We have never experienced as a community or fandom anything quite like what we are in the middle of with the Miami Heat right now. Mere success? Forget that. Not good enough. This is about an expectation of excellence. This is about an assumption of dominance. Here, with this team, right now, greatness is the starting point, and from there the biggest words in sports are in play. “Dynasty.” “Legendary.” “Legacy.”
Tuesday night inside the bayside arena the new NBA season will begin with great ceremony, with the raising of the championship banner won last season.
Soaring up into the rafters, along with that banner, will go expectations for this team in Year 3 of the Big 3 era. Except that there is no roof on those expectations. No ceiling. Nothing to contain them.
League of its own
Fully appreciate the tier occupied by the Heat by contrasting how South Florida’s other professional teams scramble and claw to merely make the playoffs, and usually fail. The Dolphins have made it once in the past 10 seasons, the Marlins twice in their 20-year history, and the Panthers once in the past 11 seasons.
The Heat is so good you start with the playoffs — an ESPN computer analysis puts the chance of that at 99.5 percent, which seems low to me — and pretty much fast-forward to the NBA Finals. That same computer has Miami’s likelihood to repeat at 31.8 percent, more than double the next best, Oklahoma City is 14.2 percent.
If there is such thing as the boredom of excellence, it is Heat fans wading through an 82-game regular season and through the perfunctory early playoff rounds, waiting for the inevitable. It’s like sitting through a droning lecture waiting for the recess bell. Here, the season starts in the Eastern Conference finals, right?
In the annual NBA general managers poll out this week, 70 percent of the GMs predicted another Heat championship, triple the 23 percent support for the Lakers — who added Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol and still are seen as big underdogs.
The Dolphins, not even in their 1970s Super Bowl heydays, never entered a season as favorites to this degree.
Twenty-nine of 30 GMs had Miami winning the East, and only the rule about not voting for their own team kept it from being unanimous. (The lone rule-abiding charity vote went to Boston).
Those same GMs, 67 percent of them, had LeBron James winning another MVP award, more than double the 30 percent support for OKC’s Kevin Durant.
The Heat is so good that a third consecutive trip to the Finals, and a clear favorite’s role there, likely will require nothing more than good health. This is no small thing, considering that Dwyane Wade is coming off knee surgery, Chris Bosh’s abdominal issues last playoffs and considering the injury histories of Ray Allen and Mike Miller.
But it speaks of the Heat’s dominance that any caution about this team or this season always begins with injuries and the fate and luck that steer them.
Nothing would suck the sound out of the Heat’s home arena or seismically and instantly alter the NBA landscape like the sight of LeBron writhing in pain on the court, but, save for that, the parade to June seems a clear path.
What’s scary is that the Heat is so good and got better, adding sharpshooters Allen and Rashard Lewis.
What’s scary is that the Heat has so much varied talent — so many hybrid players capable of playing multiple roles — that the team is rewriting the old rules of the game.
In 2010 Pat Riley changed the NBA by audaciously planning and plotting and succeeding in adding LeBron and Bosh to D-Wade. Now the rest of the league tries to play catch-up, the Lakers the latest to try.
Now the Heat is rewriting the old rules with what coach Erik Spoelstra calls “positionless basketball.” Forget center, two forwards, two guards. Spoelstra doesn’t even use those words anymore.
It is unconventional thinking. And it feels like something other teams will now attempt to imitate, just as they were forced to react to what Miami did in the summer of 2010.
That recent NBA general managers poll named LeBron the game’s best small forward, but also the game’s third-best power forward. He can play all five positions, so why limit him? James increasingly plays a power forward role now, because it both suits him and the Heat’s broader needs.
“He has completely transformed himself, and that has completely transformed us,” Spoelstra said recently.
James is the hub of the Spoelstra’s “positionless basketball,” but it isn’t just him. Bosh becomes the power forward playing center. Shane Battier’s versatility presents an array of options. Allen plays Wade’s position, but you can bet there will be plenty of times when both are playing at the same time.
The Heat is so good that winning the NBA might actually be a secondary matter. There might be something in play even bigger than another championship, or the merry dilemma of figuring out exactly what it is that constitutes a dynasty.
Here, in this market, winning South Florida, owning it, will enter the broad civic discussion if the bar measuring Heat success continues at the championship level. I suspect it will take another title this season (and the giddy assumption of more) to properly begin that conversation.
I don’t think the Heat is there yet, not even with two championships in the past seven years, not even with Wade’s enormous popularity.
But I think the Heat is getting there, and I think LeBron is the only player on the planet capable of agitating the monumental change:
Football town to basketball town — Dolphins overtaken by Heat for the heart of South Florida, by however we might define something so largely unquantifiable.
It hasn’t happened yet, but the idea it could no longer is either blasphemous or ridiculous.
The Dolphins had a 22-year head start on our collective psyche before the Heat ever came along in 1988. The Dolphins won consecutive Super Bowls in 1972-73 when they were the only pro game in town — when they had our undivided and rapturous attention — and the enduring distinction of The Perfect Season is obviously built to last as a point of community pride.
But as the Dolphins’ halcyon days turn by degrees to nostalgia, to things less and less seen and lived-through as faintly recalled or read about, the Heat’s current reign — the good old days happening now — is more and more relevant in a transient community getting younger and younger.
Don’t get me wrong. The Dolphins always will have a unique corner in our collective heart. Some of it is that 22-year head start. Some of it is how we regard that ’72 team like a family heirloom. Some of it is that Don Shula and Dan Marino stand apart, stand above, still, when we think of our biggest, most iconic, sports figures.
You take a poll of South Florida today and I would all but guarantee most of us would rather see another Dolphins Super Bowl than another Heat championship. There is little doubt in my mind that we as a community are poised and eager to embrace quarterback Ryan Tannehill if he proves great, if he is able to lead the Dolphins back to local relevance and national power. Tannehill’s path from rookie to beloved could be a fast one, because Dolfans and we at large are that hungry for a Dolphins resurgence.
Meantime, though, the Heat’s inroads on the Dolphins’ historic command of this town will continue.
How many more Heat championships will it take? One? Two?
How much more success before LeBron or D-Wade or even both unseat Marino as our greatest pro athlete ever?
How many more rings until what Riley has meant and accomplished surpasses even Shula?
I don’t doubt that for every one of you who think the Heat already has taken over this town, there might be five who think it will never happen, who believe that “football town” is a permanent designation, something unchangeably ingrained in our soul.
But I know this. If anything can change that, in perception or reality, it is this marvel that Riley has assembled, this machine fronted by a beloved Dwyane Wade and by the incomparable locomotive LeBron James.
If this thing we have in the Heat grows into what feels like a true dynasty, maybe we will need to talk again about whose town this really is.