Whether you are Steve Jobs or LeBron James, there is so much value in having vision, in seeing things before others do or can. You will witness that for yourself Sunday as the defending champion Heat face the old and broken Los Angeles Lakers, who are now playing catch-up in more ways than one.
The Lakers are basketball royalty, but they fell behind big in the blueprint game. Willful Kobe Bryant can rally you in the fourth quarter of a night or even the fourth quarter of a season, but he can’t do much of anything about the decaying predicament he finds himself in Sunday — trailing big in the fourth quarter of his career while trying to rally during what might become Miami’s era.
In terms of construction and architecture, Heat versus Lakers is calm vision versus breathless desperation.
Pat Riley groomed his coach for years, from video coordinator to throne, and then stuck with him during turbulence when things literally got bumpy with LeBron James. The Lakers fired their coach five games into this season.
Very quietly, without rancor, the son of the Heat’s owner recently took power over the legendary Riley, who has produced two championships for the organization. This while the son of the Lakers owner rebuffed legend Phil Jackson even though Jackson had won for the organization before and was dating the owner’s daughter.
Riley spent years trimming his roster so he would have the available money and plan to sell LeBron And Friends on taking discounts when free agency arrived. The Lakers went 0-8 this preseason because so few of their thrown-together pieces were even healthy — and now it looks more likely with every loss that the youngest, most valuable one will be there for only this one miserable season.
The Heat way
Wade, an aging superstar, willingly and consciously handed the ball, the team and the city over to LeBron, his long-time friend, while Bryant, an aging superstar, keeps lecturing Dwight Howard on the Laker Way, both of them playing and acting like strangers who don’t like one another. It is not insignificant that Miami’s stars chose to do this together while Bryant and Howard were foisted upon each other. You are vastly more invested in a plan when it is yours than when it is someone else’s. The Van Gundy brothers say the toughest thing to coach in sports is an aging superstar — because confidence is the last thing to go and the mirror is the last thing to know — and Bryant, who has missed more shots than anyone in the history of the game, continues to get more shots up than anyone in the league not named Carmelo while Howard wonders where all his touches went.
Bryant, who nicknamed himself “Black Mamba,” actually hisses like a snake whenever he thinks he is open on the court, and you have to think at this point Howard finds not only that sound poisonous but the entire environment that surrounds it. The Lakers’ pieces ought to fit better than Miami’s, given that James and Wade have redundant skill sets, but somehow Pau Gasol kept getting benched for Earl Clark, which is not unlike Chris Bosh losing minutes to Jarvis Varnado.
Like everyone else, the Lakers fell behind the Heat’s way, and now they are trying to scramble through a tiny must-win-right-now window with a lot of very old parts surrounding the injured one they have at center. Given the expectations, and given how many teams make the playoffs in basketball, and given how many future Hall of Famers are on the L.A. roster, and given that Milwaukee, Portland and Utah have a better record than L.A., what you are witnessing in today’s Lakers might be the single biggest disappointment in the history of American team sports.
If you argue that what the Heat did isn’t very visionary and unselfish, that anyone could have put together James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and won, you haven’t been paying attention to all the desperate scrambling behind Miami since this Heat incarnation came together … and you aren’t noticing how much money matters to the people in this particular business, players and owners alike.
Almost everyone on the Heat is playing at a discounted rate. Big deal, you say? They make tons of money and this isn’t really a sacrifice? Well, Oklahoma City lost young James Harden over money. Memphis, which presented nightmarish matchups for Miami, sent away Rudy Gay over money. The Bulls got rid of their entire bench over money. The owner of the Nets has all the money in the world, but is stuck with a counterfeit superteam that pays Joe Johnson more annually than LeBron, and Deron Williams more than Wade. You’ll have a hard time finding teams with any players who have taken discounts, never mind one like the Heat, a team on which almost everyone has. The Nuggets have as many wins as the Knicks because of what they got in return for Carmelo Anthony, who had to get his. This now prevents New York from being in play for Chris Paul when he becomes a free agent again unless Paul is willing to take an enormous discount because none of the best-paid Knicks would take a discount of any kind.
Team dynamics can be so fragile. Bryant recently demanded that Howard play while injured. Howard responded that Bryant wasn’t a doctor. Howard then played hurt, and poorly. Bryant not only put Howard in the position of looking like he didn’t care enough and wasn’t tough enough … but then got the credit for Howard playing through a pain only he was feeling. Bryant gets to be the great leader while Howard is the wimpy place to put the blame. You can park a motorcycle on Howard’s shoulders, but that kind of weight, put there by Bryant, is one he doesn’t need while coming back from a torn labrum and back surgery. Imagine how Howard experienced that transaction with Bryant, and now compare it to the way Wade handed over his franchise to James.
Setting the pace
It is a good thing Wade did, too, because it is looking more and more like James, who is better than ever and in his prime, might be winning the championship now in any city he had chosen, with any teammates, hard as that is to hear in South Florida. Keep in mind, those James teams in Cleveland won 61 and 66 games in consecutive regular seasons — a pace Miami hasn’t been able to match in three years of James, Wade and Bosh. He was already on the cusp … and before he was this good. This is not a perfectly constructed champion, odd as that is to say, given the aforementioned redundancy of the James and Wade skill sets. But James just keeps getting better, as evidenced by shooting an absurd 42 percent on three-point attempts this season (better than even Ray Allen) and making 43 of his past 59 shots of any kind. Wade and Bosh have not been insignificant to that improvement, especially since it has come at the expense of their own stats, but it could have happened in any number of cities that The Chosen One chose.
The Lakers were forced to chase what the Heat planned, developed and conquered first. That’s not leading. It is following. And so the Heat continues leading the way in every way while the Lakers keep following … and falling … and failing. Miami’s biggest victory wasn’t in the NBA Finals, believe it or not. It was in the planning. You’ll Witness it for yourself Sunday as the old Lakers limp toward The King’s throne.
Los Angeles got its aging superstar a stranger and a temporary, one-year “solution” — the hurt-in-more-ways-than-one Dwight Howard.
Whereas Miami got its aging superstar one of his very best friends — who also happened to be the best basketball player in the world.