A Substitute for War

Basketball philosophy

The Heatle Redundancy

with 6 comments

Multi-Headed Snake = not as scary as you thought it would be

Well, obviously the big story of the moment is LeBron Jameslack 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.

Written by Matt Johnson

June 10, 2011 at 8:00 pm

6 Responses

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  1. That IS a scary picture though.

    In that RealGM thread, you mentioned how Phil Jackson using Chicago’s role players properly maximized the team’s offense and allowed them to approach a level of all-time great offensive dynasty. I’m actually a fan of Spoelstra’s tactical basketball engineering and ability to make adjustments, and I think he used James and Wade pretty well overall as individuals for this first year. Do you think his growth as a coach- and with the star trio- will allow Miami to gradually improve offensively to the level of Chicago? Or do they just need better role players and/or Haslem and Miller to be healthy all year in order to create good offensive habits with their fourth and fifth best players?


    June 11, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    • These are good questions.

      Going forward with the comparison with Jordan’s Bulls in terms of the 4 factors on offense, where the Bulls had the advantage was in the turnovers and offensive rebounding especially. Now it is worth noting that crashing the boards is a strategic choice that can help offense at the direct expense of the defense, at the same time, I think that when you’ve got a team that has 3 dominant scorers out there and can afford to have an scoring liability out there like Joel Anthony or Udonis Haslem, it’s a wasted opportunity not to work harder for offensive boards. Obviously though, if you’re going to have the Big 3 at the 2-4, that means you’ve got quite a lot of big man needs to fill with the 5. So it may not be feasible to actually improve matters here.

      Turnovers seem to me to be something that there’s no fundamental reason it can’t improve. One of the more amazing factoids about the Heat offense is that LeBron & Wade are both still committing turnovers at about the same rate as they did last year. You would sure hope that decreasing the amount of primacy and responsibility they have would have cut the turnovers at least at the same proportion if not more. If this doesn’t improve significantly going forward that’s a disappointment.

      As far as the actual shooting efficiency, this is actually good right now, just not as good as one would naively think possible. Jordan’s Bulls weren’t better here – we’re just talking about teams like Nash’s Suns that are better, and of course they didn’t have a weakness at the 5 like the Heat do (though to be clear, it’s naive to think the Heat *could* make adequate use of a solid scoring 5). Here I think is where the fundamental redundancy is at its most apparent, along with the basic fact that the Big 3 of the Heat have always been score-first guys. I expect gains in this area to be modest at best going forward.

      Matt Johnson

      June 12, 2011 at 12:56 pm

  2. Why oh why is James Jones not playing more minutes?
    Don’t tell Eric Spoelstra, I want the Mavs to win.
    Down with the travelling, flopping two headed monster!

    Professor Chaos

    June 12, 2011 at 10:00 am

  3. I think it’s pretty clear that just by about by every metric, the Cavaliers of 2009 and 2010 were better offensively, for the same reason the Mavericks were the better offensive team these Finals. Spreading out a team offensively with 3s and ball movement and then hitting the ORBs is very effective. Miami didn’t even get more shots at the rim than those Cavs teams, in fact I don’t believe it was even close. Miami’s lack of spacing led to defenses packing the paint and forcing Js.

    The fact that Dallas just won a title with Dirk, 3pt shooters and big players cleaning up offensively, proves how fruitless the “Cavs didn’t have the offensive help” argument was. The Cavs weakness was defense. In 2009 their roster was fine defensively, but they got crushed by the Magic matchup with Hedo-Lewis shooting 3s over them and having 3 slow bigs guarding Dwight In 2010, I still think they should’ve beaten Boston if not for that G5. But Boston was really good. And I think the Antawn Jamison trade killed them. You can’t have Shaq AND Jamison AND Mo as top 6 guys on a team hoping to win the title. Those 3 are defensive disasters.

    Where the Heat bridge the gap is by being a way, way better defensive roster than the Cavs, due to the freak athleticism of the big 3 + Anthony, who for all his offensive weaknesses, is awesome defensively. I still don’t know if they’re better than those Cavs. Might have had more favorable matchups in this run.


    June 13, 2011 at 7:00 pm

  4. You might be interested in the Heat comments I made at the end of this thread.


    November 6, 2011 at 2:42 pm

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