Inside the relationships and history that bind the Lakers and Heat
The Miami Heat and Los Angeles Lakers have combined to play in nine of the past 15 NBA Finals series — including seven consecutive from 2008 to 2014 — without ever facing each other. That is, until Game 1 on Wednesday, the first time the two teams met on the NBA’s biggest stage. Still, these franchises are connected in ways that go far beyond Lakers star LeBron James‘ having won titles with the Heat or Miami president Pat Riley’s having coached the Showtime Lakers to glory. Before Game 2 on Friday (9 p.m. ET on ABC and the ESPN App), take a deep dive into the ties that bind the Lakers and the Heat.
When LeBron James arrived on the shores of Biscayne Bay a decade ago, he was a 25-year-old two-time MVP who had spent his entire life living in Ohio and been swept in his only trip to the Finals. When he left four years later, the MVPs had doubled, the Finals appearances quintupled and he had collected two championships from his time in Florida.
“I was still growing. I was still a kid and still trying to figure out who I am as a person and as a man, growing while still trying to compete for a championship every single year,” James said this week, looking back at his Heat tenure. “I grew, and they allowed me to grow. We pushed each other every single day, and … I fit perfectly in that culture because I worked just as hard as anybody else.”
James’ finishing school experience in Miami remains with him as a 35-year-old. There’s almost no phrase you’ll hear James say more often than “keep the main thing the main thing.” It’s a Pat Riley staple, a saying the Heat president uses to underscore the discipline he believes an individual must have to reach the pinnacle of the sport.
The Heat team James is facing in the Finals looks far different from the squad he left six years ago. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are retired. Yes, Riley is still running the front office, and head coach Erik Spoelstra is still stalking the sideline, but the relevance of those relationships has faded with time. There was a point in James’ second stint with Cleveland when members of the Cavaliers wondered what a playoff series against the Heat would do to James — if being back in South Beach and playing against his old buddies would mess with his head.
This isn’t that. The Finals are being played in a bubble in Orlando, Florida, not in AmericanAirlines Arena, where James’ No. 6 will one day hang from the rafters. His only former teammate still on the Heat, Udonis Haslem, hasn’t seen a minute of playing time in the postseason. And 69-year-old Heat assistant Bob McAdoo, who spends time with James in the visitors’ locker room every time James plays in Miami, isn’t with the team in Orlando.
One of the newest members of the Heat, Andre Iguodala, who was acquired by Miami midseason, might have the deepest ties to James, having opposed him in the Finals in four out of the past five years, when he played for the Golden State Warriors and James was in Cleveland. Iguodala’s Warriors won three of those Finals, though in 2016 the Cavs came back from down 3-1 in the series to beat Golden State in Game 7, with James making the signature play of his career — a chase-down block on Iguodala.
The Heat ties for James are worth mentioning, of course, but as long as he keeps the main thing the main thing, they should have little impact on the series outcome.
At the Lakers’ practice facility in El Segundo, California, a window near owner Jeanie Buss’ office high above the practice courts provides Lakers players with the greatest view in the NBA: a row of glimmering Larry O’Brien trophies.
Nearly 3,000 miles away on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, three world championship banners hang in the rafters at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Pat Riley is the connective tissue between the organizations.
While Riley hasn’t roamed the Lakers’ sideline in three decades, the Showtime Lakers are as much a part of Los Angeles as the Hollywood sign. He was the Armani-clad foreman who guided that Lakers dynasty. But Riley is also the architect who crafted every fiber of the Heat.
The styles with which he won in L.A. and Miami are completely different but both molded by the singular purpose of winning at any cost.
“You have other teams where you didn’t have that same symmetry, as far as attitudes, and everybody is cut from the same intense, all-about-business mode [Riley created],” said Tony Smith, who was drafted by the Lakers in 1990, ahead of the first season after Riley departed, and later joined Riley’s Heat in the 1995-96 season. “I didn’t see that at other places I went.”
Nearly three decades after Riley left Los Angeles, his protégé Magic Johnson took over as the Lakers’ president of basketball operations and successfully lured James. After Johnson stepped down, general manager Rob Pelinka traded for Anthony Davis to create another Lakers super-duo of a transcendent, supersize, versatile point guard with a dominant big man.
James and Davis are now up 1-0 on a Miami team with Riley’s DNA.
“When I look at the Heat team, they remind me of guys like Alonzo Mourning,” Smith said. “Like, dude, [you’re] super intense. Like, relax.”
The Heat can’t relax until the man Spoelstra calls The Godfather takes his best shot at his old team for another ring.
“There is no question [Riley] wants it bad,” Smith said. “He will never show it, and you will never see it. He is going to look like a cool customer all day long because that is what he does.
“But inside, he’s burning.”
These days, we think of Erik Spoelstra as a two-time-champion coach and one of the best tacticians in the NBA. But a decade ago, when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh chose to team up, it was unclear whether Spoelstra would be able to stand up to the scrutiny.
Would he go the way of Stan Van Gundy, who had been elevated by Pat Riley to run the team in 2003 only to be replaced by Riley two years later, when Miami once again had a championship-level roster? And would he be able to withstand the harsh glare of expectations surrounding that team?
It appeared, for a time, that he wouldn’t. There was the infamous “bumpgate” during the team’s 9-8 start to the trio’s first season together in 2010-11. Later in that season, there was the legendary meeting in Riley’s office in which the Big Three floated the possibility of Riley returning to the sideline to coach them. But Riley was steadfast: Spoelstra would be the team’s coach.
Riley’s faith in his protégé proved to be well-placed. Spoelstra’s decision to embrace small ball helped launch the Heat to their back-to-back championships in 2012 and 2013. And since the Big Three split up, Spoelstra’s reputation has only been strengthened, as he has led the Heat back to the Finals without having to endure a true teardown-and-rebuild process, consistently getting results above expectations with rosters lacking multiple superstars.
Coincidentally, it was James’ current coach with the Los Angeles Lakers, Frank Vogel, who was on the other end of Miami’s small-ball experiment. For three straight seasons, from 2012 to ’14, Vogel’s Indiana Pacers squared off with James and the Heat in the playoffs — first in the Eastern Conference semifinals, then twice in a row in the Eastern Conference finals.
Though Vogel and the Pacers pushed the Heat, they could never get over the hump, coming closest by taking the Heat to seven games in the 2013 conference finals. And after Vogel was fired by the Pacers following a first-round exit in 2016 — then dismissed by the Orlando Magic after two sub-30-win seasons in 2018 — it seemed unlikely he would get a chance to return to that level again.
Instead, after a meandering coaching search last summer following the stunning departure of Magic Johnson and the firing of Luke Walton, Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka settled on Vogel as the man to lead his team. And Vogel has maximized his group’s talent by getting it to successfully play to its strengths.
As a result, Vogel and Spoelstra are facing off in the playoffs once again. Only this time, James is on Vogel’s side.
The seeds for this Finals meeting were actually planted four years ago in Chicago. The ill-fated 2016 pairing of Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Rajon Rondo — nicknamed “The Three Alphas” — didn’t just change the course of the Bulls’ organization, it altered all three players’ careers.
Wade and Rondo were still productive players when the Bulls signed them that summer, but both former All-Stars were brought into the organization in part to show Butler what it took to be the face of a team. Before that season, Rondo explained what he could do to help the team’s young, incumbent star fit into a leadership role.
“Not doing it with my mouth and doing it with my actions,” Rondo said. “And being consistent. I told Jimmy a leader can’t pick and choose when he wants to lead. You have to come out here every day, every practice. We’re having two-a-days. If you’re down, if you need something to get your head right, you have to bring it every day. Every day.”
That season didn’t turn out the way the Bulls hoped. In January 2017, Butler and Wade famously ripped their younger teammates after the team blew a late lead to the Atlanta Hawks. Rondo followed that up a day later by ripping Butler and Wade in an Instagram post for a lack of leadership.
From that point on, Wade formed an even tighter bond with Butler, one that lasted even after both players departed the Bulls the following offseason (Butler in a trade to Minnesota, Wade in a buyout that led to his briefly teaming up with LeBron James in Cleveland before returning to the Heat). Butler would later reveal that it was Wade who told him that his personality would fit best in Miami.
Although Butler trusted Wade and was in awe of how much of a star he had become on and off the floor, he maintained respect for Rondo. Even after the midseason dust-up, there was always a common bond between the two proud players because of the shared love of work. Butler’s work ethic was beyond reproach, but he appreciated the effort Rondo put in, the way he saw the floor and how he approached the game.
The Alphas’ connection is one of several of the ties between former teammates in this series. Lakers reserve Quinn Cook spent two years with Heat swingman Andre Iguodala as a member of the Golden State Warriors. Jae Crowder spent half a season with James and Wade with the Cavaliers, joining the team as part of the deal that sent Kyrie Irving to Boston. But it’s the Wade-Butler-Rondo connection that holds the most intrigue.
Butler landed in Miami thanks in part to the relationship with Wade that started in Chicago, but he became a better leader when he got to the Heat, in part from watching and learning from the guy running point for the Lakers in these Finals.
Beyond the court, there are a pair of luminaries who loom large over this series.
More than 17 years removed from his last game, Michael Jordan is still widely considered the sport’s greatest player. LeBron James said in a 2016 Sports Illustrated interview, “My motivation is this ghost I’m chasing. The ghost played in Chicago.”
While the barbershop and Twitter debates can dream about the one-on-one matchup between those two, there was an actual rivalry between Jordan and Pat Riley, who lost to Jordan’s Bulls in the playoffs four times, twice with Miami and twice with the New York Knicks. And the rivalry extended beyond the basketball court.
In “The Last Dance,” director Jason Hehir revealed that Jordan once stole a presidential suite out from under Riley at a resort in Hawaii. As Riley recalled, the front desk mentioned that an unexpected guest had arrived and he had to switch rooms. Moments later, Riley was out by the pool and looked up at the balcony of his old suite, and Jordan was standing there waving at him.
Still, Riley respected Jordan so much that he retired his No. 23 in Miami. It’s the reason LeBron James and Jimmy Butler have worn different numbers in their stints there.
Five months after that deal, the two teams met for the first time on Christmas Day. Bryant and O’Neal didn’t even make eye contact prior to tip off. The tension was palpable. It felt like a prize fight.
During the game, Bryant was magnificent, scoring 42 points in a loss. Meanwhile, Shaq finished with 24 points and 11 rebounds, while watching the last few moments from the bench after fouling out, leaving Dwyane Wade to finish off the Lakers. Two years later, Wade helped O’Neal get his first ring without Bryant. It wouldn’t be until 2009 when Bryant would do the same without O’Neal. A year later, he surpassed his former teammate’s ring total.
The Lakers-Heat rivalry was rekindled that same year, when Wade, James and Bosh teamed up in Miami. The two teams met again on Christmas, and once again tensions could be felt in the crowd throughout the game and on the court. James and Bryant jawed at each other as they jogged down the court in the closing moments of the game.
James was asked after the game what that conversation was about.
“Just asked him what he got for Christmas,” James said.
That game was supposed to set the stage for a meeting in the Finals, but it didn’t happen that season — or any year after. It wasn’t until 2020, eight months after Bryant’s death, that a Lakers-Heat Finals became a reality.
James is on the Lakers’ side of the rivalry now. When he joined the team in 2018, Bryant reached out to let him know he was part of the Lakers family.
The loss of Bryant and his daughter Gianna still looms over this season. Bryant’s final tweet was a message of encouragement and congratulations to James after he passed Bryant’s mark of 33,643 points. James promised in a heartfelt Instagram post that he would continue Bryant’s legacy.
Bryant will be front and center again when the Lakers wear their Mamba-edition jerseys for Game 2 on Friday night.
“Obviously, we’re representing him,” said Anthony Davis, who yelled “Kobe” after making a buzzer-beater to defeat the Nuggets in the conference finals. “Especially in those jerseys. It’s his jersey, one he created, and anytime we put it on, we want to win.”
LeBron and the Lakers are three wins away from honoring Bryant in the best way possible.