It was an unusual preseason, and the training camp in the Bahamas wasn’t even the oddest and most telling thing about it. When Pat Riley hits every preseason stop along the magical mystery tour, including the rare Sioux Falls, S.D., to New Orleans back-to-back, then you know something out of the ordinary is happening.
And this is what’s happening: the pitch to keep LeBron James has already started, and the Heat has a huge head start on the field.
Now comes the hard part.
It has been the elephant in every locker room the Heat has walked into this preseason, so there’s no point in dancing around the topic. Here’s what the Heat needs to do to position itself as the unquestionable choice for James after this season.
1. Keep Dwyane Wade healthy.
2. Win a third championship in a row.
Do those two things and logic, reason, and even those close to James say he’ll most likely return to Miami. But fail on either one of those qualifiers, and all bets are off. Could James actually leave Miami even if the Heat wins three in a row? In a one-on-one interview with the Miami Herald after the Heat’s preseason game in New Orleans, James wouldn’t rule it out.
In other words, cue the panic on Calle Ocho.
Time to panic?
If Miami and the NBA at large thought the Heat’s three-year, two-ring traveling circus has been a little crazy, then the basketball world hasn’t seen anything yet. Year Four of Riley’s grand vision is going to be one of the more fascinating in the history of the NBA. For Miami, it will be a joyously excruciating saga from beginning to end.
What could be more riveting than a winner-take-all season? The thought of winner take none.
When asked Wednesday if his choice would be made for him if he won a third ring, James remained true to his preseason stance of neutrality. He wouldn’t entertain the question.
“When that bridge comes, I’ll cross it with my family,” James said. “And we’re going to make the right choice. We’ve been in this position before, I’ve been in this position before, and I’ll be excited about it, but we’ll see what happens.”
Pressed further, James answered firmly.
“Winning, that’s my only concern right now, winning,” James said. “I want to put a third ring on the guys that have two. I want to put a first ring on the guys that don’t have any and I want to put a fourth on [Udonis Haslem] and D-Wade. So, that’s my goal.”
Fans and detractors alike will latch on to James’ choice to ignore the impending out clause in his contract, but to interpret that business decision as a sign that he’s in some way less committed to his teammates would be a mistake. James knows this might be the most important season not only of his career, but also his teammates. Still, there is no advantage for him to address his contract before the end of the season. After all, any number of things could happen between now and June.
The Heat’s front office understands this just as much as James and also has positioned itself for multiple contingencies. Third-year guard Norris Cole is the only player on the Heat’s roster locked into a contract for the 2014-15 season, and even if the Heat wins its third consecutive championship, Riley, owner Micky Arison, Heat CEO Nick Arison and general manager Andy Elisburg will have some difficult decisions to make in the summer of 2014.
But uncertainty can be a good thing, especially for a team that might have needed some extra motivation this offseason after winning its second title in a row. Fear of the unknown manifested itself into a team this preseason that was more focused and prepared for the regular season than at any other time since 2010.
“I’m most impressed about how motivated the guys came into camp this year,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We talked about it in our very last meeting after the parade and we mentioned that we wanted to enjoy it … but at the same time when the calendar started to turn toward late July and August, that if we’re really serious about the opportunity for the challenge of this next season and chasing a new title, then we would prove it with our fitness.”
Spoelstra told his players that rather than focusing on basketball drills over the summer. They should concentrate on “fitness, nutrition and staying in shape, and keeping bodies ready and strong.”
“That was significant,” Spoelstra said. “So, when we came into the Bahamas we were able to fast track the process of building the game.”
Nearly every player, according to Spoelstra, reported to training camp “either in the same shape or better shape when we left in June.”
For example, Mario Chalmers, who has never been celebrated for his fitness, is carrying a chiseled frame into the regular season as if he trained in his native Alaska this offseason alongside Arctic commandos.
“Just doing my part,” Chalmers said. “I don’t want to let anybody down.”
Then there is Ray Allen, whose body is so ridiculously defined that he looks like something out of a comic book. Entering his 18th season in the league, Allen said he might be in the best shape of his career to begin a season. For Allen, whose commitment to conditioning is legendary, that’s quite the pronouncement.
Of course, Wade’s transformation has been the most encouraging. He retooled his body this offseason in the hopes of taking more pressure off of his knees, and so far it has worked. Wade was injured each of the past two postseasons, his knees aren’t getting any younger and his game is tied to his athleticism even more so than James. In order to preserve himself for the long 82-game season, Wade will be communicating with coaches and trainers constantly and taking rest when needed. He missed 13 games last season, and that number isn’t expected to decrease.
“Ideally I would like to play every game that we can play, so that’s my goal,” Wade said. “But when I go into the season and whether it’s practice or other things, I’m just going to be smart about it. Our coaches are very open to what I feel I need from my body from day to day.”
Getting Wade to the finish line healthy and pain free is one of the Heat’s most important goals this season. As James will openly tell you, the future of this team might depend on it.
“Without him, man, this ship doesn’t continue to move without him, and I hope he knows that,” James said. “I think he knows that because he’s a big part of what we do.”