Why would LeBron James and Dwyane Wade fail as partners on the Miami Heat? In July, in December, in February, there were as many theories as there were skeptics, but the most prevalent concern was that without an Alpha -- a CEO, in one famous writer's parlance -- the team would fail to meet its potential. NBA teams need pecking orders, a clear leader who will take the brunt of credit and blame for success and failure, a star above all others who would establish the conditions under which triumphs were accomplished.
A major portion of this concern was crunch time. Without a pecking order, who gets the ball in the clutch? Who takes or creates the biggest shots in the biggest moments? Who is the Michael Jordan, and who is the Scottie Pippen? Who is the Magic Johnson, and who is the James Worthy? Who is the Larry Bird, and who is the Kevin McHale? Those champions had pecking orders, clear demarcations of hierarchy within the team. The Heat, they said, wouldn't have such a clear process, and unless one of them -- Wade, in all likelihood -- gave the other the captain's chair, Miami would never sublimate basketball and reach their championship potential.
Two series in, and that theory couldn't look more wrong.
The Heat are 8-2 in the playoffs, and James and Wade couldn't be more equal if they'd actually made a point to be equal. The numbers lay it out.
There is no CEO, only two superstars sharing the load almost completely equally. Both are getting plenty of clutch looks in the playoffs, too; LeBron has 19 shots, and Wade has 13. Who's the CEO? Who's the clear Alpha?
In assessing the New NBA created by the Heat, critics failed to recognize that in the New NBA, there are new rules, chief among them that machismo is, for all intents and purposes, dead. Remember, these stars agreed to share fame, to share the spotlight. They volunteered to effectively renounce the MVP award -- of which LeBron has two and Wade none -- and perhaps even renounce, in James' case, a future claim to G.O.A.T. status. They gave up the highest individual glories to attain the greatest team glory.
We knew this back in July when they preened together in South Beach, that they were different, that the NBA was different and that old tropes weren't necessarily valid any more. There's no disputing that LeBron's Decision was a paradigm shift away from the me-first, allegedly AAU-created self-over-everything attitude of the post Magic&Bird league. We all understand that. But many failed to project that new reality on to the NBA itself.
If LeBron and Wade, two of the top five players in the NBA, were willing to share the spotlight and fame off the court, why wouldn't they also do so on the hardwood? If these men could overcome the pitfalls of machismo in what was essentially a business deal, couldn't they also overcome them in their craft? LeBron and Wade announced in July that they didn't need a pecking order, a CEO, a clear-cut hierarchy. So why did so many insist they did in fact need one?
The Heat are setting those concerns, and the league as we know it, on fire. And with the CEO Theory billowing in smoke, so goes the machismo paradigm. Let us hope LeBron and Wade can be a lesson to all young stars: you don't need to be superior or subservient to your co-stars to succeed. Just be. The rest will follow.
The interesting precursor to all of this, by the way, is the success of the Redeem Team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. There are a million different ways to read that tournament; if you want to see it from the standpoint of those who doubted the Heat could win without LeBron or Wade consciously standing down to let the other lead, then Team USA only won gold because Kobe Bryant took over in the closing minutes against Spain. But to me, the tournament and gold medal game as wholes showed the power of fluid equality on the court; in its lack of a pecking order, Team USA became completely unpredictable and truly unstoppable.
Tell me that doesn't sound like the Heat in these playoffs.