That's why the Miami Heat are the best thing to happen to the NBA since Michael Jordan won his final championship by hitting a shot with a picture-perfect follow-through. From a sports-as-entertainment perspective, it's irrelevant if they win or lose a host of titles over the next few years. What's important is that they've become professional basketball's bull's-eye - a giant target for fans and media members to sling sharpened darts at for the sheer enjoyment of it.
Before the Finals began, ESPN ran a poll. There were three options: Are you rooting for the Heat, against the Heat or for the Mavericks? It was nice of the World Wide Leader to throw Dallas in for good measure, but the NBA's dominant plotline could have been neatly summarized without including the Mavs.
Maybe you hate the Heat because of LeBron James and his insufferable navel gazing and excuse making. Maybe you hate how three players managed to circumvent typical league practices and engineer a would-be dynasty all on their own and without much effort or compunction. Maybe you hate that they represent a giant roadblock laid smack in the parade route plans of every other team in the league. Maybe you hate the Heat's unyielding, the-world-is-against-us whining. Maybe you hate their schoolboy immaturity - recently on display when James and Dwyane Wade were caught fake coughing on camera in an attempt to mock Dirk Nowitzki. Or, who knows, maybe you're a contrarian who hates everyone who hates the Heat, and as a result you've knowingly or unwittingly aligned yourself with Miami.
Regardless of the reasons, having the Heat serve as the foil is good for basketball, and it's even better for the NBA brand. Despite not having the Lakers or Celtics in the mix this year, these NBA Finals have earned the highest television ratings in seven years. (The first five games were the top programs on television each night, outpacing America's Got Talent and all the NCIS alphabet soup iterations on CBS.)
Like any good television show, there has been endless chatter by the viewers about various story lines concerning the dastardly main characters. The best attendant topic concerned the discussion about James and how he measures up to other great players. Scottie Pippen initially sparked that controversy by comparing him favorably to Jordan. Thereafter, CBSSports.com columnist Gregg Doyel doused the debate with kerosene when he told James, during a televised news conference, that the player seemed to "shrink" late in games. The uncomfortable exchange between the two was replayed for days on ESPN and talk radio.
"I think you're concentrating on one side of the floor," James said. He even responded without snarling. "All you're looking at is the stat sheet. Honestly, I'm a two-way player. Tonight, D-Wade had it going on offensively, so we allowed him to handle the ball. We allowed him to bring us home offensively. Watch the film again and see what I did defensively, you'll ask me a better question tomorrow."
After watching and re-watching that thrust and parry, it became obvious. The Heat have become a national fascination for the same reasons Donovan McNabb mesmerized locals for so long. The same sorts of metrics are applied to the Heat now as were once forced upon McNabb.
With McNabb, it didn't matter if any of the criticisms levied against him - from the knock about him playing small in big situations to the local legend about him vomiting at the Super Bowl - were true or untrue, real or imagined. It didn't matter that a great many people disliked him for faults that may or may not have existed. What mattered most from a sports-as-entertainment perspective was his innate and almost singular ability to keep people interested in him, in his team, in his sport.
Like McNabb, the Heat might be unwilling to openly embrace their role and don the black hats, but in the end that doesn't matter either. Villains, reluctant or otherwise, tend to do well in sports.
Contact columnist John Gonzalez at 215-854-2813, firstname.lastname@example.org or @gonzophilly on Twitter.
Read his past columns at philly.com/gonzo