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Layups: Heat ‘Big Three’ Not the Sum of their Parts

Posted by Neil Paine on November 30, 2010

For those with ESPN.com "insider" subscriptions, here's John Hollinger on the Miami Heat's struggles (written before the Washington game, but the points still stand).

For those without, the basic gist is that Miami's supporting cast hasn't really played below expectations; if anything, they've exceeded them -- guys like James Jones & Zydrunas Ilgauskas are playing better than you would have expected from their 2010 stats. Instead, the biggest reason for the gulf between the Heat's preseason hype and actual on-court results (which, given their +6.82 SRS, haven't been quite as bad as the media suggests) is the obvious one: the simultaneous decline of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, and to a lesser degree, Chris Bosh.

(ESPN's Tom Haberstroh has more on the psychology of Wade's struggles here.)

Just take a look at the trio's advanced stats together this year, vs. last season when they were apart:

Mouse over column headers for descriptions ▪ Glossary

Player Year Tm G Min ORtg %Pos DRtg Fl% St% OSPM DSPM SPM T/M %P %S %F %T
LeBron James 2010 CLE 76 2966 120.9 34.0 101.7 .566 .571 10.29 1.25 11.54 2.13 62 25 10 4
LeBron James 2011 MIA 18 679 107.2 32.7 101.1 .507 .552 4.39 1.39 5.78 1.99 61 23 10 6
Chris Bosh 2010 TOR 70 2526 117.4 28.1 110.6 .573 .536 4.83 -0.98 3.86 1.10 35 42 17 6
Chris Bosh 2011 MIA 18 617 117.0 22.1 101.7 .567 .537 2.08 1.00 3.08 0.86 36 45 15 4
Dwyane Wade 2010 MIA 77 2792 113.3 35.1 102.5 .542 .553 7.88 0.51 8.40 1.98 56 28 11 5
Dwyane Wade 2011 MIA 17 607 103.9 30.5 100.8 .503 .558 2.22 1.14 3.36 1.44 48 32 13 6

Mouse over column headers for descriptions ▪ Glossary

Player Year Tm MPG P36 2P% 3P% FT% TS% %FGA A% T% PR Fr 3t O% D% B% S%
LeBron James 2010 CLE 39.0 27.8 56.0 33.3 76.7 60.4 31.9 41.8 13.6 5.83 50.6 25.3 3.0 18.5 2.0 2.2
LeBron James 2011 MIA 37.7 22.9 48.6 27.4 78.6 55.4 28.8 38.9 17.9 2.45 56.0 20.1 2.0 15.3 1.1 2.3
Chris Bosh 2010 TOR 36.1 23.8 52.1 36.4 79.7 59.2 27.3 11.5 12.3 -2.31 50.9 1.9 9.9 25.2 2.1 0.9
Chris Bosh 2011 MIA 34.3 19.2 50.2 40.0 83.0 57.7 24.0 9.6 8.8 -0.27 45.3 2.1 4.9 19.6 1.8 1.2
Dwyane Wade 2010 MIA 36.3 27.3 50.9 30.0 76.1 56.2 33.0 36.4 13.8 2.94 46.5 16.1 4.5 11.1 2.4 2.7
Dwyane Wade 2011 MIA 35.7 22.1 48.4 25.0 72.4 53.7 28.5 22.1 15.9 -1.43 57.1 17.6 4.2 15.4 2.3 2.0

Apart, they were awesome. But as you can see, there's been no synergy between the big stars this season, with each defying the rules of "Skill Curves" and actually decreasing their efficiencies despite reduced offensive workloads. That's a chemistry issue -- talents of this magnitude are supposed to take their games to a new level when combining powers, not fizzle to near career-lows.

Bosh has been the least affected; as Hollinger mentions, his rebounding has tanked but he's retained most of his Toronto efficiency elsewhere, including a vastly reduced turnover rate. But Wade and James have been far below their established norms. Wade is touching the ball much less than before, and he's struggling to adjust to his new role (his scoring efficiency is down to a 53.7 TS%, his turnovers are up, & his assists are way down). James' touches have only dipped slightly, but his assists have actually gone down despite his role as Miami's de facto point guard, he's suffered a total decline in shooting accuracy (including jumpers and, curiously, shots at the rim as well), and he sports a turnover rate that would make George McGinnis cringe.

Both perimeter stars have attacked the basket and drawn fouls at a greater rate (James' FT rate is .560, while Wade is up to .571), something we were curious about in September, but recall the history of similar situations -- teams who combined two hard-driving perimeter players as their primary offensive options usually saw their offenses decline, not improve. Anecdotal evidence also suggested that the only times such a pairing succeeded were when one of the two cut back on his attacking style to accommodate the other, which we haven't seen in Miami so far.

The Heat's trio have the talent to overcome some of these issues, and it's possible each will break out of his slump on his own. Hollinger makes a great point when he says they have more than 1,500 combined career games of evidence indicating that they're capable of far better production than we've seen so far this year. But unless they find a way to coexist and at least play like the sum of their considerable parts, Miami can't legitimately expect to contend for a title.

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26 Responses to “Layups: Heat ‘Big Three’ Not the Sum of their Parts”

  1. Neil Paine Says:

    Here's another note on the Heat... I keeping hearing that "because they're such a bad rebounding team, they can't get out and run the break," etc.

    Totally false. Miami is 9th in defensive rebounding percentage. They're also allowing the 8th-lowest FG% in the league, so they're getting opportunities to rebound. And they're right at the league average in terms of forcing turnovers per possession.

    The Heat are playing the 11th-slowest pace in basketball by choice, not because of some structural problem with how the team was built.

  2. AHL Says:

    Well they were, until Haslem went out.

  3. Neil Paine Says:

    True, but that criticism predates Haslem's injury.

  4. dsong Says:

    Well, it was obvious that the Heat wasn't going to win 70 games. That should have been obvious right off the bat.

    If the Heat traded Wade for a center/power forward and a point guard, I think they'd be a really good team. Wade for Lopez & Harris would work. They can even throw in some combination of Anthony, Chalmers, or Pittman to make the deal work.

  5. Jared Says:

    This Miami Heat experiment illustrates the reason we have a division of labor on a basketball team. There are five guys and five roles. Having two players in the same role at the same time on the court is clearly inefficient.

    Time and time again you see Wade and LeBron alternate isolation plays. It is who they are. Both require the ball in their hands and complete control of the offense. Neither is built to be a decoy or a spot-up jump shooter.

    It isn't fantasy ball where we just add up their stats. The context of how and where they put up their fantastic numbers needs to be taken into account. LeBron put up monster numbers as the undisputed man who created nearly every bucket for Cleveland. Wade put up monster numbers as the undisputed man in Miami.

    In this new context you have new results. It isn't that shocking.

  6. P Middy Says:

    I'm going to put my broken record on. PnR, JnW. What better way to get to guys who both dominate the ball to be directly involved in dominating the ball? I'm reading more and more about a lack of compliance from James. It seems like aside from legal matters and paperwork, he ran the Cavs as an organization. He's expecting the same situation in Miami perhaps. I hope Spo tells him how it's going to be, and Riley backs Spo. There's a lot of stuff they need from James, but being the guy he was in Cleveland is not it.

  7. Anon Says:

    "Time and time again you see Wade and LeBron alternate isolation plays. It is who they are. Both require the ball in their hands and complete control of the offense. Neither is built to be a decoy or a spot-up jump shooter."

    They have to learn don't they? And they more than have the talent to do so (Wade has a good midrange game when he's healthy, LeBron can shoot the three, and both can cut to the rim for dunks and layups better than anyone) but, as noted in the article, they have to do a better job of accommodating for the other on the floor.

    For LeBron, it's taking less of those head-scratching three pointers and long twos, and continuing to break down defenses to look or teammates. For Wade, he needs to get back to his shooting fundamentals which has been atrocious so far. Good to see his jumper get back to form a little bit last night.

  8. AHL Says:

    If you want to eyeball this list, most of the best lineups have been Wade or LeBron alone, while most of the worst ones have been with them together. Can they change and make it fit? Guess we'll find out THE HEAT WATCH IS ON

  9. Ray Says:

    "# Jared Says:
    November 30th, 2010 at 11:13 am

    This Miami Heat experiment illustrates the reason we have a division of labor on a basketball team. There are five guys and five roles. Having two players in the same role at the same time on the court is clearly inefficient."

    Yet many teams find great success in having two 3-point shooters on the court at the same time, or two dominant interior bigs.

    Although these guys ARE divas, I think the biggest problem has been the total lack of an offense that takes advantage of their skill-sets. Instead of so much dribbling, isolation, and having one of Wade/LeBron "spot up" behind the 3-point line, we need to see both of them in motion at the same time, forcing teams to rotate and adjust until a mistake is made and one of these guys can exploit it.

    And for all the pick & rolls being run, we haven't seen nearly enough (have we seen any?) between Wade and LeBron. These guys were born to create mismatches and make defenses work their butts off, but instead they're consciously giving them plenty of time to set themselves, catch their breath, and make good decisions.

  10. Anon Says:

    Dan LeBatard (Miami Herald columnist) talked about Wade on ESPN this morning, and said so far he has seen Wade simply MISS SHOTS this season that he would always convert in the past - whether it be jumpers he'd usually make from the perimeter or even dunks (see first quarter of Wizards game). As it put it, "That's not on LeBron."

    While Bron and Wade are still figuring it out playing in the floor together offensively, people need to remember that Wade struggling from the field isn't always necessarily a result of playing with LeBron. I've watched Wade shoot a basketball and venture into the paint all season, and you can tell he's not 100% physically.

  11. Anon Says:

    Thanks for the +/- data AHL, good stuff.

    The things I'm skeptical about are the small sample sizes and the fact that James and Wade are also playing with three other teammates on the floor with them. The negative point differential could very well be due to James and Wade learning how to play together, but couldn't these also be important factors to consider?

    From watching them play, I'd say that they definitely need to improve the tandem dynamic.

  12. ScottR. Says:

    This is hardly original but Wade and Lebron are redundant. They won't "figure it out" because Lebron can't just morph into Karl Malone and compliment Wade's skills. Add to this that Lebron isn't who we thought he was (he's very immature and, I think, a coward) and you have a team that won't make it past second round of playoffs.

  13. keith helfrich Says:

    Lebron James and Dwyane Wade have been playing basketball since they were kids (LBJ since the 4th grade). They are both unbelievably gifted athletes with work ethic to match - yet they cannot figure out how to play together? Basketball is a team game, all five guys.

    People thought, HEY D-Wade put up 25/6/6 for his career, Lebron put up 28/7/7 for his career, that must mean they will dominate.

    People forget that Dwyane spent SEVEN YEARS having plays called for him, etc. LBJ ran the cavs for SEVEN YEARS...they both did what they wanted - let me get my #'s. They have never KNOWN how to play team basketball in their entire lives. All we heard about from Lebron, Bosh, and Wade was "Sacrifice." We'll Sacrifice $$$ to play together.

    It's not about money.

    They have to sacrifice stats...a contested 3 for a better 2... This is an experiment of taking AAU bred athletics and converted to the NBA - have at it!

    Teamwork...its what the Heat need, and they have no idea where they are going to find it. Spo'/Riley/somebody needs to ready the ship. They have a higher ceiling than any team in the league.

  14. Dave Says:

    At the risk of commenting about the Article. Neil I didn't realise you guys had statistics about touches ... It is certainly an interesting investigation into the usage ve efficency debate. As all 3 have seen a decline in both - which contradicts every argument I have read about this.

    Just looking at the touches, it does seem to confirm the DWade struggles come from a role he is not used to - the fact that he has the ball less has made him more aggressive and likely to call his own number when he gets the ball.

    Perhaps the thing I am most disappointed about, being high on my list of "Working it out" things to do, would be how Wade and James have not been able to create high % opportunities for each other - over at Hoopdata.com you can see both are down on attempts at the rim, assists at the rim, %Assted at rim and FG% at rim, as well as down in attempts and FG% from 3 ... Now I can understand team help defenders not leaving Wade to help on Bron but that they can't generate better shot opportunities for the other?

    Is it simply the "I'll get mine and he can get his" mentality?

  15. Neil Paine Says:

    I should note that the touches are estimated from the box score -- but they do seem to work, and I really like the %Pass/%Shoot/%Fouled/%Turnover breakdown they offer. All credit goes to Bob Chaikin for coming up with that stat, btw.

    As for Wade/James, you're right, as is everyone else who's been harping on the pick-n-roll and other ways to get them interacting. I think it's inexcusable that this team is now 20th in % of FG assisted, 20th in assists/poss., and that both James and Wade have seen their % of baskets assisted decrease compared to last season. One of the major selling points was that these creative, facilitator types would help make things easier for each other.

  16. Anon Says:

    Are people forgetting that James and Wade aren't the only players out there on the floor at once for the Heat? Yes they have struggled and we could go on all day about them not having chemistry, but this isn't NBA Jam where they just play two-on-two either.

    Anyway, the best part about this article is probably this line right here - "Hollinger makes a great point when he says they have more than 1,500 combined career games of evidence indicating that they're capable of far better production than we've seen so far this year."

    We have what, 18 November regular season games where they haven't played their best, and some are already jumping to conclusions? The fickleness of fans never cease to amaze me.

  17. Neil Paine Says:

    Yes, it's an incredibly small sample. But you also have to ask what's more likely -- that James and Wade just coincidentally have some of the worst 18-game stretches of their careers immediately upon joining the same team, or that their declines represent some kind of problem endemic to their new situation.

    In fact, I may be able to study this: Set up a Monte Carlo simulation based on their career game scores, simulate 18 games a million times, and see how often both play at this level simultaneously due to random chance alone.

  18. Anon x 2 Says:

    Neil - how are the Heat at live ball turnovers? Forcing a 24 second call, a charge, etc don't have the same impact as a steal or block. One leads to half-court offense, the other to possible fast breaks.

    I don't know the answer, but I wonder if the answer might give us a reason why they seem to never fast break.

    Also how often teams score in the paint. Again, I don't know the answer, just curious if the answer helps us understand what's going on.

  19. Anon x 2 Says:

    As for the Lebron/Wade PnR I'm not sure why people are calling for it.

    The purpose of the PnR is to create one of 3 things

    A. Space for a quick shot (often a 3)
    B. A defensive mismatch
    C. An overplay

    That's why a PnR is usually run with a perimeter player and a big. If there's a switch, then you have speed against the big or size against the smaller guy. But Lebron and Wade are the same player so they're being defended by the same player. All you have to is switch or go under the screen. Now, going under the screen usually leads to an open shot, but neither Wade or Lebron are good 3 point shooters or good 20 foot shooters, therefore you simply go under the pick or switch and it's neutralized.

    The answer doesn't rely on a lebon/wade Pick N Roll. It relies on more off-ball movement or Lebron finally developing a post-up game. The real issue is neither of them are good outside shooters and it's hurting the offense. Often one guy does nothing when the other has the ball. And by nothing, I mean just stand around doing nothing.

  20. Neil Paine Says:

    Re: #17 - Follow-up post on the probability that Wade/James' decline in production is just an unlucky stretch of bad games:

    http://www.basketball-reference.com/blog/?p=8309

  21. P Middy Says:

    RE #19

    I don't think most teams have the personal to cover this. If you're forgetting, LeBron is built like a power forward. If you've got a Chalmers, Miller, and/or House out there with them and 1 more big, then a big almost has to cover LBJ. Even without that, it's not that easy to just switch on these two and not expect a mismatch.

    Vs. Boston, Ray Allen is on Wade, and Pierce is on Bron. Can Allen possible deal with LeBron's size and muscle when he's rolling to the hoop? Can Pierce handle the extra speed Wade has on him?

    Vs. LA - same thing. We've got Artest trying to switch onto Wade, and Kobe trying to stop Bron streaking to the basket.

    The Spurs? Ginobili? Can he cover either of those guys WITHOUT a PnR?

    Most teams don't have the right sizes at 2 and 3 to cover it.

    Even when the other team switches on every PnR, there have to be decisions made. That's the beauty of PnR. It forces the defense to react. There are so many options. Wade can go with the pick and then cross back, LeBron can slip. LeBron can feign the pick and cut. etc etc

    It also draws attention from other defenders and make them decide whether to help or not, who you already know are leaning toward Bron and Wade anyway. Of course, all of this is predicated on LeBron being willing to be a setup man, recipient, or decoy for Wade. And while I never doubted it for a second in Cleveland, I am beginning to wonder if this guy has was it takes to truly sacrifice for the team.

  22. RobertAugustdeMeijer Says:

    What makes me wonder is how come the Thrice aren't as effective as Jordan+Pippen+Grant, Magic+Worthy+(Old)Kareem, Kobe+Ariza/Artest+Gasol, Isiah+Dumars(before he shot 3pters)+Laimbeer?
    I find all these setups comparable, right?

  23. huevonkiller Says:

    #21 Wow stop trying to put it all on leBron. As if Wade has had close to as good a season as "struggling" LeBron.

    Wade got hurt in Charlotte and he's been mostly garbage ever since, aside from the Wizards game. He went 7-43 before finally bouncing back. He's just not completely healthy.

    Reality is he's being asked to distribute too much, when he should be even more aggressive if anything. You don't tell LeBron James to stop attacking the rim, he's getting the wrong idea.

    And remember what Neil said about SRS, it is not nearly as bad as people think. LeBron needs to be aggressive, Wade needs to keep attacking as well he was just fine until he got hurt.

  24. huevonkiller Says:

    Also #21, I'd imagine adjusting to the player with the highest usage rate in the league, when you're also a player who needs the ball would take time.

    Neil seems to have found a trend in September that mentions this. I think their talent will win out, they were 8-4, top 2 in SRS before Wade's injury against the Bobcats.

  25. P Middy Says:

    I've been defending LeBron since the decision, on this board and other places. It's because I've always seen maximum effort from him. But what I saw from him this year so far has not looked like maximum effort. Wade may suck, but it's not from a lack of trying. I fully expect them to turn this around and be dangerous in the playoffs. I'm just disappoint that LeBron has not been able to deal with the mental challenges of a scenario he helped devise.

  26. huevonkiller Says:

    He's had about 26 PER on a solid defensive team after the first three games, I just think he needed a little time.

    The last couple of games help.