This would have been a very different piece just one week ago.
Chris "Birdman" Andersen had just agreed to take flight out of American Airlines Arena for one more year. Shane Battier, despite putting up his house for sale, would wait until 2014 before retiring and exploring whatever broadcasting or coaching opportunities will surely be available. James Jones, Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen all exercised the player options on their respective contracts, thereby solidifying the best bench in basketball.
And Miami Heat President Pat Riley had confirmed that the team’s roster would remain intact unless mandated otherwise from the powers-that-be.
Cut to the present and it seems owner Micky Arison, having just stepped down as CEO of Carnival Corporation, isn’t quite prepared to stop tinkering with a successful business. It’s been well-publicized during the weeks following the Heat franchise's third NBA championship that releasing certain players from the roster would save Arison and the team millions of dollars. Two potential casualties seemed most likely, either veteran swingman and sharpshooter Mike Miller or defensive stalwart Joel Anthony. Miller, whose total cost to the team over the remaining two years of his contract would be $17 million, was waived this past Monday.
It’s a move I understand, appreciate and deplore simultaneously. I can’t really blame Arison, despite being a billionaire who could have paid Miller the same way I would have for a beer at the "Triple-A" – begrudgingly but without long-term consequence. Still, $17 million is a huge chunk of money. If not the money, it was something else, something innately wrong about the move. It was just a bit too shady, and it disappointed me more than any roster change in recent history. Maybe it was Riley claiming too loudly that nothing would happen and then seeing it all unfold days later. Or it could’ve been that Miller always seemed to gut out a big shot or great performance despite a never-ending slew of injuries while Anthony, solid and dependable as they get, still has the same low-post game as a 10-and-under girls’ YMCA team. In reality, both players are genuinely appreciated by teammates and fans, despite each having obvious limitations and I would have not welcomed Anthony’s departure any more than I like Miller’s.
After everything this team had been through since 2010, all the growing pains and stumbling blocks and ridiculous levels of media scrutiny, what really hurts is that Arison’s meddling may have prevented the Heat from achieving historic greatness. That’s not to say the team isn’t already a fantastic one. Two championships in three years are a significant achievement and there have been dozens of purely exquisite moments of basketball ecstasy over that span. From day one of the Big Three experiment, this team has been eminently watchable and more likable (especially to fans in South Florida) than any other team in the NBA.
The true disruption is that this team was positioned perfectly to take a unique place within the context of NBA history.
Take a look at the teams that have won it all and notice how those rosters transform immediately afterward. The moves may vary in terms of significance but every team undergoes change. From the Lakers and Celtics teams of the 80’s to the great Bulls teams of a decade later, no roster could weather the storm of an NBA championship. Riley himself labeled the phenomenon as the "disease of more," the habit of players to want individual greatness more than the championship that was just achieved as a team. In his book, Showtime, Riley explains that "success is often the first step toward disaster." More minutes, more money, more fame…simply more of the things that satisfy the individual, now that the team goal has already been achieved. It’s the reason defending a championship is always harder than winning the first one. And it usually manifests in a roster shakeup.
That backup point guard that gave you quality minutes and knocked down a big shot when the starter went down in Game 3 of the Finals? He’s gone, chasing a multi-year deal from another team willing to pay him what he thinks he’s worth. That team spirit that was so apparent in the final, deciding moments before hoisting up the trophy together as one? Screw that. I’ve got my ring, now I’ve gotta get mine…whatever that may be.
So what does this have to do with the Heat? For starters, they had already cured one symptom of the disease of more, courtesy of a big shot from Dr. Ray Allen in Game 6 – like an anti-bacterial swish injected from beyond the three-point line – and a clinching Game 7 over the San Antonio Spurs. Championship defended.
And they seemed poised to do it again, keeping that same championship roster intact for the 2013-14 NBA season.
More importantly is that since 2010, this team was all about individual sacrifice. One of the more underappreciated (and unreported) aspects of the Big Three is how they all took less than the maximum money they could have received elsewhere to join forces in Miami. Ditto for Udonis Haslem, the heart and soul of the team, and the now-departed Miller, who could have taken his three-point skills to any other team but chose Miami instead. Riley sold – and continues to sell – this blueprint to every free agent from LeBron James to Ray Allen to Greg Oden. As long as you’re willing to leave a little money on the table you’ll be sure to get it back in championship rings. It’s the complete antithesis of the disease of more – consider it the remedy of less.
And with Miller’s release, I can’t help but think that Riley’s undone the very fabric of the championship banners he keeps promising players. He’s pulled too hard on a loose string and unraveled the chemistry he’d so carefully sewn together, leaving him with a clump of empty promises strung together.
Does this one act mean the Heat Dynasty is at an end? No, not quite. This team is too talented, too good, and the core of the team is still intact. This move could, however, signify the beginning of things to come.
Assume the Heat continues to roll forward, even with Miller’s absence, through the regular season and even manages to clinch a third consecutive championship. Quite an assumption but, with this team, it’s certainly possible. And here is where it gets dicey – after achieving this incredibly high level of team success, there is no scenario where the disease of more doesn’t set in and the team continues to thrive.
There are already too many pieces in play, and the franchise’s decision to cut Miller was only the first move. Half the team’s contracts are set to expire and there will surely be an exodus of players after 2014. Battier and Allen will likely retire, and you can throw in Jones and Lewis as well. Birdman will have two rings and proven himself yet again as a team player and a vital sparkplug off the bench. A richer, multi-year deal is waiting elsewhere and it’s a good bet this will be Andersen’s last, best chance to make this happen. The same can be said of Mario Chalmers, whose contract expires after next year. He seems a perfect candidate to fall victim to the disease of more – a player who’s contributed greatly to the success of a championship squad, has a good skill set but will forever live in the shadow of the Big Three. And, with Norris Cole under contract for two more years, Chalmers knows there’s a younger player who’s already nipping at his heels to overtake him in the starting lineup. That’s six players who will no longer be with the Heat by this time next year.
So what’s left? Haslem’s got two years left and he’s not going anywhere. By signing here for less money in 2010, he’s already shown his priority is to remain with the team and sacrifice individual success. But an 11 year veteran with (potentially) four titles under his belt isn’t the cornerstone of the franchise. Same with Anthony, a serviceable player and good locker room presence, but not someone you can contend with in the starting lineup.
As for the Big Three, they are and always will be the focal point for what happens to this franchise. But with great skills come great egos and the Heat could very well plummet toward the dreaded rebuilding zone with whatever decisions these superstars make. Chris Bosh is a wild card and as unpredictable as he is quirky and intelligent. My feeling is he’ll stay with the team, even as it rebuilds, setting himself up in a familiar role as the best player on a bad team. Dwayne Wade will have achieved both individual and team success, a rarity in today’s game. But as injuries begin to mount and questions about his ability to perform at a high level become the norm rather than the exception, the face of the franchise could very well retire after next season. Wade’s pride is too great to allow him to continue playing ineffectively and I can’t see him staying active after a fourth ring. And, with the retirement of Wade at the end of next season, our best player, LeBron James will opt out of his current contract while at the peak of his abilities and continue to build his legacy on a third NBA team.
This is all a bit far-fetched perhaps. But Miller’s voided contract could be the silver metal ball rolling forward in the NBA’s version of a Rube Goldberg machine, triggering one deflating setback after another, a chain reaction of selfish moves that could tear the team apart. Riley, ever the architect, could develop an entirely new blueprint, assuming that, at age 70, he won’t have retired himself and left the keys to the broken down Heat in someone else’s hands.
It might not happen. I hope it doesn’t. But it could and that’s the problem facing next year’s team. So what challenge could inspire the Heat, even in the face of impending, potential doom? Establishing itself, once and for all, as a historically great team and crushing everyone on the road to 70 plus wins and a third consecutive title.
For the past three years, the team has flirted with greatness and shown the capacity to throttle an opponent like few other squads can. Flirt, yes, like a girl at the bar looking for that next free drink, but not seal the deal as as one of the all-time greatest teams in NBA history. Over 70 wins cements the Heat’s place in the upper echelon of historic teams. The title, of course, is a foregone conclusion. That many wins and failing to win a championship does nothing but lock up the Heat as one of the biggest choke jobs in the history of sports. But 70-something puts us up there with the Celtics dynasty of the 1960’s, the Showtime-era Lakers and even Michael Jordan’s Bulls teams of the 90’s, the only team to win 72 games in the regular season.
I expect Coach Erik Spoelstra to pull out every motivational trick he can possible muster. Whatever speech or incentive he can think of within legal boundaries should be at his disposal. Too often Spoelstra seems willing to simply let it ride, a victim of circumstance as the game flows from soaring heights to dismal lows and everywhere in between. As smart as he is, he has to realize this isn’t the time for repeating clichés or mantras over and over again. This isn’t about just one more ring.
Even after inviting karmic retribution by letting go of Miller and paving the road toward a bleak future, over 70 wins makes the Miami Heat a worthy candidate as the greatest NBA team of all time. For now, the 2014-15 season is an eternity way, and the ultimate team legacy is within the Heat’s collective grasp. With gritty effort and the willingness to win each and every game as a team, this could truly be a season for the ages.
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