The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 17 | Musings on the Miami Heat

Leaving Proof 17 | Musings on the Miami Heat
Published on Wednesday, November 24, 2010 by

(Author’s note: Yeah, I know I promised a column about comic book artist Alex Niño this week, but I haven’t finished the damn thing. I promise it’ll be up next week, kids. In the interim, here’s a piece about the NBA’s Miami Heat, because you know, the internet really needs another couch coach diagnosing what’s wrong with the league’s most talked about team this season.)

LeBron James, ballhandler

I’m assuming that those of you who have stayed with this week’s column after reading the note above have done so because you already know the backstory behind this season’s Miami Heat and why they’re such a lightning rod for criticism. For those of you who are reading this column despite not knowing anything about the Heat, thanks for sticking with it. Sports Illustrated‘s Phil Taylor sums up why there’s such widespread contempt for the Miami Heat in this July 2010 article. While I don’t share Taylor’s reasons for disliking the Miami Heat, I understand to some extent where he’s coming from. I don’t have any real problem with the Heat as a team, I just really disliked how LeBron James and his handler-cronies at LRMR Marketing and his enablers at ESPN managed the announcement of his signing with Miami and turned it into an unprecedented masturbatory spectacle of self-aggrandizement in the form of the pretentiously-titled The Decision one-hour TV special. It was an unmitigated display of ego that showed just how much LeBron and his coterie of sycophants had miscalculated his standing as a public figure. In short order, James went from being one of pro sports’ most bankable athletes to being the sixth most hated sports figure in America, behind only convicted dog abuser Michael Vick, publicly shamed adulterers Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant, and Cincinnati Bengals knuckleheads Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens.

But I’m not really interested in writing about James’ PR gaffes. What I’m interested in breaking down is why fourteen games into the season, after all the hand-wringing in the media about how the Heat’s acquisition of James to play alongside fellow All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was unfairly stacking the deck in Miami’s favour, the Heat are currently sitting at fourth in the Eastern Conference standings, and aren’t even the team with the best record in their division.

"My balls! Where are my balls?!"

There’s an oft-repeated belief in NBA personnel management circles that the foundation of a modern multi-title championship team is a core of three or more proven All-Star caliber players. As proof of the philosophy’s validity, its proponents point to the 1980s LA Lakers (Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy), the 1980s Boston Celtics (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and depending on who you like more, Dennis Johnson or Robert Parish), the 1980s Detroit Pistons (Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars, and Bill Laimbeer), the 1990s Chicago Bulls (Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Horace Grant — later replaced by the tandem of Dennis Rodman and Toni Kukoc), the late 1990s/early 2000s San Antonio Spurs (anchored by Tim Duncan, whose fellow All-Stars would include at various times David Robinson, Sean Elliott, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili), and the late 1990s/early 2000s LA Lakers (Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, with the third All-Star spot taken up at different times by by Glen Rice, AC Green, Horace Grant, and uncharacteristically borderline All-Star incarnations of reliable role players like Robert Horry and Derek Fisher). Surely, putting three of the NBA’s most potent scorers and prime All-Stars together on one team, as the Heat did this summer, was the first step towards a 2010-2011 NBA title.

Dwyane Wade (L) and LeBron James (R), shooting tendencies and percentages from different areas of the floor, 2009-10 regular season (click to enlarge)

But in reality, having a trio of All-Stars, even ones as talented as Bosh, James, and Wade, is hardly sufficient to win a title. As many teams there are that have ridden their three-man All-Star ensembles to a championship, there are many more whose All-Star troikas have won nothing of note in the postseason. It’s not enough that the All-Stars are there, their talents must be complementary. Otherwise, duplication of roles occurs, potential contributions do not become additive, and the whole team becomes less than the sum of its parts. And that’s what we’re seeing with the Heat. Wade and James are two of the best perimeter-oriented scorers in the league. But both players favour scoring from similar spots on the floor as seen in the diagram above showing where they scored from during the 2009-10 season, and neither is accurate enough an outside shooter that he can concede the lanes to the basket to the other whilst still remaining a potent scoring threat for extended periods. Perhaps more importantly, both Wade and James are used to being the primary ballhandlers for their scoring trips. In the 2009-10 season, Wade was assisted on only 26% of his successful scoring attempts. That same season in Cleveland, James was assisted on 34% of his made shots. Both players are used to and are more comfortable with dominating the ball on offense and creating their own opportunities to drive towards the basket via isolation plays and opportunistic clear out options as opposed to receiving the ball from the point guard and scoring from an established position on the floor.

Paul Pierce (L) and Ray Allen (R), shooting tendencies and percentages from different areas of the floor, 2007-08 regular season (click to enlarge)

Contrast Wade and James’ shooting and scoring tendencies with that of the All-Star perimeter duo of Paul Pierce and Ray Allen (diagrammed on the right), who led the Boston Celtics to their 17th championship during the 2007-08 season. Besides having different preferences when it comes to where they choose to launch shots from, both players are credible outside shooters (Allen is especially prolific from beyond 18 feet), so either player can consistently threaten to score from the outside on potential kick-outs while the other drives the lane to the basket. Both players also move well without the ball on offense and aren’t overly dependent on exploiting one-on-one situations to score: Pierce, a nightmare to defend one-on-one, was assisted on 48% of his made shots in the 2007-08 season; Allen, the better spot-up shooter of the two and the team’s 3-point specialist, was assisted on 64% of his goals.

A double helping of facepalm for the King

This seeming incompatibility between Wade and James and the duplication/canceling out of their scoring roles is evident in the numbers behind the Heat’s early season struggles. To give you an idea of how much LeBron’s proclivities on offense are conflicting with Dwyane Wade’s, here’s an interesting stat: Wade has scored 13 points or less while playing at least 36 minutes in four games so far this season (three of those four games have been losses). James on the other hand, scored at least 31 points on three of those four games where Wade wasn’t able to contribute much to the score total (including a season-high 35 points in a Nov. 11 loss to the Celtics where Wade managed a paltry eight points in 40 minutes on the floor). Were those cases where James had to redouble his scoring efforts to make up for Wade’s inability to score? Or was James’ dominance of the ball cutting into Wade’s offense? In the six seasons prior to this one, Dwyane Wade has had a total of five games where he played at least 36 minutes and scored 13 points or less. He is on pace to have 35 such performances this season if the team can’t find a more equitable scoring distribution.

There's no "I" in "Team," and there's no "D" in "Chris Bosh"

Of course, I don’t expect the Heat to be this discombobulated throughout the season. The impending return of injured swingman Mike Miller in December will give them a reliable outside shooting threat (although one that is a noted liability on defense) who will help spread the floor and make opposing defenses pay for clogging the lanes. It’s possible that Chris Bosh starts playing up to his eight-figure contract and stops playing the recurring role of a prop on opposing players’ highlight reel dunks. Maybe coach Erik Spoelstra will learn the trick for successfully managing the minutes, egos, and shot attempts of Miami’s Three Amigos (and that’s if he isn’t replaced by Pat Riley). Maybe the bench starts playing better than the veteran’s minimum-rated cast-offs that they are. But will it all happen before the chance for earning homecourt-advantage throughout the playoffs is lost? It’s possible, but my money’s on the season being one of unprecedented schadenfreude for the Heat’s detractors and fans of opposing teams. And that’s okay, too.

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