America has not exhausted ways of doubting the Heat, or its eagerness to do so.
The grudging respect that consecutive NBA championships demand gives way now, happily, to the wishful thinking of so many that the reign stops here. That Miami will not win a third consecutive title. That this team so many still love to hate will be denied a full-fledged dynasty and the pantheon of greatest teams ever.
There are two main reasons, though, why one should think twice about betting against a Heat three-peat.
Their names are LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
One is the best and better than ever.
The other is more motivated than ever.
“I want to be the greatest of all time,” LeBron, league MVP the past two seasons, said it plain Monday as the team reconvened for its annual media day and the start of training camp. “I’m a better basketball player than I was last year in every aspect.”
As for Wade, he is 31 now, stung during last year’s playoffs by criticism he was a fading star — rather than appreciation for his playing hurt. And stung more recently by Kevin Durant suggesting Wade no longer is a top-10 player.
“He thrives on motivation, and he’s been given some more,” James said of his running mate. “He’s hungry.”
The font of that hunger is Wade’s pride, which showed even Monday in a couple of comments.
“I’m the second [scoring] option now, let’s just point-blank say it,” he said. “Not too many second options average 20 points a game.”
He also kiddingly complained about his diminished playing time last season, saying, “If [Spoelstra] takes away more minutes from me, we got a problem” — softening the remark with a smile.
Wade and James are as driven as ever, and yet a still-doubting nation wants to believe not in the Heat, but more so that the Eastern Conference has risen to a degree Miami might not even make it back to the Finals.
There is Indiana, athletic, improved, younger and hungrier after pushing the Heat to seven games in last summer’s playoffs.
There is Brooklyn, trendy-hot, star-laden, claiming its own “big five” to trump Miami’s returning Big 3.
Oh, and there is Chicago, of course, reinvigorated by the long-awaited return of star engine Derrick Rose.
Surely one of them will prove the ultimate roadblock to a Heat three-peat.
“The competition loaded up to beat us,” coach Erik Spoelstra, of the newly extended contract, said Monday. “We have to embrace that. They want what we have.”
Some think that if the Pacers, Nets or Bulls don’t beat Miami, then the Heat might somehow beat itself.
Like, surely the Heat will be self-satisfied and lacking the drive this time, victim of the human nature of complacency. Right?
Or be derailed by the season-long distraction of the looming summer of 2014 and what might become of pending free agents James, Wade and Chris Bosh. Right?
Keep dreaming up reasons Miami might fail, America.
Here’s one: Maybe the newly married LeBron — “I got three rings now,” he joked — is too distracted by celebrity now. Just last week he aligned with a new designer wristwatch that sells for $56,000!
Or let’s make fun of the team adding Greg Oden and Michael Beasley, one trying to get past multiple knee surgeries and the other past multiple marijuana arrests. (Of course this requires ignoring the fact both are risk-free signings with significant upsides and possibilities.)
Or how’s this: We parlay the fact this week’s four-day Heat training camp is being held at a resort in the Bahamas as an easy metaphor for the celebrity Heat being in vacation mode. Sure, why not! “Gee, I wonder if they’ll sneak in any actual practice time in between the pina coladas, snorkeling and craps tables.” Right?
Keep looking for signs of weakness that aren’t there, America.
This is what has always driven this team, and still does.
The doubt has changed. But it’s still here.
“A lot of narratives are out there, but it’s not a question of ‘Can we?’ For us, it’s, ‘How?’ ” Spoelstra said of winning another title. “Some of our competitors are trying to get into our subconscious. But we have a bunch of highly motivated guys. They know what they’re playing for.”
The first championship of the Big 3 era was the required minimum to simply avoid the whole experiment being called a massive failure.
The second was a broader vindication that it was not.
But it is a third title in a row that would demand the attention of sports history and leave no room left to call the assemblage of James, Wade and Bosh anything but an unequivocal — and enormous –—success.
“We’re a mentally strong team, and we know this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us as a group,” Wade said. “Indiana added talent, Chicago is bringing back their best player, Brooklyn threw all their chips in — but we want to be one of the great teams.”
It’s funny to me that the theme entering this season seems be how the Pacers, Nets and Bulls all appear to be better.
Here’s who else is:
A driven LeBron James, a motivated Dwyane Wade and a still-doubted Heat.