When the ongoing chase of LeBron James began in earnest, back in the Miami Heat’s championship summer of 2006, it wasn’t signaled with sirens. The solitary sound was in Pat Riley’s head, where gears began to grind, soon as the kid from Akron, Ohio, committed less of his prime to the Cleveland Cavaliers than he could have. Just as Chris Bosh was doing with Toronto. Just as Dwyane Wade was doing with Miami. Just that sliver of possibility was sufficient for Riley to decide that, whenever that talent became free, whether in 2009 or probably 2010, he needed to be prepared to be a player.
“And in my diabolically thinking mind, I said, ‘this could happen, why can’t it happen?’” the Heat president recalled last November, in an ESPN Radio podcast with Dan LeBatard. “And so when you’re a dreamer like I am. I mean, I’m dreaming about it every single day of my life. And then I’m saying to myself, also, on my way to work in my car or when I’m sitting by the pool, I’m saying to myself, ‘why would they not want to if they could? Why would they not want to if they could?’”
Why would he — James — not want to if he could?
So James did. So Bosh did. So Wade did.
Yes. They. Did.
But what we didn’t realize then, what Riley might not have fully realized then, was how the pursuit of James could never cease, even when on the payroll, even after the parades held and promises kept. James still needed to be continually convinced this was the proper permanent place, for his legacy and family, for his ambitions and appetites. He needed to feel free. Or he would flee. What we didn’t realize then, what Riley could not have even considered then, was that he would someday again be chasing James in the standings.
That James, rather than ally, would again be an adversary, on the other side.
In the way.
As he is now.
Not in the absolute peak of his athletic prime, perhaps.
But still, even as he approaches 31, an obstacle not easily scaled.
It was just a force of nature that all of a sudden collided at the wrong time. Forces. The loss [in the 2014 Finals]. The attractiveness of him going home, wanting to go home. Maybe us in his eyes not being as good as he thinks we could have been. All of those things. So we've moved on.
Pat Riley last year after LeBron James left for the Cavs
So that chase of James resumes this season, after a season Miami spent mostly chasing his ghost, the ghost of the guy who brought glory before making Riley’s generational team go poof, the ghost wearing the Olympic jersey in the rafters, grinning in photos in championship alley, bobbing to the bassline of the played-out “Seven Nation Army,” inspiring cheeky campaigns like “Heat Lifer.” Never was the Heat truly equipped to chase him in the flesh, on the court, in the standings, no matter how Riley might have convinced himself otherwise, and especially not when they were emotionally and physically ravaged, playing 21 different players, eight of which aren’t currently on NBA rosters.
So, is Miami ready now?
Ready with a roster of proven veterans?
Ready with a revelation at center, motivated by the prospect of a life-altering payday?
Ready with a pair of hungry, talented rookies?
Ready to make up a 15-game regular-season difference, even as James returns with a fortified cast, edified by Heat lessons he’s imparted, hardened by a playoff run?
Ready to end his strangehold on the Eastern Conference, after his five straight NBA Finals appearances marked the most since four members of the 1962-66 Celtics?
Maybe not. Maybe not even with full health. Maybe not even if elevating beyond expectations, whether defensively or from long range. Maybe not until after the summer of 2016, when Riley will attempt to add an additional star. Maybe not until Father Time catches James first and pulls him down from his perch.
Ready, at minimum, to make James sweat?
Many members of the Heat, whether in suits or sneakers, believe they can do that. They’re confident that Riley, in short order, has created a compelling combination of players, capable of offering considerable resistance. Not just to Cleveland. To everyone.
“What team can you say that we don’t match up well against?” Luol Deng said.
In the East, some would cite the Cavaliers as the one.
A primary defender in Deng who has shown that he can make James work. A rim protector in Hassan Whiteside who, like the likes of Roy Hibbert, can make James think. A point guard in Goran Dragic who can make a matchup with Kyrie Irving reasonably close to even while combating James’ efforts to choke the pace the way he did during the 2015 postseason. Champions in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and Chris Andersen and Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem who might want to make a point that no one person made them, and won’t back down from the Cavaliers’ core. Inexpensive additions in Amar’e Stoudemire and Gerald Green eager to make a case about what they can offer. Kids in Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson who are making their way, not haunted by any history.
After all, Winslow was entering fifth grade when Riley’s chase began, a chase that didn’t end when James ended his Heat days.
“It was just a force of nature that all of a sudden collided at the wrong time,” Riley said in that interview, just after the 2014-15 season started. “Forces. The loss [in the 2014 Finals]. The attractiveness of him going home, wanting to go home. Maybe us in his eyes not being as good as he thinks we could have been. All of those things. So we’ve moved on.”
They didn’t. Not last season. James did. The Cavaliers forward rarely mentioned the Heat in public settings and, when informed of Riley’s occasional mentions of him — including the thinly-veiled poke at players with “smiling faces and hidden agendas” — he would quickly dismiss them, characterizing his former championship partner as just another detractor, even referencing the iconic Esquire cover in which Muhammad Ali was pierced by arrows. A nuisance, and no more. James is chasing history, only history, now, and he chases it for Ohio.
The Heat chases him. To move forward, it must catch him, and then move him out of the way.
Can that be done? This season?
It will be fun to find out.
Because, well, why would they not want to, if they could?