While it can easily be forgotten in the constant modernity of the Hollywood glitz and glamour, the Los Angeles Lakers are the NBA’s old guard of winning. They, along with the Boston Celtics, are the establishment; the Lakers had glitter on their fingers back when MPLS ran across their chest, decades before the Miami Heat franchise was even born.
So it was both laughable and a bit adorable when the Heat teamed up last summer and declared themselves the NBA’s next great dynasty, predicting nearly a decade’s worth of championship parades. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh gave off a Nouveau rich vibe, a bit too excited to prematurely declare their entrance into the class of legends. Everyone suspected the other shoe would drop for the Heat but perhaps we didn’t expect it to feel like a steel-toed boot to the face.
The line this week is that the Miami Heat “aren’t having any fun.” This misses the point, because to have fun is to be care-free, worry-free. The Heat have lived their struggles, they understand their strengths and feel their many weaknesses. With the playoffs looming, they have every reason to be worried. Forget about fun, they’d settle for some peace of mind.
If there’s a crucial difference between the Lakers and Heat these days – besides roster depth -- it’s a matter of being comfortable in their own skin. L.A.’s self-confidence and assuredness comes from having won championships, sure, but it also comes from having every important base covered. Devoted owner with deep pockets? Check. Intelligent, flexible management? Check. Experienced coach? Check. An all-world superstar? Check. Multiple premier big men? Check. A serviceable bench? Check.
There are no shortcuts around that checklist, especially in 2011 as the top-end talent gets more and more concentrated seemingly by the month. For the Heat, an honest self-assessment against that checklist finds no questions in ownership, management or the presence of a superstar. But as for the coach, big men and bench? Big time questions.
The good news: Solving two of those questions might be enough for Miami to win a title next season, as both the Celtics and Lakers are getting older and the San Antonio Spurs are unlikely to repeat their glorious season of injury-free luck. So which are the easiest to fix?
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has survived one round of calls for his job during the fall, but Miami’s recent losing streak has started another round. Making a move this soon before the playoffs isn’t going to accomplish much, and it isn’t going to give a successor enough time to meaningfully implement his own fixes. But there have been plenty of warning signs recently regarding whether Spoelstra is the right long-term fit.
During games, his stars call their own number repeatedly, looking to create in isolation rather than succeed within a system. His role players don’t often conduct themselves as role players either, quick on the trigger and slow to the boards or the extra defensive rotation. After Tuesday night’s loss, his players simultaneously tried not to step on his toes while also questioning their roles and the overall goals of the offense. Bosh, for example, seemed to request a wholesale change of his role, asking to head down to the block after he’s been used elsewhere all season long. Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson might snipe back and forth about how often Bryant breaks out of the triangle late in games, but you don’t ever hear Bryant questioning the logic behind the entire system. He knows it works; At some level, he trusts it. Bosh's comments are befitting of a lottery team with a lame duck coach, not a potential dynasty in the making with a revered signal caller on the bench.
As for Spoelstra’s own comments, he sounds a lot more like John Kuester or Kurt Rambis rather than Gregg Popovich or Jackson, struggling to find answers rather than clearly elucidating solutions. Being befuddled by your team’s effort every once in a while is understandable. Not having the track record of success to inspire confidence and to help lead a struggling team through adversity -- to not know the right thing to say no matter the situation -- is troubling. Why should the Heat settle for that?
Personnel-wise, Miami will need to take a long, hard look in the mirror this summer when it comes to their frontcourt. The patched-together frontline is going to remain an Achilles heel until it’s addressed in full; trying to repeat this season’s “Big 3 plus fill ins” model would be the definition of folly. The question becomes whether Bosh – diminished by a lack of touches and shots – is the right fit long-term or if his salary cap number might be better spent on players that are more complementary to James and Wade, defensive specialists or rebounding fanatics that will contribute without needing touches on offense. Given the inflexibility of Miami’s cap situation, something will have to give if the Heat are serious about addressing their frontcourt. That something is almost certainly Bosh, who is the team’s most expensive weak link. Unless they can find someone to take Mike Miller off their hands -- unlikely -- they simply don't have the contracts to move out that will be required to bring quality in return.
Of the check boxes Miami needs to fill, depth is probably the least pressing concern. Really, depth is the cart and the team's star core is the horse: the Heat must make sure their star talent complements each other – the way Bryant, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum fit together almost seamlessly – before they worry about the end of the bench. Last summer, the Heat acknowledged that it would take some time to put together the quality, veteran pieces to fill things out. While uncertainty looms because the details of the league’s next Collective Bargaining Agreement are unknown, Miami, as a city and as a franchise, will always be a top destination for role players.
Putting this all together and taking the franchise-building long view, it’s important for the Heat – from the top down – to acknowledge that, while the talent level is comparable between Miami and Los Angeles on any given night, there are fundamental differences between wannabe and dynasty. Those differences, right now, boil down to coach, the construction of the "Big 3" itself and the team's ability to fill out its depth around that nucleus. That's a lot of questions.
Summer is going to hit hard for the Heat, who had dreamed of winning a title and ushering in a new era. For their sake, the Heat organization should hit back hard, addressing their biggest weaknesses by refusing to lock themselves into a path that hasn’t proven fruitful, instead looking to the Lakers model, which continues to chug along successfully all these decades later. There's no sense in being stubborn for stubborn's sake.