LeBron James officially announced his decision to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami July 8, 2010 – one year ago today. The three stars’ decisions may soon prove to set a trend; the New York Knicks plan to offer free agents only one-year deals once the lockout ends, saving cap space to hopefully have Chris Paul join Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, a trio the three toasted to at Anthony’s wedding last year.
But is Miami’s blueprint fundamentally flawed? The NBA Finals resulted in a team with one superstar and several other good players defeating a team with a top-heavy roster. Chauncey Billups, the 2004 NBA Finals MVP, said, "It’s not about the names, how many people on your team can make the All-Star team. … You got to have a cohesive unit. … Those are the things that win championships, and we’ve seen that clear as day in the Finals."
Some pundits even believe that the Heat should not have signed Bosh and instead spread the remaining cap space to create a more complete team. It’s difficult to envision Miami making the Finals with other supporting players, though. Raymond Felton was a free agent and is a pretty good point guard, but what center would the Heat have signed? Brendan Haywood received a six-year, $55 million contract from Mark Cuban and is not a significant upgrade over Jamaal Magloire or Erick Dampier.
Pat Riley built the best foundation he could have with his options in 2010 and has a team that can win multiple championships. Riley didn’t try to win a championship in a radically new way; he modeled his team after the Boston Celtics that won the championship in 2008. Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett carried the Celtics that year. Of course, Rajon Rondo elevated his game to become a star in his own right in 2008-09, and no one sees Mario Chalmers making a similar jump. But top-heavy teams have won before in the NBA.
The 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers, a team that ran roughshod over any team it faced in the playoffs, had Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant score about 57 percent of the team’s points. The supporting cast on that team – Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, Horace Grant and Ron Harper – were all players who had very specific roles, like the Heat's role players. Even the payroll of that team resembles that of the Heat; O’Neal and Bryant made about $30 million that year, and Grant was the third-highest paid player at $6.5 million. Besides, the Lakers only had two All-Stars during their three-peat, not three All-Stars. The Lakers team next year was similarly structured, and so was the Lakers team that won in 2000, even though it had Glen Rice, who was still a very good player at that point.
Now, Billups’ Detroit Pistons defeated the Lakers team with O’Neal, Bryant, Gary Payton and Karl Malone in 2004. The Pistons dominated the Lakers that year because Los Angeles had a lot of distractions inside the organization, Malone was rendered ineffective in the Finals due to injury and Tayshaun Prince held Kobe Bryant to 38 percent shooting and a particularly horrid 17.4 percent from downtown (sh – don’t tell that to Lakers fans). In fact, even that Detroit team was pretty top-heavy. Can you name anyone on that team that wasn’t on the starting lineup off the top of your head?
These players on the Heat made it to the Finals in their first year together and look only to improve in the future. Miami should get more productive seasons from Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller next year, and the Big Three now has a year of experience playing together. Moreover, when the lockout ends, more people will take the James Posey route – go to a championship-contending team for one year and then parlay that performance into a nice contract. Although many people have already judged this roster as flawed, this formula can work simply because it has worked before.