The near-failure and success of the LeBron James-era Miami Heat

The near-failure and success of the LeBron James-era Miami Heat

In a May Instagram chat, Chris Bosh gave voice to the gnawing sense that the Miami Heat of 2010 to 2014 — a supernova of sports celebrity — fell short of expectations. Bosh conceded the Golden State Warriors had surpassed that Heat team in dynastic terms, and compared the Heat to the short-lived U.K. musical phenomenon Cream.

Bosh has not been alone. In the lead-up to Wednesday’s 10-year anniversary of The Decision, a roundtable of ESPN experts debated whether the Big Three Heat underachieved. End-of-decade retrospectives about the 2010s NBA seemed to focus more on the Warriors, and even on LeBron James‘ transcendent run in 2016 to Cleveland’s first championship in 52 years.

Some of that was our collective brain gravitating toward more recent events. Some of it was about basic longevity. The Heat’s run came apart at least two or three years before they anticipated — before LeBron even turned 30. If the Heat’s on-court imprint failed to measure up to the earthquake of the team’s formation, a lot of that had to do with the decline of Dwyane Wade‘s knees.

By the 2013 playoffs, which ended in Miami’s second consecutive title, Wade’s impact was scattershot. He cracked 20 points only once in the conference finals — a seven-game slog over a 49-win Indiana Pacers team. His production swung wildly in Miami’s epic seven-game Finals win over San Antonio. He shot horribly from the post until a 23-point performance in Game 7 that was somehow both gutty and polished. The Heat were minus-57 in that series with Wade and James on the floor. Wade showed up for the finale, but the Heat got there in large part behind James-centric lineups stacked with shooting.

A year later, Miami could no longer summon the focus and fury required to contain San Antonio’s beautiful machine. The Heat were old, aching, thin. In the locker room after Game 5, their reign over forever, Miami’s players seemed more relieved than angry. They appeared at peace.

Wade’s less bouncy games laid bare what the Heat accepted as one small price of building its big three: Wade’s and James’ styles on offense overlapped to a degree that was not ideal. Each was at his best dominating the ball. Neither was a traditional off-ball floor-spacer.

On most nights, against most teams, it didn’t matter. Miami’s athleticism overwhelmed. The Heat vaporized passing lanes on defense, and rampaged for fast-break dunks. In the half court, James and Wade didn’t need wide lanes to get to the rim. They flew through crevices. Wade was a smart, hoppy cutter before LeBron arrived. LeBron became one in Miami.

Over three seasons of trial and error, Miami found the right mix of shooting and defense around the three tentpole stars. After their humiliation against Dallas in the 2011 Finals, Miami signed Shane Battier to defend power forwards — an assignment James did not want — in smaller lineups. The Battier deal might go down as the single most impactful midlevel contract in league history.

Watching the 2011 Finals through the lens of 2020, the Heat look old-fashioned. Traditional centers clogged driving lanes. Bosh spotted up around the elbows. Their offense was stilted, uncertain. Time would have bred some chemistry and flow. Even so, watching now — and knowing what was brewing in Oklahoma City and San Antonio — you wonder: Had the Heat not reimagined their roster and style, would they have won even one title?

Reinvention started with Battier’s signing, but it took time. The Heat didn’t commit to pace-and-space until an injury to Bosh in Game 1 of the 2012 conference semifinals against Indiana forced them into it. When Bosh returned nine games later in the conference finals against the Boston Celtics, he was mostly a center. The Heat won six of their next eight, and the championship.

That offseason, they doubled down on shooting — and smallish-ball — by snaring Ray Allen from Boston. Allen and Battier gave Miami the production they expected, but never really got, from Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem — support players deemed so essential in 2010 that the three stars took pay cuts to fit them. The league evolved past Haslem. Miller had moments, but injuries limited his productivity and playing time in every season in Miami until the Heat waived him.

With Battier and Allen, Miami discovered its identity. The Heat went 66-16 in 2012-13, including a 27-game winning streak — the second longest in league history.

The clunky, hesitant offense of 2011 gave way to a blur of touch passes, screens, and cuts. The Heat did everything at full speed, a gear teams reach only when true joy meets profound confidence and familiarity. A pick-and-roll on one side with 18 on the shot clock triggered a rapid-fire series of actions that flowed into a pick-and-roll on the other side with 12 on the shot clock. What had comprised their entire half-court offense two years earlier became subsumed within a circular system that was almost self-governing.

Defenses chased from behind. When they kept up, which was rare, the Heat improvised. Someone broke from the script, and even as he took that first step into the unknown, the other four players would realize what was happening — and adjust in kind.

It was the perfect symbiosis of style and substance. Miami topped the league in points per possession, and made one of the biggest year-to-year leaps in scoring efficiency of all time. Witnessing that kind of evolution — the real work of the NBA — is why die-hards set aside two-plus hours, 82 times per year, and obsess over the middle and back of the roster. You almost feel part of the growth experience. It validates fandom.

Miami blitzed through the first two rounds of the 2013 playoffs. The Heat were 45-3 in 48 games entering the conference finals against Indiana. They looked unbeatable.

And then they didn’t. The Heat went the distance to beat a Pacers team that won 49 games and posted the league’s eighth-best scoring differential. They needed a LeBron buzzer-beating layup to steal Game 1 at home, a finish made cleaner because Indiana had taken out Roy Hibbert.

In sussing out Miami’s legacy, that series sticks out as much as the Finals loss to Dallas. The Heat were still learning one another in 2011, learning the magnitude of the spotlight, when the hungry and fearless Mavericks dismissed them. You knew Miami would grow.

The postseason struggles the next year — down 2-1 to the Pacers, then 3-2 to the Celtics — came with Bosh injured. Once he returned, Miami rolled to the title.

Miami then split back-to-back Finals against San Antonio, going 5-7 over 12 games. The Heat came about as close to losing the first as any champion ever: down 3-2 in the series and 94-89 in Game 6 with 28.2 seconds remaining after Manu Ginobili went 1-of-2 at the line. You know the rest: one LeBron 3, another Spurs missed free throw (from Kawhi Leonard), The Rebound, The Ray Allen Moonwalk Shot, fans trying to get back in the arena, an overtime win.

It has since been fashionable to point out the Heat were a few breaks from winning one title in four years, a record which would have been fairly regarded a failure. That is true in the most literal sense, but also simplistic and a little misleading.

The Spurs of 2013 were a great team growing into a historically great team. Tim Duncan made first-team All-NBA, Tony Parker second team. They won 58 games, and outscored their postseason opponents by 7.9 points per 100 possessions — 16th among all playoff teams since 1996-97, per NBA.com, and a fatter figure than many champions in that span (including the 2013 Heat) posted.

In winning the title next season in one of the all-time vengeance tours, the Spurs obliterated their playoff opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions. Only the 2000-01 Lakers and the back-to-back Warriors title teams that included Kevin Durant (2016-18) have surpassed that figure in the past quarter century.

The main difference between the 2013 and 2014 Spurs was Leonard’s ascension toward stardom, which crested with his Finals MVP performance in 2014. But it was underway in 2013. Leonard averaged 15 points in that series, and logged almost 91 minutes combined over Games 6 and 7. Watching Game 7 today, you wonder if Gregg Popovich might have been too hesitant to entrust more of the offense to Leonard. Leonard was only 21, but he obliterated Miller whenever the Spurs hunted that matchup.

Coming within a whisker of losing twice to that team is not any indictment of Miami’s greatness. Yeah, the Heat required some breaks leading to Allen’s legendary shot. Only a great team would have been in that position against the 2013 Spurs: alive in Game 6, close enough to pounce on those breaks. Also, they had to actually win the game — make the plays to force overtime, and then outscore the Spurs over five more minutes. They did. Then they had to win Game 7. They did.

(It’s irresistible to reimagine the 2013 playoffs with Russell Westbrook, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in Game 2 of the first round. The Oklahoma City Thunder won 60 games and posted the league’s best scoring margin in their first season without James Harden. They were a tricky matchup for the Spurs. They also appeared unready for Miami in the previous Finals.)

That’s why I keep coming back to that 2013 conference finals against the Pacers. That was Miami’s chance to prove historical dominance. The Heat were healthy, in a state of basketball nirvana. The Pacers pushed them to the edge.

Almost every historic juggernaut enjoys some period of near-invulnerability that extends over one full postseason. They feel unbeatable, inevitable. The LeBron-era Heat never had a playoff run like that.

The Pacers were a mediocre offensive team, but they had shocking success scoring against Miami’s trapping defenses. They were one of the first teams to figure out how to use the Heat’s aggression against them — to bait the Heat into trapping, and then pass around those trips. They just didn’t have the passing and shooting to finish enough possessions.

The 2011 Mavericks and Spurs of 2013 and 2014 did. They often picked apart a defense that roared over lesser teams in the regular season.

Those teams (and the Pacers, with hellhounds on the wing and Hibbert at the rim) had intermittent success slowing down Miami’s lightning-strike offense. They avoided turnovers, defanging Miami’s transition game. They ducked screens against Wade and James, daring them to shoot jumpers and spotlighting the skill set overlap between Miami’s perimeter stars.

Miami’s half-court efficiency plummeted in both Finals against San Antonio, per Cleaning The Glass.

No strategy worked all the time. Nothing does against great teams. When the game slowed, Miami cleared one side of the floor for James — with three ace shooters dotting the arc, and Wade lurking as a cutting threat. There were few NBA sights more thrilling in 2012 and 2013 than James facing up on the wing, the whole floor in front of him, calculating his attack plan.

He kept one eye on that help defender stepping in and out of the paint. James was and is a genius at accelerating into his first hard dribble at the exact millisecond that help defender begins his mandatory slide out of the paint. Few big men could reverse momentum in time to meet James at the rim. James in those moments was the perfect mix of modern and old school — a predatory iso scorer with all-world vision and cutting-edge levels of 3-point shooting around him.

But the best teams could always wobble Miami. That the good-but-not-great Pacers could too stands out all these years later. It also reminds that the Pacers emerged as Miami’s chief obstacle in the East only after knee injuries ended Derrick Rose‘s run as a superstar. Rose’s Chicago Bulls won 62 games in 2010-11 and played at the same pace in the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season, when they edged Miami for the No. 1 seed. Chicago and Miami were poised for a glorious rivalry. The Pacers filled a void but were never a two-way threat on the level of those Bulls.

In the end, Miami will go down as closer to a “normal” championship team than a special or dynastic one. The Heat’s run was brief, just four years, and they teetered against the best opposition. Wade’s knees contributed to both the brevity and the vulnerability.

Some within the league view the end result as a disappointment, given the hype and the presence of perhaps the greatest player ever over his prime. That feels wrong, even if the run ended in a blink.

Consider this: In three seasons with Stephen Curry, Durant, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green in their primes, the Warriors came very close to winning one title. Only 2017 was easy. In 2018, the Houston Rockets pushed Golden State to Game 7 in the conference finals — a game Chris Paul missed due to injury. (Andre Iguodala was out, too.) Injuries waylaid the Warriors last season against the Toronto Raptors. Injuries are not an anomaly, even if losing both Durant and Thompson was somewhat anomalous. Injuries hit everyone.

Fans complained — with much justification — that the Warriors with Durant had too much talent. It was unfair. And yet: one game from one title in three seasons.

You can’t look at that and consider Miami’s two titles in four seasons — and four straight trips to the Finals, the first team to do that since the 1980s Celtics — a disappointment. Some of the greatest teams ever, including those Celtics and the Spurs, never repeated. Miami did.

Perhaps it wasn’t what Miami envisioned when it pulled off the 2010 free agency coup. It wasn’t “not three, not four, not five.” It definitely wasn’t easy.

But it was a success.

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