Let’s say that tonight’s Eastern Conference Finals Game 7 doesn’t end the way that Vegas, basketball experts, and everyone else expects it to. Let’s say that LeBron James, the best basketball player in the world, can’t overcome the faltering form of supposed Big 3 accomplices Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and, on the other side of the court, the Pacers’ rising triumvirate of Paul George, David West, and Roy Hibbert proves to be enough. Let’s say that, even though they’re in Miami, the Heat just don’t have their act together. Let’s say that the Indiana Pacers go to the NBA Finals.
Before anything else, this would mean that the 2012-13 season had transpired in the most unexpected way, with the three most popular pre-season title picks, the Heat, the Lakers and the Oklahoma City Thunder, missing out on even making the Finals. (Sports!) While the Thunder have Russell Westbrook’s injury to blame, the Heat — who went 45-3 over their last 48 games before the Pacers series — will probably half-assedly attribute their failure to Wade and Bosh being hobbled, Birdman missing a game, and, most notably, getting dominated in the paint by Hibbert and West. But this is a team that won 45 of 47 games it played with LeBron before facing the Pacers — it’ll be hard to float any narrative to the public that replaces the idea that the Heat just choked.
Let’s cut to the offseason. With LeBron, Bosh, and Wade all locked in to another year, it’s unlikely that the Heat will have much room to move around personnel-wise. They can try and re-sign Chris Andersen. They can consider amnestying Mike Miller. Otherwise, the top eight guys — the Big 3 plus Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen, Norris Cole, and Shane Battier — should all be back.
When the 2013-14 season begins, the Heat will not be defending a title. You still can’t say they’re underdogs, but they obviously won’t feel as inevitable as they did this year, like their name was already written on the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Meanwhile, LeBron’s legacy will have undeniably taken a hit. Even if you’d have to be a Stephen A. Smith-style perpetual-scream-machine to suggest that LeBron would no longer be the greatest player in the universe by a margin of miles, he would have taken a tangible dip in comparison to his closest historical peers, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan: he’d miss out on a three-peat. Both MJ and Kobe followed up their first championships by winning two more consecutively, and by losing this year, LeBron will have found a milestone that he couldn’t match.
All of a sudden, next season will be as important as any’s ever been for a franchise. If the Heat miss out on a championship for the second year in a row, they’ll be going into an offseason where the Big 3 all have player options they can choose to accept or decline. All of them could walk. LeBron could go to Los Angeles. LeBron could go to Cleveland. LeBron could go to MARS. (The Mars Rovers! David Stern will not be cowed by travel considerations.) Even if all of them don’t walk, the Heat won’t be able to afford to pay the three of them because of the repeat-offender clause in the luxury tax, meaning that somebody’s gone — if Miami has its way, not LeBron. Human sense suggests suggests that a player aiming to defend a three-peat will not run from the opportunity. Miami’s best chance of keeping the wandering-eyed King around is be to win this year, then the next.
In the grand scheme of basketball, this season isn’t as important as next for the Heat in terms of making LeBron a Miami lifer. But a loss would prove the juggernaut’s less juggernaut-y than surmised, and a lot of teams in an increasingly talent-rich league — the Rose-renewed Bulls and ascendant Pacers in the East, the rebuilt Thunder, possibly Dwight Howard-enhanced Rockets, angry Grizzlies, and Stephen Curry’s Warriors (at least) in the West — will feel like they’ve been given a second life. A win by the Pacers tonight will turn the tide of basketball history.