By nature, the reigning champion is the favorite until someone knocks them off, or so the saying goes. For those that continue to presume the Miami Heat are the favorites (including myself), this becomes more element of faith than matter of fact. The Heat’s performance this season and surrounding circumstances create a myriad of facts, figures, and anecdotes that scream “doubt!”: The Heat mostly coasted through the regular season, and thus their previously stifling, swarming defense has been — comparatively speaking — kitten soft. Ray Allen and Shane Battier are both a year older (though Allen’s much-improved shooting after the All-Star break is an encouraging sign) and personnel-wise, the team is indisputably worse without Mike Miller, an instrumental piece in a handful of important playoff wins. There’s also the fact that three-peats are hard. Even with a seven-game series, you need a healthy amount of luck, both with injuries and actual on court plays(*). Then the questions: Does anyone have any idea what they are getting from Dwyane Wade? Can the Heat survive another series against San Antonio? Is LeBron’s crazy minutes load finally going to catch up to him?
*For example, one would be hard pressed to contend that the Heat’s defeat of San Antonio last year constituted the triumph of the significantly better team. Those teams played to a tie, Ray Allen’s-greatest-shot-of-all-time-hijinxs notwithstanding.
Supporters of the Heat will muster all kinds of counterarguments, but most of these feel like the ignoring of the obvious cracks type thinking that precedes a perennial favorite’s demise: They were coasting. They didn’t care about the regular season. No one can beat them in the East anyway. Wade got more rest this year! All of that is well and good, but in reality, the idea of the Miami Heat as favorites, and the reality of the Miami Heat as 2014 NBA champions rests with LeBron James and his ability to overcome — and your faith in his ability to do so.
The narrative surrounding all the great stars —particularly Michael Jordan and those that succeeded him — is the dominance and force of human will. The idea that if they wanted something bad enough, they could have it; there was nothing anyone could do to prevent their desire from transforming into reality. Conversely, the weight of failure was placed entirely on the shoulders of those that came up short. Those who failed to accomplish what their talent suggested was within their proverbial grasp. As a fan– and probably particularly as an American– there is a perverse comfort in this sports paradigm. Failure is your own and circumstance can never overwhelm. After all if these absurdly talented, god-amongst men with truly singular force cannot overcome fate, what chance does the everyday man have?
So this playoffs–more than any since LeBron James has joined the Miami Heat– will be about what the King can or can’t conquer. This is supposedly why he left Cleveland, this is supposedly why we were supposed to hate him for doing so. But in what feels like cosmic jest, here we are again, watching and wondering about the limits of LeBron James’ indomitable will.
This year, a narrative often dismissed as over-contrived and unnecessary becomes essential. I’m rooting for LeBron James because of a personal stake in success. I need him to succeed. I have enough reasons in my everyday life to doubt. I already know all the reasons to feel defeated. That’s why I need LeBron James. I need him to win. I need him to overcome. I need him to restore my faith in free will. Or you know, not. This time the stakes are higher. What could be more exciting than that?