But there was another decision, made with less fanfare by another member of last summer’s heralded free agent class, that has resulted in a rematch of the 2006 NBA Finals between the Heat and the Dallas Mavericks.
Dirk Nowitzki simply faxed in his signature to a four-year contract that guaranteed his return to the only franchise that he had known since he was drafted in 1998. No celebratory party with 13,000 adoring fans was necessary, as Nowitzki committed with the hope, but certainly not the expectation, that a championship would be waiting for him on the other side.
“Ultimately that’s where my heart was at. I almost felt like we had unfinished business after ’06,” said Nowitzki, who remains haunted by the Mavericks’ meltdown after winning the first two games and leading by 13 points in the fourth quarter of Game 3 before losing the series in six games. “All I needed was reassurance that [Mavericks owner Mark Cuban] was going to keep going and keep building around this team, and keep putting all his resources for us to hopefully be up there one day.”
At 32, Nowitzki is a former league’s most valuable player on the back end of his prime years, on a team with a narrowing window that managed to break through the Spurs’ and Lakers’ Western Conference stranglehold for just the second time since 1999. But while Nowitzki chose the path of comfort and familiarity, his younger counterparts — James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — all selected the immediacy of supreme assistance by joining forces.
Wade won a championship at Nowitzki’s expense, but didn’t advance beyond the first round again until this season, and even had to endure a 15-win season three years ago. “I didn’t want to waste my prime rebuilding, but I knew I had contract coming up in a couple of years and things would fast track a little bit,” Wade, 29, said.
The union wasn’t popular but they have managed to use the vitriol directed toward them as fuel for their success. “We’ve got a lot of flack this year, mostly because of myself,” said James, a two-time MVP. “Ultimately, for me, it was about being in the position to compete year after year after year. And not only being able to do that, but being able to do it with one of my best friends, one of the best players we have in this league today in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. I know what this league is all about, about having multiple guys on the court that can dominate a game. Teaming up with these guys I feel like we can compete for a lot of years to come. We’ve proven a lot of people wrong so far. We have a lot of work to do still.”
James and Nowitzki have been criticized throughout their careers for their inability to carry their teams to the finish, but they have been the most unstoppable forces this postseason — James with his all-around brilliance and Nowitzki with a jumper that might be the hardest shot to defend since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook. One of them will finally remove himself from the list of most valuable players to never win a championship — Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Allen Iverson, Steve Nash and the recently crowned Derrick Rose are the others.
As James, 26, returned to the Finals for the first time since San Antonio swept his Cleveland Cavaliers in 2007, the league’s most dynamic and divisive player admitted that he is motivated to solidify his legacy with a title. “You hear it all the time. Always say, to go down as one of the greats, you have to put a ring on your resume,” James said. “I mean, as an individual, you have those dreams and you have those goals. You want to be a champion. I’m humbled. I’m blessed that I’m able to get back to this point and to be able to redeem myself.”
After failing to get out of the first round in his past four postseason appearances, Nowitzki placed his faith in the Mavericks to get him the appropriate supporting cast. Since losing to Miami, they’ve added Jason Kidd; acquired DeShawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood and Caron Butler in a trade with the Washington Wizards; signed Shawn Marion; then finally added the missing piece last summer in center Tyson Chandler. Four wins from possibly leading his team to its first championship, Nowitzki said he doesn’t want his career defined by whether or not he won it all.
“I’m not worried about my legacy without the ring or with the ring. I’m living in the moment. We have another chance, and I’m going for it. Everything after that will fall into place the next couple of years. We can talk about my legacy once my career is over. I’m really just focused on winning and being on the best team left standing.”