It all seemed so simple back in July, when the Heat's Big Three flexed and preened on that smoky stage in Miami. The NBA, it has always been said, is a star-driven sport. To win multiple championships, all you had to do was assemble as many of them on your roster as the rules would allow (or barely allow) and turn them loose on the helpless, cowering competition until opponents were left weeping in the locker room.
Except now, eight months later in the teeth of the NBA season, the Heat's championship concoction is having trouble winning multiple quarters, much less championships. Miami's star-driven cruise ship has hit rough waters again, and this time it's far enough along on its journey to call it a trend.
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You know who has to be a little unnerved by all this? Well, Erik Spoelstra, of course. And Pat Riley. But besides them, you know who? Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony in New York, who followed right along with the Heat blueprint for success before finding out if it was going to be successful. Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, who are in line for the league's next big game of superstar musical chairs, should be a little worried, too.
Is it possible that this notion of putting multiple stars on the same team is as flawed as the execution of LeBron James' "Decision" fiasco? Is it conceivable that the struggles in Miami are proof that the NBA rules on the salary cap and player movement actually are perfectly designed?
"I think Miami and us are similar in that we both have two really super players," Knicks president Donnie Walsh said. "But to get those players, you had to give up the supporting cast that you need."
This isn't revisionist history on Walsh's part, even though last summer he flocked to the IMG tower in Cleveland to suck up to LeBron just like everybody else did. James was the primary catch of the 2010 free-agent summer, and for good reason. The question of what talent would've been best to put around him was another matter entirely.
The Heat went all in, bringing together two similar talents in James and Dwyane Wade and tolerating their $14 million-a-year sidekick, Chris Bosh, who was part of Creative Artists Agency's package deal. At the time, I bemoaned James' decision to team up with Wade as a missed opportunity. I had it right, but for the wrong reasons.
I thought it was a copout for these two natural rivals to pass up the chance to battle the way Bird and Magic did three decades ago and put their talents together on the same team. I thought the Heat would be so good that it would be unfair. But to Walsh's point, we were all forgetting the ingredients that have always been necessary to win a championship: size and depth. Riley's concoction doesn't have enough of either. By spending all his per diem on meat, Riley wound up with no potatoes or veggies -- a recipe for dyspepsia.
Eight months later, it is still easier to imagine the possibilities of a superstar duo or trio than it is to actually win that way. What everyone forgot is that the original Big Three of this era in Boston were not 20-somethings with similar talents, but cunning, complementary veterans. So in retrospect, yes: Wade would've been better off going to Chicago to play with Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. LeBron would've been better off going to New York with Stoudemire -- or even Bosh or Carlos Boozer, had Stoudemire decided to take his talents to South Beach instead of Manhattan.
In both places, an individual superstar would've had complementary pieces around him and a clear pecking order as far as crunch-time hierarchy goes. In Chicago, Rose has emerged as Mr. Everything for the Bulls out of necessity. But he's smarter than you think, and he would've worn his point-guard hat more often if given a scorer like Wade.
In New York, Stoudemire spent two-thirds of the season as the Knicks' undisputed MVP. Had he been teamed with LeBron, Stoudemire would've been wise enough to look at him as a 6-8 version of Steve Nash. James with the ball in his hands, Mike D'Antoni's playbook in his brain, and Stoudemire on his hip would've been downright scary. The Knicks would've been running LeBron-Amar'e pick-and-rolls -- with Danilo Gallinari wide open and drooling in the corner -- until every last clipboard in the Eastern Conference had been smashed into a million pieces.
But in the end, ego and the AAU mentality won out over logic and good basketball sense. Rather than assembling a team with all the ingredients necessary to win a championship, the Heat built a vapid, pop-culture phenomenon instead.
Now, the friends of LeBron and Wade around the league should pause before they rush to emulate a blueprint that clearly needs more work. For Stoudemire and Anthony, it could be too late. Given the talent the Knicks had to give up to get Melo, he and Stoudemire are left with a Miami-like, star-heavy roster that is lacking the supporting cast necessary to win. The Knicks have two things going for them that the Heat are missing: 1) a strong leader and capable point guard in Chauncey Billups, who will figure out how to deploy his star duo's strengths and hide the weaknesses; and 2) a pair of stars who complement each other better than James and Wade do. Still, New York's starting center is Jared Jeffries, who has logged an even 100 minutes without scoring a single field goal since rejoining the Knicks.
The pieces that could've helped the Knicks complete the puzzle -- Gallinari's 3-point shooting, Wilson Chandler's athleticism, and yes, Timofey Mozgov's size -- are in Denver. There was no way to have them and have two stars. The kind of role players who could've elevated Wade to his second championship are in Chicago, threatening to carry Rose to the cusp of his first. The underrated talents who will have more to say about what happens in June than we thought are not in Miami, but rather in Oklahoma City (Kendrick Perkins), Boston (Jeff Green), and San Antonio (George Hill, Richard Jefferson). Meanwhile in Los Angeles, Kobe Bryant smells blood as he meticulously marches toward his sixth title, escorted by the duo of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, whose collective Q rating is too small to measure but whose combined 14 feet of height is far more important.
The NBA's summer of 2010, the LeBron-a-palooza, was fun while it lasted. The formation of a superteam in Miami has been unequivocally good for business, too. The league's TV ratings continue to climb and break records, and the NBA has a legitimate chance to do something it couldn't even do during Michael Jordan's career -- stand toe-to-toe with NCAA March Madness and wind up being far more entertaining.
The irony here would be if pro basketball's July madness simply gave us another Lakers-Celtics matchup in June. Or, just as likely, Bulls-Thunder. If that happens, the supporting casts in each city should find a stage somewhere and take a bow.