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They come from Lithuania and Puerto Rico, Canada and Alaska, Mississippi and Miami, South Dakota and the South Side of Chicago. They go by Big Cat and Nooky, Docta and Joops, Slim and Sexy Dexy. One of them did not pick up a basketball until he was in 12th grade. One weighed 400 pounds at high school graduation. One made the National Honor Society. Five went to college in Florida, where two were roommates. Six played in the Final Four, but three went undrafted. Four were second-round picks. Two were exiled to Europe. They are an average of 30 years old, have been with an average of four NBA teams and scored an average of eight points. Three were All-Stars. Two were NBA champions. Four have been unemployed. Two have openly considered retirement. Heading into July, only one was under contract with the Heat. This season only three are making more than the veteran's minimum of $1.4 million.
They are Miami's Discounted Dozen, the scruffy extras scattered around LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, meant to stay under the salary cap and out of the way. They are part of the roster, but not the phenomenon. The Heat can seem like two separate teams, the three megastars escorted off to a stage where they deliver their postgame press briefings and the other 12 left behind in a near-empty locker room. "You here for my cover shoot?" forward Juwan Howard asked after a recent practice, laughing uproariously because nowhere in the NBA is the line more clear between the cover boys and the shadow dwellers.
The Dozen came to Miami to fill the passenger seats on a historic joyride: 30-point blowouts, road trips disguised as concert tours, playoff parties and champagne showers. As it turns out, they've found more scrutiny than many of them have ever known. The Heat has discovered, a month into their epic experiment, that three are not enough. If James, Wade and Bosh were as overpowering as anticipated, they might have required only caddies. But the Big Three need help to stretch defenses, chase rebounds and score inside. Miami was just 9--8 through Sunday, ranked 20th in rebounds per game, last in points-in-the-paint, and last in sympathy received. In the past week Lakers coach Phil Jackson speculated in a radio interview that James and Bosh would lobby Heat president Pat Riley to replace coach Erik Spoelstra; ESPN, citing unnamed sources, reported that several players were frustrated with Spoelstra's offensive strategies and questioned whether he was the right fit; and President Barack Obama, asked by Barbara Walters for his opinion on the Heat's slow start, reminded her that "there's no I in team." Players around the league piled on, attributing Miami's troubles to its lack of depth—a direct shot at The Dozen. The scene will grow uglier Thursday night in Cleveland, where extra security has been dispatched to control the crowd for James's return.
The Heat has failed to keep even its spare parts intact. Top rebounder Udonis Haslem tore a ligament in his left foot on Nov. 20 and could be out for the season. Sharpshooter Mike Miller is still recovering from a broken right thumb suffered in October and may not return until after Christmas. Last week rookie center Dexter Pittman was banished to the Development League, veteran swingman Jerry Stackhouse was released and 35-year-old center Erick Dampier was signed for another veteran's minimum contract—more than two months after he was waived by the Bobcats. By Sunday the depleted Dozen was down to nine.
The Heat already used its trade chips to clear cap space and land its Big Three. So in-season reinforcements must come from within, from a pool consisting mostly of has-beens and might-bes. For James, Wade and Bosh, struggle was never part of the plan. For the others, it's all they've ever known.
On July 10 Miami had four players under contract: James, Wade and Bosh, set to make more than $107 million each over the next six years, and point guard Mario Chalmers, set to earn $850,000 in the last year of his rookie deal. "I'm the only other player on the team," Chalmers cheerfully told his friends. Chalmers sank a last-second three-pointer that helped Kansas win the 2008 national championship and started the first 104 games of his NBA career, but he showed up late to a shootaround last December and was demoted to third string. Miami needed at least one more reliable ball handler, a couple outside shooters and a lot of interior muscle.
Haslem was born and raised in Miami, went undrafted out of Florida and in 2002--03 played his first professional season in France, where he kept himself on eastern standard time because he never wanted to get comfortable. The following summer he only received one contract offer—from a team in Oostende, Belgium. Haslem signed the contract and instructed his then agent Jason Levien to send it, but the agent balked. He knew that if Haslem went to Europe for a second season, he was unlikely to make it back. Levien waited, and that Monday, Riley called. He offered $100,000 and a spot at training camp but made it clear that Haslem should never expect meaningful minutes. After a spate of injuries Haslem was an improbable entry into the starting lineup on opening night of 2003--04. Two seasons later Riley was calling him the heart of a championship franchise.
With James and Bosh on the way last summer, Haslem assumed that the Heat had run out of cap space for him. He went to his exit meeting at American Airlines Arena in the second week of July and told Riley that he was accepting a five-year, $34 million contract from the Nuggets. Riley asked Haslem to leave the room, and in the hour that followed, Wade volunteered to shave part of his salary for Haslem, then persuaded James and Bosh to do the same. They needed Haslem as a leader, a rebounder and also a recruiter. Haslem accepted a five-year deal for $20 million and then persuaded Miller, his Florida roommate who had never been past the first round of the playoffs, to join Miami as a free agent for $30 million over five years.
At that point, forward James Jones was considering retirement. He grew up in Miami, where his mother and stepfather, correctional officers, let him see the inmates to scare him into staying on the straight and narrow. At 6'8" Jones had a three-point stroke as sweet as sugarcane, but his coaches at Miami played him in the low post. Often, the only outside shots he took were alone in the gym after the game was over. Drafted by the Pacers in 2003, he learned to come off screens from Reggie Miller and caught his break in November '04, when Ron Artest and Stephen Jackson were suspended for charging into the stands in Auburn Hills. "Without the brawl," says Jones, "I don't know that I'm in the league."
After stops in Phoenix and Portland, Jones signed with the Heat two years ago but ruptured a tendon in his right wrist before his first game, missed more than half of the next two seasons and had his contract bought out in June. "I was a shooter who couldn't shoot," Jones says. A self-described nerd who nearly quit basketball at American Senior High because he took home two C's, Jones wanted to pursue his master's in finance and felt it was time to let his wife, Destiny, put her degree in mental health counseling to use. He even purchased a membership at his local YMCA. Then the Celtics sent him a contract for the veteran's minimum and told him to fax it back. Jones signed and decided to hand-deliver the papers. Just a few hours before Jones left for Boston, Haslem called and said, "Not many people get to do something this special in their hometown." Jones junked the contract and canceled the flight. Miami gave him $4.4 million over three years.