The near-failure and success of the LeBron James-era Miami Heat

In a May Instagram chat, Chris Bosh gave voice to the gnawing sense that the Miami Heat of 2010-2014 — a supernova of sports celebrity — fell short of expectations. Bosh conceded the Golden State Warriors had surpassed that Heat team in dynastic terms, and compared the Heat to the short-lived U.K. musical phenomenon Cream.

Bosh has not been alone. In the lead-up to Wednesday’s 10-year anniversary of The Decision, a roundtable of ESPN experts debated whether the Big Three Heat underachieved. End-of-decade retrospectives about the 2010s NBA seemed to focus more on the Warriors, and even on LeBron James‘ transcendent run in 2016 to Cleveland’s first championship in 52 years.

Some of that was our collective brain gravitating toward more recent events. Some of it was about basic longevity. The Heat’s run came apart at least two or three years before they anticipated — before LeBron even turned 30. If the Heat’s on-court imprint failed to measure up to the earthquake of the team’s formation, a lot of that had to do with the decline of Dwyane Wade’s knees.

By the 2013 playoffs, which ended in Miami’s second consecutive title, Wade’s impact was scattershot. He cracked 20 points only once in the conference finals — a seven-game slog over a 49-win Indiana Pacers team. His production swung wildly in Miami’s epic seven-game Finals win over San Antonio. He shot horribly from the post until a 23-point performance in Game 7 that was somehow both gutty and polished. The Heat were minus-57 in that series with Wade and James on the floor. Wade showed up for the finale, but the Heat got there in large part behind James-centric lineups stacked with shooting.

A year later, Miami could no longer summon the focus and fury required to contain San Antonio’s beautiful machine. The Heat were old, aching, thin. In the locker room after Game 5, their reign over forever, Miami’s players seemed more relieved than angry. They appeared at peace.

Wade’s less bouncy games laid bare what the Heat accepted as one small price of building its big three: Wade’s and James’ styles on offense overlapped to a degree that was not ideal. Each was at his best dominating the ball. Neither was a traditional off-ball floor-spacer.

On most nights, against most teams, it didn’t matter. Miami’s athleticism overwhelmed. The Heat vaporized passing lanes on defense, and rampaged for fast-break dunks. In the half court, James and Wade didn’t need wide lanes to get to the rim. They flew through crevices. Wade was a smart, hoppy cutter before LeBron arrived. LeBron became one in Miami.

Over three seasons of trial and error, Miami found the right mix of shooting and defense around the three tentpole stars. After their humiliation against Dallas in the 2011 Finals, Miami signed Shane Battier to defend power forwards — an assignment James did not want — in smaller lineups. The Battier deal might go down as the single most impactful midlevel contract in league history.

Watching the 2011 Finals through the lens of 2020, the Heat look old-fashioned. Traditional centers clogged driving lanes. Bosh spotted up around the elbows. Their offense was stilted, uncertain. Time would have bred some chemistry and flow. Even so, watching now — and knowing what was brewing in Oklahoma City and San Antonio — you wonder: Had the Heat not reimagined their roster and style, would they have won even one title?

Reinvention started with Battier’s signing, but it took time. The Heat didn’t commit to pace-and-space until an injury to Bosh in Game 1 of the 2012 conference semifinals against Indiana forced them into it. When Bosh returned nine games later in the conference finals against the Boston Celtics, he was mostly a center. The Heat won six of their next eight, and the championship.

That offseason, they doubled down on shooting — and smallish-ball — by snaring Ray Allen from Boston. Allen and Battier gave Miami the production they expected, but never really got, from Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem — support players deemed so essential in 2010 that the three stars took pay cuts to fit them. The league evolved past Haslem. Miller had moments, but injuries limited his productivity and playing time in every season in Miami until the Heat waived him.

With Battier and Allen, Miami discovered its identity. The Heat went 66-16 in 2012-13, including a 27-game winning streak — the second longest in league history.

The clunky, hesitant offense of 2011 gave way to a blur of touch passes, screens, and cuts. The Heat did everything at full speed, a gear teams reach only when true joy meets profound confidence and familiarity. A pick-and-roll on one side with 18 on the shot clock triggered a rapid-fire series of actions that flowed into a pick-and-roll on the other side with 12 on the shot clock. What had comprised their entire half-court offense two years earlier became subsumed within a circular system that was almost self-governing.

Defenses chased from behind. When they kept up, which was rare, the Heat improvised. Someone broke from the script, and even as he took that first step into the unknown, the other four players would realize what was happening — and adjust in kind.

It was the perfect symbiosis of style and substance. Miami topped the league in points per possession, and made one of the biggest year-to-year leaps in scoring efficiency of all time. Witnessing that kind of evolution — the real work of the NBA — is why diehards set aside two-plus hours, 82 times per year, and obsess over the middle and back of the roster. You almost feel part of the growth experience. It validates fandom.

Miami blitzed through the first two rounds of the 2013 playoffs. The Heat were 45-3 in 48 games entering the conference finals against Indiana. They looked unbeatable.

And then they didn’t. The Heat went the distance to beat a Pacers team that won 49 games and posted the league’s eighth-best scoring differential. They needed a LeBron buzzer-beating layup to steal Game 1 at home, a finish made cleaner because Indiana had taken out Roy Hibbert.

In sussing out Miami’s legacy, that series sticks out as much as the Finals loss to Dallas. The Heat were still learning one another in 2011, learning the magnitude of the spotlight, when the hungry and fearless Mavericks dismissed them. You knew Miami would grow.

The postseason struggles the next year — down 2-1 to the Pacers, then 3-2 to the Celtics — came with Bosh injured. Once he returned, Miami rolled to the title.

Miami then split back-to-back Finals against San Antonio, going 5-7 over 12 games. The Heat came about as close to losing the first as any champion ever: down 3-2 in the series and 94-89 in Game 6 with 28.2 seconds remaining after Manu Ginobili went 1-of-2 at the line. You know the rest: one LeBron 3, another Spurs missed free throw (from Kawhi Leonard), The Rebound, The Ray Allen Moonwalk Shot, fans trying to get back in the arena, an overtime win.

It has since been fashionable to point out the Heat were a few breaks from winning one title in four years, a record which would have been fairly regarded a failure. That is true in the most literal sense, but also simplistic and a little misleading.

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