In a classy move Friday on Twitter, Miami Heat owner Micky Arison thanked LeBron James for his contributions to the franchise the past four seasons. Arison provided an example Heat fans should follow.
James’s decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers via free agency was a staggering blow to the Heat. It wouldn’t be surprising if the NBA’s former glamour team went from playing in the Finals to participating in the draft lottery next season. When the greatest player of his generation takes his talents elsewhere, those left behind should brace for tough times. Just ask the Cavaliers.
But instead of lamenting what they’ve lost, the Heat and its fans should celebrate what they gained. James had a historic run in South Beach. For both the Heat and NBA, it was a wonderful period made possible because professional sports’ biggest star hungered to achieve the ultimate team success.
Although it’s hard to remember, before James partnered with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, the Heat wasn’t exactly among the NBA’s elite. After winning the 2005-06 NBA title, the Heat produced only four postseason victories the next four seasons. Miami failed to win a playoff series.
Persuading James, who was reared in northeast Ohio, to leave Cleveland four years ago was the centerpiece of Heat President Pat Riley’s plan to put the Heat back on top. Few in NBA history have a championship pedigree as impressive as Riley’s. James’s résumé lacked a title. It was a good match.
Cavaliers management failed to surround James with a strong supporting cast. Riley put James in a lineup that included Wade, another future Hall of Famer, and Bosh, an all-star. What followed was a great stretch of team achievement.
The Heat played in four consecutive NBA Finals, a feat shared with only the league’s two all-time greatest franchises: the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. And for the crowd that believes the Heat should have gone to the Finals each season with James, Wade and Bosh on its roster, allow me to explain something: That’s not how it works.
Throughout sports history, many teams with high-profile players have failed to meet expectations. In Major League Baseball, the 1992 New York Mets proved to be one of the worst teams money could buy. The NFL’s 2011 “Dream Team” Philadelphia Eagles were a nightmare. Brooklyn Nets management gambled that old stars were the key to winning a championship last season — and they won one series.
By leading the Heat to the Finals every season, James made the franchise relevant again. Magazine covers, the lead spot on television sports-highlight shows, an international following — the Heat was hot. The Heat generated more buzz than any team since the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant-led Lakers, who won three straight titles from 2000 to 2002. James played the biggest role in making Miami a champion again.
While leading the Heat to consecutive titles, James won back-to-back Finals MVP awards. He came to Miami to win multiple championships. Mission accomplished.
James’s critics will argue he left Miami with the job not even half-finished. They enjoy pointing out that James once boasted the Heat would win many more than two titles.
During his first appearances with Wade and Bosh in Heat uniforms, James got caught up in the moment. He made a silly comment. In an as-told-to piece with my friend Lee Jenkins of Sports Illustrated, James did not make any title guarantees announcing his return to Cleveland. From his experience in Miami, he knows how hard it is to reach the top. James is wiser now. Can we all just move on?
The role of the villain, however, never bothered James. At least, James sure didn’t appear rattled while winning two more league MVP awards to increase his total to four.
The NBA was fine with James wearing the black hat. It was outstanding theater, which is always great for TV ratings and ticket sales.
Riley seems like the biggest loser. He assembled a winner built on James’s unique skills, then watched helplessly as it unraveled because, all grown up now, James was ready to go home.
But don’t cry for Riley. James enhanced Riley’s strong reputation as one of the best coaches and front-office leaders ever.
Riley has rebuilt the Heat before. If Riley is up for another major challenge at this late stage of his career, he’ll do it again.
For the Heat and its fans, having James on the team was the best of times. It didn’t last as long as they hoped, but they’ll always have fantastic memories. That’s more than most teams can say.
For more by Jason Reid, visit washingtonpost.com/reid.
More on LeBron James and the NBA:
John Feinstein: James wants to settle unfinished business