HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — They haven’t even had the parade yet and all anybody wants to know is if the Miami Heat’s Big 3 is ready for an encore or the end of a fruitful three-year run together?
LeBron James isn’t going anywhere, Heat boss Pat Riley cannot let that happen. And Dwyane Wade is already the most decorated and beloved player in franchise history. He should be and probably will be allowed to leave on his own terms, whenever he gets to that point in his career.
That leaves Chris Bosh, the oft-maligned third member of the crew, the one who went scoreless in that deciding Game 7 of The Finals, the one who always seems to be at the center of trade rumors when the topic of what the next act is for this Heat outfit. If Bosh is the one member of the group that is expendable, the time to strike and make a move could be upon us this summer.
Free agency is around the corner, July 1, and if the ongoing escapades between the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics have shown us anything, it’s that there are teams out there ready to risk franchise and limb to either remain or make themselves relevant in the championship picture.
Only Riley knows how long the Heat’s Big 3 lasts. It’s going to be his call, no matter what anyone else says about it. And in the immediate aftermath of the Heat clinching their second straight title, he didn’t seem inclined to touch a hair on the head of his masterpiece:
“I just want this thing to keep going,” the 68-year-old Riley told ESPN.com after the Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 of an epic Finals. “I’m at an age now where I’m ready to just fly off somewhere. But I’m not going to because the Good Lord has blessed me with a team that’s allowed me to grab onto its coattails for as long as they want to be together.”
But it’s obvious that the gap between the Heat and the rest of the pack is closing. We saw that in the playoffs, when Joakim Noah, Roy Hibbert and then Tim Duncan took turns exposing the Heat’s tender underbelly inside.
A “stretch 4 or 5″ like Bosh is a luxury for a team that is head and shoulders above the competition, a team with a healthy James and Wade to lean on night after night. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has often referred to Bosh as his team’s most important player, though I’m still not sure how much of that is honesty and how much of it is posturing to keep Bosh’s fragile confidence intact. But this three-year grind the Heat have been on has taken its toll on Wade (knees), and even LeBron looked mortal dealing with the likes of Paul George and Kawhi Leonard in the Eastern Conference finals and The Finals, respectively.
There’s a reason Bosh, an eight-time All-Star and self-professed future Hall of Famer, was reduced to pedestrian numbers this postseason. As the quality of the competition increased, Bosh’s performances didn’t increase along with it. Sure, he mustered a couple inspiring performances along the way and played a huge role at the end of the Heat’s pivotal Game 6 overtime comeback win.
But Bosh’s critics, and there are plenty of them, would point to the fact that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich had Duncan on the bench when Bosh grabbed that critical offensive rebound and found Ray Allen for the game-tying 3-pointer at the end of regulation.
In theory, that is work that a younger and perhaps much cheaper big man (names like DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Love have been floated for months now) can do.
The company line, however, tends to favor at least one more year of this holy hoops trinity. James, Wade and Bosh all have opt-outs in their contracts that come up after the 2013-14 season, giving any one of the three the option of bolting from this championship experiment for the fruits of free agency. And James and Bosh are young enough and healthy enough to command the full max-salary available from any team capable of paying that price.
Wade, who has spent his entire career with the Heat, believes in the future of the Big 3, as my main man Mike Wallace of ESPN.com explains:
“Our first year together, we tried to make it work,” Wade said. “But we weren’t the team that we needed to be to gut out a Game 6, to win a game like that. Everybody can’t get to the Finals and win six [championships] in a row — and not lose one like Michael Jordan. But we are excited about the future of this organization. We are still a good team, and we’re going to do everything we can to make sure we stay competitive.”
But in some ways, they remain a work in progress. While Riley said before the playoffs that he envisioned the Heat being like the Spurs, who kept Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili together for a decade, Wade said he, Bosh, and James haven’t spoken as a group yet about how they’ll approach their contract options after next season.
“This organization doesn’t rest on trying to make sure we can put ourselves in a position to have a trophy like this,” Wade said as he sat next to the Larry O’Brien Trophy. “So we’ll be back next year again, looking to do it again. We’re living in this moment right here, and it’s a sweet moment. It’ll be sweet to be able to have a long run like the Spurs, but we’ll get to that when we get to that.”