On May 28, ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh asked if the 2012–2013 Miami Heat were the best team ever. The Heat had won 47 of their previous 51, and hadn’t lost back-to-back games since early January. With a 2–1 lead over the Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, they were in the midst of one of the most impressive postseason runs ever. Maybe they weren’t the greatest collection of talent in history, but they weren’t far off from the best versions of Jordan’s Bulls, Magic’s Lakers, and Bird’s Celtics.
Four days later, the Heat were “facing an identity crisis.” According to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, “This one is not created by fans who enjoy seeing them fail or by media who are attracted to that story. … It's about them losing sight of their plan and their grand agreement and whether or not that is the right thing to do.” LeBron James was talking about going “back to my Cleveland days”—“old failing habits” in Windhorst’s estimation. For his part, Wade said, “we've got to try to help each other out in this locker room and not leave it up to the individual to self-will it." Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski wrote ominously of the Heat’s mission: “Sparing themselves the embarrassment of a second collapse in three seasons, sparing themselves of history remembering this team not as a dynasty for the ages, but one of sport's great disappointments.”
The Heat beat the Pacers in Game 7 by 23 points. Crisis averted, until the next time Miami loses a game. The Heat are the NBA’s Goliath, at once indomitable and in danger of being felled by each pebble that gets flung at their noggin. Every victory is inevitable, every defeat apocalyptic.
In large part, James did this to himself and to his teammates, raising the bar for championship success so high during the Big 3’s 2010 welcome party—“not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven”—that even a fistful of rings won’t be enough to clear it. But the recent chatter about the crumbling of the Heat’s not-yet dynasty also stems from another fateful (if less capitalized) decision.
Last year, Miami coach Erik Spoelstra made the radical move of playing without a true center. That strategy, which took advantage of the Heat’s athleticism and LeBron’s versatility, helped Miami blow past the Thunder to win the NBA title. At the same time, that move—as well as several key signings in free agency—put the Heat in the curious position of pairing Goliath’s reputation with David’s stature. The Miami Heat are the big, bad bullies of the NBA, a team that also happens to get pushed around by the league’s biggest, baddest players. Never has such a strong team willingly handicapped itself with such a glaring weakness.
Given the league’s salary cap strictures, no NBA franchise has the luxury of playing with a fully modular roster. For coaches and general managers, lineup construction and deployment amounts to placing a season-long wager on which collection of players will lead it to championship glory. The Oklahoma City Thunder have bet over the last few seasons that a roster featuring the massively expensive, massively expansive Kendrick Perkins—as well as, this season, a roster that included Serge Ibaka rather than James Harden—would help them maraud past any franchise with a dominant center. That bet hasn’t paid off: Perkins didn’t help at all against the Heat in the 2012 Finals, and his presence was pretty much moot this year after Russell Westbrook hurt his knee.