Andrew Unterberger is the Last Angry Man in the crusade against LeBron James and his not-so-gradual march towards total unassailability. He’ll be checking in with us once a month this NBA season for an update on where he’s at with his LeBron hating, and how his attempts to channel all the world’s negative energy towards one generally well-meaning basketball player are progressing.
Narrative and Legacy both took a real beating among NBA fans and writers this Finals, particularly as related to LeBron James. That’s fair. People were trying to foist champion narratives on LeBron before it was time to do so, and people still tried to stick choker narratives on LeBron long after it was appropriate, if it ever was in the first place. I still think Narrative and Legacy have a place in NBA discussion, though, even among intelligent fans who also understand the amount of luck and chance and circumstance inherently involved in every game. Without some over-arcing themes — even a couple quasi-forced ones — the NBA is just a bunch of standalone episodes without any connecting series fabric.
However, there’s no denying that in Game 7, LeBron put all of that crap to bed, probably for good. He had an incredible night in arguably the most important game of his career, made the big plays early, middle and late, and was the single biggest reason by a considerable distance that the Heat secured their second straight championship. If there’s a qualifier left for LeBron’s greatness, I’m not smart or cynical enough to figure out what it is. He’s the greatest player of this NBA era, is on the very short list (and always getting shorter) of the greatest players of all-time. You could say that he still needs a third to start talking Bird-Magic, and of course that number six will always stand in the way of him ascending to GOAT status, but today, nobody really cares. He’s the best, he played like it, and he was rewarded for it. For one season, that’s plenty good enough.
Still, next year is another season. It’ll be a long four months for a hater like myself to wait for. Though to be honest, it doesn’t nearly compare to how I felt after his first ring, and really, it doesn’t even much compare to how I felt after Game 6, easily the most gut-wrenching basketball experience I’ve had not involving my own team. But it’s coming. And all I can really hope for is that, come this time next season, there’s more to talk about regarding LeBron’s Legacy and Narrative than “Stop talking about LeBron’s damn Legacy and Narrative and just bask in how great he is.” ‘Cuz that’s all there really is to do right now. The basking.
There’s not much I have to console myself with. LeBron is great and objects in greatness tend to stay in greatness. Nonetheless, in my current world of hurt, I have little choice but to take stock of the few glimmers of hope that maybe linger on the horizon, things that might come in the way of LeBron and the Heatles making Rohit Walia a very rich man. Be merciful, it’s all I have.
1. The Heat lost Game Six.
I mean they did, really. Just because they ended up winning doesn’t mean they didn’t lose that game. Down five with less than half a minute to go, that’s an L at least 95 times out of 100, if not 99. Only a couple lucky bounces on some Spurs free throws and a couple lucky bounces on their own offensive rebounds allowed them to somehow escape with a victory there. That’s not to say that their win was somehow ill-gotten or should have an asterisk or whatever, but just to say that if the Heat can let themselves be down five with 25 seconds to go in an elimination game, they’re clearly not invincible.
Also worth mentioning that LeBron has now been in three Game 7s in his two championship runs, which is one more than MJ had over his entire six title years. I don’t bring this up to imply that MJ is better than Jordan, or has some character strength that LeBron lacks which allows him to avoid such games, just to say that perhaps the disparity between the Heat and the field in the 2010s is smaller than the disparity between the Bulls and the field was in the ’90s, and that getting to six (or even three) for LeBron might be much more of a challenge, for reasons that may be totally beyond his control.
2. The Heat aren’t getting better than this.
The list of Heat players closer to the beginning of their careers than the end is not a long one. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh both clearly took a step back this postseason, Ray Allen is going to be 38, and seemingly all of the Heat’s role players found themselves out of the rotation at one point or another in these playoffs. Wade and Bosh were hurting, sure, but that might be more rule than exception in postseasons to come, and neither is especially young anymore. Meanwhile, there’s no cap space for free agency beyond the minimum mid-level, and trade options are limited beyond the Big Three, and I just can’t see Wade being dealt, or Bosh getting back much of tremendous value. The Heat might not be much worse next season, but it’s hard to see them getting any better. All the talk this postseason was of the Spurs’ championship window closing, but the Heat’s window might not be all that much further ajar.
3. The Spurs might not be as old as you think.
This might have been the last Finals for San Antonio’s Big Three as the Big Three, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the line for the Spurs. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green (v. G1-G5) showed that reinforcements are truly on the way, and if Manu really does retire in the offseason, the Spurs could have a minor chunk of change available for adding further talent in free agency. Even if not, it’s as premature to write the Spurs off as it has been the last five seasons as Tony Parker just had easily the best season of his career, and Tim Duncan just came within a blown layup from possibly winning a fourth Finals MVP.
This team could still very possibly make the Finals again next year, and you’d be foolish to be all that shocked by it, or to consider Miami a prohibitive favorite in a potential finals rematch.
4. The Pacers have plenty of room to grow.
It feels like months ago now, but the Spurs weren’t the only team to push Miami to the brink these playoffs. Indiana looked like it might have the recipe there for a minute in the Eastern finals, but came up well short in Game 7, probably still a year or two away. Well, with that year or two will not only be further experience and maturity for the young likes of Roy Hibbert (26), Paul George (23) and Lance Stephenson (22), but also a chance to get back a healthy Danny Granger and bolster the bench a little. It’s always dangerous to assume a young team will automatically get better every year, but the gap between these two teams in the East finals wasn’t particularly great to begin with, and there’s every reason to assume it’ll be even smaller (if there at all) next year.
5. Oklahoma City and Chicago should regroup.
Honestly, even with a healthy Russell Westbrook — hell, maybe even with an untraded Jams Harden — I don’t see the Thunder pushing Miami to seven the way San Antonio did these playoffs. But like the Pacers, the Thunder have room to improve, either internally through young players growing with another year together, or externally with their combination of draft picks and trade assets. I still feel like there’s a big play left for Sam Presti to make this offseason — and for his sake, I hope I’m right, otherwise the Harden trade might have been one of the great lucky strikes of the LeBron championship era — and if Durant wasn’t already the league’s most motivated over-achiever before this postseason, he certainly will be after it.
Meanwhile, the Bulls linger as perhaps a greater threat to Miami’s supremacy than any. This season was obviously a down year for them, but they’ll be back next year with (presumably) a healthy Derrick Rose, a less-dead Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich, and some young pieces and assets (Jimmy Butler, Nikola Mirotic, that far-off Charlotte first round pick) to play with. The Heat have lucked out the last two seasons without a full-strength Bulls team to have to go through, and though the history between the teams says Miami would still be the favorite in a full-strength series, it’d be one more challenge for the Heat in the Eastern Conference.
6. LeBron struggled!
It won’t be part of the story of this series — death to Legacy and Narrative, remember — just like memories of the “Good Job, Good Effort” game against Boston were overwhelmed by LeBron’s classic Game 6 performance in the East finals last year. But lest we forget, LeBron struggling through the first three games of this series was a very real thing, his first time scoring under 20 in three straight since the Finals he lost to the Mavs two years prior. He made up for it over the rest of the series, obviously, but just because it was at the beginning of the series rather than the end doesn’t make the vulnerability any less meaningful. Go through a three-game scoring slump like that at the wrong time, and it could very easily cost you a series.
7. The Heat will have their finger on the “self-destruct” button at all times the next two seasons.
Lest we forget, everyone — really, EVERYONE — on this team could be gone by summer 2014, and then again in 2015. Miami has zero entirely guaranteed contracts for the season beyond, with everyone’s deal covered by either player or team option. That means at the slightest hint that LeBron will be taking his talents elsewhere in that summer, the Heat can choose to do a sort of insta-rebuild, to avoid being left in the position of the 2009-10 Cavaliers once LeBron leaves. Probably not — Mickey and Pat are far more likely to try to squeeze every championship they can out of LeBron, bolting or no — but a potentially explosive situation nonetheless.
There, I feel a little bit better. Maybe. Summer League starts on Monday, right?
LeBron Hate Index: 10/10