Last week, a mere six days before the start of the NBA regular season, the Miami Heat rolled out for the first time since winning the Finals in June a starting lineup that says everything about the way the league is now constructed – and what it takes to compete as a result.
To a raucous greeting, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers stepped onto the floor together for a preseason game against the Washington Wizards in Kansas City.
From Miami’s bench came more evidence that in today’s NBA the rich get richer and everyone else scrambles to catch up or accept second-class citizenship: There was Ray Allen, newly acquired in free agency, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Rashard Lewis and others – a stunning amount of depth, much of it signed at below market value just to be part of this group.
“It’s always great (to have that depth),” LeBron said afterward. “It’s a luxury to have those guys that spread the floor. It makes it a lot easier on myself, D-Wade, Chris and Rio as well. So having those guys spread the floor the way they do, their ability to shoot the ball, helps a lot.”
When the NBA season tips off Tuesday, the Heat will open as favorites to win another championship because they are the touchstones to how you now win in a league that’s all about clustering talent. You either become one of the Towers of Power sprouting up in places like Miami, Oklahoma City or Los Angeles or you accept that your odds of a championship are even smaller than usual.
This is the new way, an era of the super teams born out of LeBron’s Decision, out of the Lakers’ magnetizing pull on talent, and out of the Thunder’s incredible luck and skilled navigation of the draft.
Not one of those teams will be satisfied with anything less than a championship, and the Thunder and Lakers have been aided in the idea of stars sharing space because it’s the only way to match a world defined by Miami’s Big Three.
The Heat’s high-minded hopes stem from LeBron’s maturation into the finest player on earth and the fact he’s surrounded by more talent than seems fair. Wade remains a star, Bosh will play center this year and stretch the floor by adding the 3-pointer to his offensive arsenal, Chalmers seems to have mastered his inconsistency and channeled his over-the-top confidence and Battier was the glue that calmed all things in the playoffs last season. Allen and Miller can be sharpshooters with one task, Haslem remains a formidable role player and the rest of the Heat know their duties cold. If pressed for a weakness, the Heat might struggle against bigger and more physical teams – like the Lakers. But any team that lives and dies on the perimeter will have its hands full, the Thunder included.
In fact, that task just got harder for Oklahoma City. Miami is a destination city and franchise, so it built its fortunes through the greatest free-agency coup in NBA history. The Thunder have to do it differently, and as a result they shipped Sixth Man of the Year and emerging star James Harden to Houston this week. Unable to work out an extension – and in a market that is far from a selling point, where the draft is paramount and tough decisions a given – he had to go.
The Thunder know who and where they are: A place as different from Miami as you can find in the NBA.
Still, they retain Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka under long-term deals. Those are all stars they drafted and got to buy into a team-oriented, talent-clustering approach. Nick Collison and Kendrick Perkins remain, and they’ve added, through the draft, Perry Jones. Once thought to be a lock as a top-five pick, he fell all the way to 28.
Then there’s the Lakers, the team that will battle Oklahoma City for Western Conference supremacy. Los Angeles added Dwight Howard (trade and, after this season, the expectation of a max-contract deal) and Steve Nash (trade) to the already formidable trio of Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and World Metta Peace. They may now have the best starting lineup in the game, if not of all time.
They know where they are as well: Like Miami, a destination that can land the biggest prize out there without having to lose a guy like Gasol or forfeit the ability to sign someone like Nash. Forgive GMs in other markets if they shake their head and mutter about the unfairness of it all.
Because everyone else? They’re behind.
Out East, the Boston Celtics are wholly reconstructed and, if they can figure each other out and get more offense from Rajon Rondo, dangerous. They’ll pair Rondo with Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the returned-from-injury Jeff Green and Avery Bradley, draftees Fab Melo and Jared Sullinger and new addition Jason Terry.
That may be enough to top teams like the Pacers (almost beat Miami in the playoffs last season), the Sixers (Andrew Bynum’s new home) and the Nets (interesting team with talent and a new arena). But no one, not even Boston at its best, remotely compares to Miami on paper.
The Western Conference is similar. The Spurs are the same perfectly coached, dangerous team they were last season, a squad that can rattle off 20 straight wins and then have age catch up to them in the playoffs. The Clippers, having added Lamar Odom and Grant Hill to a team headlined by Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, will be very good and capable of a big step forward. But, again, neither of those teams – or any of the others out West – pass the holy-goodness-they’re-good test the way the Thunder and Lakers do.
It’s a different NBA now, one that has driven up ratings, made the game more interesting and given distinct advantages to markets where players prefer to head the moment they have a choice. Yes, that’s always been true. But it takes on paramount importance when clustering greatness is the way to win championships.
The common denominator now is that every team must have one great star who attracts others to them. Miami had Wade, and once it had LeBron it had its pick of role players at a silly discount. The Thunder struck gold with Durant falling to No. 2 in his draft class, and the result has been the ability to hold onto other great players they’ve drafted themselves by selling the idea of playing alongside him. The Lakers had Kobe to lure in others, and presumably the Lakers will have Dwight to do that after Kobe retires.
For LeBron and the Heat, even that meaningless preseason game in Kansas City drove home just how important this advantage has become. After the game, LeBron talked about what it was like to step onto the court with that stunning array of talent he will be surrounded by all season.
“It felt good,” LeBron said. “That’s part of the reason I was in uniform tonight. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. We haven’t been together the whole preseason. To have Rio back, me and D-Wade playing, it was a luxury to have out there.”
He’s exactly right: It’s a luxury, one only teams rich in stars like LeBron are likely to be able to afford in this new era.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.