Miami Heat fans have been on a roller coaster of emotions this week watching LeBron James win a title in Cleveland. Some were happy for LBJ. Others joined #TeamPetty to root hard against the Heat's former savior.
Wherever you land on the spectrum, the simple fact is that King James wouldn't have been able to bring a title back to Ohio without his four years in Miami. Here's what LBJ himself said on that topic when he announced his move back north:
"Miami, for me, has been almost like college for other kids. These past four years helped raise me into who I am. I became a better player and a better man. I learned from a franchise that had been where I wanted to go. I will always think of Miami as my second home. Without the experiences I had there, I wouldn’t be able to do what I'm doing today."
More recently, LeBron has talked about using the "blueprint" he learned in Miami to bring Cleveland its first championship in 52 years.
"I knew what I learned in the last couple years that I was gone. And when I came back, I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get to a place we've never been. That's what it was all about."
But what exactly does that blueprint entail? What precisely did he learn in his four years with the Heat? We did some digging and found all the times people around him, or LeBron himself, have broached the subject. Here's what he did learn in the 305:
LeBron James was already the best player on the court every night before he got to Miami, but his tenure with the Heat helped bring his intangibles up to speed with his God-given athleticism. "Playing for the Heat has put him over the top mentally in terms of maturity and confidence," said Mike Brown, who coached LeBron in Cleveland from 2005-10.
"LeBron has always been extremely intelligent and mature for his age," Brown told reporters. "But being in Miami matured him in a new way."
You might occasionally hear even the most educated NBA fan say "it's a players' league" in terms of what builds a contender, but that's a simplistic and incorrect observation. Talent wins many games, but having the most talented and most prepared players can mean the difference between folding down 3-1 in the NBA finals and having the will to come back.
"He really didn't know that much about what it took to win a title back then," said Joe Tait, the Cavaliers' radio voice from 1970-2011.
The faces changed when LeBron moved on to Cleveland from Miami, but the skill sets of LeBron's new teammates have proven to be quite similar to those the Heat provided. LeBron's biggest moves in Cleveland have been to trade unproven and, more important, unreliable young players for proven veterans who can fill a role. Gone were the players who could one day become LeBron James' running mate. In came role players who could fill that job title today, regardless of the draft compensation or money it cost.
In Miami rosters are constructed on a year-to-year basis. Winning isn't the most important thing — it's the only thing – and worrying about a move that might help you win five years from now isn't always the top priority.
"Cleveland was mostly a rebuilding situation for LeBron," former Cavs General Manager Wayne Embry told Cleveland.com last year. "In Miami, the total emphasis was on winning. It really was an education for him."
During his first stint in Cleveland, LeBron had come to accept losing. Hell, he did grow up in Cleveland, where losing is practically a birthright. But in Miami, he learned that not only is losing an unacceptable reality, but also it's not even considered an option.
"It was such a different atmosphere," Embry said. "Winning a title was the total focus. It was expected."
Dru Joyce II, LeBron's childhood coach, believes LeBron's exit to Miami was necessary because he needed a mentor who instilled confidence in his game but also demanded he
"No disrespect to Mike Brown or anyone with the Cavaliers, but they didn't have anyone with their franchise like [Miami team president] Pat Riley," Joyce said.
Just about every story written about LeBron's struggles to change the culture in Cleveland reports that the Cavs locker room was less than professional. Actions that may have seemed normal to LeBron before he left for Miami now stuck out like a sore thumb. Here's ESPN on that subject:
"You have to understand, it is so much different in Miami than everywhere else," said Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who played seven years with James in Cleveland before joining him in Miami for a season.
"Cleveland is part of the mainstream of the NBA. In Miami, there is one man in charge, and that is Pat Riley, and everyone falls into line from there. It's very simplified for you. There is one way to do things, his way."
Part of the Cavs' success this season had to do with some roster tinkering. Veterans like Richard Jefferson and Mo Williams might not have shown up on the court every night, but they did in the locker room. "It's a big job to change a team's culture. You have to hold everyone accountable. You have to make sure everyone is onboard," Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyrron Lue said after taking over for the fired David Blatt midseason.
"I just think the guys have really bought into what we're trying to do," Lue said. "It's continuing to harp on that every single day, about accountability, being professional, doing things the right way. Just trying to make sure the culture is right. I think when the culture is right, I think it's easy to play in those kind of environments."
Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is known for his motivational speeches, which have been coined "Spoisms." Since LeBron left Miami, it's clear those words have worn off on him. Two of Spoelstra's most popular lines are "Trust in the process" and "Don't let go of the rope," and the former has routinely come out of LeBron's mouth in Cleveland.
"The challenge is that every single day, we have to understand we can't waste that day," James said prior to last season. "We have to prepare each and every day to get better, each and every day to each and every week to month. And if we don't choke up the process, we're going to give ourselves a good chance of contending at the end of the year."
Throughout last season, LeBron continued to preach trust in the process, including one instance the Miami Herald's Ethan J. Skolnick detailed following a regular-season loss that dropped the Cavaliers below .500 early in LeBron's 2014 homecoming season.
“It's going to be a process,” James said at Portland’s Moda Center after the loss to the Trail Blazers. “I keep on harping on that word, but it's the truth. I've been there before and understand it. But you do have to go through it even though you don't like to go through it."
It's tough to fault an athlete like LeBron James for getting frustrated when everyone else doesn't progress at the same pace as he progresses, but in Miami, LeBron learned those frustrations and battles your team overcomes — or better yet, doesn't overcome — are money in the bank that will save your team later. Nothing was easy in Miami, every moment was tense, and that was all part of the process.
Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer penned an article last season titled "LeBron James Became Leader He Is Today Because He Spent Four Years With Miami Heat" and began it with the following lines:
Would the Cavaliers be in the NBA Finals if LeBron James had never left for the Miami Heat?
I doubt it.
That's a pretty startling take from an author from a hometown newspaper, but it seems to have become the most reasonable opinion as time has passed. LeBron went to the Miami for a reason: The Heat had everything Cleveland couldn't offer in the way of structure and leadership, something he had never experienced in his career with the Cavs. Not only did the Heat have front-office higherups who could help him in ways Dan Gilbert and various others had tried, but LeBron also had teammates in Miami who would help him become the legendary teammate he is today.
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"I think being with Dwyane Wade was very important to his growth," ex-Cavs coach Mike Brown told Cleveland.com last season. "Dwyane already had won a title. He knew what it took."
It's hard to remember, but this LeBron isn't the LeBron we've always known. Prior to his time with the Heat, he was a dominant, freak-of-nature talent.
His four years in Miami taught him how to become a complete