For the Miami Heat to win a third consecutive NBA championship, they will need to defy history. Since the NBA and ABA merged in 1976, no team has won a title with a lower ranked opponents’ field goal percentage than the Heat’s 17th. Their defense was ranked fifth in each of the past two years when they raised championship banners.
While LeBron James had another MVP-caliber season, the other two members of the Big Three, as well as the rest of the Heats’ supporting cast, has forced James to assume his usual herculean workload.
Injury-prone guard Dwyane Wade, 32, missed 28 games this season, playing in the lowest percentage of regular season games of his eleven year career. Chris Bosh, 30, averaged a career-low 6.6 rebounds.
Assuming the Heat do not defend their championship, the fire in Rome will likely conflagrate this offseason. The Big Three, who alone comprise over $60 million in salary this season, will likely swallow up the entire $62.1 million salary cap whether or not they exercise the out clauses in their contracts to become free agents and remain with the Heat. F/C Udonis Haslem has a player option for $4.6 million, and the only two Heat players signed next season at present are center Chris Andersen and point guard Norris Cole.
Unless the Big Three are willing to re-sign for bargain basement contracts, the Heat will not have the salary cap flexibility to substantially augment their roster. Thus, as James turns 30 in December, more responsibility would be thrust onto his broad shoulders and his championship window, at least in his prime years, would begin to fade like the Miami sun.
What is equally troubling is the Heat’s recent nonchalance. After they trounced the Indiana Pacers on April 11, the Heat reclaimed control of their own destiny for Eastern Conference home court advantage.
The very next evening, they were crushed by the wobegone Atlanta Hawks, Lebron James the only Heat player excelling, and the conference’s top seed was squandered.
The problems for Lebron James are a supporting cast draining and prematurely aging him; a rugged Western Conference that will surpass him moving forward; and a team with salary cap inflexibility to make meaningful improvements.
So what’s the solution?
The Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls have much more to sell him now, assuming James becomes a free agent this summer, than when he spurned them in 2010.
Then, Thibodeau was an unknown commodity as a head coach. Four years later, he has guided the Bulls to the best record in the league twice and the playoffs four times despite seemingly insurmountable injuries and roster turnover. All of Thibs’ teams have finished in the top ten defensively, three times in the top two. He is widely regarded as the most focused, hardest working and best prepared coach in the league.
Former NFL head coach Bum Phillips once said about Don Shula, owner of the most wins in league history: “He can take his’n and beat your’n and take your’n and beat his’n.” With the way Thibodeau has plugged pieces into his system without any backsliding, he is the only coach in the NBA to whom this folksy quote applies.
Thibodeau could help Lebron James through a career crossroads like Phil Jackson did Michael Jordan. Jackson counseled a maniacally competitive Jordan into trusting his teammates and pacing his energy.
Thibodeau could have the reverse effect on Lebron James, teaching him how to elevate his attention and killer instinct to every game. Thibodeau is the Jordan version of the coaching fraternity.
Moreover, Lebron James would gain the best supporting cast of his career in Derrick Rose (if healthy), Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson and Tony Snell. Butler, who sports the best opponent’s performance efficiency rating in the league (a measure of defensive production), would free Lebron James from always having to guard the opposing team’s best player. Gibson and Noah, two of the best interior defenders and rebounders, would help alleviate additional responsibilities.
If European sensation Nikola Mirotic joins the Bulls, probably not until the 2014-15 season if James signed, James would be playing with one of the best perimeter shooters of his eleven year career.
Is it financially workable? Maybe.
The salary cap for next year is expected to be set at $62.1 million. The Bulls currently have financial commitments of about $64.4 million. If they use the one-time amnesty provision on Carlos Boozer; trade away the contract of Mike Dunleavy, just as they did Kirk Hinrich’s in the summer of 2010; and deal their two first round picks, they could reduce their outlay to around $47-48 million when factoring in cap holds on every roster opening below the twelve-player minimum and other cap holds and after renouncing their own free agents.
They would have to make the painful decision of renouncing all of their free agents, including D.J. Augustin and Kirk Hinrich, both of whom they could bring back if they could not land Lebron James. They would then have approximately $14-15 million to offer James, a significant discount indeed but one that a player of James’ desire to win championships would be foolhardy not to consider. Of course, they would have to complete their roster with a few veterans signed to the minimum salary, which are exceptions to the cap.
Some would suggest the Bulls sell off the contract of Taj Gibson to free up an additional $7.3 million to sweeten the financial allure to James. While Lebron James is the best player on Earth, further gutting the roster to accommodate him would only risk re-creating the same problem he faced in Cleveland and he appears to be on the precipice of encountering in Miami.
It is arguable that James needs the Bulls more than they need him.
If he re-signs with Miami, the Bulls can overtake the Heat if they add the Knicks’ Carmelo Anthony or the Pacers’ Lance Stephenson, both free agents this summer, and retain Hinrich, Augustin and their draft picks. However, James likely cannot win a championship and still be the premier player on his team without joining the Bulls.
A Thibodeau-James pairing could be engraved on the Mount Rushmore of player/coach marriages with Lombardi and Starr, Tore and Jeter, Jackson and Jordan and Walsh and Montana.
Lebron James, your championship fate runs through Chicago.Powered by Sidelines Follow paulmbanks