Seven years later, it’s amazing how little has changed.
The seeds of LeBron James’ discontent in Cleveland were sown against these very same San Antonio Spurs in 2007, in a dismantling so complete that it began James’ realization that if he was going to win a title, he needed help. That realization led him to Miami. Now, it could lead him out.
James and the Heat were not just beaten in the 2014 NBA Finals. They were beaten down. Though the series was billed as cagey veterans Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker fighting for revenge against a star-laden Heat team at the height of its powers, in reality Miami looked like the older team. The Heat have no Kawhi Leonard on which to rest their future, and Parker is actually four months younger than Dwyane Wade. Suddenly, James looks mighty lonely on South Beach.
What James does next will determine just how much of last year’s talk about his maturation, about recognizing his folly in “The Decision,” was truth or fiction. Despite winning two of the last four NBA championships, James is stuck with the perception that when the going gets tough, he gets going — to a place where winning will be easier.
James, Wade and Chris Bosh all have early termination options in their contracts this summer, which means any or all could opt out and become free agents. They could sell their services to the highest bidder or they could accept pay cuts to free up salary cap space. If they make a move, even one to stay in Miami, it is likely only to cement the team’s mercenary reputation in most fans’ eyes.
The contrast to the Spurs could not be more glaring. After the ultimate letdown in last year’s Finals, the Spurs regrouped and carried a renewed resolve all season, through to Sunday’s Game 5. They did not make any meaningful personnel additions. They didn’t fortify their roster with incoming players to address their weaknesses. They simply got better at the things they did well and improved things they didn’t do so well. They weren’t good enough to win in 2013, so they got better.
Meanwhile, what can the Heat do now? James could leave, as he did from the Cavaliers when losing to the Boston Celtics got to be too frustrating. He could sign a lower-salary extension to bring another star player to Miami, but that would only confirm many fans’ belief that rather than rise to a challenge, James looks outward for help. It didn’t make much difference in their eyes, after all, that James took considerably less money to sign with the Heat than he could have gotten elsewhere in 2010.
The Spurs’ title illustrates a lot of sports truisms, but one of the most important is that there is no mountaintop. Even four championships in, the Spurs were still stung by last year’s defeat and came back burning for another. James might have thought winning consecutive championships was the pinnacle of his career, that it would silence all the doubters. In fact, it only raised the stakes. There is always more to be done.
As James’ future in Miami hangs in the balance, it is head-shakingly incredible how little has been answered in all this time. If not for a well-timed Ray Allen 3-pointer, this year’s storyline could be about how James’ Heat have lost three of the last four NBA Finals. All we know now for certain is that James is the greatest player in the world, but we knew that already.
What we don’t know — what we can’t know — is what another defeat will lead him to do next.
Photo via Twitter/@nycjim