The Heatle Redundancy
Well, obviously the big story of the moment is LeBron James‘ lack of production in the NBA Finals. I want to hold off discussing that though and talk about what I consider the broader phenomenon. That being the fact that the Miami Heat have a redundant collection of talent.
When people fantasize about super-teams such as the Heatles, the primary scenario on their mind is an offensive one. They imagine that the amount of effort that will be required to stop James will leave Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh wide open thus leading to an unstoppable offense.
We’d be stupid NOT to do this!
Game 5 shows a snapshot of this not happening. After a series in which LeBron has been crucified for his passivity, the streaking Wade went down with an injury and went out for a long stretch. What happened? The Heat didn’t fall apart, rather they actually outscored the Mavs, and LeBron scored at a much better rate and efficiency than he done with Wade on the court.
Of course, that’s just one example to try to make it concrete. Here’s something a bit broader, the raw +/- leaders for the playoffs:
In case you’re confused about what to look for, notice LeBron & Wade toward the bottom, and Dirk way out in front. Literally, the Mavs with Dirk Nowitzki on the floor have outscored their opponents about 3 times as much as they’ve done with either LeBron or Wade or the floor.
I like using the raw numbers here so that people don’t get caught up with the off-court numbers. This isn’t an issue where LeBron & Wade are getting punished because the team still does well without them. Literally, the Heat team is winning by modestly outscoring their opponents all game long. There is no combination of players they have that has put out anywhere near as successful as what Dallas has done when Dirk is out there with the right pieces around him. Oh, also if you want even more sample size, check out these year long adjusted numbers that have Dirk well ahead of LeBron & Wade.
|A+B| < |A| + |B|
I can’t go to an even larger sample size of course, because if you go back to last year, both LeBron & Wade scored higher than Dirk by this metric. The issue is not that LeBron & Wade are secretly unable to lift their teams, it’s that they can’t maximize each other’s talents. Or rather I should say, that they’ve yet to learn to do so.
Now I want to be clear, it is not fair to say that these two superstars have failed to learn how to do great things together. Watch almost any Heat game and you’ll see the two of them connect on some amazing play only possible because both players understand each other. The result is a great pass, that only works because the off ball player makes a great move.
Additionally I don’t want to get too down on these guys. The Heat are after all in the finals, just 2 home wins away from winning the title. And they’ve managed this in part because their defense has been fantastic all year. To see two primarily offensive superstars join forces and care enough about defense for that to become the team’s calling card says great things about their attitude. These are not guys too lazy to “earn” a title. They are working very hard, and may indeed form a dynasty even if they improve no more.
And yet, the team’s offense is nowhere near what we’d call all-world. They had an offensive efficiency of 111.7 in the regular season. A good 4 points better than the league average of 107.3, but nearly 4 points worse than the truly exceptional Phoenix offense of 2010 at 115.3, and only slightly better than LeBron’s previous team 111.2.
It’s pretty hard to imagine that when LeBron made his Decision, he thought that adding Wade & Bosh to the mix would improve the team only on defense. He like many fantasizing basketball fans though the team’s offense would improve significantly. That Phoenix’s star Steve Nash only ran a superior offense because he had more talent around him than LeBron had in Cleveland or Wade had in Miami.
Turns out, not so much. People may forget this if the Heat go on to win the title, but the truth couldn’t be clearer: You cannot simply add offensive stars together and expect the offense to keep getting better. If two stars thrive at maximum when playing roles mutually exclusive to each other in the game of basketball where there is only one ball on the court at a time, you will get some serious diminishing returns.
And while we’re viewing LeBron through the lens of a star turned too passive, it needs to be recognized that that is EXACTLY the danger of combining redundant pieces.