It's difficult to find a silver lining after the past week. The Heat has gone from championship favorites, to rebuffed by the best player in the game and now stand as playoff contenders in a suddenly-deep Eastern Conference. So what's the positive spin on this?
I've always been curious about what makes a player excel beyond the norm. For the most part, they've been blessed with genetic gifts - height, wingspan, etc. - but nothing else. How do they separate themselves from the rest of the pack? How do they get to be so...good?
One only needs to look at arguably the greatest player in NBA history to see how crucial motivation can be. If you recall Michael Jordan's bitter Hall-of-Fame induction speech, he reveals how his whole career (perhaps his whole life) was driven by slights, both real and perceived. You don't think I've got what it takes in high school? I'm one of the top recruits in the country. I can't cut it at a historically-great school like UNC? All-American and NCCA champion.
I can't lead a team to a title? Kiss the rings, all six of them.
Now with LeBron James departing to northeast Ohio, Miami finds itself in unexpected territory. They're Lewis and Clark but Sacagawea just said, "I'm coming home." But rather than give in to dysentery and the warring tribes of the Western Conference, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and company have more to fight for than ever before, even as expectations are lower than they have been in years.
Pat Riley, the master builder, just witnessed his architectural masterpiece turned to rubble. Already a prime candidate for the NBA's Executive of the Year award, he found a way to rebuild a team that was on the brink of collapse. Even as he nears his 70th year of life, he remains driven and committed to maintaining excellence in Miami.
Erik Spoelstra can coach, having guided the Heat to the playoffs ever since he took over the reins from Riley. But some believe he's relied too heavily on talent - and James - for his success. He'll face his greatest challenge trying to lead this team while integrating new pieces with old and without the best floor general in the NBA.
Miami's reserves are castoffs, has-beens or never-weres. The Island of Misfit Ballers.
Rookie Shabazz Napier has a lot to prove, if he can even earn a spot. He's already cut ties with James and has to show Heat execs their draft-day faith wasn't misguided.
James Ennis can dominate...in Australia. He's shown flashes in summer league play but can he be the athletic burst of the bench this team will need?
Norris Cole's postseason went from promising to promise-me-you'll-stay-on-the-bench. In his fourth year, he needs to continue to develop if he's ever going to be more than just a nice reserve player.
Chris Andersen, the recipient of so many lob passes from James, must change his role and adapt even at 36 years old. He was indebted to Riley and Spoelstra for giving him another chance. Will that loyalty translate into his play or will he be the Birdman that couldn't fly in San Antonio?
In three years, Danny Granger went from All-Star to seldom-used reserve. Will he use Miami to prove he's still a valuable component? If healthy, Granger could be the most valuable signing this offseason.
New addition Josh McRoberts is now on his sixth NBA team. Last season was his best as a pro. He needs to be the playmaker and shooter that he was in Charlotte...or better.
Mario Chalmers. Where to begin? It's likely that Rio doesn't have another level to reach but needs to use his performance against the Spurs and combine it with his legendary confidence to prove he can be consistent, especially when it matters most.
The "Man From Sudan", Luol Deng, spent most of his 10-year career with the Chicago Bulls, before being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers midway through last season. At 29 and battling injury for years, can he thrive under the shadow of LeBron James? In 2003, Deng was the second-best high school prospect in the country...behind James. He'll be sorely depended on to help Heat fans forget the "Big 3" era.
He's gone from the overlooked superstar to the top option - and top paid - in Miami. Chris Bosh has already salvaged the season and achieved heroic status for staying with the Heat in the wake of James' announcement. His game has evolved but after years of being the "quiet one" on the court, will his play speak louder than ever before?
Which brings us to the most motivated player on the Heat roster. Dwyane Wade, "a Heat for life," must carry the franchise once again. This will mark the fourth era of Wade's career - pairing with Shaquille O'Neal, carrying the team in his absence, teaming with the "Big 3" and now in a post-LeBron world. Wade has to prove that injuries won't limit a Hall-of-Fame career. He must show that he's able to produce on a regular, if not nightly, basis. That he can lead his team by word and by deed. If he sacrificed his "alpha dog" role, it's time to take it back. And, despite his public statements to the contrary, his friend's decision to rejoin the Cavaliers has to hurt. That pain has to fuel the fire to prove Miami is still a legitimate threat.
As this new era in Heat basketball begins, there will be plenty of questions. Without James other-worldly talents, there might be glaring holes that need to be filled by the team he left behind. But one thing that clearly won't be lacking is the motivation to succeed, each and every night.