What's at stake for LeBron James, Miami Heat in Game 6? Everything
If Heat lose to Celtics in Eastern Conference Finals expect major changes to team
Heat's Big Three is defined as much by their story as by their performance
Heat put themselves in tough spot, but could turn tide by winning next two games
In the fast-moving media world of 2012, the obituary comes before the death certificate. You call it tasteless; we call it efficient. So it is with the Miami Heat, who are only down 3 games to 2 but already have been cut into bite-sized pieces and served to stray dogs.
I will try not to do that. I actually think the Heat have an excellent chance to win Game 6 in Boston on Thursday night -- Miami forced overtime in Game 4 in Boston, and that was without Chris Bosh. The Celtics are tougher, mentally and physically, but they also go long stretches without scoring. We tend to be too influenced by the last thing we saw, and in this case, the last thing we saw was Paul Pierce honoring our Founding Fathers by burying a three-pointer in LeBron James' face. Miami could win Game 6, then go home and win Game 7 to earn another trip to the Finals. Many, many stranger things have happened.
So this is not an obituary. But it is about the looming obituary. Everything is on the table for the Heat in Game 6 -- the coach's career, the star's reputation and professional happiness, and the future of the Wade-James-Bosh triumvirate. Pat Riley could easily dismiss last year's Finals loss as part of the learning curve, but a defeat to an aging Celtics team would force changes.
Plus: James, Wade and Bosh can all opt out of their contracts in the summer of 2014. If Riley wants to deal one, he should do so this summer, when the value is highest. By the summer of 2013, they will be a year away from potential free agency.
But that's not simple either. The single most relevant truth about the South Beach Talents is that they are defined as much by their story as their performance. They can't separate the two. In Miami, everything external is internal, too. The Heat haven't even shown an ability to use criticism as fuel, the way the 2007 Patriots did after their spying scandal broke.
Egos built this team, and egos will be the biggest factor in retooling the Heat if Boston wins this series. When James, Wade and Bosh signed with Miami, they didn't think the rest of the team mattered. When James famously said he expected to win "not one, not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven" championships, Miami didn't even have a roster yet. He figured he could pass to TBD and TBA and win Finals MVP. Win or lose, he was obviously wrong about that.
Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said after Game 5, unprompted, that the Heat have to block out the "noise" and just try to win Game 6. This is true, and it's also rich. The Heat created that noise. James set the bar way over his head when he said he expected to win at least eight championships.
The good news for Spoelstra is that if Miami loses Game 6, he probably won't be around for the postgame press conference. I don't know if Spoelstra is a great coach. The popular view now is that he needs to use two timeouts and consult three assistants to tell the difference between an X and an O, and even then, if LeBron says the O is an X, then Spoelstra shrugs and goes along with it.
But I do know this: Spoelstra has been put in a difficult spot. I know most coaches would roll their eyes at that -- he has three All-Stars, including a three-time MVP, and other coaches are thinking "Gimme some of that difficulty, pal." I get that. But Spoelstra is expected to win championships -- anything else is a failure. And he must do it with no depth and two stars with similar offensive skill sets. The Heat are just another contending team, but people don't see the roster. They (naturally) see the expectations. And that seems to affect how Spoelstra's team plays.
The Heat adopted an Us Against The World attitude because ... well, because the world really is against them. Spoelstra had no choice. He can't rip into his players all the time, because the players built the team, and they don't want to get ripped. For two seasons, he has tried to take the positive-reinforcement approach to his team --- either through calculation or because that is just his personality. (Probably both.) The public has hammered the Heat ever since The Decision. Spoelstra has decided not to be another hammer.
OK, so Spoelstra goes. The average fan probably looks at the Heat and wonders: Why not hire Phil Jackson? When you have superstar talent on the cusp of a championship, isn't Jackson the obvious choice? Aren't the 2012 Heat in the same position as the 1990 Bulls and 1999 Lakers?
But again: Egos, egos, egos. Pat Riley built this team. Do you think he is going to ask Jackson, who tormented the Heat in the '90s, to save face for him? Do you think he wants Jackson adding title No. 12 and 13 to his coaching career, while Riley won five as a coach? Do you think Riley, who rules the Heat with an iron and well-tanned fist, wants to replace his protégé with his rival? I don't.
Normally, it shouldn't matter how a team was constructed, but the summer of The Decision still hangs over the Heat. James, Wade and Bosh chose the Heat together, so trading one means ticking off the other two. But keeping the three means the Heat basically have the same team again next spring -- when Oklahoma City and Chicago should be better.
If the Heat lose now, the smart basketball move is to trade Wade. Why? Well, they can't trade James -- he is the best player in the league. That leaves Bosh and Wade. Bosh is 28 and complements James well. Wade is 30 and does not. Wade also takes a beating. And mostly, Wade would fetch an ungodly haul -- he is indisputably a true superstar, both in game and in name.
In theory, a smart trade of Dwyane Wade would make the Heat the best team in the NBA.
But of course, there are enormous complicating factors. Trading Wade would triple the pressure on James. He would clearly be the man, which doesn't seem to be his preference. He would lose the stabilizing presence of Wade, his friend and ally. Heat fans might turn on him, even if the Wade trade wasn't his choice, because nobody trusts LeBron on this stuff, and Wade led Miami to a championship and helped bring James to Miami.
LeBron would be even more of a villain around the country, and he doesn't like that either. And then he might rebel against Heat management, which could sabotage the team -- and lead to James opting out of his deal in 2014, to distance himself from the whole thing.
Trading Bosh would be easier, but that is also complicated -- Wade and James would likely lobby Riley not to do it. The Heat would need multiple power forwards or centers in return, and very few teams have size to spare. It's easy to say "Trade Bosh!" It's harder to actually find a deal that makes sense.
There is, of course, the possibility of hiring a new coach and letting these guys make another run. After all, if Bosh were healthy, the Heat would probably be up 3-2 right now. Two summers ago, Riley shocked the country by putting this team together. This summer, he could shock the country by keeping this team together. It would be strange, but fitting. These guys wanted to stand next to each other on the big stage. Why should they get to walk off now?
In the meantime, the Heat can avoid all this talk, at least for now, by winning two more games. It won't be easy, but nobody said it would be easy. Oh, OK. I guess a few guys did.