The Miami Heat lost their opening night game to the Boston Celtics. They looked bad. They won their second game, against the shoddy Philadelphia 76ers, and didn’t look that much better. Tonight they play the Orlando Magic, a very good team that — like the Celtics — has size, stellar defense and a few seasons under their collective belts contending with the same core. They might win it, they might not, it really doesn’t matter so much right now. What matters is perspective.
After everything last summer — “The Decision,” Wade re-signing, Bosh joining up, Mike Miller and some old dudes tagging along and countless potshots taken and verbal grenades launched hither thither and yon all over the league, the media and the sports-aware world — there are obviously heightened expectations for the Heat, both good and bad. A lot of people want them to fail, for obvious and unsurprising reasons. Their supposed villainy is something that has been given a lot of attention. Given less airtime was my worry from the moment we heard LeBron was bound for South Beach: When they start winning, a lot of people will root for them. They’ll root for them because most fans don’t grow up in sports meccas; most fans grow up in areas that have no teams, have little-to-no recognizable and entrenched sports culture or the nearby teams simply lack the financial and historical advantages given to fans who grew up in New York, Chicago, L.A., Boston and a few other spots. This is why there are so many Red Sox fans who have never set foot in Fenway and why there are a lot of guys in their 20s who root for the Yankees, Cowboys, Lakers and Duke. These are people who should be punched in the throat, but that’s besides the point.
So obviously there are sky-high expectations engendered by this superstar line-up, and people wonder if they can win 70 games, if LeBron can average a triple-double, if they can win the next 10 titles, et cetera. And people have been discussing this ad nauseum since July. People are fascinated by it. That’s great, because any extra attention for the NBA is welcome for a fan of the league like myself.
It becomes problematic when people make grand, sweeping pronouncements based on 24 minutes of play. It becomes problematic when people make asinine predictions based on two games. It becomes problematic when people look at one or two of the 82 games an NBA team will play and decide, well, that’s about all she wrote.
Bill Simmons, a Boston Celtics fan first and an ESPN.com writer second, never really hides his bias. He is pretty blatant about it. It can be noxious, because when he writes about the NFL and the NBA, he tends to write with blinders on and espouse some pretty ridiculous things. He was obviously very happy his Boston Celtics beat the Miami Heat, and as a result he vomited out 7,600 words about all sorts of things he had come to realize based on one, maybe two games the Heat played. This is what columnists have to do: take immediate positions based on little-to-no evidence (especially when you consider that a mere 2.4 percent of the NBA season has been played, and Simmons witnessed a mere fraction of the time spent between the Heat players, yet he feels able to immediately discern their motives, psychological underpinnings and stature within the organization).
The obvious rejoinder is to point out that three years ago, the Boston Celtics were in a similar position to the Heat. Simmons himself even said so. They had gutted their roster and rebuilt the team around three stars who had always had to carry their own teams. Simmons and others like him will tell you that it was different, that those three guys had put in their time on bad teams, that they were wired differently, that it wasn’t just about fame or money, and these statements might be true and they might be false but they are undoubtedly meaningless. When you boil it down, the points are similar enough that differentiating between the two is a matter of semantics. (For what it’s worth, Simmons is — again, like a lot of columnists who write about different topics — prone to strongly believing something one week and then forgetting he ever said it a month later.)
And for what it’s worth, his entire aside about LeBron needing to run the team and Wade needing to be the sidekick because he is a lesser player: It’s worth pointing out that between them, only one has during crunch time carried a team to victory: Wade, in the 2006 Finals (winning a ring) and in the 2008 Olympics (where he was the leading scorer throughout competition and during the clinching win over Spain). LeBron has a history of putting up big numbers and making big plays and not being able to sink the putt, so to speak. Wade, by comparison, has shown he can carry a team to some success but is better suited to put them over the top when they’re in a position to win. But we should pretend crunch time doesn’t matter and that the best players don’t carry their teams to victory when it counts, or whatever, right?
I can understand why “The Decision” swayed so many people into deciding LeBron was the villain here (and, really, screwing over Cleveland like that was pretty weak), but I still can’t understand why it’s more acceptable for teams and organizations to treat players like walking commodities and to swap them like so many assets in a corporate merger than for players to have any say in their own lives. I don’t get why it’s okay for two executives who are friends (like Kevin McHale and Danny Ainge, former teammates and the execs who made the 2007 trade sending Garnett to Boston) to swap players, but three friends who are players shouldn’t decide their own fates. I don’t know how much of it is because we’ve been conditioned to care about the nonsense that players want to Compete and Grit It Out and it’s some sort of Homeric quest that they need to do alone, to endure and prove themselves the best. I don’t know how much is because players holding out and getting traded is bad, but forgotten about, and players refusing to play is bad, but also eventually forgotten about, yet players being cut and their contracts voided is “just business.” And I don’t know how much of it is racial, in that these sorts of trades/signings/moves are generally controlled by the predominantly white coaches, executives and owners in the NBA (and, for what it’s worth, other leagues), whereas this time the same kind of move (only perhaps grander, given the talents of the three involved) was perpetrated by three young African-American multimillionaires (though they did still need a facilitator in Pat Riley and Mickey Arison).
A lot of it is because in sports, so much gets discussed and dissected off the court and field that we forget the only things that truly matter are the results of the games. Simmons can whine all he wants about some holding penalty that wasn’t called in the 2008 Super Bowl, or say his quarterback saying hi to Pat O’Brien cost them the game, but in the long run nobody will care or remember and the Giants were the champs and the Patriots weren’t. Media commentators — perhaps more than fans — like to pay attention to the off-the-field storylines and narratives. That’s because the games themselves take up a relatively minor slice of time. We have ample, seemingly endless time to banter, bicker, discuss, contemplate. Could Jordan have won eight straight? What would have happened if Elway hadn’t gone to Denver? These things are fun, but they’re empty.
The point is this: Simmons has declared the Heat villains, deemed them to be suffering a psychological and personnel quagmire and determined that they are having trouble handling these dual realities. To say that he’s stretching is to put it mildly. Yes, they’re villains. For now (and forever, in Cleveland, L.A., Boston, places where this matters; in Arkansas, in Oregon, in North Carolina, you think anybody will hold onto this hate next summer?). They aren’t playing with their full roster (Mike Miller, a key component, is out until January). They have played almost no minutes with their main stars until opening night. And to say that a team with such high expectations — from others as well as within — seemed shaky when playing together for the first time (and against an opponent with strengths mirroring the Heat’s weaknesses) and are therefore irrevocably flawed is just stupid.
So let’s remember this next spring and summer. There are a lot of people saying things like Simmons, only with fewer words and smaller platforms. We need to remember this. Assuming there are no catastrophic injuries, this team will find their groove and start winning games and play deep into the playoffs. So next May, when LeBron and Wade have finished averaging 23-24 points per game and are demolishing teams with their unstoppable offensive onslaught, or whatever the hell winds up happening, let us remember that a lot of people had a lot of opinions when the team was unimpressive in their first 96 minutes on the court together. Because these people sure won’t be saying it. Over the season, Simmons and his ilk will slowly admit a few positives about the Heat, notice some good things, hedge by saying there are some negatives and warning signs — and if the Heat truly dominate, they will write how it was what was supposed to happen, and not a surprise, and it’ll be like they never doubted it at all.