Monday, June 13, 2011

On the Failure of the Heat and the Success of the Mavericks

With all due respect to the Mavericks -- and I'm not sure that has ever been framed with such sincerity or enormity -- the story here is that the Heat lost and that LeBron performed terribly.

The Heat and LeBron have been the linchpin of the NBA season -- of the NBA universe -- since The Decision a year ago. We saw that on Opening Night. We saw that throughout the season. We saw that in the playoffs -- first against the Celtics, then against the Bulls, finally against the Mavs.

Outside of the Olympics, there has never been a team that has generated such a national rooting interest -- even if it is rooting against -- than LeBron's Heat.

You cannot begrudge any fan who joined this group, and I don't understand the folks who find those of us (outside of Cleveland) rooting against LeBron and the Heat to be petty or somehow morally derelict.

In fact, LeBron's Heat have managed to bring together fans of all types -- kneejerk haters, thoughtful pragmatists, purists and "new schoolers." This is mainly the result of The Decision and its follow-up preseason "Coronation." I never begrudged LeBron his decision, only his Decision.

That LeBron failed so epically at the biggest moment of his career only underscored the epic sense of schadenfreude. (Ironically, the much-maligned Chris Bosh played very well in the Finals, and his candid, thoughtful comments after the game were both humanizing and welcome.) It is very possible LeBron does not have a champion's killer instinct.

And that last statement is where we reach -- even stretch -- the boundaries of what we can say here.

What we know is that in Year 1 of LeBron's Heat, they failed. They (and we) get to live with that failure until next spring, when they will have another chance. If they win then, this year might not be forgotten, but it will be significantly mitigated. And if they don't win next year, they will have another shot in 2013, then 2014, then 2015. Even then, LeBron will be a year shy of Dirk's NBA service time before he won a title.

Chances are, the Heat will eventually win a title -- maybe more than one. What this initial run underscored was that the star power alone will not get it done. It will get them close, but it will not get it done. The Mavs will be even better next season. So will the Thunder. So will the Bulls.

By June of 2013, the movement of Dwight Howard, Chris Paul and Deron Williams will have likely created another "superteam" (although it's worth wondering if Howard sees Dirk and wonders if it is indeed possible for the Magic to build a champion around him, even if it takes a decade or more).

The point is that it is as reckless to assume the Heat will win a title in the future as it was for anyone to assume they would win one this season. The confounded expectations were among the many reasons this Mavs championship/Heat failure was so delightful.

For now, there is a very unique dual celebration: For the Mavs and the impressive way they won a championship, yes, but even more for the celebration of the failure of LeBron's Heat in the most interesting way possible.


And that is where the Mavs come in: Led by a single star player who never abandoned the franchise, least of all in the summer of 2010, where he quietly signed an extension with the team and understood that the chemistry of vets and talents would give him a shot at a ring. I completely buy the narrative that this was a triumph of chemistry and execution and low profile (even, in these Finals, for Mark Cuban!) over talent and glitz and hype.

But it was so much more than that -- it was a rejection (if in a small sample size) of the "superteam" in favor of the "single-star-plus-perfect-supporting-cast," not unlike Hakeem's Rockets of the mid-90s. It was a triumph for the brilliant coaching mind of Rick Carlisle. It was a new model that says you can take a brilliant difficult-to-replicate European 7-footer and team him with savvy, hungry vets and 3-point shooters and win a title. It was the validation of Mark Cuban, long the most interesting and innovative owner in sports.

These Mavs -- improbably -- became incredibly fun to watch and easy to root for. A lot of that was a function of the fact they were playing the Heat -- any team (even the Lakers!) would have been easy to root for against the Heat. But these Mavs had so many great stories, played so well and proved so worthy of a championship that they were the ideal team to win the title this year, the ideal team to quash LeBron's superteam Heat.


And so what next? If you thought the Heat story got some closure, you'll be so disappointed. The story reboots as soon as today -- Heat 2.0. In fact, if anything, it is even more compelling and complicated -- and, yes, annoying when presented ad nauseum -- now that the Heat have come so close only to fail so big. As it was this year, everything up until the moment the Heat are eliminated from the Playoffs -- the summer, the regular-season, the early-rounds of the playoffs -- are formalities. Dissected, to be sure, but ultimately meaningless when framed against the ultimate question: Championship or Failure.

Don't let the avid NBA fans distract you -- the league hasn't been more popular or compelling since the Jordan Era. That is 98% because of LeBron's Heat. Oh, the other nuances of the NBA might be wonderful for the die-hard NBA-heads, but for the casual masses that make up the TV ratings and interest levels cited by the die-hard NBA fans and pundits, the story is entirely about the Heat. That is why the pending labor showdown is game-set-match for the owners (more on that later this week). The point is that if the NBA has never been bigger, it is mostly because of the Heat and everything in its gravitational pull.

For now, we can content ourselves to some schadenfreude, to some celebration of a great champion and to looking ahead to offseason things we love (the draft) and loathe (labor talk).

But if nothing else, with the Heat losing in the way they did and to whom they did, the NBA just got even more compelling.

-- D.S.

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