The Miami Heat: Learning To Live Without LeBron
"I'm ready to accept the challenge. I'm coming home." Nine words that brought fanfare, reconciliation and hope to one city, yet, simultaneously, threatened to send another into turmoil.
LeBron James' open letter on Friday July 11, 2014, confirming his decision to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers after four years with the Miami Heat, brought to an end a hugely successful period in the South Florida franchise's history.
After four straight NBA Final appearances, from which they came away with two Larry O'Brien Trophies, the Big Three era spearheaded by James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was officially over in Miami.
Having joined forces in 2010 amidst LeBron's claims of bringing Miami seven titles, the trio – all top-five picks in a stacked 2003 NBA Draft – helped the Heat master the small ball game to great effect over the subsequent four seasons. A comprehensive 104-87 defeat to the San Antonio Spurs in Game Five of the Finals, however, would prove to be the less than perfect swansong for a group that had made it their business to dominate the NBA between 2010 and 2014.
Set to a backdrop of burning number 23 jerseys on south beach and packed out high school stadia in Akron, Ohio, the powers that be in Miami were suddenly faced with finding an answer to a question they hoped wouldn't be asked for several years.
"This is a big, monumental change that we didn't necessarily anticipate, but you have to respect it. When you're a free agent in this league, you have the right to make a decision that's best for you and your family." – Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra speaking on James' exit in July 2014.
Just weeks earlier, the nation had been debating the possibility of a dynasty-defining ‘three-peat'. Now, the issue was how the franchise's top brass were going to prevent Miami from taking a back seat in the title picture.
Within hours of James' decision going public, odds on the Heat winning the title in 2015 had plummeted from 4-1 to 50-1 – below the likes of the New York Knicks and Memphis Grizzlies.
There was good reason for bookmakers to adjust their odds, too. LeBron's announcement had rocked Miami on their heels.
The team had widely expected all three of their star names to re-join the franchise after opting out of their respective contracts. As a result, there was no specific plan in place for how to put together a roster without the most talented of the trio.
In the 2015 draft, for instance, the Heat had made a trade with the Charlotte Hornets to get Shabazz Napier, in part because James had championed the University of Connecticut product. Had they known they'd be losing their talismanic small forward, they might have done things differently. Napier, incidentally, is now on the Orlando Magic's roster.
Pat Riley, Miami's former coach turned team president - and for so long the Heat's resident fire-fighter - remained bullish, however, insisting; "This process didn't take anything out of me. That chain has been broken prematurely, but we're going to try to make it a generational (team) again. We were always looking at 2016 to be a (major) player (in free agency)."
Indeed, as the media readied stories on Miami being put out to dry, Riley made some moves that raised hope amongst their fans that they could remain competitive in the Eastern Conference.
He moved quickly to retain the services of Wade and Bosh, both of whom, like LeBron, had taken the opportunity to opt out of the contracts signed in 2010. The two veteran stars signed new deals within one week of James' exit – the latter phoning in from a safari trip in Ghana to confirm his commitment amidst speculation of a deal with the Houston Rockets.
Luol Deng was inked to a two-year contract as Miami searched for an answer at small forward. The British star was joined by Danny Grainger and Josh McRoberts who had both agreed to sign before James' announcement. Key role players Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen also returned to the roster. In fact, one NBA executive claimed Riley had managed to "save that franchise from who knows how many tough years" with his offseason moves.
Nevertheless, with veterans such as Ray Allen and Shane Battier also calling time on their Heat careers that summer, filling the LeBron-shaped void was going to be a tough task, and, as it turned out, losing a future Hall of Famer was every bit as problematic as it sounds.
A DIFFICULT BREAKUP
Even before the 2014-15 season began, the ramifications of James' return home to Cleveland were being felt away from the hardwood.
Television companies took a step back. During the 2013-14 season, ABC, ESPN and TNT had combined to broadcast Miami's ‘Big Three' live to the nation on 25 occasions.
In August 2014, it was announced that that number would be dropping to 20 for Miami's first season without James. Not a significant drop off perhaps, but not a trend you'd expect in light of a fourth successive trip to the NBA Finals. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, were earmarked for 29 broadcasts compared to just nine the season previous. Evidentially, where LeBron goes, the cameras follow.
Merchandise, too, also took a hit, as you might expect when the face of the league pulls on another jersey. Miami ranked first in merchandise sales amongst the NBA's 30 franchises throughout the Big Three era. By 2015, they found themselves in eighth spot. The average price of a ticket at Miami's American Airlines Arena had also dropped by as much as 31 percent after the opening weeks of the campaign.
Having enjoyed huge commercial success over the first half of the decade, the Florida franchise could live with the financial implications of James' exit. It was on the court where matters would prove more pressing.
With the Big Three intact, a deep playoff run had become a near certainty. Now, without the safety blanket of a once-in-a-generation player like James, uncertainty prevailed.
Despite an unorthodox offseason, Miami actually began 2014-15 in good form – going 5-2 over the opening weeks as Bosh settled into his new role as offensive leader, backed up by Deng's scoring and a resurgent Wade.
As they say, though, when it rains, it pours. Not content with stripping them of LeBron's talents, the basketball Gods saw to it that the Heat's roster succumbed to several key injuries in the subsequent months.
Injuries to the likes of McRoberts and Wade – sidelined for several spells as his long-time knee issues returned -led to inconsistency and roster dilemmas as 2014 gave way to 2015.
A humbling 115-79 loss to the Rockets on January 3 left Miami sitting on a 14-20 record – a full six games below .500. In all the time James, Wade and Bosh suited up together in the Heat's colours, the team had never been more than one game below the mark, and that was only when they began the 2013-14 season on a 1-2 run.
When Chris Bosh's season came to a premature end following All-Star weekend after he was discovered to be suffering from blood clots, it seemed to many to officially signify the changing of the guard in the Eastern Conference. Without James, and with Bosh and Wade battling illness and injury, the Heat simply couldn't compete any longer.
"There's no getting around the fact that losing Bosh is a crippling blow to the Heat," Sports Illustrated wrote at the time. "…Merely staying afloat in a tight playoff race without Bosh would count as a serious accomplishment."
Ultimately, even that was too much to ask for Erik Spoelstra's men. The Heat ended up on the outside looking in when it came to the 2015 playoffs after compiling the franchise's first losing season since 2007-08. Finishing in 10th place in the East, the question soon became not 'when' but 'if' the franchise would regain a place amongst the NBA's elite.
So, just how have the Heat gone from this lost season – a campaign in which a franchise-record 30 different starting lineups were used - to a return to the higher echelons of the Eastern Conference at the time of writing?
In a roundabout way, the trials and tribulations of the 2014-15 season actually helped pave the way for what has been an impressive comeback in 2015-16. Hidden beneath the doom and gloom of the franchise's 37-45 record were the shoots of recovery.
In particular, two roster moves made in the middle of that season proved to be inspired. In December 2014, Hassan Whiteside was signed from the NBA D-league and, in February 2015, Riley pulled off a mid-season coup by trading for Goran Dragic.
Neither move was able to immediately help rescue Miami from their post-Big Three hangover but they did offer glimpses of a bright future for the team.
Whiteside, a talented 26-year-old with no less than nine basketball teams on his pro resume when he arrived in Miami, averaged a double-double in his 42 appearances last season. He became one of the league's biggest talking points thanks to some monster rebounding performances. Largely playing from the bench in 2015-16, he has taken his game to the next level:
"I've never been around that kind of turnaround," said Pat Riley recently on Whiteside.
"We've had some players that we've opened our eyes up on, but I think what Hassan did last year and what he's doing now, his level of play… in my 50 years in the NBA, I have never seen that kind of phenomenon."
Dragic's arrival, meanwhile, gave Miami an elite frontcourt with depth and allowed them to move beyond a Big Three defined roster that some may argue had already been figured out by other teams. The Slovenian has averaged 14.6 points and 5.7 assists in his 89 appearances for the Heat so far.
Buoyed by an offseason that didn't include saying goodbye to their biggest star, the Heat were also able to make wily additions such as the arrival of Amar'e Stoudemire during the summer of 2015. The former Knicks man has become another member of the Heat roster to defy his critics with a series of clutch performances.
The struggles endured during their first season without James also helped Miami in two other ways. Firstly, their dysfunctional season gave the team their first lottery pick since 2008. Coming in at number 10, the Heat used that pick to select Justice Winslow, a real coup in many people's eyes. A fact the NBA's general managers agreed with when they picked their steal of the draft in the annual GM survey.
At just 20-years-old, the former Duke small forward is firmly installed as a role player in his rookie season. Nevertheless, coming off the bench alongside Whiteside and fellow rookie Josh Richardson, Winslow is part of a fast-paced second unit that has left many an opponent struggling for answers in recent months.
"They play like they have chips on their shoulders and have something to prove. That's something Dwyane and myself both played with as rookies." – Udonis Haslem on Miami Heat rookies, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson.
Secondly, when, in February of this year, Chris Bosh's suffered a recurrence of the clotting issues that affected him and the team so badly in 2014-15, the Heat was able to cope.
Averaging nearly 20 points per game before the latest setback, Bosh had bounced back to become every bit the team leader Miami hoped he could be in the post-LeBron era. Unfortunately, the former Toronto Raptors star hasn't taken to the court since announcing he would be withdrawing from All-Star duty back in mid-February.
Losing the veteran after the All-Star break understandably led to speculation that the Heat's impressive campaign could fall apart.
"The Heat's linchpin is missing," wrote the Miami Herald on February 17, "which renders the infrastructure of the roster unstable. The Heat's brainiac anchor is gone, which changes the franchise's ingrained style of play into a game of improv."
Instead of capitulating, however, the Heat have been able to win 13 of the 19 games since Bosh was forced out of the rotation. Having him in the lineup remains the preferred option, but the roster's performances without him suggest the Big Three can legitimately function as a supporting cast propped up by just one of its founding members.
That one, of course, is Dwyane Wade. As has been the case virtually throughout his 13 years as a Heat lifer, the veteran shooting guard remains a constant in the Miami ranks.
With LeBron gone and Bosh unavailable, he has been resurgent this season alongside the team as a whole. Coming off a campaign in which he was limited to the fewest minutes per game in his NBA career, Wade is averaging 19 points and 4.7 assists a night. Most importantly, he has largely maintained his fitness and has missed just six games on route to Miami's 45-30 record.
That last part is extremely significant. Miami has bounced back to cope well with losing two of the three men pivotal in their 2010-2014 run of success. No team, though, can say goodbye to three such significant players without suffering the consequences. Fortunately for the Heat, on this occasion, lady luck has favoured them.
Whether by happy coincidence or astute decision-making behind the scenes, the Heat top brass have compiled a roster this season that is using a blend of youth and experience to become relevant again.
The arrival of Joe Johnson back in February is a prime example of that. The 15-year veteran has slotted in effortlessly to the Miami lineup and has provided valuable scoring at a time when Miami could have been left reeling in the absence of Bosh.
The fact Johnson opted to sign with the Heat over teams higher up the NBA standings, most notably the Cavaliers, is also telling. Miami may have stuttered since James' exit, but they remain a big draw for the league's big names. And it is paying dividends.
The famous 'Big Three' has been replaced in Miami with one big family as players across the roster - from veterans like Johnson and Luol Deng to rookies Winslow and Richardson - have combined to put the Heat back at the top table in the Eastern Conference.
The starting quintet of Dragic-Wade-Johnson-Deng and Stoudemire has been one of the most successful in the NBA since All-Star break. Like the season before, it isn't the lineup Heat staff had envisaged but, aided by their more sprightly bench, it has become a formidable group on both ends of the court.
LeBron James himself, speaking after the Heat handed his Eastern-Conference topping Cleveland team a 122-101 defeat on March 19, admitted his team simply "couldn't keep up with the pace" of the Heat's new-look team.
That's not to say the Big Three era was Wade, LeBron and Bosh against the world but there is no doubt that the triumvirate dominated the limelight in Miami during their time together. Having replaced the glitz and the glamour with an underdog tag, there is certainly a different feel as the franchise looks to embark on its first postseason run since LeBron returned home to Ohio.
"We have a nice sneakiness as a team. Great veterans. We got great leadership, with me, Chris, Dwyane, now Joe…And then we got some great young guys as well. Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Tyler Johnson…We got guys who are willing to accept our leadership and put in the work." – Amar'e Stoudemire on the Heat's new look team.
FINDING A WAY
Now, it would be foolish to claim the Miami Heat find themselves in a better position than they did when James was still on their roster. The four-time NBA MVP is one of those rare players that is truly irreplaceable.
Without LeBron, the Heat lacks that true fear factor that could see them challenge the very best the NBA has to offer at this point. There are still games - like the recent 112-87 reverse against the San Antonio Spurs - that confirm the rebuilding project is not quite complete.
The South Florida franchise does, though, seem to have avoided the pitfalls that often surround the exit of a team's top player. Where other franchise's have fallen by the wayside in years gone by, the Heat has taken stock, batted away all manner of setbacks, refocused and emerged as a roster combining youth and experience; pace and power.
Miami's quick-fire return to the NBA's elite group after just one campaign in the realms of the lottery pick is a testament to the work behind the scenes at the American Airlines Arena. Both Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra have not only plugged gaps left by the respective members of the Big Three, they have put the team in a position to thrive in years to come.
The Big Three era may be dead and buried in Miami, but in its place has emerged a team capable of keeping the Heat in contention this season and potentially bringing another title in the not too distant future.
Over the past 18 months, they've been forced to be innovative with lineup selection, trade moves and offseason recruiting but, with the 2016 postseason just around the corner, they have, for the most part, found the right answers to the questions that have been asked.
From the moment LeBron jumped ship, sceptics were lining up to forewarn of a Miami collapse. Chris Bosh's frightening health scares and a sub-par 2014-15 campaign gave reason for those voices to get louder.
Out of the ashes of the Big Three, however, has come a new, fresh-faced Heat team that is fast becoming many people's dark horse for the Eastern Conference as the 2015-16 playoffs approach.
If they can keep hold of Whiteside this summer and the experienced heads continue to nurture the exciting crop of young talent on the roster, the potential beyond the current campaign is tantalising.
Whatever happens next, there is one thing that is clear. The rumours of the Miami Heat's demise in the post-LeBron era appear to have been greatly exaggerated.