MIAMI — After a summer spent alongside an elite collection of some of the other best basketball players on the planet, it takes a lot to impress LeBron James.
James capped his biggest year to date with his first NBA title, first Finals MVP and a gold medal won at the London Olympics. But if the Heat are as good as they could be, or as good as James thinks they can be, things could get “scary” around here this season.
With Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade healthy this time around and new additions in veteran stars, and former teammates, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, James sees the 2012-13 version of the Heat being potentially better than the crew that hugged that Larry O’Brien trophy in June.
“We have the potential to be better,” James said Friday during the Heat’s media day. “We have the potential to be a lot better. And that’s scary.”
Scary is the run James is on currently. His perch atop the basketball was secured during a dizzying nine-month stretch that saw him collect virtually every piece of hardware any player could dream of. Any notion that he would ease up and be satisfied with winning his first NBA title was squashed when he took all of six days to enjoy it before heading to Las Vegas for training camp with the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team in preparation for the Olympics.
Any notion that the Heat would be satisfied with winning just one title during the Big 3 era was washed away when the wooed Allen away from the Celtics and other teams that pursued him in free agency. There were clearly bigger and loftier goals in mind.
“LeBron has a great sense of legacy, not only his own personal legacy, but this team’s legacy,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “This team was built for something bigger than just making a one-year run. Nothing is guaranteed. We know how difficult it will be … This is a different challenge now. And that’s what you should want is to continue to have an opportunity to reinvent yourself. How do we respond to success? Will it be as motivating and powerful a teacher as the pain and the failure of the year before. I love that. I’m looking forward to that, because we’ll find out a lot more about ourselves in this new journey.”
The journey for James began almost immediately after the last one ended. He wasn’t back from the Olympics for a month before he was back on the court in his hometown of Akron, working out with his rival from The Finals and gold medal-winning teammate Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder. Knowing that Durant and the Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and revamped Los Angeles Lakers (with Dwight Howard and Steve Nash in purple and gold along with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol) chasing them from the other side of the conference bracket.
The Eastern Conference grind will be rugged as usual with the Celtics, Pacers, Nets and Bulls all looking to knock the Heat off of their perch. Every team claims they have come back from summer new and improved on paper, even if they haven’t undergone the massive facelift the Lakers did this summer.
But only the Heat come back with James in uniform. And again, if there was any doubt that his competitive fires might be doused by finally winning it all, Spoelstra points to his performance in London as the easiest answer.
“You saw him this summer, right?” Spoelstra said. “Yeah. That’s who he is. He is an ultimate competitor. And the ultimate competitors, the great ones, the historic ones, get greedy. And they want more. Success and winning and championships. [The title] doesn’t soften them, they steel them and give them more motivation to go after more. If anybody saw those six weeks in [las Vegas and] London. He would have had every opportunity — he had already won a gold medal in 2008, now the MVP and to finally get over that hump with this group under all of the circumstances we were under for two whole seasons and then for him to have a six-day rest and go right into Team USA training camp and have that sort of performance in the summer — I think that says enough about what he’ll bring this year.”
James has winning on his mind. Not a legacy or his place in the game among his contemporaries or any other miscellaneous activities that don’t include demolishing the competition on his way to that special feeling he had in June when all of his years of hard work came bubbled over in that championship moment.
The fact that there is a locker room full of guys, mostly veterans and including Allen, who won a title with the Celtics, who share the same feeling and know exactly what it takes to get it done, makes communicating his intentions that much easier for James.
There is no need for rousing speeches or public declarations of intent. The Heat spent the past two seasons as the team everyone else in basketball was chasing, even when they weren’t coming off of a championship season, so this year shouldn’t be any different.
“The unique thing about being here is that even when we didn’t have a championship, we felt like we were the hunted anyway,” Bosh said. “We’ve always had that ‘X’ on our back. It’s just bigger now. We need to leave last year where it was, and kind of move on from there. But yeah, we’d like to win more than one.”
There will be obstacles, of course. Wade, Bosh, Allen, Lewis and Mike Miller are all coming into camp having nursed offseason injuries (and recovering from surgeries for some). And there is the wear and tear that could be on James after such a big year.
Spoelstra will have to make sure he pushes just enough before easing up when need be.
One thing that won’t be an issue, though, is the desire James has make sure this Heat crew is no one-hit wonder, like their predecessors from 2006. Wade and Udonis Haslem are the only players on the roster who lived through that ugly 2007-08 experience. Spoelstra was around, too, as an assistant back then.
Maybe that’s why he refused to use the word “repeat” when talking about this current team. With a hungry James leading the way, however, it doesn’t matter how you categorize this season.
The fuel used to drive James and the Heat to the top last season isn’t recyclable (the ghost of the Dallas Mavericks is fading more and more by the day).
“I’m not satisfied with my career and what I’ve done so far,” James said. “I’ve accomplished a lot of things and a lot of goals. But I’m not satisfied with that. I’m going to continue to get better, continue lead this team the best way I know how. And continue to add more pieces to my game that can hopefully at the end of the day make us successful.”
Legacies, his or anyone else’s, do not concern him. His rank among the all-time greats is completely irrelevant in the here and now. That first title certainly wasn’t meant to be his last.
“I’m my own man,” James said, “and I have to make my own mark.”