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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Miami rounding into form

We're not yet halfway through the season, but it's a great time to take a look at how far the Miami Heat have come. Yes, that's rather premature since "how far they've come" does not yet include a championship, or even a finals appearance, so far away are we from the end of this regular season.

Let's forget, for now, about how these players got together on one team, and let's think for a moment about the fact that they are together.

Way back in the summer, I was one of the bandwagon jumpers, sort of. I've always been a Dwayne Wade fan, hadn't been much of a LeBron James fan whilst he was in Cleveland, and naturally have a soft spot (no pun intended) for Chris Bosh as he spent his first years fulfilling his rookie obligations in Toronto with the Raptors. His last season in Toronto he led the NBA in field goal percentage and players around the league wanted to play with him, so as far as I'm concerned he is every bit a part of the "big 3" in Miami as solidly as any 3rd wheel in NBA greatness history (again, I use that term loosely at this pre-championship time).

I was surprised so many of my buddies were hating on the way in which the players got together, but I was even more mystified by their expecting these guys to fall flat on their faces. Wade has already won a championship and LeBron has been to a finals, so it's not as though these three together should have expectations of themselves less than at least getting back to the dance. But, why all the vitriol?

Let's muse, shall we, on the main reason why I was bullish for their success. The 2003 draft went like this:

1st. LeBron James 
2nd. Darko Milicik 
3rd. Carmelo Anthony 
4th. Chris Bosh 
5th. Dwayne Wade

We now have 3 of the top 5 picks playing together, all under the age of 28. When in NBA history has this ever happened, and what are the implications?

Consider the legendary 1984 draft:

1st. Hakeem Olajuwon (two championships with Houston) 
2nd. Sam Bowie 
3rd. Michael Jordan (six championships with Chicago) 
4th. Sam Perkins (finals with Lakers, losing to MJ and the Bulls) 
5th. Charles Barkley (finals with Suns, losing to MJ and the Bulls)

Or the 1985 draft:

1st. Patrick Ewing 
14th. Karl Malone (second highest career points ever, behind Kareem).

Or the 1987 draft:

1st. David Robinson
 5th. Scottie Pippen 
7th. Kevin Johnson 
10th. Horace Grant 

11th. Reggie Miller (one of my personal heroes, one the most tenacious competitors ever).

If you put together the top 3 of the first 5 in any draft, there's no guarantee of a championship. But when you look through history at who became great after being taken somewhere other than 1st, it's most intriguing to try to bring together these top talents and blend their skills into a winning chemistry.

Wade said it best after their recent win over the short-staffed Charlotte Bobcats, "To look at us in the Boston game earlier this year, we didn’t know what each other was thinking. Now we’re on the same page. Us not being able to play together is not a conversation anymore. I think we do a good job of playing off each other. This is what we envisioned and it’s starting to come true."

At this point in the season, Miami has their best start in franchise history; they have reeled off the highest road wins in a calendar month in league history, are second in the entire league in wins and tied for first in the Eastern Conference.

How this could be a surprise to anyone simply baffles me. There's just too much talent and expectations of themselves and each other not to be "competitive," to say the least.

It should not be lost in this that the architect was some guy named Pat Riley. Pat Riley...Pat Riley...oh yeah, the guy who ran the Showtime Lakers of the 80s. So, he's "done this before", this being fine-tuning not only chemistry but entertainment value. Yes, the Showtime era did start the season before he became head coach, but he took the on-court talent to a new level, capitalizing on the glitz of Hollywood to transcend basketball and raise the NBA's profile.

He had success in New York, and brought a championship to Miami with Wade and Shaq. Riley knows a thing or two about building championships. This isn't some loose wheel here. He understands players with ego (Magic, Shaq), he understands the media (LA, New York), and the cult of celebrity (Jack Nicholson, Spike Lee).

Back in the summer of 2010, the coming together of this kind of talent both on the court and in the front office demanded that basketball fans take notice and pay attention, and I'm already on record as expecting that we ain't seen nothing yet.

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