The Miami Heat's reign may have been self-appointed from the moment they came together, but Miami's greatest asset was always going to double as its biggest hurdle on the way to pursuing championships.
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh is the best foundation of talent in the NBA, but they still take up more than 96 percent of the Heat's salary cap this year. To fulfill their own prophecy, the Heat had to acutely manage the rest of the roster with limited resources. Every late first-round draft pick mattered. Identifying and securing the right veteran free agents while maintaining roster flexibility was critical.
Enter Rashard Lewis, the Heat's most unlikely season-saving role player yet. The 34-year-old former All-Star was essentially preserved in carbonate the last two seasons in Miami before emerging in this year's playoffs as the team's starting power forward and a pivotal floor spacer. His unseen ascent follows in the footsteps of other Heat role players and is a key reason why Miami will keep fielding capable teams well into James' 30s even without much salary-cap flexibility.
This sort of thing is nothing new for the Heat. Mike Miller saved the day in the 2012 Finals by going off for 23 points on 7-of-8 shooting from three-point range in the series-clinching Game 5 victory. Shane Battier did it last year by making six threes in Game 7 to beat the San Antonio Spurs. Chris Andersen went from a 10-day contract in January 2013 to an invaluable provider of front-court toughness for a team that desperately needed it. The Heat keep recycling veterans off the scrap heap and turning them into useful contributors.
Heat and Spurs
Heat and Spurs
Lewis hasn't been defined by one moment yet, but his impact is clear. Battier slipped at both ends of the floor this season and couldn't even get on the court in Game 2. Miller is in Memphis now after the Heat used the amnesty clause to release him. Without Lewis' ability to hit three-point shots and hold his own defensively, the Heat would be in big trouble against San Antonio. Who thought that'd be the case when the playoffs began?
Lewis earned his first serious minutes of the postseason against the Indiana Pacers in Game 3 of the conference finals, moved into the starting lineup in Game 4 and has been entrenched there ever since. He led the Heat in plus-minus against Indiana even after going scoreless in Game 3 and Game 4. His five three-pointers are as many as any player as hit through the first two games of the Finals. The Heat are six points better offensively per 100 possessions with Lewis on the floor and nine points better defensively in the playoffs. Yes that's right, Rashard Lewis -- not LeBron, Wade or Bosh -- leads Miami in net rating during the postseason.
Was Lewis always capable of playing the way he is right now, or is this merely a case of the Heat getting lucky enough to catch lightning at the exact moment they needed it?
Lewis has certainly had a decorated career. He has always seemed ahead of his time since being drafted in the second round of the 1998 NBA Draft. He is No. 8 on the all-time list of three-pointers made. He has made more threes than any player ever taller than 6'7, draining 316 more than Dirk Nowitzki in 139 fewer games. Lewis hit more than 200 three-pointers in a season twice in his career. Only five players did that this season. Kevin Durant has never done it in his career.
He'll forever be linked to the $118 million contract he signed with the Orlando Magic in 2007, but the deal shouldn't define him as a player. He was essentially a proto-version of the en-vogue "stretch four" in his early days with Orlando, spacing the court around Dwight Howard for a Magic team that reached the conference finals twice and NBA Finals once. But he was traded for Gilbert Arenas after a slow start in the 2010-11 season, and he has basically been off the NBA radar ever since. Most figured his days as a key contributor were done.
Why weren't they? Because even if Lewis slipped a bit athletically, he didn't get any shorter and his outside shooting stroke didn't diminish. There has always been a place in the league for someone as tall as Lewis who can shoot as well as he does. He simply needed to find a team to maximize his skill set and give him the right kind of open shots. That wasn't going to happen with a young Washington Wizards team, but Miami, over time, has figured out how to use him. It goes to show how easy and revitalizing it can be to play with LeBron.
Lakers' Coaching Search
Lakers' Coaching Search
Given the problems with the rest of Miami's supporting cast, Lewis' emergence could not have been better timed. The Heat don't win Game 2 if Lewis doesn't supplement James' and Bosh's big performances with 14 points and the much-needed spacing the offense needed to hum.
In the immediate, Lewis' unearthing improves LeBron's chances of capturing his third title before turning 30, but there are big-picture implications too. Miami's ability to find yet another veteran contributor out of nowhere like Lewis is a big reason why James should stay with Miami well past his current contract. Few other teams have been better at propping up overlooked talent around its stars.
The reality of the salary cap makes finding cheap role players the Heat's ever-evolving challenge. So far, they've aced it every step of the way.