The tease continued last week in New Orleans. Side by side for the national anthem stood LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in matching black warmup suits, but when the last note sounded, they kept them on. They chatted and chuckled on the outskirts of the Heat huddle during each timeout but remained on the bench nursing minor injuries while the ball was in play. After the opening 197 seconds of the preseason, when Wade suffered a strained right hamstring, the consummation of the pair's long-anticipated partnership with Chris Bosh has been postponed indefinitely—perhaps until opening night, on the parquet floor of the Eastern Conference champion Celtics.
Last summer's most persistent question—will the three biggest free agents play together?—was answered by James in a July 8 live infomercial that in 60 minutes deeply depleted seven years of brand equity. But the practical question remains unanswered: How will they play together? Each has grown up as the face of his franchise (small forward James of the Cavaliers, power forward Bosh of the Raptors, shooting guard Wade of the Heat), which left them feeling empowered enough to thumb a collective nose at NBA tradition and pull off their megamerger. They each wore white to the wedding and danced together onstage in July for 13,000 guests at the reception in Miami, and that was the fun part. Now comes the grind, the details, the tricky task of making their union work for everyone.
Who will be assigned to which chores, and will everyone be happy with his assignment? Miami is supposed to contend instantly for the championship, but it won't happen without intricate planning. "Now they have to be fit in," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who owns four championship rings and, like commissioner David Stern, called Heat president Pat Riley with congratulations for his free-agent coup. "The coaching staff has to try to get it done, and the players have to have enough character to allow it to happen. Whether they will or not is another question, because it's damn difficult. But they're in the ball game, there's no doubt about it."
How does a team establish its identity? In the NFL, offensive coordinators are hired and fired, and styles of play come and go. But staffs are smaller in the NBA, where the style of play is micromanaged by the coach.
"Every coach has a vision of how offense should be played," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "But then you have the second problem: Does your personnel fit with your principles? And if it doesn't, then you have to have a talk with yourself." Rookie coach Monty Williams of the Hornets is already holding such conversations each day as he shuffles through his thick book of plays and feels overwhelmed. "I see if I want to put that in or this in," he says, "but I don't want to overload guys with too much stuff."
Most of the best coaches tend to develop one system, then adapt the talent to fit it. Jerry Sloan established his pick-and-roll offense through John Stockton and Karl Malone and has maintained it for 23 seasons, enabling the Jazz to select players who were well-suited to that style. The same has been true of Popovich, who has blended in dozens of role players to complement his championship core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili. Phil Jackson has deployed the triangle offense to space the floor around Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant for a record 11 titles.
By contrast, the defining quality of Riley's three decades as a championship coach and executive has been ideological flexibility. In the 1980s he won four rings as the coach of Magic Johnson's fast-breaking Showtime Lakers. In 1994 he coached the Knicks to the Finals with a half-court style based on Patrick Ewing's post presence and muscular defense. In 2006 he liberated Wade to dribble-drive around Shaq down low as the Heat snatched the title from the Mavericks. "What separates Pat is he's such a great motivator and teacher along with being flexible enough to put his players in position to succeed," says Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik, who was advance scout and assistant coach for Riley's Heat teams from 1995 through 2001. "One thing NBA coaches do that college coaches don't do as much is to adapt, because in the NBA a G.M. can come to you and say I just traded so-and-so for so-and-so, which means you have to take your old offense and scrap it because it's not going to work for the new guy."
Now Riley's coaching protégé, 39-year-old Erik Spoelstra, must take a trio of exquisite and sometimes overlapping talents and design an attack that reflects a creative—and winning—touch. The limits of the 94-foot court and the ever-thickening NBA rule book don't enable much in the way of revolutionary scheming. Mostly there's tinkering on the fringes. For instance, the corner three-pointer became a more prominent weapon after statistical analysis, which more teams are relying on, indicated it was one of the most efficient shots in the game. Another innovation of the last decade was Mike D'Antoni's relatively simple idea of having his Suns wings run straight to the corners instead of crisscrossing in transition. "That opened the lane for Steve Nash as the point guard and took advantage of the three-point shot," says Trail Blazers assistant G.M. Bill Branch, a former advance scout. "You've always seen the Jazz crossing their runners, and they still do, but fewer teams are doing that, and more teams are running to the corners to emulate what Mike did in Phoenix."
The Heat is trying to emulate the instant success enjoyed by the 2007--08 Celtics, who won a championship in their first season after uniting team captain Paul Pierce with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Rivers spent that initial summer persuading his Big Three to accept new roles while he modified his playbook to create three-pointers for Allen. Yet the resulting offensive style remained true to Rivers's ideal that players should move without the ball and that the ball should move from side to side. He had established the groundwork when he arrived in '04--05 by demanding that Pierce learn to give up the ball and have faith that it would come back to find him in better position to score or set up a teammate. "Earlier in Paul's career, when the ball touched his hands, that was it—it stopped—and he had to take tough shots to win for his team," says Rivers. "So I already had a guy who had bought into it, and Paul was able to tell Kevin and Ray, 'I know it will be difficult, but it will work.'"
Along the same line, Spoelstra has been leaning on Wade and forward Udonis Haslem, who came to the team together as rookies in 2003--04, to serve as "caretakers of the Miami Heat philosophy" of creating offense from a foundation of lockdown defense. "They've been like additional assistant coaches," says Spoelstra. "While we're teaching, they're helping echo things we feel are important."