MIAMI — Fifteen months ago, I was perched in the tuna tower of a docked sport-fisher, relishing spiced rum and a dripping rack of ribs, when my phone buzzed against my leg. It indicated the arrival of a friends’ premature, absurd text message. It read: "Lebron is coming to Miami, so says (X)."
The unexpected text was a trifle, a fantasy. I saved it to eventually submit as evidence in the perpetual trial of ridicule that one endures when one’s friends are all sarcastic opportunists with long memories. I would not allow him to dupe me just because he had deluded himself into believing something so preposterous, on the weak basis of a supposed inside tip. Except that I kind-of, well no, I absolutely let it delude me, at least temporarily, because that is how it works when you love sports. On top of that, even though anyone can claim unsubstantiated access to a secret source, I was tantalized because this was coming from a rare guy who could, conceivably, know if the news was legit. Still, my first rational thought was the same default argument a lot of people make against a possible pairing of two of the league’s premier talents: Dwyane Wade and Lebron James are destined to compete, not collaborate.
Media experts use authoritative tones to proclaim as fact that the two would never want to be teammates. They suggest that such a match would be un-macho of them, a capitulation. Neither of them, the thinking goes, would do anything that might be perceived as a shortcut to his respective, rightful dynastic destiny. There is Dwyane Wade’s team, and there’s Lebron’s, and people buy ever-wider, ever-thinner, high-definition televisions for nights like those in which Lebron’s Cavs play Wade’s Heat. They use the term "alpha-dog" a lot – with the premise of the metaphor being that a pack has room for only one leader. So it was only a daydream, one to indulge for just a few minutes, adding a basketball component to a porky, rummy, breezy afternoon spent on a boat going nowhere.
Three weeks later, now perched on the 300-level of American Airlines Arena, I spent a more beer-y night witnessing The James and Wade Show at its apex: 42 points for Lebron, with six 3-pointers and eight boards, and 41 points from D-Wade, plus 7 steals, 7 rebounds, and 9 assists. Heat fans left that game giddy and satiated, despite having watched the home team blow a big lead in the last eight minutes of a seven point loss. We were content to revel in having been there for the sporting equivalent of Mozart and Beethoven on dueling pianos. Actually, it felt more like leaving a concert (elated buzz, foggy fatigue) than a game that night. The two best ballers in the world had hijacked the court for a one-on-one session of power-dunk HORSE, so we all went home happy.
To me, these guys seemed destined for epic battles year after year. The two young stars motivated, and brought out the best in, each other. This made them perfectly-matched foes. I was thankful that one of them played in my town, and still didn’t entertain the thought of their playing as teammates – even as Heat fans, and the franchise itself, focused on vague possibilities 15 months into the future.
Nearly two full playoffs have passed since then. Lebron was the MVP a season ago, while Wade won the NBA scoring title. Both were spectators for the latter part of those playoffs, and Kobe Bryant’s Lakers captured the title. This season, James was once again the king of the league through April, while Wade hung tough on a team that was killing time until summer. Both players are currently home watching the remaining contenders on TV. Smack in the prime of their careers, they must begin to ponder some historical mathematics, with variables like: their remaining years, their annual odds of a championship, Michael Jordan’s six titles, and contemporary rival Kobe Bryant closing in on number five. James and Wade will make their free agency choices with championship-math on the mind, because they presumably have aspirations to enter the discussion of "best ever". Six rings is a lot to aspire to when you’re Dwayne Wade, and so far you have one, or you are Lebron James, and have none. Heat President Pat Riley will assuredly make that point a pillar of his sales pitch.
I can’t help but wonder whether the guy who spurred the ridiculous text message saw something like this coming. Cleveland has essentially locked themselves into their current, deeply-flawed roster. They have neither the flexibility, nor room under the salary cap, to add better players to complement their star. They are stuck, and it is unrealistic to expect James to stay for sentimental reasons when common sense says that Cleveland is not well-positioned for a string of championship runs. Miami, conversely, offers beaches, an international assortment of babes, Wade, and the most salary cap flexibility in the league.
There are other suitors (New York, Chicagoâ€¦), but let’s get into tuna-tower daydream mode for a minute and imagine that Pat Riley talks the two superstars into signing contracts with Miami through a porterhouse haze at Prime 112. According to the aforementioned experts, it would take a masterfully persuasive line of reasoning. How about this one: neither is getting to six rings by himself, if six is even the target. Together, he might tell them, over some pan-seared diver scallops with braised short rib, they would comprise the best young nucleus in (the history of?) basketball, with a demonstrated capacity for elevating each others’ performances. Instead of perfect foes, they might be ideal teammates. Riley would still have cap space to add more pieces, along with the usual Heat advantages of no state tax and South Beach.
A team with the best shooting guard/small forward combination since Jordan and Pippen would only need to follow the old Bulls blueprint of roster design. The key third element would be a Rodman/Grant banger to rack up rebounds. The Heat’s current power forward, free-agent Udonis Haslem would be an ideal fit. He is a tenacious, versatile big man with solid accuracy from the elbow and the baseline, plus he has strong defensive skills. Adding one great shooter, a pure point guard, and a serviceable center to that nucleus would complete the old Chicago model. One route could be to plug in pieces from last year’s Heat team with Dorrell Wright as the shooter, Mario Chalmers at point guard, and Jermaine O’Neal at center.
A better option might be to use Wright and Chalmers as bench depth, while adding a veteran shooter and point guard to the mix. Mike Miller (a 48 percent 3-point shooter this season) or Kyle Korver (53 percent from deep) would exploit the weaknesses that Wade and James would expose in opposing defenses. A steady veteran like Steve Blake, Raymond Felton, or Randy Foye could run the point until crunch time, when Wade and James take over the ball-handling. A center like Brendan Haywood or the aforementioned O’Neal could provide sufficient interior presence at the right price.
The last question would be what to do with ultra-talented but immature forward Michael Beasley. In this model, he would either be a sign-and-trade sacrifice to get James (or another piece) to Miami, or he could carry the second-team offense as the most talented sixth-man in the NBA. Either way, the Heat would be poised to compete for league dominance for the foreseeable future.
If you have been in Miami during times of great sports-related fortune, you know what would happen next in this scenario. A sleepy Tuesday night schedule-filler against the Bobcats or Clippers would become an instant sellout. Courtside cleavage counts would soar. Everyone would buy brand new hats, and they’d clamp Heat flags onto their cars (they would, of course, continue to use those spirit-enhanced vehicles as weapons of intimidation against their fellow Miami drivers). The other thing that would happen is that all other basketball enthusiasts would unite against Miami in jealous rage. That kind of vitriol has always brought out the best in the native south Florida sports fanatic, so it would be fantastic.
What I considered an implausible partnership may not have been as impossible as it seemed that day on the boat when I got that text. It is still unlikely by most accounts, but if Pat Riley can get them to Prime 112, and then hold their attention until the warm dulce de leche bread pudding hits the table, he might persuade the two superstar buddies to shelve their personal rivalry and widen the lens through which they view basketball history – and their legacies within it. He might introduce a championship equation they had not yet considered: Kobe’s five, plus Jordan’s six, equals Bill Russell’s eleven.