Some Miami Heat fans say that they will jeer LeBron James when he steps onto the court tomorrow against his former team. At his end-of-the-year press conference, Pat Riley said, "This stuff is hard. And you got to stay together, if you've got the guts. And you don't find the first door and run out of it."
In retrospect, those sound like harsh words. And you may believe that LeBron got going as soon as the going got tough. You may say that the lead-up to his departure -- dragging Riley to Las Vegas for a last-minute pitch July 9, the same day Sports Illustrated's Lee Jenkins flew to Las Vegas to discuss his impending letter "I'm Coming Home"; this 2012 column from Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski that suggests James planned to return to Cleveland for years -- mars his time with the Heat.
That's one way to view James' time with Miami. I don't.
For me, LeBron's decision reflected a knowledge that these championship runs don't last that long. The last time a team won back-to-back titles -- the Los Angeles Lakers in 2009 and 2010 -- Mitch Kupchak saw the writing on the wall once his team suffered a second-round sweep in the second round in 2011. He traded Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol for Chris Paul, and then David Stern nixed the trade. Kupchak also traded away Shaquille O'Neal to the Heat after the Lakers suffered a five-game loss to the Detroit Pistons in the 2004 NBA Finals, crushing the Lakers' hopes of winning four titles in five years.
Look at the Boston Celtics and their rebuilding process since the 2008 championship. Think back to how the Detroit Pistons never managed another championship after 2004. And even the San Antonio Spurs lost a 4-1 first-round series in 2009 and a second-round sweep at the hands of the Phoenix Suns in 2010. Gregg Popovich revamped the Spurs' offense into a more fast-paced system as Tim Duncan exited his prime.
In the case of the Lakers, Kupchak knew when his team's runs were over. In Miami's case, though, it was LeBron -- not Riley -- who knew.
Dwyane Wade said that last season wasn't fun. And as a blogger, it wasn't fun covering this team. I remember LeBron telling people to "just watch" amid criticisms of him coasting and his team falling behind to the Washington Wizards by as many as 34 points in a blowout loss the next day. I remember the Indiana Pacers fall apart during the second half of the season and the Heat continually unable to take advantage. The team went to the Finals in the East by default, but were far, far worse than the San Antonio Spurs.
Riley hoped that Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger would entice James to re-sign with Miami. And now, McRoberts is out for the year, and Granger is ineffective in attempting to do anything other than shoot standstill 3s. James saw that paying top-dollar for three stars after trading away draft picks limited Riley to finding supporting players from the NBA's scrap heap. Riley struck gold once (Chris Andersen). Most times, though, he picked up players who never played meaningful playoff minutes (Michael Beasley, Greg Oden, Erick Dampier). James also saw that Miami's win-now mentality forced decisions like cutting Patrick Beverley in training camp in favor of Jamaal Magloire and Juwan Howard.
After James signed with the Cavaliers in July, Wade said that he made the right decision. If James had stayed in Miami, the Heat would be better than 13-16. Ray Allen may or may not have decided to play for one more year. But the Heat would have likely been in no position to defeat whichever team came out of the Western Conference. Who wants to see an upgraded, but no more satisfying, version of the dreary 2006-07 Heat season?
Now, I don't see the Cavs winning the title this year, either, especially after Anderson Varejao's season-ending injury. But that's missing the point. James knew his run at championships with Miami was likely over, and saw a better chance in Cleveland.
When I think back to LeBron's days in Miami, I'll think of Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals. I'll think of the time I went to a Heat exhibition game in Raleigh, N.C. and saw several people with LeBron jerseys. In the arena, I saw those cross-court, mid-air James passes with a newfound appreciation. I'll remember the time he tackled a fan after hitting a half-court shot. I'll remember him hitting a huge 3-pointer minutes after suffering a cramp in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals.
I'll remember the excitement and buoyancy I felt during the Heat's 27-game winning streak. I'll remember listening to Guns N' Roses' "Nightrain" before big Heat games because I felt the lines, "Loaded like a freight train / Flyin' like the aeroplane / Feelin' like a space brain" applied to LeBron on the fast-break. I'll remember the roller coaster ride of the 2013 NBA Finals. I'll remember that LeBron's move to Miami led the transition for me to move from a one-person blog to writing for Hot Hot Hoops.
Dwell on the ending if you wish, but I'm glad that it happened.