When we last saw LeBron James, he was standing exultant at center court after the defining triumph of his career. It wasn't just that he and the Heat succeeded in defending their crown, thus placing them among a very select group of teams. It was that LeBron had been forced to confront the one notable flaw in his game and had conquered it.
Gregg Popovich's strategy throughout the Finals was brilliant and devious. The Spurs abandoned almost any pretext of guarding anyone who wasn't James and forced him to beat them from the outside. LeBron was initially hesitant about how to combat this defense, because it went against every good instinct he has about the game, which only succeeded in ratcheting up that old familiar negative chorus.
Aided by a semi-miraculous corner three from Ray Allen in Game 6 that saved the Heat's season and a vintage Dwyane Wade performance in Game 4, James was forced to examine himself and play by somebody else's rules. In the finale, he scored 37 points while draining jumper after jumper from the perimeter. He took what Popovich and the Spurs gave him and he emerged as a player for the ages.
The first title may have been the most meaningful, but the second one was much, much harder. Now all everyone asks is that he do it again.
More than any franchise, LeBron belongs to history now. There are only a handful of players who are four-time MVPs and two-time champions. We're talking about Wilt, Kareem, Russell, Magic, Bird and of course, Jordan. If he and the Heat can win for a third straight year then it's just him, Russell and Jordan. Those are his stakes.
It's odd to talk about LeBron in this context without mentioning the other key components of the NBA's latest dynasty. When his aching knee allows it, Wade is still a devastating player in his own right. Chris Bosh may be a third wheel, but he's still an All-Star and a highly productive one at that. Erik Spoelstra has grown by leaps and bounds on the sidelines and can no longer be thought of as Pat Riley's Mini Me.
The role players are also still excellent. Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem and Allen know their jobs and perform them like the pros that they are. Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole are back for another round of point guard by committee. The only one missing is Mike Miller, who took his aching back and clutch jumper to Memphis.
The Heat are the favorites again because of LeBron, but there's a wariness now. Wade's body has only so many more mad dashes into the paint, and everyone is a year older. A key injury here or there could be enough to tip the scales, especially with the Bulls regrouping and the Pacers surging. The West remains dangerous.
There were no reinforcements coming in the offseason either, unless you count Greg Oden, which seems dubious. The big contracts are due to expire soon and there are options that can be exercised. It may all end sooner than we thought. But the longer the Heat keep winning, the harder they will be to break up.
Ultimately, it will be LeBron's decision that seals their fate. That will dominate the news cycle from now until whenever he decides to make his next move. Tet LeBron seems better equipped to handle that piece of business then he did three years ago with the Cavaliers. For all the vitriolic rhetoric that is sure to come his way, he has total control over his career, which should be a lesson to other young superstars.
This is LeBron's league now. He owns it on the court and he has worked the system the way it was intended to work, providing players who are bold enough to keep their options open with a modern blueprint. Whatever he does next will be fascinating, of course, but what he does now will define the season.