When LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade on the Miami Heat, almost everybody hated the idea of it. Players were determining the terms of their employment, announcing their decisions on cable television and holding championship celebrations before a regular season game had even been played. James, Bosh and Wade, not particularly unlikeable guys personally, became unlikeable through their previously never-before-seen actions.
At least there was something new, and even a little absurd, about that whole fiasco. It was sort of cute to see a bunch of star players team up in South Beach, sort of like three college friends moving to Las Vegas after graduation because they think it will be cool. The Heat franchise only had one championship to its name at the time, and that was a workmanlike unit that out-toughed the Mavericks in 2006. Knock yourselves out, fellas.
But the Lakers’ acquisition of Dwight Howard, on the heels of their trade for Steve Nash in July, is something new and much more threatening. This is not some young organization trying to force its way into the big boys’ club by throwing money around and putting on a gaudy laser light show. This is the Lakers, holders of the second-most championships in NBA history, and there is little endearing about them, especially to anyone from Boston. If the Heat personified all that is wrong with professional sports in many people’s minds, then to those people, the Lakers simply personify evil. Unlike with the Heat, fans are already accustomed to hating the Lakers, and it just got easier.
The projected starting five for the Lakers next season is Howard, Pau Gasol, Metta World Peace, Kobe Bryant and Nash. That is the best starting lineup in the NBA and potentially one of the greatest ever. The bench will be average at best — even the biggest Antawn Jamison fan has to admit he has mostly provided only empty statistics the last two or three years — and Mike Brown is in for some Erik Spoelstra-sized scrutiny, but when the lights go out for the pregame ceremony, all that will matter is the five All-Stars who will take the court together.
For all the drama surrounding the Heat over the last two years, the team itself was relatively free from controversy. Outsiders criticized Spoelstra, wondered if James had the guts to take the final shot and floated trade rumors during any two-game losing streak. But within the confines of the locker room, the team was rather united, if not overly enthusiastic at times. James never publicly suggested Bosh needed to toughen up or told Mario Chalmers to stop shooting.
Yet in L.A., Bryant did both of those things to Gasol and Andrew Bynum, respectively. Bynum is now gone, which means there will be fewer ill-advised 3-pointers and less Zen gettings-on, but the Lakers continue to employ an outspoken former MVP in Bryant, a controversy magnet in World Peace and the biggest diva (both in size and attitude) in the league in Howard. It will be a circus — a title-contending circus, but a circus nonetheless.
Next June conceivably could present basketball fans with a choice they dread. Who to root for, the Lakers or the Heat? Cynics will say nobody, but that is nonsense. A Finals involving those two teams would demolish TV ratings records as viewers tuned in to figure out who they hate more. James could even turn out to be the protagonist in that battle, which is not a position many people expected him to ever be in again.
Congratulations, Heat. You are now only Public Enemy No. 2.