It took a while, but the Miami Heat are starting to look like real championship contenders. After a 9-8 start, they have won 10 in a row as of Friday morning. The team's defense has been dominant, making them second in the league for fewest points allowed per 100 possessions; and their offense, even minus two key role players, has been strong, averaging the fifth most points per 100 possessions. At least for now, they have silenced the doubters who thought that the off-season free-agent coup of landing both LeBron James and Chris Bosh was just bling.
The thinking was that a group of superstars — even such a prodigious group as James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade, three of the game's top eight players — would never triumph long term against a group of teams, units that had been through the fire, bonded through long seasons of rigorous tests and proven to be far more than the sum of their parts. It might be fun to root against them, especially after James' ridiculous infomercial this summer, during which he announced his decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami, but the Heat's winning season is good for the NBA's current narrative.
Many eras have had a defining narrative. In the '60s it was a great team, the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics, over great players — Wilt Chamberlain or the duo of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor. In the '80s it was the charisma and finesse of Magic Johnson's Showtime L.A. Lakers versus the workman-like grit of the Larry Bird-led Celtics. The '90s were about how one great player, Michael Jordan, could be part of a great team, the six-time champion Chicago Bulls.
The current NBA narrative is that the players aren't all selfish, overprivileged thugs. This was never the case, but the stereotype took over in 2004. That year the U.S. National Team struggled mightily in the Athens Olympics. Despite winning the bronze medal, the team was beaten repeatedly by lesser, but more cohesive, squads. Then, a few months later, a brawl known as the Malice at the Palace occurred in Auburn Hills, Mich., where Indiana Pacers players entered the stands and fought with Detroit Pistons fans.
The Heat are the next chapter in this narrative, and their winning is another step away from the "dark days" of 2004. The team's success would be more proof that the best players are those who put their interest in being champions ahead of their desire to be brand names.
The best thing for the NBA's current narrative is for the Heat to have to fight and struggle to win, and so far this season, it looks like they will. The Celtics are playing like a team that came just a few points shy of hanging another championship banner last summer. The Chicago Bulls look like a true elite team for the first time since the Jordan era. The San Antonio Spurs and the Dallas Mavericks, two perennial contenders thought to be on a downward spiral, are proving the conventional wisdom wrong (the Mavericks have already pinned a loss on the Heat).
If the Heat set a new gold standard for team play — with their stellar defense, they are well on their way to doing that — the team will be exactly what basketball needs. It's never fun to watch Goliath win (well, almost never; look at this), but it will be good for the league in the long term.
Martin Johnson is a frequent contributor to The Root.