Why There's No Such Thing as an Easy Title Shot for LeBron James

Bryan ToporekFeatured Columnist IVMarch 31, 2017

MIAMI, FL - JUNE 24: Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat celebrates the NBA Championship victory rally at the AmericanAirlines Arena on June 24, 2013 in Miami, Florida. The Miami Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals.  (Photo by Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images)
Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images

LeBron James could alter the entire competitive landscape of the NBA by exercising the early-termination option in his contract and becoming a free agent in 2014.

No matter what he decides to do, one thing should be clear: Wherever he ends up, he's not going to cakewalk his way to multiple championships.

Want proof? Take one look at the 2010-11 Heat, who withered under the pressure of the league's grandest stage during the 2011 Finals.

Familiarity breeds chemistry, and that year's Heat squad lacked both. That's what happens when you cobble together an assortment of stars and expect them to morph into championship favorites overnight.

Yes, Miami won back-to-back championships the next two seasons. It's not as though LeBron and company Fo', Fo', Fo', Fo'ed their way through the playoffs, though.

The Indiana Pacers and Boston Celtics seemingly had the Heat on the ropes in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals and Eastern Conference finals, respectively. The Pacers and San Antonio Spurs each had Miami a game away from elimination in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals and NBA Finals, too.

In all four cases, the Heat somehow persevered. To call their triumphs "easy," however, detracts from just how difficult it is to win a ring in today's NBA.

CBSsports.com's Gregg Doyel doesn't see it that way. Check out his recent take on LeBron's potential forthcoming foray into free agency.

He didn't come to Miami for it to be hard. He came to Miami because he wanted it easy. He wanted a sure thing. Compete for NBA titles? He already had that in Cleveland. He'd have that anywhere he goes, because any roster with LeBron James will compete for an NBA title. That 2009 team in Cleveland was terrible, utter dreck, except for LeBron. And that team won 66 games and reached the Eastern Conference Finals.

Doyel's right to say that "any roster with LeBron James will compete for an NBA title." You think the 2009 Cleveland Cavaliers were bad? Check out the roster of the 2006-07 Cavaliers, a squad which LeBron dragged all the way to the Finals.

A team that gave Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Drew Gooden 2,000-plus minutes each throughout the regular season has no business anywhere near the Finals. And yet, thanks to LeBron's transcendent performance against the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals (namely, Game 5), that's exactly where the Cavs ended up.

So, yes, no matter where LeBron decides to take his talents, that team should be virtually guaranteed a top-four seed in the playoffs.  

There's a huge difference between that and a team that's predestined to win a championship, though. In today's NBA, too many title contenders litter the competitive landscape to call any team a 100-percent championship lock.

What happens if Wade's balky knees give out during the 2014 playoffs? Or if Greg Oden can't give the Heat a big-man counter-punch to the Pacers' Roy Hibbert or Joakim Noah of the Chicago Bulls?

Barring injuries among the top teams in the Eastern Conference, it's going to be more difficult than ever for the Heat to make it back to the Finals. The Pacers, Bulls and Brooklyn Nets all stand out as legitimate threats to dethrone Miami, and that's just within their own conference.

Assuming the Heat can survive that minefield and make their fourth straight trip to the Finals, a battle-tested Western Conference challenger will await. Which part of that is supposed to be easy?

Remember, the Spurs were all of 28 seconds away from permanently changing the narrative for Miami's Big Three during the 2013 Finals. The Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors all made substantive additions during the 2013 offseason, positioning themselves for a title run, too.

Heading into the 2013-14 season, one could make a legitimate championship-contending argument for as many as 10 teams (six in the West, four in the East). There's nothing easy about surviving that gauntlet.

So, no matter what happens in 2013-14 or what LeBron decides to do in the 2014 offseason, there's one thing we all must remember: Teaming with fellow superstars doesn't guarantee anyone a championship.

Just ask the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers.

With two titles already under his belt, LeBron has every right to "stack the deck" as a free agent and pair up with other stars. Look at virtually every championship-winning roster in NBA history: It's chock-full of future Hall of Famers.

That doesn't mean he's "cutting corners" or "rigging the game." It means he's fully aware that one superstar can't do it all.

To maximize his passing brilliance, he needs someone he can trust to make a big shot in a high-pressure situation.

When defenses double-team him, he needs a teammate that can make their opponents pay dearly.

Call it "going the easy route" or "showing weakness" if you want.

Me? I'd call it "maximizing his opportunity to win."

Or, in short, "being smart."