Tonight, it ends. Oh, sure, LeBron James obviously will go on, the Miami Heat obviously will go on, the drama will go on, the daily speculation about coach Erik Spoelstra’s job will go on, the calls for Pat Riley to come back will go on, the boos, the complaints about the boos, the over-analysis of the boos, the on-the-record sniping, the anonymous sniping, the marveling about how lousy a team the Heat are, the expectation that the Heat will still come together, the parade of daily stories and reports by the 987 writers and broadcasters embedded with the team … all of it will go on.
But it seems to me that tonight, the story really ends. Tonight LeBron James returns to Cleveland. Tonight my hometown will unload whatever emotions are left over from James’ callous (The) Decision (Powered By ESPN) to leave Cleveland and take his talents to South Beach. Tonight will be a charged night.
And Saturday the Miami Heat play at home against Atlanta — and are infinitely less interesting.
I guess this is the part that surprises me: The Miami Heat are boring. I didn’t expect that. When LeBron James announced that he would join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, I did not know exactly what to expect but I expected something electrifying. Maybe the Heat would be great, a new kind of superpower, designed by three players who decided it might be kinda fun to get together and change the world. Maybe the Heat would spectacularly crash into itself like a black hole of egos. Maybe the Heat would come together to give us a kind of basketball we only see in the rarest of moments, like when Michael Jordan’s Bulls were at their height or when the various Dream Teams played at their most inspired. The possibilities seemed endless.
And, I don’t know, for me, the possibilities no longer seem endless. The Heat play boring basketball. They win games in boring fashion and lose them in boring ways. They have no inside presence. They do not move the ball around well. They generally beat bad teams. They generally lose to good ones. They play pretty well at home. They play pretty lousy on the road. They may yet come together, but I don’t think it’s inevitable, and I don’t think it’s even likely. James and Wade are great players, two of the five best in the world, and the expectation is that they would make magic together. But it turns out they are the same kind of player, and when they are on the floor together the result is less magic and more like a dance-off.
Anyway, it seems that way to me. The Heat may yet rip off 10 or 15 wins in a row, I don’t know. They may yet lift their games into the heavens, I don’t know. But I don’t think so. I think they are a puffed up superband, like Asia*, destined for a few hits and a lot of nights where people wonder why so much musical talent doesn’t make great music.
*’Cause it’s the heat of the moment! The heat of the moment! The heat of the moment showed in your eyes!
But it’s off the court that the Heat are especially boring. We live in a Reality TV culture. As a nation we have been peppered with survivors and amazing races and and top chefs and dancing stars and big brothers and bachelors and bachelorettes and real housewives and a million other reality situations, and it seems to me that one consequence of this is that a story has to be REALLY interesting or provocative or ridiculous to capture our attention. And I don’t think the Heat saga is any of those things. The dramatic effects surround this team aren’t good enough for an old Batman TV show.
— Will the Heat stick with their young coach Erik Spoelstra?
— Did LeBron purposely bump his coach or was it an accident?
— Will LeBron get serious about winning a championship?
— Will Dwyane Wade, who seemed to age two years this offseason, look like his younger self again?
— Will Hall of Fame coach Pat Riley come out from the shadows and coach again?
— Will Chris Bosh … well, actually there’s nothing even faintly interesting about Chris Bosh (and I actually mean this in a good way).
Who cares? Really. The Heat are 12-9. They are an OK basketball team with a couple of big names. There are a lot of teams like that. They are viewed as underachievers and everybody waits for them to click and start winning. There are a lot of teams like that. They are generally too good to lose to below average teams — I fully expect them to beat Cleveland tonight — and they have no answer against the best teams. There are a lot of teams like that. They have coaching drama — hell, who doesn’t?
And still, they are being covered like they are important, like these stories are unique, like THEY are unique. And if there’s one thing they have proven in just 21 games … they are not unique. LeBron is a great player who doesn’t like being told what to do. Heard that one before. Wade is a great player who doesn’t seem entirely sure how to handle the LeBron zaniness. Fascinating. Bosh seems to me just a guy who seems interested in playing basketball without all the drama. Yawn. This reality TV story would never make it to network television.
And Pat Riley? I know people keep waiting for him to jump in the fray and become head coach, but my guess is that he wants no part of this mess. The Heat’s problems as a team are very real. They are weak inside. They are one dimensional offensively. There’s no percentage in actually coming back and coaching this team to a bland 45-to-55 win season and a second-round playoff loss and inevitable disappointment. Better to keep standing on the outside as the savior while Erik Spoelstra keeps coaching this overhyped mess and taking a beating from inside and outside. Maybe something can be done in the offseason to fix some of this team’s problems — maybe then it would be worth jumping in.
As for LeBron … after years of building up a lovable reputation featuring Nike puppets and flying rosin, I would say he has done very little right for LeBron James Inc.. The decision to do a show about The Decision was obviously a public relations nightmare — they will be teaching classes in universities about that for years to come. He then came to Miami with the obvious belief that this would be easy based on the formula:
((James * Wade) + (Bosh))/(Hype + Spoelstra) = Championship.
But it’s not easy. It’s not remotely easy. It wasn’t easy for Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant or Bill Russell or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or anyone else. This is the NBA, the best basketball league on earth. The Cleveland Cavaliers spoiled LeBron James any and every way they knew how. They invented special rules for him. They tried to get players who fit him. They never seemed to tell him no. These things had their rewards — James carried the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals in 2007, and he twice was league MVP as he led the Cavaliers to the best regular season record.
But these things had their price too … James clearly started to resent the expectations that went along with the special treatment. He made a statement last year after his worst playoff performance that even at the time sounded ridiculous but in the ensuing months have come to sound like a philosophy: “I spoil people with my play.” At the moment it just felt like a narcissistic statement by someone who was feeling sorry for himself — which can be understood in the heat of the moment (the heat of the moment showed in your eyes!). But pretty much everything James has done since then suggests that’s how he really feels. He’s taking HIS TALENTS to South Beach. He’s asking “What Should I Do?” in a bizarre Nike commercial. He’s talking about how he’s playing too many minutes, and the offense isn’t exactly right for him, and someone — someone anonymous, of course — is saying that Erik Spoelstra is being too hard on him.
See, he’s not living up to his great potential as a basketball star, no, he’s spoiling people with his play. And I think he came to Miami to escape some of those expectations, to be in a crowd of talent, to win a championship the easy way. And apparently nobody told him it just doesn’t work that way.
Many people have asked me how I feel about LeBron James coming back to Cleveland tonight. I don’t really have many feelings about it. All those feelings were emptied out back when he made (The) Decision (powered by ESPN). I wish he had treasured his connection to Cleveland. I wish he had seen not only what he meant to the city but what the city meant for him. I wish he had left with more class.
But if wishes were horses and all that … LeBron is now part of what seems to me a flawed team and a cliche-infested soap opera and a media circus filled with people who will wonder more and more what they’re doing there. Tonight, it’s still a story. Tonight everyone will attempt to measure the emotions of my hometown, and LeBron James will try to show that he’s made of sterner stuff, and it will be moderately interesting I suppose.
But an NBA season pounds at the senses. Saturday, the Heat play at home at Atlanta. Monday, they’re off to Milwaukee. Wednesday’s they’re at Utah. Then they’re at Golden State. And so on … and so on … and, in the end, who beside for some people in Miami will care about a pretty good, star-laden, self-indulgent NBA team that plays boring basketball? There are so many star-laden NBA teams that play wonderful basketball. If I were one of those poor shleps forced to follow around this Heat team, I’d beg to be reassigned to Oklahoma City.