MIAMI — They were the Statler and Waldorf of the Miami Heat's Big Three era, deadeye shooters who spent pregame periods shooting the bull, invariably beside each other in visiting locker rooms. James Jones had an opinion on everything, and Mike Miller had a smile for everyone, and they seemed inseparable until the Heat sent Miller packing via the amnesty provision in the summer of 2013.
They weren't always happy, not with Jones, and then Miller, put in the only-when-Dwyane-Wade-sits role, a position that required them to condition themselves through intense three-on-three competitions, just in case they'd get a chance. They were always ready, with their professionalism giving their coach, Erik Spoelstra, and also the Heat's premier star, LeBron James, confidence they could contribute when called upon.
So it shouldn't be any surprise that James called upon them to join him in Cleveland, even if you weren't aware of James' anger at the amnesty decision, of James pushing for Jones to play more during the 2013-14 season and '14 playoffs, or of James vacationing with Jones and Ray Allen and their families immediately after the NBA Finals.
Each had to sacrifice significantly to join him. Jones left his home region, where he played his prep and collegiate ball and where he always spoke of completing his career, after six seasons. Miller missed an opportunity to remain in Memphis (a city his family enjoys) as James recruited him, and passed on a bigger payday in Denver, all to go to a franchise that he was happy to avoid in the '13 amnesty proceedings, so much so that his camp leaked word of impending back surgery.
But this sort of sacrifice is why James wanted them.
He needs to bring some of the Heat culture to Cleveland.
Sacrifice—of minutes, of shots, of cash—has been the core Heat tenet over the past several years, as evidenced again Tuesday when the co-captains, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, settled into smaller salary slots than was initially anticipated. Wade opted out of two years and nearly $42 million to accommodate reinforcements for the Big Three. After James left, he could have insisted upon more years, something closer to the four years and $60 million that had been assumed as a fair tradeoff in security for the slice in his annual salary. Instead, he took two years at just under $33 million.
Haslem, who has left more money on the table over his career than all but blockbuster movies earn on their opening weekends, sought a three-year commitment when he opted out of his remaining one-year, $4.6 million deal. Instead, after the Heat's post-James maneuvering, he took the only vehicle that was available: the two-year under-cap mid-level, which will earn him $5.6 million over two years. If he had opted in for the one year, and taken the minimum for the second one, he would have made roughly $500,000 more.
By doing so, Wade and Haslem not only helped the Heat remain competitive on the court over the next two years, but also gave them a chance to compete in free agency in the summer of '16, when Kevin Durant will be at the forefront of a potentially formidable class. This is the ultimate in selflessness in sports, when you can look beyond your own career and consider what is best for the organization you currently represent.
This attitude is in contrast to what Cleveland's third-year guard, Dion Waiters, tweeted in Wednesday's wee hours, when asked by a follower if he would accept a bench role. His response was a "no," except with nine 'o's. Later, Waiters took down the tweet, lamenting that he can't just play on Twitter without everyone taking him seriously. Maybe it was just a joke. Or maybe it's indicative of why Luol Deng was reportedly so anxious to get out of Cleveland after spending the final couple of months of the '13-14 season there. Deng wasn't asked about that specifically during a Thursday-morning interview with The Ticket in Miami, but he also made it clear that Miami's culture—regarded as somewhat similar to that of Chicago, the team of his first nine-plus seasons, was a major drawing card. It had to be, considering that Deng also took less money and years ($19.9 million over two seasons) than he could have received elsewhere.
"If I told you the money's not part of it, I would be lying," Deng said during the radio interview. "It's part of the negotiation. But I really wanted to be somewhere where the team is going [in] the right direction, that the team wants to win, an organization that is used to winning and doesn't take losing. And I really didn't want to go somewhere where the next four years, it's always a conversation about the team being young and rebuilding and everything. I want to go somewhere where they're hungry and they want to get back where they've been the last four years."
Over the last four years, the Cavaliers have gone 97-215, with their young players developing a lot of losing habits. Those were habits that Deng, known as one of the truest professionals in Chicago, couldn't do much to change during his brief time. Few will remember Deng was a Cavalier, though as of Thursday morning, his Twitter profile still listed him that way, as the hosts informed him.
"As soon as I hang up, give me 10 minutes, and it will be fixed," Deng said. "Thank you guys for noticing that, letting me know. There's been a lot going on, so I haven't had time."
He was true to his word, as a cursory check of @LuolDeng9 now shows.
James has been tasked with fixing something much bigger, along with David Blatt, the coach imported from a long career overseas. He needs to fix the Cavaliers culture. Miller and Jones will go a long way toward that, by their mere presence, since they both go about their business the right way.
Recall what James said in late May, when asked about why the Heat missed Miller?
"People don't understand how instrumental Mike Miller was to our team...Yeah, he was just that stable guy. I mean, Mike, everything that he went through, both injuries and being in and out of the lineups, and not one day did he ever come to work with an 'I don't want to be here' attitude. Like never. And we all respected that. And for a guy like that who's done so much in his career, to come in with that mindset every day, we all saw that."
But James will also need to do a lot of the leading himself, even more than in Miami. He will need to evolve even more, to accommodate a new type of teammate than he typically had with the Heat. In that case, this part of that same interview applies even more:
"If you're a part of [the Heat's] culture, I believe you're here for a reason. Part of being a leader is making people also believe that sometimes they can do more than they actually can do. Giving them a sense of belief and confidence. And for me, I've always kind of done that. And I'm not downgrading what that individual can do. I'm just letting them know that they can do more than what they even thought they can do, and bring more to the game, and bring more to who they are as an individual than they thought they could."
He will need to bring that attitude to every practice, every game, every event.
He'll need to show the winning way to the large majority of the Cleveland roster.
Because, at some point, there won't be any other Miami buddies to bring.
Ethan Skolnick covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter,@EthanJSkolnick.
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