If the Heat do manage to slice through the East within the next few seasons, there's a good chance Miami will come up against the two-time defending champion Lakers. L.A. has its core locked up for the foreseeable future, and two teams the Lakers had to beat on the way to the team's most recent championship -- the Suns and Jazz -- have lost All-Star big men in the early days of free agency.
The Lakers, led by superstar wing Kobe Bryant and superlative big man Pau Gasol, are proven at the highest levels. This new Wade-Bosh tandem is not, despite Wade's 2006 championship with Shaquille O'Neal. Bosh and Wade will have to prove their mettle when it counts, in April and May and June.
But there's a reasonable expectation Bosh and Wade will be able to do so. In fact, Bosh-Wade may even be a stronger pairing than Bryant-Gasol.
Kobe has an impeccable C.V., finishing in the top five in MVP voting in eight of the last nine seasons. He is the most explosive scorer since Michael Jordan, a veritable nightmare for defenses nationwide. He's also a regular on the league's All-Defensive team, and a fine playmaker at the two-guard position.
Wade's legacy is impressive, but less heavy. An All-Star in each of the last six seasons, Wade has finished top five in MVP voting in each of the past two campaigns, and has made an All-NBA team every year but the injury-ravaged season of 2007-08. An unstoppable scorer who plays to his strengths, Wade is among the best non-point guard playmakers in the history of the game. He also plays hellcat defense (averaging 1.2 blocks a game over the last two seasons) and protects the ball despite controlling it on almost every possession.
If you're looking for a reasonable facsimile of Bryant, you won't find anyone more comparable than Wade.
Pau Gasol has spent 2-1/2 seasons in L.A. now. In each of the two full seasons, Gasol has hoisted the O'Brien. In the three years between Shaq's L.A. exit and Pau's L.A. entrance, the Lakers won zero playoff series. Clearly, Kobe needed big help. Pau gladly provided it. Before he turned age 26, Gasol had been named to one All-Star team. In Memphis, he made his name as a big-time scorer and rebounder, a skilled passer and a solid if waifish defender. (Gasol averaged more than two blocks a game twice as a Grizzly, a fact often forgotten now that Pau more frequently cedes denial duties to Andrew Bynum.)
The Lakers traded for Gasol precisely because he was so promising in his mid-20s, despite the fact that Memphis (and much of the NBA community) had turned on him as soft, as a high-money star unfit for the "franchise player" label.
In fact, what they say about Chris Bosh now? That's exactly what they said about Pau circa 2006 and 2007. Before he helped Kobe rip off three straight conference banners and two straight NBA championships.
Bosh, in fact, has performed better to date than Pau had to the same point in his career. Bosh has been responsible for a greater share of possessions than Pau had been, and CB4 does more with those possessions. He also rebounds better and, despite his slight frame, isn't nearly as bad on defense as folks suggest.
Need more evidence Wade-Bosh belongs in the same sentence as Kobe-Pau? Take a look at this chart marking each player's usage rate (the percentage of possessions used while on the court) and offensive rating (essentially points created per 100 possessions used). The perfect player (Jordan, in other words) creates many, many points out of many, many possessions. We chart the bigs through age 25 (Bosh's current age); the guards go up to 28 (Wade's current age). This is only scoring and playmaking, but other facets of the game are compared in fair detail above (to the best of my ability -- hence the lack of metric help on defense).
Wade is directly comparable with Kobe from age 24 to 28, which each having one bad, injury-plagued season in that span. Bosh has been obviously superior than Gasol on offense.
The Lakers famously have a lovely collection of role players, from defensive maniac/Game 7 legend Ron Artest to Jekyll/Hyde forward Lamar Odom to sackful Derek Fisher to part-time titan Bynum. Miami? Not so much, yet. That's why the Heat won't be a preseason Eastern title favorite, unless a solid buffer of talent materializes around Bosh and Wade. L.A. would have lost Game 7 of the Finals without Artest, and the Heat currently have no one beyond Wade-Bosh as talented as Ron-Ron, Lamar or Bynum.
But those players will come. The Heat have two first-round picks in 2011, about $12 million in cap space this summer, potential cap space next summer, and a certain 21-year-old, once-touted power forward named Michael Beasley. The talent buffer will come. Whether the Heat can win a title during the Wade-Bosh era depends largely on Wade and on Bosh.
The success Kobe and Gasol have had, combined with the comparable production the Heat duo has had relative to the Lakers' pair, should give remarkable hope to the fans in South Florida.