No joy in Laker-land

What has Miami figured out that L.A. hasn’t?

I’ve said repeatedly that I don’t like the way the Miami Heat’s championship team came together a few years ago.  But you can’t argue with success.  They’ve established the best regular season record in the league this year, and have swept Milwaukee in the first round.  LeBron James is playing some of the best ball of his career.  And they’ve added veterans like Ray Allen and Chris “Birdman” Andersen (who never met a tattoo he didn’t like).  With OKC’s Russell Westbrook out with an unfortunate and completely unnecessary injury (rookie Patrick Beverley won’t be feeling the love when the Rockets visit OKC tonight), Miami seems poised to win another trophy.

So why hasn’t the pooling of high-priced talent in L.A. worked?  Why did a team with four All-Stars (and probably future Hall of Famers) have to fight just to squeak into the playoffs this year, only to be decisively swept by the Spurs in the first round?

Age and injury?  Sure, though that sword cuts both ways: weren’t those things  supposed to have hobbled the Spurs?  Still, Steve Nash, to put it gently, is no spring chicken (whatever that is).  And though Kobe Bryant was playing like someone ten years younger as the season wound down, dragging the team toward the playoffs by sheer determination, one has to wonder how much the load contributed to what may be a career-ending injury.  In short, what should have been the most fearsome foursome in basketball didn’t get enough floor time with each other, or for that matter, with their coach.

Any coach.

That, of course, begs the question of whether they ever would have jelled, even with enough time and healthy bodies.  L.A. has tried assembling a super-team before.  When John Stockton retired after playing his whole career with the Utah Jazz, his buddy Karl Malone jumped ship for the Lakers to chase that elusive championship.  With four of the best players ever to play the game at their respective positions–Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe, Malone, and Gary Payton–the Lakers made the 2004 Finals, but were blown out by the far less glamorous Detroit Pistons.  After that, the team disintegrated.  Some blamed the ongoing tension between Shaq and Kobe, both dominant players.  Ironically, Payton and Shaq would later win a championship together–but in Miami, with Dwyane Wade.

Teamwork.  Prodigiously talented individuals can take over a game, but basketball is a quintessentially team sport.  Recruit all the superstars you want, but they still have to trust each other and work together as a well-functioning system.  In Miami, D-Wade and LeBron look for each other on the floor; both average as many assists as might be expected of a starting point guard.  And Wade, for all his skill and leadership, was willing to step aside and defer to LeBron for the sake of the team.

Beyond individual greatness, there’s a central place for humility in team sports.  That doesn’t mean denying one’s gifts, but subordinating individual goals to the good of the whole.

Be humble, or be humbled.

Sometimes, life imitates basketball.