By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2010; 12:29 AM
Every now and then, perhaps only once a generation, circumstances will conspire to deliver an absolutely irresistible team. And even though we're still more than two weeks removed from the start of the NBA season, it's perfectly clear that the Miami Heat is one of those teams - already beloved in South Florida and somewhere between disliked and hated most everywhere else. LeBron James's decision to hook up with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh just off South Beach is an oil strike for the NBA.
Normally, the NBA preseason is something to fast-forward through while paying as little attention as possible. But a crazy thing happened the other night when the Heat took the court with Wade, LeBron and Bosh together for the first time as teammates, to play a nonetheless meaningless preaseason game.
Folks went to their TV sets in record numbers. More people watched Heat-Pistons Tuesday night on Sun Sports, the cable network that televises Heat games, than had watched a telecast on that network in more than 12 years. That would include the entire 2006 season when Wade and Shaquille O'Neal wore Miami uniforms and took the team to an NBA championship. It was also televised nationally on NBA-TV.
But it's doubtful the NBA has ever seen anything like this. This Miami team has the star power of the 1927 Yankees and is expected to play with the precision of the perfect 1972 Miami Dolphins and dominate the league like the record-setting 1996 Chicago Bulls. Younger folks, players included, seem to appreciate the savvy the players demonstrated in seizing control from management and orchestrating all of this. Older folks, many Hall of Fame players included, despise the very notion of stars of this magnitude opting to join instead of beat one another.
Combine internationally recognized stars of this magnitude with the glamour of Miami Beach, Pat Riley's history for assembling championship-caliber teams, the LeBron James telethon (particularly the words "take my talents to South Beach"), the over-the-top celebration at the team's arena, LeBron's assertion that the team would win "not three, not four, not five, not six championships" and gradually the perfect storm had gathered down in Florida - a Category 5 athletic hurricane. Almost nobody speaks of this team in measured sentences. Every single opinion seems to be a declaration.
They'll win now. They'll never win. They'll break the Bulls' record of 72 wins in a season. LeBron's brand is damaged. He'll never be one of the all-time greats doing it this way. It's bad for basketball, it's great for basketball. Otis Smith, GM of the Orlando Magic, says he thought LeBron was "more competitive than this," meaning he can't believe LeBron would admit he needs another A-list player to win a title. Smith's coach, Stan Van Gundy, has taken his shots at the organization he used to coach but also said, "I don't think there is any question that the roster the Heat have is as talented a roster, if not more so, as any roster there has ever been in the NBA." But on media day . . . "I'm surprised there was enough media left for you guys to get here. ESPN is all Heat, all the time."
What we've got here is the NBA's first villainous team since the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons of the late-1980s and early 1990s. Pro wrestling, as far back as "Gorgeous George," learned that a villain could energize a sport as much as a heroic figure. The Raiders have fulfilled this role for the NFL but haven't been good enough to matter most of the last decade. But the Patriots, starring a coach nobody much liked, took a villainous turn in 2008 while going through the regular season undefeated, and few teams have been more compelling in NFL history.
Now, folks are lined up to take shots at the Heat, on and off the court. Part of the fun of the upcoming season is that the Eastern Conference is so loaded. One of the reason Miami won't win 72 games is that the Celtics are a worthy adversary, as is Orlando. The Bulls and a completely under-the-radar Milwaukee Bucks team are talented enough to at least stand up to Miami. And that list doesn't include the defending champion Lakers.
It's fair to say the Lakers, Celtics and Magic will come to loathe if not the Miami team, then all the attention the Heat is receiving. The Lakers and Celtics, specifically, are veteran teams that would normally take their grand old time gearing up for a new season, but in this case seem awfully frisky. Miami's done that. It suggests the season will begin with the kind of sprint rarely associated with a marathon season.
If we've learned anything from watching Miami in the preseason, it's that critics were entirely wrong about this being a top-heavy team that wouldn't have the salary cap room available to put together a complete roster. Absolutely nothing is missing from this roster. Mike Miller and Eddie House are accomplished shooters. There's not a lot of size, but Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Juwan Howard have about 30 years of experience between them and never wander outside of character. Udonis Haslem knows how to play off superstars and identifies with thankless tasks of all kinds. Carlos Arroyo can run an offense if, for some reason, LeBron and Dwyane Wade don't have the ball or aren't on the floor. Joel Anthony and 308-pound Dexter Pittman are well-suited to be mashers. It's a fabulous roster, really; we don't have to wait until the regular season to see that.
But what we don't know, what the other contenders are banking on and the reason to watch Miami from Day 1, is whether Miami is up to it. What Jordan and Coach Phil Jackson did every single night of the 1995-96 season and again in 1996-97 (when the Bulls won 69 games) was play to the team's maximum level. There was a clearly defined leader and pecking order, but those things took six years of building, then refining. Those Bulls relished every challenge and had a singleness of purpose that has been seen in sports only once since - by the 2008 Patriots, who nonetheless couldn't win the championship.
Those teams, the Bulls and Patriots, didn't just play, they crusaded. Their performances were like dates at the theater. The Heat has a long, long way to go before reaching that point, with so many things trying to derail it along the way. But that's the reason so many people are already tuned in, to see if Miami can do it, to see if it will fail, to see if the Heat falls flat on its face or re-writes history. The NBA regular season is usually something best joined in progress, sometime after the Super Bowl in February. But the team assembled in Miami has made the upcoming season, at least their games, must-see TV from the very beginning, from right now.