LeBron Will Be Back

By Jon Gorman

After last night’s title-winning victory by the Dallas Mavericks, the Miami Heat left the court a mixture of sullen, heartbroken and in tears. The team was thoroughly outplayed on both sides of the court, and ended their season by losing three straight after leading the series 2-1. To many it seems fitting that after making unequivocally cocky, brash and unappealing statements before the year about how the Heat would win “not two, not three, not four, not five, not six, not seven” titles, LeBron leaves the 2011 NBA season still without a Larry O’Brien trophy to his name. But, don’t get too happy LeBron haters, as he will be back, and chances are more than likely that he will win at least one title before all is said and done.

It was a disappointment of epic proportions for LeBron on the greatest basketball stage of them all. The combination of an aging Shawn Marion, Jason Kidd, and Deshawn Stevenson held LeBron to almost nine whole points below his season average while shooting lower in all of the big three shooting statistics. More importantly, LeBron shrunk when his team needed him most, averaging a measly three points per fourth quarter while his superstar counterpart Dirk Nowitzki set the fifth highest total all time for fourth quarter scoring average in the NBA finals. However, rejoice while you can LeBron haters, because he’s coming back, and he’s coming more motivated than ever.

At the end of the day, even thought the Heat failed in 2011, they still have a young and incredible collection of talent, including two of the top five players in the league and a third in the top 25-30. There’s no reason to think that they won’t be back in approximately the same position that they were just in for the next decade. After all, this team absolutely demolished every Eastern team that was put in their path, including a Chicago Bulls team that owned the best record in the league during the regular season. Looking at the shape of the east in the coming years, there really is no one, as currently constructed, who would be able to give the Heat a challenge. The Celtics are aging, and at this rate likely won’t be a top team in the east in another couple years, the Knicks are essentially Heat-lite, but with two flawed building blocks and no third star, the Bulls already proved that they can’t hang with the Heat in a seven game series, and the Hawks and Magic as currently constructed simply aren’t good enough.

In fact, the only reasonable challenge for the Heat could be dependent on the decisions made in the 2012 free agent class, namely the future of Dwight Howard. Howard’s defensive and rebounding abilities would give whatever team he goes to a huge edge at the center position over the Heat’s combo of Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem, and after watching Tyson Chandler dominate the glass and cutting off penetrators, it’s easy to picture Howard doing much of the same but even more effectively. If Howard goes to the Bulls and pairs with Derrick Rose, or the Knicks to form possibly the best frontcourt ever with Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, that team has a legitimate shot to take down the Heat in a seven game series. However, Howard’s future is a huge question mark, and Howard is on record stating that he’d like to stay in Orlando. In addition, with the new collective bargaining agreement, and the likely hard cap being put in place, it’s going to be much harder to put together a big three, and with the Bulls and the Knicks having a lot of money tied up at the moment, the Howard scenario seems unlikely at best.

Even if an unexpected challenger arises from the East, the Heat should get even better themselves, and it starts with the coach, Erik Spoelstra. “Coach Spo” was thoroughly outcoached thought the series by Rick Carlisle, and made some baffling decisions, namely at the PG spot. It was clear that Mario Chalmers was outplaying Mike Bibby throughout the playoffs, yet Spoelstra waited till game 6 to the finals to make the change, and not only did Bibby not start, he didn’t even get off of the bench, making the decision to wait to make the change even more baffling. In addition, at one point during game 6, the Heat had a lineup consisting of LeBron James at the power forward and Udonis Haslem at the center that created havoc for the Mavs defensively. At the time, Tyson Chandler was out of the game with foul trouble, and Dirk had to guard Haslem’s midrange game and protect the paint at the same time. What resulted was both James and Wade getting to the rim at will, making a serious dent in the Mavs lead at the time. Spoelstra should have gone to that lineup much more often, and earlier in the series, as even with Chandler in, Dirk would have been forced to guard either James or a perimeter player, tiring him out and getting him in foul trouble. Not all is bad for Spoelstra however. He is still young and learning as he goes, and there is a lot to like about him. He clearly knows the game, and emphasizes defense, and in the coming years he can easily end up as one of the top coaches in the game.

The Heat should also become a better team in the coming years from a personnel perspective. Players around the league know that the Heat are going to be a contender annually in the coming years, and will be beating the proverbial door down to get a chance to join the big three in their quest for a title. Samuel Dalembert, for example, is a free agent this summer, and while he’s an extremely flawed player, he’d be a huge upgrade over Joel Anthony as starting center. As long as the mid-level exception survives the new CBA, the Heat will have the means to add talented players for the next few years.

The members of the team now will also be better, both individually, and as a group. Time after time, teams that fail in one instance come back stronger the second time, and one can simply look at the 2011 title winners, the Dallas Mavericks, for proof of that. Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd, Peja Stojakovic, Shawn Marion and even coach Rick Carlisle are all guys who annually competed for a title, yet never won. In fact, both Dirk and Terry have repeatedly referenced their 2006 loss to the Heat as a huge learning experience for them, and it was easy to watch them and not that they were the more veteran, savvier team in these finals. There is no reason not to expect a similar reaction to occur for the Heat as they grow and develop as a team. Yes, Wade and LeBron each had one finals experience, but it didn’t happen together, and LeBron’s team was such underdogs in that series and were so thoroughly beaten, it was hard for him to take anything from it. There are plenty of lessons for him, and the rest of the team, to take away this time, and they will make them better, especially mentally.

This group of Heat players was essentially put together on the fly, with no true training camp, and consistently was adding and subtracting players, and changing rotations throughout the season. Even in the finals, guys like James Jones, Mike Bibby, Udonis Haslem, Eddie House and Mike Miller had their roles increased or decreased at one point, and it’s hard to form any sense of chemistry when you have so many changes on a regular basis.

Even one of the big three, Chris Bosh, had his role changed within the offense. For about 60 games, Bosh’s role was relegated to that of jump shooter, a role that he is clearly capable of, but one that not taking full advantage of his skills. Then, Bosh spoke up, and demanded the ball in the post. The Heat became a completely different team with that post presence, and Bosh’s play elevated them to the team that ran through the final games of the regular season and until the finals, dominating players like Kevin Garnett (besides a disastrous game 5) and Joakim Noah. However, Tyson Chandler nullified Bosh’s game, where he shot a very poor .414 from the field, and once again relegating him to an elbow jumpshooter. If the Heat are once again able to get Bosh going and permanently, that team is going to be even more difficult to beat.

Finally, the most important change that needs to be made for the Heat to win the finals will be LeBron James’ lack of crunch time ability, and while people can make jokes at his expense now, there is no reason to expect that to stay the same. After all, in the series prior, James repeatedly came up big in the fourth in two big comeback victories over the Bulls, including the series clincher. It’s also important to give credit to the Mavs defense, who guarded LeBron as well as anyone has. Marion and Stevenson both forced him to be a jumpshooter, and when he did manage to get around them, Chandler was there to contest everything. In order to combat teams who have a combo of excellent perimeter and help defense like that, James is going to need to master his midrange jumper, an area that is still subpar for him. Since LeBron can already shoot over just about all small forwards, developing his midrange game will give him a reliable crunch time go-to move when defenses collapse the paint, and the notions that he is “un-clutch” will go away. With all the progress he’s made already on his game, namely from a defense and three point shooting perspective, there’s no reason to believe that the midrange game won’t come.

At the end of the day, this Heat team is a team that will be challenging for a spot in the Finals consistently for the next decade or so, and the chances are that they’ll win at least one. While it’s doubtful that they’ll reach the eight that LeBron predicted, it’s important to note the LeBron is still younger than Michael Jordan was when he won his first, and he still managed to win quite a few in his career. James may have failed this year, but he’ll be a fixture in big games for a long time to come.