There’s a trio of basketball players on the verge of winning a championship down in Florida this month, and although one man remains from a previous title run back in 2006, the thought of a new trophy representing the inaugural year of a new regime is just too hard for the three of them to resist.
I’m talking, of course, about the Miami Heat and the Udonis Haslem-Mike Miller-James Jones triumvirate that could spell the difference between a South Beach parade come the end of June or another summer of hate and vitriol in a world of NBA fan resentment.
This is the Medium Three, you may have heard of them. They consist of a man who once weighed over 300 pounds, another who owned a pet Java Macaque and a third whose relatively humble career gives him no reason to stand out amongst the other 28 Wikipedia pages of men who share his name.
The quiet pairing of subtle role players in obvious contrast to their more celebrated teammates is shaping up to have a major impact on the NBA landscape for years to come, but how did it all happen?
The fact that LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade last summer as free agents in a well-publicized, if controversial, hour of primetime television isn’t news. The fact that Pat Riley is really Darth Vader isn’t news either.
What is news is the fact that the superstar combination, heralded almost immediately as championship locks, struggled heartily against some of their toughest competition over the course of the regular season.
They faltered, they cried and they served as proof to a desperate and skeptical public that even when the biggest, baddest, most dominant athletes on the planet pool their abilities together, depth and teamwork still count for at least something.
Enter Haslem, Miller and Jones, the gatekeepers of balance and justice.
Udonis Haslem, like teammate Wade, has spent his entire career with the franchise. A member of the Heat since his rookie campaign back in 2003-04. Haslem was there when the club – led by Wade, Lamar Odom and Caron Butler – showed signs of life for the first time since the Alonzo Mourning Era in a postseason series against the New Orleans Hornets.
He was also there that very next summer when Riley shipped the latter two off to Los Angeles in exchange for Shaquille O’Neal. Over the course of the next two years O’Neal and Wade worked on their relationship until they became the duo that the neither Shaq-Kobe nor Shaq-Penny ever were. Quietly Haslem observed, slipping into the team’s starting lineup virtually unnoticed and staying there until the 2009-10 campaign.
He was there when the Heat raised their first championship banner to the American Airlines Arena rafters, he was there when the franchise went crashing down upon O’Neal’s departure and he’s still there now.
Though he’s always been considered a reliable role player and routine double-double threat, there’s no ducking the grinder tag that has followed him over the course of his career. Why would it? Haslem hasn’t change, it’s simply just the team surrounding him that has.
Over the course of the 2010-11 campaign, while Wade, James and Bosh perfected the craft of playing together, Haslem watched from the sidelines, rendered useless by a foot injury. Had he been there all along, a much-needed constant at a time of unprecedented roster turnover, perhaps the learning process for the superstars would have been easier.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what Haslem brings to the table – especially now that the Big Three can essentially, between the three of them, provide every single skill necessary to win a basketball game – but it’s not hard to see when it’s not being brought.
It’s no coincidence that the moment Haslem started playing significant minutes with the Heat this postseason was the moment Miami figured out how to solve the Eastern Conference-leading Chicago Bulls at their own grind-it-out game.
Mike Miller is an interesting fellow, from his pet choice down to the ever-changing way he wears his hair. Since 2000 he’s made his living bouncing between organizations with varying amounts of success while the rest of the world too often forgets to notice.
Though he won Rookie of the Year honors in 2001 and the Sixth Man award in 2006, his signing last July, shortly after those of James and Bosh, went sorely unappreciated. His regular season numbers, from the 2010-11 campaign, seemed to justify the lack of response and the year, in all, was considered by many a disappointment.
Despite his issues during the season and limited role in the first two rounds of the postseason this spring, however, Miller’s role with the star-studded Heat has started to resemble what it was projected to be when he signed his five-year, $25 million contract last summer. In Games 4 and 5 of the Bulls series, Miller shot over .500 from the field in the most minutes he’s seen since March.
In Miller the Heat don’t have a fourth star, but they do have an asset whose sheer potential can affect the way in which their opponents approach them. Though plagued by a thumb injury there’s no stripping away the fact that Miller’s 1,298 career three-pointers made sit 15th amongst all active players in the NBA.
James Jones may not do a lot for the Miami Heat, but what he does manage to do, he does well. The true question heading into the NBA Finals is whether or not he’ll be able to do it.
Since the Eastern Conference Finals, James has struggled with pain in his toe and in his back, limiting his opportunities to play and keep defenders honest as they look to double team Wade and James as they attack the basket.
On most nights a healthy Jones can contribute a pair of triples and some free throws when necessary, on rare nights – such as Game 1 of Miami’s second-round series with Boston – he can go off for 25 points on seven field goal attempts.
Now 30 years old, Jones’ eight-year career has sped by untempered. Like James, Wade, Bosh and Haslem, he too was a member of the legendary Draft class of 2003, but unlike them he has slipped in and out of the public conscience to the point where it’s easy to forget he’s no longer a rookie.
After a stint with the Indiana Pacers, Jones joined a Phoenix Suns team at the center of the spotlight. Here, alongside Steve Nash, Bryan Colangelo and Mike D’Antoni he embraced the opportunity to contribute from behind the arc, making life easier for the rest of the team.
Although this year’s Heat roster is different than that of the mid-00s Suns in more ways than one, Jones’ role doesn’t have to be. If he, having already shed the supportive walking boot from the foot injury, can reestablish himself as a supplementary threat before the series winds to a close, his presence may be just enough to give the franchise the necessary depth to send Dirk Nowitkzi and the Dallas Mavericks packing once again.
Though the Medium Three may not dominate the box score on a given night, or even fill the contributory roles that Mike Bibby and Mario Chalmers inevitably will, there’s no denying their importance to the franchise.
Without them the Heat are a star-powered juggernaut talented enough to squeeze by on the will of three men and three men alone, with them, however, they stand to be one of the most imposing basketball franchises the sport has ever seen.