If you’re down on this NBA season, you’re probably blaming the spate of injuries to high-profile players. The injuries are an obvious drag, but there’s a more subtle reason for why these cold months are feeling like the NBA’s winter. After three years as epicenter of basketball drama and intrigue, the ever-riveting Miami Heat are finally giving us an irrelevant season. In Thursday’s loss to the New York Knicks, much of the focus was on how Miami’s mediocre opponent finally benched a wacky role player. The listless Heat performance against a theoretically overmatched team registered as an afterthought.
Right now the Hollinger Playoff Odds have the Indiana Pacers as overwhelming favorites over the Heat. And while that may indeed be the case, few serious NBA observers believe in this disparity.
It’s not that Hollinger’s rater has some grand flaw. It’s just that it can only rely on regular-season data in a season where we can’t trust the Heat’s play. One thing that escapes Hollinger’s formula is Miami’s apathy toward this 82-game prelude. You could see but one example after the Heat's recent loss at home to the Golden State Warriors. A grinning LeBron James regaled media with effusive praise of Stephen Curry as though the two were teammates in victory.
Times have changed. The LeBron of three years ago likely would not have been so magnanimous over eight turnovers and a home loss. The post-Decision maelstrom led to heavy negative scrutiny over the Heat’s 9-8 start. Every game was a referendum on Pat Riley’s experiment and LeBron’s career. The stakes were high and the players were moved to tears by defeat. Now, the players don’t even bother to pretend they’re broken up over losses.
Dwyane Wade made news by playing his first full back-to-back against Toronto on Sunday. He, like James and Chris Bosh, also happens to be averaging almost the fewest minutes played of his career. This isn’t coasting out of convenience, though. The benefits of rest were made clear by the foe that nearly dethroned Miami in last year’s NBA Finals. The San Antonio Spurs have kept their core fresh with plenty of downtime throughout the slog of the regular season. The Heat have borrowed San Antonio’s wise method, a further suggestion that individual games aren’t life and death.
So much of our analysis of the NBA season is based on the (possibly flawed premise) that we’re learning something about the upcoming postseason. The Heat are well positioned to trash that premise.
First, their conference is laughably weak. For Miami, staying afloat in the East is as simple as not drowning in a puddle. That roster all but guarantees a No. 2 seed at the very least.
Second, precedent encourages coasting. Last season’s team struggled to return to form after expending great effort pursuing a 27-game win streak. It’s doubtful you’ll ever see this team repeat the “mistake” of trying so hard at the wrong time of year.
Finally, the Heat have nothing to prove. They are 27-9 and actually playing quite well compared to some other reigning, resting champions. The 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers notably slipped to 21st on defense after a dominant title run. Of course, the Lakers easily won a repeat title in June 2001 as though the preceding shaky season never happened.
It likely won’t be that easy for the Heat -- those 2000-01 Lakers lost only one playoff game -- but the example stands as a reminder that a title contender’s following season can be deceiving. Rudy Tomjanovich’s memorable, “Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion” declaration might as well been, “Don’t ever be tricked by a title contender’s regular-season cruise control.”
The problem for fans, and the league in general, is that it’s hard to be interested in what doesn’t interest the most prominent team. The Heat were able to stave off viewer boredom with the win streak last season, but in the absence of attainable records, stakes are low.
The Heat are still an enjoyable watch, but much in the same way an All-Star game presents the height of athletic exhibition. That the Heat have gotten boring is no great tragedy, though it represents a void for the league. One that probably lasts until late spring, when the Pacers and Heat are likely to finally test themselves in a competition that actually carries tension and popular anticipation.