Originally published on 3/7/2011
I know that there will be 200 million kajillion articles speculating on the shortcomings and demise of the Miami Heat every time they lose, and I expect my post to be none other than 200 million kajillion +1. But every now and then, the sports world grants us a boon, and allows us to relish in the disfunction of others, despite having no real vested interest to begin with – the Scheme Team’s circus drama is no different. So in the spirit of fly-on-the-wall journalism, I suggest that we all take our shots at the Heat before the “tear em down/ build em back up” Sports Media once again declares them NBA title favorites following their next 5 game winning streak. Wilt Chamberlain knew it, lived it, and was spot on when he said “Nobody roots for Goliath”.
The Big-3 remain on a quest for their first ever championship together but continue to encounter some of the same old challenges. Last year, there were numerous instances in which the Heat suffered a complete lack of cohesion, with a crescendo of frustrating losses that at one point caused some players in the locker room evidently crying after a regular season game in March…….. not June, but March. The good news is that we later discovered who the guilty culprit at the end of the Finals, as he mysteriously collapsed en route to his locker room (hint: Avatar).
Questions will remain as to how the mounting pressures and high expectations will impact the Heat’s psyche. However, despite the Big-3’s success chemistry issues still exist that will not disappear overnight.
First and foremost, the Miami Heat still do not have a clearly defined Alpha Dog or #1 guy. Do the Miami Heat belong to Dwyane Wade, or do they belong to Lebron James? Or do they still belong to Rony Seikaly? Sometimes, I can’t tell.
I realize that the “purists” around the league will point to the fact that basketball is a team sport and requires contributions from all 5 players in order to obtain success – I get that. Moreover the Heat’s Big Three will point to their own unselfishness and financial and personal sacrifice as evidence of their comittment toward teaming and chemistry – and I even get that. However, the 2-Alpha Dog approach has never worked before, and shows no signs of working now. If you don’t believe me, just ask Kobe. Or just ask Shaq. Or better yet, just ask both Kobe and Shaq at the same time, in the same room, while they are sitting next to each other, and watching a tape of the 2004 NBA Finals – then just let the cameras roll.
If NBA History has taught us anything, it is that nearly every championship team has had a clearly defined “#1 guy” leading them throughout the course of a successful season– the guy through whom the rest of the team could establish an identity, rally behind, and rely upon during critical moments in the game. During the 1960s, Boston had Russell while the 76ers had Wilt. During the 1970s, Milwaukee had Kareem, New York had Willis Reed, Philadelphia had Dr. J, and Portland had Bill Walton. During the 1980s, the Celtics had Bird while the Lakers had Kareem for the first half of the decade, and then Magic for the second half . During 1990s, the Bulls had Jordan… you get my point.
The closest that the NBA ever came to a successful 2-Alpha Dog model was Kobe and Shaq: but even then, we all knew that Shaq was the Alpha Dog and Kobe was eventual usurper who would become the #1 option once Shaq began to age. Conversely, teams such as the 1979 Sonics and 2004 Pistons that had no Alpha Dog, relied upon an egalitarian team approach, great coaching, and phenomenal chemistry. They were the exception, not the rule.
So who is the Miami Heat Alpha Dog?
The second issue facing the Heat is the fact that both James and Wade have very similar games. In fact, too similar. Both are wing players who require the ball in order to maximize their talents, and both look to facilitate the half court offense while creating open shots for teammates. However, neither is accustomed to playing off the ball which poses a significant problem – there is only one basketball.
If you have watched the Heat play over the past year, you realize that both Wade and James have oftentimes struggled to coexist while on the court together. Their compatibility issues are usually never more glaring than during crunchtime when the Heat’s offense becomes stagnant, and Wade/Lebron digress into a game of my turn-your turn, as each player takes their shot at 1-on-3 basketball. It’s like 8th grade jungle ball, except these guys are getting paid $16 million a year while partying on the sands of South Beach. It is also why the Heat are now extremely inefficient in game winning/game tying situations.
This challenge though, is not insurmountable and here is the solution: Lebron James needs to accept his role as the #2 guy on the Heat, or in essence, evolve into Scottie Pippen 2.0 for the team to be successful, while deferring to Dwyane Wade as primary ball handler and scorer, or #1 Alpha Dog. Lebron can be the full-court facilitator, but not the half-court facilitator. Moreover, he needs to average closer to 20 ppg instead of 30, while allowing the bulk of the offense to flow through Wade, particularly during key moments in the game.
I am not suggesting this solution because I believe that Wade is a better player than Lebron. In fact, I believe that Lebron James is best player in the NBA. Nor am I suggesting that Wade should have the ball at the end of games because he is more “clutch” than Lebron. In fact, quite the contrary – Lebron has historically shown that he is statistically far more clutch than Wade in late game situations. I am suggesting this hierarchy for the sake of chemistry: because for as capable as Lebron is of being the #1, Wade is equally incapable of being the #2, and there is only enough room for one Alpha Dog on a NBA Championship team. Granted, having Lebron James “dumb down” his game would be a supreme waste of his talent, but it is the only way to further enhance the Heat’s dominance, and establish the necessary chemistry needed to succeed.
Dwyane Wade could never adjust to the Scottie Pippen role. Do you really believe that Wade would be content by patiently waiting on the perimeter for open jumpshots off Lebron double teams? That is not Wade’s game nor is it what he has been accustomed to for the past few years. It’s not that Wade is a selfish player. It’s simply that he does not have the versatility to adapt to a different role the way that Lebron does. In some ways, it is what makes Lebron unique.
Last on the issues list is what to do with Chris Bosh? Chris Bosh is not a #3 guy. Chris Bosh is actually a #2 guy who has spent most of his career masquerading as a #1 guy in Toronto. But he is not that #3 guy who will exhibit a blue collar work ethic, and take pride in doing the dirty work such as rebounding and defense, while scoring only when being called upon to score. In all honesty, this is a role that is better suited for Udonis Haslem and the Bosh issue will continue to exist until the off-season when Miami may have to explore trading him.
Up until now, the Heat have been able to mask their late game offensive deficiencies with solid defense, but that may not be enough to carry them to a championship. If they are going to contend for a championship, they will need to re-define their pecking order, and establish a hierarchy that instills more continuity in their offense with less 1-on-1 play.
In the interim, I will begin working on my next article discussing why the Miami Heat are the most “dangerous” playoff team in the NBA. Expect that piece to come out in about 3 days, right around the time when the weather changes.