James is like Iverson in that he's at his best when the offense is completely centered around him, and that in order to be at his best, the ball has to be in his hands at all times. And like Iverson, James is having less success with more around him than he was when he had nothing at all, largely because he finds himself floating around the outside, waiting for the ball to be given to him instead of simply having it in his hands, like he's accustomed.
(Chris Bosh, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade during the Heat's season-opener. Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
In Philadelphia, Iverson was a one-man wrecking crew. He guided the 76ers to the finals in 2001, even though the second-best player on the team was Dikembe Mutombo, a stellar defender who was hardly an offensive juggernaut. Iverson routinely scored 30 points a night and took anywhere from one-third to nearly half of Philadelphia's shots, and people bemoaned that if only Iverson had just one other player to help him with the scoring load, the Sixers could get over the hump. But somehow that wasn't the case. When Iverson was traded to the Denver Nuggets, he found himself on a team with Carmelo Anthony, Marcus Camby, J.R. Smith and Kenyon Martin, and the Nuggets struggled to barely make the playoffs. Somehow, Iverson was more successful with Aaron McKie, Eric Snow and Dikembe Mutombo than he was with the leading scorer in the league (Carmelo Anthony).
James is the same. Like Iverson, he's spent the bulk of his career heading a one-man team that never really asked him to defer. At no point at either the high school or the professional level has he had to share the wealth of being the superstar of the team. In Cleveland, he never once had a teammate who averaged 20 points a game; Mo Williams, who averaged 17.8 per game in 2009, was the closest. That's not to say that James is selfish or a ball-hog; like Iverson, he averages close to eight or nine assists a night. But after watching the Heat lose three in a row, including the abysmal blowout against the Pacers, it might be time to ask if LeBron James is capable of succeeding in an environment where he isn't the primary option.
Maybe, after listening to analyst after analyst talk about how LeBron should be the point guard, and how he should run their offense in lieu of Carlos Arroyo, we should consider the inherit weakness it is that he needs the ball in order to be productive. If anything personifies the teamwork of the Boston Celtics, it's that none of them have to dominate the ball. Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett are all capable of putting points on the board without having to go one-on-one on every possession. But James? How often have you seen him curl off a screen and knock down a mid-range jumper without having to dribble? How often do you see him spotting up on the wing, waiting to receive a pass so he can knock down a long jay? James is a phenomenal player, but for the most part, he seems completely out of place in a Heat lineup where he shouldn't have to do as much as he did in Cleveland.
It's also worth considering that the issues the Heat are facing strike at the very core of why the team was assembled in the first place. Just ask the players themselves. What was the biggest problem with the Heat's second consecutive loss to the Boston Celtics? According to James, it was that they weren't having enough fun. Following a loss to Utah, he commented that they, the Big Three, were all playing too many minutes and that he didn't want to be the team's point guard, and Bosh later commented of Erik Spoelstra's coaching: "He wants to work; we want to chill." As much motivation as there may have been to win five, six or seven championships, James' primary motivation to take his talents to South Beach may have been, simply, to take it easy in the NBA. To split the work with Bosh and Wade, and on the days when they're not kicking the daylights out of the Phoenix Suns, maybe go to a bar or nightclub. So to suddenly ask James to resume his role as the one-on-five behemoth he was in Cleveland, to always handle the ball and make every play himself, is of course something he doesn't want to do. Why would he have left Cleveland if it didn't involve chilling with his buds and doing about a third of the work? How else can you explain him advocating playing less time now that the team is struggling, instead of, let's say, more?
James is a phenomenal talent, and like Tracy McGrady was in Houston, and like Allen Iverson was in Denver, he and writers everywhere are finding out that the simple addition of talent does not a championship contender make. James' accomplishments in Cleveland mean about as much as T-Mac's did in Orlando, and Iverson's did in Philadelphia. Were they prolific, 30-point scorers? Sure. But what happened when, in the case of McGrady, he was paired with a 20-and-10 man in Yao Ming? It didn't work. Say what you will about Iverson, McGrady and James, but if they share one thing in common, it's that they floundered (or are floundering, in the case of James) when they were paired with players who they were supposed to win with. Maybe, it's the league's way of showing that these one-man-team players just can't succeed in the NBA, and that James -- at his best -- is unfortunately one of them.
Of course in the statistical age that we live in, few would have the gall to say that the Big Three part of their lineup is actually the problem, and that the Crappy-Other-Two-Guys are actually playing as well as one could expect of them. Are they close to dead last in many interior categories, including points in the paint and offensive rebounding? Absolutely. But when the Indiana Pacers played the Philadelphia 76ers, a team with Spencer Hawes at center and Jrue Holiday at point guard, a funny thing happened. The Sixers won by 26: 101-75.
So talk all you want about how the Heat are in desperate need of a competent bigman. Their roster is fine. If James, Wade and Bosh could actually play in sync with one another, people would realize that the other two players don't have to be record-setters, and they shouldn't need another All-Star to beat pitiful teams like the Pacers and Grizzlies. The Spurs got by a few years ago with Rasho Nesterovic in the starting lineup; the Sonics went to the finals with Frank Brickowski at center, while the team they were playing against, the Bulls, had the less-than-imposing Luc Longley at the five spot. Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Carlos Arroyo/Eddie House are more than suitable to be playing alongside the Big Three. It's far more likely that an intangible reason, like chemistry or work ethic, is behind the Heat's struggles. It's not like the Heat are losing with James, Wade and Bosh all playing great. In fact, there hasn't been a game all year where the three of them were all on their game. The day they start losing with them all playing well is the day we should really wonder about the future of this team.
At the same time, it's the frequency of how often they haven't played well that leads me to think there's an issue with this team that stems far beyond Mike Miller being out until January, or Carlos Arroyo not being Rajon Rondo.