SAN ANTONIO -- In sports, we hold our stars to the most impossible of standards. A great player can't be great unless he is Jordan great, a skyscraping bar LeBron James constantly finds himself trying to hurdle. To some, the 2010 alliance of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami demanded perfection-- read: four straight championships --to validate the decision to come together. Yet many act as if four Finals, two championships, sold out arenas everywhere and staggering national and local television ratings aren't irrefutable evidence that the Heat's mini-dynasty has been a roaring success.
"We didn't know what to expect when we decided to become teammates," says Wade. "It's been a hell of a ride."
But is it over? Miami enters the offseason with a laundry list of challenges. James, Wade and Bosh can opt out of the last two years of their deals and become free agents. Udonis Haslem and Chris Andersen can as well. Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers will be free agents and Shane Battier is headed towards retirement. How's this for reality: Norris Cole is the only player with a contract that guarantees he will be on the team July 1st.
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Heat president Pat Riley isn't panicking, of course. Opting out isn't an indicator of unhappiness, rather a desire to get a longer, better deal. And really, where are James, Wade and Bosh going to go that will give them a better chance to win championships? The Lakers have Kobe Bryant and a boatload of cap space, but play in the brutal Western Conference. The Knicks don't have the room to sign anyone until 2015. Houston would have to get real creative in dumping some big contracts and you won't find too many teams willing to help the Rockets out. Cleveland is a romantic notion-- LeBron returns...and he is bringing Bosh with him! -- but the Cavaliers have been dysfunctional since James departed. Miami stormed through the Eastern Conference playoffs and, when the bitterness of the loss to San Antonio subsides, the Heat trio should realize that there is no reason they can't keep doing it for years to come.
Said Erik Spoelstra, "You can't be so jaded that you can't appreciate what this team has accomplished."
The Heat need help though, a truth exposed by a San Antonio team that won because of its depth. Miami's bench was 21st in the league in scoring (29.5 points per game) and was clobbered by the Spurs' subs all series. Battier, Andersen and Cole were non-factors; so desperate was Spoelstra for help that he dusted off Michael Beasley, inactive for the first four games of the series, and played him 17 minutes in the second half of Game 5. Defensively, the Heat need a rim protector (hello, Greg Oden) to body up to a big like Duncan, who feasted on anyone who tried to defend him.
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"We need to get better from every facet, every position," says James. "It's just how the league works."
The Heat have a few avenues to do it. There is the draft. The Spurs are what they are because they have been able to supplement the roster with solid mid to late first round and in some cases second round picks. Tony Parker (No. 28 in 2001) and Manu Ginobili (57th in 1999) were instrumental in pushing San Antonio forward after the Spurs first championship, just as Kawhi Leonard (No. 15 in 2011, acquired in a draft day trade) and Tiago Splitter (No. 28 in 2007) have helped power the franchise to this one.
So, too, is Oklahoma City, which has survived the loss of James Harden with smart picks like Reggie Jackson (No. 24 in 2011) and Steven Adams (No. 12 in 2013).
Miami has the 24th pick in a talent rich draft, and will be well positioned to add a solid player. UConn's Shabazz Napier is a strong option, if for no other reason than Napier's presence could allow the Heat to let Chalmers go. And the flood of free agents will create, if the Big Three are willing to shave a little off their salaries, the kind of cap flexibility the Heat need to acquire perimeter shooters -- like the ones San Antonio stockpiles -- to open up the floor and keep defenses from keying on James.
It was a solemn scene on Sunday, with James and Wade shuffling off the dais and through the bowels of the AT&T Center, hugging friends and family before boarding a bus headed into a steamy San Antonio night. In some ways, it felt like the end. Really, though, this could be just the beginning.