I don’t remember if I made a true “prediction” at the beginning of the year regarding the success the Miami Heat would enjoy this year. Between the two extremes of: “they’re going to steamroll the entire league” and “they’re going to be a colossal wreck,” I know I leaned toward the former, but it doesn’t matter. A lot of people said a lot of things about the Heat, about LeBron James, and about the future of the NBA in an era where players could pick their teams the way they pick vacation homes and designer watches. I’d venture roughly half of them were way off, and the other half weren’t much better. I don’t think preseason predictions are bad per se. They may not be the most informed or informative element of NBA pop-journalism, but they’re fun and they let us start talking about basketball that much earlier. I’ll readily admit to rolling my eyes at the people who roll their eyes at mock drafts published 12 months in advance, because who cares? Whose time are we wasting? What damage is it doing?
But the preseason prognostication was different this year, because LeBron James declared war on all that is good in professional sports, and it needed to be shouted from the hills! Or so you might have heard if you’d checked the internet last summer. The Miami Heat immediately became the NBA’s Evil Emperor, a looming shadow threatening to swallow up the pure, good-hearted souls and declare martial law for the next half-decade. It was the first time, I would imagine, that questions like “how many games will they win?” were interspersed with “will they destroy everything NBA fans hold dear?” Yet for all the griping and lamenting the passing of the good ol’ days, reasoned responses were there to be found. Plenty of people, probably more than one might think, acknowledged it as a basketball decision that could be explained in basketball terms. And why couldn’t it be? The only difference between the Heat’s free-agent haul and every other 2010 signing was that all three players are obvious stars. Other teams who undergo roster overhauls have to work out how everybody will play together too. They just do it without three of the most talented players in the NBA on their roster. Sure, the Heat have a weaker-than-average bench, but the impact of that disadvantage was probably overstated. The Heat are, as it turns out, just another basketball team, subject to the same rules and natural laws as any other, blessed only by the presence of three players who perform exceptionally well.
So I have to admit, I have taken immense pleasure in the Heat silencing critic after critic during these playoffs. Silence is the only appropriate response from the year-long detractors, perhaps augmented by a subtle nod. No new excuses that only became relevant within the past three weeks. No handicapping their opponents to deflate what Miami has accomplished. Just credit, where a whole mess of credit is due. Because in reality, the Heat weren’t a malevolent triumvirate heralding the end of days. They were a good-sometimes-great basketball team that excelled because they combined a ton of talent with a ton of hard work. Sure they had motivation. I don’t doubt that a nation of naysayers constantly hurtling insults–often varied only in degrees of childishness–inspired the Heat to work a little harder. But do we really think things would have been significantly different without the criticisms? Do we honestly think Miami is lacking in personal motivation?
If the Heat take this thing all the way, if they take home in a championship in the first year of this grand experiment, there will be a lot of resigned admission. Columnists will publish 800-word odysseys emoting sideways glances, grins, and muttered statements of “oh, you guys…!” Heck, it’s already begun, in the form of three hundred paragraphs devoted to Rick Reilly waving the communal white flag in valiant defeat. As if he’s doing the Heat a favor.
I’m no Heat fan. I don’t overtly cheer for them, at least not in the same way I cheer for the Bucks, or the Green Bay Packers, or whatever other team is geographically closest to my hometown. But I am smugly, maybe even arrogantly pleased with myself for respecting what they did from the very beginning. Not because it’s an accomplishment, but because I’m not stuck here worrying about eating my words for the next three months. I’m not exactly happy about the prospect of seeing the Heat dominate the NBA for the foreseeable future, but I’m willing to accept that they have soundly, completely, and legitimately earned it.