Backs to the Wall

What if this turns out to be Miami’s best shot at a title?

The Miami Heat's window for a title could close earlier than expected.
Bruce Yeung/NBAE/Getty Images
I’m confused why LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are confused that America seems united in its desire to see the Miami Heat go up in flames. If they were trying to be unlikeable, they couldn’t do it any better.

What exactly were they thinking while hamming it up for TV cameras, leaving Thursday morning’s shootaround faking coughs and smirking – a clear slap at Dirk Nowitzki’s illness that forced him to play through a high fever in Dallas’ Game 4 win on Tuesday?

That was a rhetorical question, by the way. The only possible answer is, “They weren’t.” Just as somebody might have wanted to coach them before they took the stage that gaudy Friday night in Miami last July and LeBron uttered words that could wind up haunting him even more than “taking my talents to South Beach.”

“Not one. Not two. Not three. Not four. … Not five, not six, not seven.”

Unless they win both games back in Miami, they’re setting themselves up for some nasty headlines: “Not three, not two, not one …”

Is it conceivable that the Heat’s super team won’t find a way to win an NBA championship? Is there a chance that 2010-11 will turn out to be their best shot?

When Pat Riley pulled off his coup and not only signed James, Wade and Chris Bosh but got them to take just enough less money than they could have gotten anywhere else to retain Udonis Haslem and add Mike Miller, he had to be thinking that whatever the Heat were in 2010-11, they would only get better in subsequent years.

But a new collective bargaining agreement could eliminate the most practical mechanisms to make that happen – the mid-level and biannual exceptions.

It’s a slam-dunk that Heat ownership would have signed off on handing out full mid-level exceptions every year given the moneymaking gold mine James-Wade-Bosh represent. You don’t nickel-and-dime around the edges of that. It’s just as certain that a pool of free agents every year would take 75 cents on the dollar – temporarily – to fly in formation with the Heat stars.

Riley had to be banking on those things. Because the only way Miami retains its rock-star allure is if the Heat actually win a title soon. They can’t go two or three years into this ordeal without rings and not risk stigmatization. They had to figure they’d get a one-year cushion because everybody understood the impossibility of filling out a roster in the same summer targeted to get cap space. One year, that’s it.

Yet if Miami’s ability to maneuver under the cap is severely restricted by the rising salaries of James, Wade and Bosh – the $43 million they raked in last season becomes $52 million by 2012-13 – it’s hard to see how they’re going to manage upgrades over Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony to round out the starting lineup. And Haslem and Miller aren’t getting any better off the bench than they are today.

Miami is clearly the team to beat in the East today. Orlando’s bold moves to surround Dwight Howard with a championship cast don’t appear to have worked out any better than Cleveland’s flailing to please James did. Boston has come to its crossroads. Anybody that intends to challenge in the East is going to build a roster with beating the Heat in mind, nobody else.

I don’t know if that makes it any tougher for Miami to win a title, but it won’t make it any easier. If Chicago does nothing else this off-season but find another wing athlete or two that offer better matchups with James and Wade, it’s not inconceivable the Bulls overtake them as soon as next season.

Wade will hit 30 next winter, and given the knee and shoulder injuries he’s suffered it would be hard to argue he’s a young 30. He hits the deck a lot, and the Game 5 hip injury served as a handy reminder. More worrisome, if you’re Miami, is this: If the Heat don’t win the next two games, it will be fair to wonder about the toll on James’ psyche.

The backlash from “The Decision” genuinely seemed to surprise him, which underscores how insular his world really is. At heart, I think he’s stung that he’s become such a target of scorn and ridicule. He’s got two games to change perceptions. Miami wins this year and a healthy chunk of America now fascinated by his failings will convert to his side again. But the way things are trending, who really likes his chances?