LeBron’s move to Cleveland, and all the warm fuzzies it engendered, puts me it a strange position. For the first time in four years, I will be rooting for him.
During the 2011 Finals, I was on vacation in Cancun. Although we were in paradise, I and many other guests gathered around the hotel bar to watch. Everyone was rooting for Dallas. I don’t think they all happened to be Mavericks fans. Like the Yankees, the Patriots or the Bad Boy-era Pistons, the Heat were in every toast at the Player Haters Ball. Even after the Heat won two championships, they remained the villains. While the Spurs play a beautiful brand of basketball, I don’t think that’s why the nation lined up behind them the past two Junes.
While I think the Miami squad LeBron left behind will go down in history as one of the best villain teams ever, I won’t go into why people hated the Heatles. I want to focus on why, now that they are gone, we should look back on them fondly. Of course, they united us in hate. But the league is better with a villain.
For all the legitimate or illegitimate reasons people had for hating the Heat, basketball was not one of them. At their peak, they could make beautiful music of their own on offense. It turns out Eric Spoelstra, on one of the hottest seats ever in his first year, could coach. He arguably maximized LeBron’s considerable offensive potential by slotting him at power forward, and his lineups, whether created out of duress or ingenuity, hinted at a possible positionless future for the NBA. I don’t think any coach has gotten more out of Chris Andersen, picked up off the scrap heap and unleashed as human fly swatter, slapping away weak shit all over the floor and finishing hard at the rim on offense.
Without the prominence of the Heatles, much of the public wouldn’t have gotten to meet characters like Birdman, or Chris Bosh, who it turns out is funnier and a better interviewee than the third-banana dinosaur we imagined. We would never have gotten to know the joy of watching Mario Chalmers get yelled at. We never would have seen that ridiculous shot by Ray Allen, perhaps the most iconic in a career filled with giant makes.
Miami’s aggressive, trapping defense stifled lesser teams, perhaps most starkly against Jeremy Lin during the throes of Linsanity. Lin had dazzled in game after game, delighting fans like me. But the Heat were the pinch that ended the dream, harassing Lin to the point that he could barely cross half court. While they snuffed out a beautiful thing, that same defense pushed the the Mavericks and later the Spurs to perfect a free-flowing, unselfish brand of offense. It was the only way to crack the Heat. One can only hope that other teams follow suit with that level of elite defense. And even though they ruined one of my favorite NBA phenomenons in Linsanity, the Heat deserve a measure of credit for raising the bar on defense.
I’m happy LeBron is back in Cleveland. It’s a feel-good story, even if it seems like an obviously good PR move. But I think the league is a little less compelling without its resident villain.