The evidence, decades worth of it, has been staring us in the face for a long time: winning even a single NBA championship is brutally difficult and requires the perfect combination of luck, health, matchups and talent. The Mavericks have had one of the 25 greatest players in league history in his prime for more than a decade, and it took a unique confluence to get them over the top last season, including health among the right players and a one-year rental of one of the league’s best defenders (Tyson Chandler), acquired via a savvy deal involving a bizarre non-guaranteed contract. Dallas had mammoth “everything has to go right” comebacks in both their second-round series against the Lakers in and Game 2 of the Finals against Miami, and, of course, benefited from the puzzling meltdown from the game’s greatest player.
The 2007-08 Celtics, a management-created Big Three that fans typically find less abrasive than the (partially) player-created Big Three in Miami, blitzed the league in their first season together. Since then, however, they have fallen short due to poorly timed injuries and the emergence of a better conference rival in Miami — factors beyond their control.
The list goes on and on, dating to the 1950s Hawks and the 1960s Lakers, the latter a team which suffered so many heartbreaking losses against Boston that a player literally nicknamed “Mr. Clutch” went ring-less until the very end of his career. The truly great teams who fell short of winning even a single championship or “only” won that first ring outnumber — by a huge margin — the teams that have been fortunate enough to form mini-dynasties. All the “asterisk” talk after Derrick Rose’s sad knee injury in the very first game of these playoffs — talk that, thankfully, faded weeks ago — ignores the fact that nearly every playoff season features multiple injuries, big and small, nagging and crippling, that alter title odds across the league.
Put simply: There is a ceiling on NBA greatness, and this Heat team was never going to break through it. The very best teams in NBA history have typically outscored opponents by between eight and 12 points per 100 possessions, with fewer than a half-dozen teams breaking double digits in scoring margin. And there are always one or two teams lurking just below the top dog, waiting to pounce if an injury, coaching mistake or some bit of inner team turmoil tilts the championship equation in their favor.
The Heat were always going to have to work hard for this, even if they didn’t realize it when they held that ridiculous welcome party two years ago. And they have worked for it as injuries, age, on-court issues and random luck have forced them — both as individuals and as a team — to become something altogether different than they were when this Big Three experiment began.