Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hitting the Panic Button

This was not supposed to happen. When the Miami Heat made headlines this past summer by signing the three top free agents on the market, and soon after surrounded its stars with a credible supporting cast, most predicted immediate success. While there was disagreement on whether the Heat would win the NBA championship this season, the nearly universal sentiment was that the team would have the best record in the Eastern Conference and would likely face the Los Angeles Lakers for the championship. Some even predicted that the Heat would eclipse the all-time record for regular season victories set by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who finished 72-10 on their way to the first of three consecutive championships.

Fourteen games into the season, the Heat face a quite different reality. Their record stands at a very ordinary 8-6, and any visions of setting all-time records have vanished. Their best shooter, Mike Miller, broke a finger during the preseason, and will not play until December. Their best rebounder, co-captain Udonis Haslem, suffered a torn foot ligament this past weekend and is likely out for the year. They have lost two close early season games to the defending Eastern Conference champions Boston Celtics, and in the past three days have lost two games to teams with a combined record of 11-15.

Some fans and media followers have already pressed the panic button. An unofficial countdown has begun on how long team president Pat Riley will wait before assuming coaching duties. Many are second-guessing the signing of forward Chris Bosh, suggesting that the team may have been better off spending its money on a point guard. They are all missing the point.

The reality is that this Heat team will ultimately be judged not by how many regular season games it wins, but by how far it advances in the playoffs. The team has noticeable weaknesses at point guard and center, but those were there before the season began, when prognosticators lost all perspective and predicted regular season greatness.

In 1994, the Houston Rockets, led by Hall-of-Fame center Hakeem Olajuwon, were coming off their first NBA championship, a season in which the team won 58 regular season games. As with the Heat, many predicted that the team would challenge for all-time records during the regular season and breeze to a second championship. Instead, the team struggled early and finished the regular season third in its division with a record of 47-35. They were labeled a disappointment.

Then came the playoffs and, like the previous season, the Rockets dominated, winning 15 of 22 games on their way to their second championship. Today, no one remembers the Rockets’ disappointing regular season in 1994-95. Rather, they remember the team celebration as the final seconds of the deciding game wound down, and the hoisting of the championship trophy.

There is little doubt that the Heat will qualify for the playoffs – eight of the fifteen Eastern Conference teams will. Then the fun will begin.

Great players are defined by how they perform in the national spotlight, with championships on the line. Dwyane Wade, who has struggled in some early season games, particularly against the Boston Celtics, showed in 2006 that he thrives in the spotlight, leading the Heat to the NBA championship over the favored Dallas Mavericks. LeBron James and Chris Bosh have not yet matched Wade’s accomplishment, but they will get their chance this summer.

It does not matter where the Heat finish during the regular season. A team with this much star quality should compete on the road in the post-season, regardless of where they play. This does not mean that the Heat should be expected to win the Eastern Conference during a season in which players are learning to play together. More likely Eastern Conference champions this season are the Celtics and the Orlando Magic, teams that have been together for years and have won prior conference titles.

The Miami Heat will continue to be closely scrutinized and critiqued all season – this comes with the territory when a team assembles a cast of superstars and holds a pre-season celebration in its home arena before the first jump ball is tossed. But the only criticism that will resonate will come after the playoffs conclude and we see whether the shine on the team’s stars is real or an illusion created by the mist blown in from South Beach waters.

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