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Pro Basketball Crosstalk: Are the Heat good for basketball?

Sep 14, 2010, 12:32 PM EDT

Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for bosh_wade_james.jpgAnother day, another edition of Crosstalk. Today’s topic: The Miami Heat.

Resolved: The Miami Heat (as we now know them) are good for basketball.
Rob Mahoney: It is better to be feared than respected. That’s the truism that LeBron James is betting on, as he single-handedly sabotaged his own image while creating one of the most intimidating teams in recent NBA history. The hometown(ish) hero who held press conferences at his high school is no more, and in his place is a narcissistic, attention-hungry superstar. 
A narcissistic, attention-hungry superstar that happens to play for the Eastern Conference favorites, a team that could conceivably shake the sport and the league to its very core.
The Miami Heat have a chance to be a truly transformational team in a lot of ways, and challenge a lot of what we think we know about the game. The unique combination of top-notch talent assembled on the Heat roster thus simultaneously acts as both basketball innovator and philosopher, ushering in the new while revealing the true nature of the old. That last part is particularly important, especially when we investigate the role the Heat will play in discussions of positional fluidity.
LeBron James may end up being the “point guard,” or maybe Dwyane Wade. Either way, should one of those two become the de facto point for Miami, the Heat would seem to be visionaries, driven by inspiration and necessity. However, is putting either LeBron or Wade in a position to make plays really anything groundbreaking? Wouldn’t either player really be going about business as usual, just with better teammates to share the load? In that way, LeBron or Wade as a point guard wouldn’t be re-defining the position or even blurring positional lines, necessarily. They’d just be spokesmen of the way that position has evolved, like Plato’s philosopher returning to the cave to assure us all that the images of traditional point guards on the wall really are just shadows.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are both phenomenally talented and successful players, but they’re not stretching the limits of position in ways that haven’t been done before. Still, the sheer magnitude of the Heat’s season will likely do more for the positional revolution than so many of their positional misfit predecessors. Many consider Miami to be the championship favorite (or at the least, a contender), and the affirmation of the Heat’s unbalanced roster means plenty. This isn’t some experiment in an underground Oakland laboratory. Miami’s dabbling in a more fluid positional set-up will take place on the NBA’s biggest possible stage. With that in mind, exposure and success are both extremely important for whichever basketball norms the Heat will eventually come to challenge, and regardless of just how good the Heat end up being, the first is an absolute certainty.
The Heat make us think about things like position, and even if they don’t culminate in any widespread, institutional change, that’s still good for the sport. Plus, it hardly stops with positions. They make us think about how teams do and should execute their late-game offense. They make us think about what kind of players can be successful in which roles. They make us think about the optimal way to put together a contending team. Miami will challenge so many different aspects of basketball convention, and turn the sport into a never-ending process of hypothesis testing that’s great for everyone involved. 
The value of a team with the power to find and emphasize the truths of the game cannot be overstated.
John Krolik: Man, you went straight to “The Heat are a fascinating basketball experiment,” which was like the third or fourth point on my list. 
Anyways, putting aside the fact that I’m supposed to be a bitter Cavs blogger (which I am, to an extent), I think the Heat are great for basketball. Of course I wish LeBron was still in Cleveland, but I can’t deny that the Heat help the league as a whole. First and foremost, the NBA is still somewhat of a niche sport when compared to the NFL, MLB, college football, and even college basketball. And yet people have been talking about the NBA all summer long, and that’s because of LeBron and the Heat. 
Some people love this team, most people hate this team, but the important thing is that they care about this team. That’s important, especially when you consider the looming CBA dispute/lockout next season. The NHL got relegated to Versus because it went away for a year and everybody realized they didn’t really need it, even with Crosby and Ovechkin coming in — if the Heat help the NBA avoid a similar fate, then long live the Heat. 
Every possible scenario involving this team leads to more interest in the NBA. If they win the next three titles and become a dynasty, people won’t be able to keep their eyes off of them. I remember a Stuart Scott chat in ESPN The Magazine a while back that went thusly:
(Random Person): My friend thinks Tiger Woods is bad for golf because he wins too much.

Stu: I think your friend is stupid.
I tend to agree with Stu on this one: dominance is fascinating. We’re drawn to it, we love it. If the Heat can become a Bulls-like team that wins nearly every game, dominates every June, and become a team that makes every road game A Happening in whatever city they go to, that’s great. The only time we’re not drawn to dominance is when it’s associated with a Sampras/Federer/Klitschko-like lack of personality or national identity, and the Heat certainly don’t lack for that. Floyd Mayweather, perhaps the best technical boxer of his generation, didn’t become a pay-per-view draw until he embraced the “Money” Mayweather persona and started pissing people off — If “I’m taking my talents to Miami” is what keeps people interested in the aesthetic and technical brilliance of the best basketball players on the planet, then I’m all for it. 
And if the Heat lose, it might be even better for the NBA — the NBA keeps the eyeballs the Heat bring, a clear babyface/heel dynamic gets reinforced, and people get to keep believing that Truth, Justice, and the American Way always prevail in sports. In some ways, the current Heat are the best of both worlds for anyone marketing the NBA: they’re going to be dominant force, and they haven’t even won anything yet. For one season (at least), they provide something that might dominate, might lose, and everyone will want to see succeed or fail. Maybe they’re the evolution of the NBA; maybe they’re the embodiment of all the wrong ways to become true champions. They’re a Rorschach blot of greatness, and everybody is seeing something interesting.  
As to your point, I don’t see how you can deny that the Heat are a fascinating basketball experiment. You’re talking about a (runaway) two-time MVP hooking up with the best player on a championship while both of them are in their primes. Plus the best young power forward in basketball, who seems to be content with playing the Iago to LeBron’s Jafar. LeBron is the most versatile great player since Magic, and for the last seven years he’s been forced to play the role of the Alpha and the Omega for the Cavaliers. Now he gets to play an actual role with players that are close to his level, and the results should be absolutely fascinating. Forget
who’s going to be a man, th
e man, or THE MAN IN ALL CAPS INSTEAD OF STANDARD-SIZED HELVETICA FONT  – It’ll be fascinating to see who handles the ball, who sets the screen, who makes the cut, and who finishes the play on any given Miami possession. 
That Miami’s centers are Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Joel Anthony only make everything more interesting: their lack of quality size in the middle will force the Heat to beat teams with their game, as opposed to being able to out-talent everybody and beat them at their own. My general point is this: I don’t know how this Heat experiment will turn out, but can you imagine anyone not watching? 
RM: Of course not. Everyone will want to know how the Heat are doing, what LeBron is saying, how the Lakers match-up. Moves like this reach out to casual basketball fans in ways that aren’t fully measurable, and the collection of talent in Miami could do more for the NBA as a business than anything we’ve seen in a decade. 
Plus, on top of that, having LeBron James as a hated figure is a huge marketing boon. Kobe Bryant just wasn’t cutting it as the archetypal villain anymore, and the league needs some elite player to play the part. LeBron kind of stumbled into that role by way of his own remarkable PR failures, but he’ll do wonderfully as the big bad.
Dominance really is fascinating, but it’s even more so when a player of LeBron’s caliber is there to laugh maniacally from the shadows. People despised the dynasty Lakers. They complained endlessly about Tim Duncan’s Spurs through San Antonio’s best years. Even Michael Jordan’s reign left countless fans angry and impatient, enamored by his success but perfectly willing to put him at the center of their dart boards. The Heat have the kind of foundation to match those squads, to become a historically great team, and to bring home the ‘ships. Now, with LeBron as a public enemy, they also have that face at which everyone can take aim, even if it’s no more “his team” than it is Dwyane Wade’s. The only thing more fascinating than dominance is watching a dominant team or player fail, and you’d better believe that the Heat will have plenty of newly christened basketball fans rooting for their demise.
Odd though this may sound, that kind of negative fanhood is a huge positive for the league. Teams like the Heat not only bring in more fans, but also more invigorated fans. Suddenly everyone cares what’s going on in Miami, and they’re opinionated and heated, even if they needn’t be. The fact that this beautiful game devolves into a water cooler talking point may irk hardcore NBA heads, but infiltration into that level of the public consciousness is how the Heat could, as you mention, affect a potential lockout. 
The Heat will boost ratings. They will bring in more league and team sponsors. They’re not going to pull the owners and the players in for a group hug at the CBA negotiations, but they can make the game and the league a product too good to miss out on from a financial standpoint, even for a season. If the league as a whole sees an uptick in interest and fan consumption because LeBron, Wade, and Bosh decided to play together in a major market, then we — as followers of the game — all win.
  1. Shock Exchange - Sep 14, 2010 at 1:27 PM

    NOT ACCORDING TO DAN GILBERT —–> http://clicky.me/rqN

  2. Bob Blick - Sep 14, 2010 at 3:05 PM

    And if ratings are up for their games and down elsewhere across the board, does that help the NBA? People like seeing superstars play against each other, not with each other. Particularly in a game such as basketball when you are only playing 5 players at a time. Baseball and football can bring in 3 or 4 top players and still not win.
    Personally I now plan to watch the Cavs play and that’s it. If these guys are losing their competitiveness I see no reason to watch them anymore. Now you have other players talking about doing the same thing. Yeah – It’s great for basketball that these players want to earn huge amounts of money but don’t want to have the burden of carrying a team. If that’s what you want to see, enjoy yourself.

  3. LogicMan - Sep 14, 2010 at 3:39 PM

    What would you expect Gilbert to say?
    ‘According to Forbes Magazine, the Cavaliers’ value has fallen from $476MM to $390MM which is >$85 million in value. With his conversation with AP, Gilbert is positioning himself so that Lebron takes the fall for the Cavs’ woes. If he can position in the minds of Cavs fans that Lebron is a “traitor” and remove the focus off of Management’s “ineptness”, then maybe they will stand by the franchise as they look to rebuild over the next few years.’
    His franchise lost money (on a capital gains basis) but I am sure Miami’s franchise gained $85 million. The NBA will surely benefit from all the interest in Miami’s team.

  4. Master Heathcliff - Sep 14, 2010 at 4:16 PM

    Great post guys. One thing I haven’t seen debated explicitly elsewhere is the concept of “TEAM” that is so important to the game of basketball. The reactionary quotes from MJ, Bird, Magic and Sir Charles became the dominant thought about “the decision” and that in turn seemed to take over the conversation about the team as a whole. Really appreciated reading your more dedicated thoughts into what will make this team interesting/revolutionary.

  5. D-Mack - Sep 14, 2010 at 4:36 PM

    you obviously have no history of the league whatsoever

  6. D-Mack - Sep 14, 2010 at 4:37 PM

    you obviously have no history of the league whatsoever

  7. D-Mack - Sep 14, 2010 at 10:09 PM

    so you’re saying golf would have been better off not having Tiger? you’re just a marketing guru I guess

  8. TJWalk - Sep 14, 2010 at 10:51 PM

    Growin up in the 60′s I hated the champion Celtics repeatin so often, then grew to love em and their team ball… Dwade and Bron N Bosh already ‘s played some team ball by takin a lot less cash by the millions…. and are self aware that more ball delegation is less control and perhaps fame… Clanging Symbols Too My guess is Bron wants to drop that gloatin King moniker for some of same champion aspiration of a dynasty… Let Him have his ego down… It’s all good, a bit of a throwback Good goin you guys…. a long way from rory sparrow…. HP speed and all

  9. The Champ - Sep 15, 2010 at 12:12 PM

    The “Everybody Outside of Miami Hates the Heat and Lebron James” issue many keep citing has one huge flaw: Everybody doesn’t hate the Heat and Lebron James. Some very vocal fans do, but, while the majority of NBA fans were probably turned off by the whole “Decision” fiasco, most just don’t really care that much and just want to see great basketball.
    Also, for those saying a perennially dominant Heat team would be bad for the league, the decade which saw the most different NBA champions (70′s) happened to be the single worst decade for the NBA.

  10. J Sanz - Sep 16, 2010 at 9:57 AM

    @D-Mack: the golf comparison falls completely flat. First and foremost this is a team sport, not an individual sport. Its comparing apples to oranges.
    Sure, the Heat are going to be fascinating to watch. But for whatever reason no one seems to be considering the dangerous precedent this sets. We have already seen/heard talk of CP3 and Melo going to Orlando or NY to join forces with other “superstars” to combat the big 3 down in Miami. Let’s say that happens. You now have a situation where 5-6 teams have a legit chance to win a title for the next 5-10 years, and then 25 also-rans. As a fan of one of those also-rans, why would I keep watching? Because the guys are super talented? Great. They don’t play for my team, I could care less. I didn’t love the Bulls and got turned off during the mid-90′s as well because going into the season you knew your team had no chance to compete. How is that good for the game?
    Further, what happens if the Heat do dominate? Is there something interesting about watching the same team win a title for a number of years ina row? Only if its a team you actually root for. Otherwise, its like the rest of us are polishing brass on the titanic.
    The NFL is smart in this regard. Parity reigns supreme and at the beginning of the year, every team in the league can say it has a shot at the playoffs or being relevant. It keeps fans of small and mid market teams emotionally and financially invested in the game. The NBA is now headed in a demonstrably different direction.

  11. D-Mack - Sep 17, 2010 at 12:07 AM

    only 5-6 have a chance to compete every year anyway. Last year, it was the Lakers, Spurs, Cavs, Celtics, Magic, Suns, & Nuggets. The NBA has never had parity and they seem to be doing just fine.

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