When this condensed NBA season tipped-off back in December of last year, every man and his dog had an opinion on how it would pan out for LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Whilst some were ready to dismiss LeBron as an all-time great due to his inability to produce in the clutch, others were convinced that this would be the year that he would finally achieve the ultimate success.
Throughout the bulk of the season Miami has been the benchmark for would-be title contenders; they’ve been the best home-court team in the league, losing just 4 games in the American Airlines Arena all season, and LeBron’s been the top-dog in the race to the MVP.
However, it hasn’t been all rainbows and butterflies for LeBron and Co. They’ve also been heavily criticised this season, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that this collective group will never win a title. Their late-game decision making has been costly, their inability to maintain big leads throughout a game has been a cause for concern, and far too often they’re forced to play 3 on 5, which isn’t surprising when 60% of their payroll is spent on three players.
Miami’s depth is a major question mark looming over their championship aspirations; most notably, they have one of the thinnest front court’s in the league. While Bosh and Haslem are both above-average power forwards, there is a gaping hole at the center position, which goes against everything I believe in when it comes to competing for NBA championships. But I guess sometimes you have to make exceptions, and in this case LeBron James is certainly cause for an exception.
Heat fans will know as well as anyone that LeBron is yet to prove that he can make the big plays in the big moments, and this has been one of the major reasons (if not the reason) why he still hasn’t earned that first championship ring. Some believe that he simply doesn’t have it in his DNA and that he’ll never be the go-to-guy in the dying moments of a close game. Others think he’s just an unselfish player who reacts to the defense and makes the right basketball play.
So then, with all these lingering questions surrounding the Miami Heat, why are they my pick for the 2012 NBA title? Because LeBron James plays on the team, that’s why. And while that hasn’t been enough in any of his first six playoff campaigns, I believe that this is the year that he finally turns the corner.
NBA players will typically tune out criticism from fans, journalists and broadcasters, but it’s pretty clear that over the last year LeBron has listened to the doubters and made some adjustments to his game. Earlier in the season he came out to the press and stated that he no longer wanted to be perceived as a ‘villain’ in the NBA, and to a certain extent his wish was granted. And he’s been criticised ad nauseam for his inability to score in the post, so he decided to spend last summer working out with Hakeem Olajuwon, one of the best back-to-the-basket players the game has ever seen. As a result, LBJ now has a handy set of post moves.
With some modifications and maturation he’s now arguably the most complete player the game has ever seen, and by seasons end we’ll probably have nothing left to fault him on. The only remaining question mark is his ability to take and make the big shots, but I’m a huge believer in James as a talent and I don’t think he’ll hesitate this time around.
In the pre-season roundtable I predicted that come playoff time LeBron would be playing at a level that we’d never seen from him, and I still believe that will be the case. LeBron James has a unique skillset and is capable of many things on the basketball court; he can legitimately defend five positions on the floor, he can run the point, he can spot-up, he can back down in the post, he can get after rebounds, he can push the ball in transition and above all, he’s an unselfish superstar with an under-appreciated passing ability.
Despite his pedigree, Dwyane Wade generally plays the ‘second banana’ role on this team, and that’s pretty ridiculous when you think about it, considering just how good the guy is. When the Miami defense is locked in, they have the best transition alley-oop combo in the business between himself and LeBron. This puts a tonne of pressure on the opposing teams to take care of the ball, which is easier said than done.
The third member of Miami’s big three, Chris Bosh, has gone under the radar in his second season with the Heat. His scoring numbers have taken a slight dip from last year and he’s recorded the lowest rebounding rate of his career. Since joining the Heat last season Bosh has seen less of the ball than he was accustomed to when playing for the Raptors, but in the postseason he should be an X-Factor and if he’s firing they’ll be the closest thing to an impossible cover as we’ve ever seen.
When Miami met up with Dallas in the NBA Finals last year, Tyson Chandler did an unbelievable job of clogging up the lane and forcing the Heat to do their damage from the outside. But with LeBron elevating his game this season, I have a hard time believing that this same strategy will be effective two years running.
With questionable depth, a lack of size, ‘clutch’ issues and having only three players on the roster that are worth writing more than a single sentence about, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Miami won’t win the championship this season. Basketball is a team game and I’ll never underestimate the importance of that, but with continued improvements to his game LeBron James has now too much talent to overlook. If being mentally engaged for a full forty-eight minutes and showing a willingness to take the big shot is all that’s left for King James to conquer, then to me, I think the outcome is inevitable.