As one of the handful of teams to win repeat championships, these Miami Heat have cemented their place in NBA history. They’ve easily been the NBA’s dominant team since their Big Three formed before the 2010-11 season, with three consecutive NBA Finals appearances, two straight titles, and more regular-season wins and far more playoff wins than any other team.
After surviving three elimination games in this year's postseason and coming from behind in five playoff series over two years, Miami’s championship heart and resolve are beyond dispute. But the Heat also showed far more vulnerability in these playoffs than was expected after a dominant regular season. Now, NBA history suggests this Heat group will be hard-pressed to keep its window open.
First, it’s hard for anyone to keep a run like this going, given how physically and mentally grueling it is to survive the NBA marathon for multiple seasons. The only teams to ever make the Finals for more than three consecutive seasons are three of the most legendary in NBA history: the Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics (who made a miraculous 10 in a row from 1957 to '66), and the ’80s Los Angeles Lakers (1982-85) and Celtics (1984-87).
In their third straight season of playing well into June, the Heat often struggled to summon the maximum energy required to execute their blitzing defensive scheme. Now they're faced with scaling the mountain a fourth time.
That tidbit certainly isn’t a disqualifying factor in and of itself, but it becomes more troubling when coupled with another fact that became more apparent as the playoffs unfolded: These Heat have gotten old very quickly, with no clear way to reverse the trend.
"Effective age" measures a team’s average age by including minutes played with the average of the players on a roster (so 40-year-old Juwan Howard doesn’t artificially inflate Miami’s average, considering he wasn’t actually playing).
Using regular-season minutes, Miami’s effective age jumped all the way to 30.3 in 2012-13 (from 28.3 in 2011-12). That makes the Heat the sixth-oldest champion in NBA history (see chart).
(Note: These effective age numbers were calculated using Basketball-Reference, which lists a player’s age on Feb. 1 of a given season.)
The ’98 Bulls and ’69 Celtics -- the ends of the Jordan and Russell eras, respectively -- were famously on their last legs, while the ’11 Mavs were a one-hit wonder who enjoyed a charmed run and the ’07 Spurs needed a full overhaul of role players to return to true contention.
This year’s Spurs, by contrast, were the younger team in the Finals, with an effective age of 28.6 for the season (a fairly average number for a champion in the modern era). Despite the elevated age of its big three, San Antonio has made sure to fill out its rotation with sub-30-year-olds such as Kawhi Leonard (21), Danny Green (25), Tiago Splitter (28) and Gary Neal (28).
The Heat, though, have done very little to replenish their supporting cast with youth, opting for 30-something role players outside of Mario Chalmers (27) and Norris Cole (24). While there are various player options and the potential for retirements and the use of its amnesty provision, Miami is likely committed to Ray Allen (37), Shane Battier (34) and Rashard Lewis (33) through 2014, and Mike Miller (33), Udonis Haslem (33) and Joel Anthony (30) through 2015. Another player who seems vital to re-sign, Chris Andersen, is 34.
Of course, Miami’s most critical age-related variable is 31-year-old Dwyane Wade (for the record, LeBron James is 28 and Chris Bosh is 29). In what has become a rite of spring, Wade fought knee problems throughout the playoffs. Even if Wade can recover his health, his style of play -- dependent on athleticism, with subpar perimeter shooting -- figures to decline sooner rather than later.
On the Spurs, 35-year-old Manu Ginobili increasingly looks like a member of the big three in name only, but they have acquired and developed players such as Leonard, who has and can continue to pick up the slack of declining stars. The Heat simply have nowhere to go to replace a significant decline in Wade’s production, no cushion if his decline occurs more rapidly than expected.
Beyond James, the only other potentially desirable Heat asset is Bosh, and even that is questionable given that he, like Wade, is due more than $20 million in 2014-15 and 2015-16.
As a result, Miami appears headed inexorably past the 31 barrier in effective age in 2013-14, a mark beyond which only the "Last Dance" Jordan Bulls have won a championship, in 1998.
In particular, one has to wonder how much longer the Heat can hold off the Indiana Pacers in the East. Beyond playing Miami so tough in the conference finals, the Pacers had an effective age of just 25.7 in 2012-13, one of the youngest in the NBA -- younger even than the Oklahoma City Thunder (26.0). A young effective age number is no guarantee of future success, for sure, but Indiana’s roster is in good shape overall.
The Pacers certainly have lots of room for growth, especially considering that their main need is to improve their woeful bench, which should be easier to build than the top of the roster. Meanwhile, it’s unclear how the Heat improve going forward, possibly limited to dice rolls such as signing a Greg Oden, a player who hasn't played this decade.
Savor that championship feeling while you've got it, Miami.