Kobe Bryant had just finished with a Big Three when LeBron James and friends got to work building another.
Dwyane Wade soon announced he was staying in Miami, flanked by Chris Bosh, who said he was coming. The next night, James appeared on his much-publicized, heavily criticized TV special to declare his intentions of heading to South Beach.
Two days, three All-Stars. Just like that, the Heat were the clear winners in July.
For now, Bryant and the two-time defending champion Lakers still own June.
“I think until someone beats the Lakers, the Lakers is the team to beat. I don’t care how stacked the team is,” Hall of Famer Michael Jordan said. “That’s the thing about being champions. Until you get knocked off of that hill, you’re still the champions.”
The new Heat make their debut in the NBA season opener on Oct. 26 against the Boston Celtics, who brought back their trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, then added even more age when they signed Shaquille O’Neal.
And O’Neal has a message for his former fans in Miami: Older is definitely better.
“Everyone wants to talk about the young team, but in the last 10 years, I think I’ve been there four times. I haven’t seen a young team there yet,” O’Neal told reporters after a preseason game in Hartford, Conn.
“You guys, every time you see young people get together, you automatically give it to them. But studies show, it’s documented the last 10 years, no young team has either won it or even been there.”
Miami could be the team to change that. James is the two-time reigning MVP, Wade is a former scoring champion who was MVP of the 2006 NBA finals, and Bosh is one of the best big men in the league. They were friends who came into the league together as top-five picks in the 2003 draft and teammates on the U.S. Olympic team that won gold in 2008.
They went on the market together to head the most hyped free-agency class in history, and Miami landed all three of them.
“That’s the only reason for coming here, me and C-Bosh and D-Wade, united to win a championship,” James said during Miami’s media day. “We’re going to bring our ‘A’ game every night and play as hard as we can to try to bring a championship to South Florida.”
Bryant won’t give it up easily, even as he battles nagging injuries and offseason knee surgery. Asked about his reaction to the Heat’s coup, the finals MVP provided only a ho-hum, “Wow, how did Pat Riley pull that (expletive) off? Impressive.”
Riley did it because his three stars all accepted less than allowed, leaving the Heat with enough money to re-sign Udonis Haslem and ink Mike Miller, equipping them with a top bench, as well.
Los Angeles also got stronger with the signings of Steve Blake and Matt Barnes. Phil Jackson returned to try for a fourth three-peat, which would allow Bryant to tie Jordan with six titles.
There are other contenders. The Celtics were minutes away from an 18th title last season before Los Angeles rallied for an 83-79 victory in Game 7. Orlando has won 59 games each of the last two seasons, and the West is deep in potential threats to the Lakers’ reign.
Fresh off winning MVP honors after leading the U.S. to the gold medal at the world championship, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant was voted by general managers as their pick to win the NBA’s award this season. The Rookie of the Year race could come down to the last two No. 1 draft picks: the Clippers’ Blake Griffin, who missed last season with an injury, and Washington’s lightning-quick point guard, John Wall.
“The guy’s really good, probably one of the fastest, most physically gifted players that we’ll have in the league,” Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni said of Wall. “I hope he never learns to shoot real well, because then he’ll be unguardable.”
D’Antoni’s team missed out on James but landed Amare Stoudemire, who seems poised to put up big numbers under his former coach in Phoenix. Carlos Boozer left Utah to give the Chicago Bulls the inside scoring presence they’ve lacked, and other clubs were bolstered by smaller moves during the summer shopping season.
It sets up the potential for a thrilling season, but trouble lurks beyond that.
The collective bargaining agreement expires on June 30, 2011, and the NBA and union are nowhere close to a new one after more than a year of talks. Commissioner David Stern frequently calls this a golden age for basketball but insists it’s come at a cost, with leaguewide losses of about $370 million last season.
The players dispute that figure, pointing to huge increases in revenues and season- ticket sales, and vow to resist the significant changes owners are seeking in salaries and contract structures. If progress isn’t made during the season, Stern could be faced with handing out the Larry O’Brien trophy in the middle of June, then locking out his players two weeks later.
“(The season) is going to be great, but unfortunately, as we’ve demonstrated to the players association, we’re going to lose money,” Stern said. “So if we could just make this into a modestly profitable enterprise, that would take a golden age into a platinum age.”
A work stoppage would seem harder to accept after the momentum the NBA has picked up in recent months. The seven-game finals featuring the league’s best rivalry delivered strong TV ratings, free agency news dominated sports pages in July, and trade speculation involving superstars Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul emerged late in the summer.
Interest in the Heat should keep it going, especially when James returns to Cleveland on Dec. 2 and when Miami visits the Lakers on Christmas. And maybe they’ll be back in Los Angeles in June.
A James-Bryant duel in the finals looked on track the last two years, but James didn’t have enough help to get him there. Those problems seem as forgotten as cold winters now that he’s landed in Miami.
“That’s a team that’s loaded,” ESPN analyst Mark Jackson said, “and I think it’s going to be a great year for them.”
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