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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Does Any Sensible Person Still Think That Miami is "Dwyane Wade's Team"?

When LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined forces with Dwyane Wade to form a power trio in Miami some commentators reflexively said that the Heat were "Dwyane Wade's team" and criticized James for supposedly being so eager to give up alpha dog status to be Robin to Wade's Batman. Some fans heckled James by calling him "LePippen," a jeer that simply makes no sense on any level. I explained last season that James has yet to match Pippen's most significant accomplishments: "LeBron James is a more explosive scorer than Scottie Pippen but he still has a long way to go to match Pippen as a champion, a leader and a player who will do whatever it takes--including play an NBA Finals game with two ruptured disks in his back--to help his team win an NBA title." Beyond the fact that it is disrespectful to Hall of Famer Pippen to supposedly denigrate James by using Pippen's name, there is no logical reason to assert that Miami is "Wade's team." It does not matter that Wade was in Miami first or even that he is the only member of Miami's power trio who has won a championship; the reality is that there is no skill set area in which Wade is better than James and James is significantly bigger and stronger than Wade. Last season, James led the Heat in scoring, assists and steals. James topped Wade in every meaningful statistical category except for blocked shots and turnovers. In the playoffs the Heat eliminated number one seed Chicago--despite a subpar performance from Wade--because James dominated at both ends of the court but the Heat faltered in the NBA Finals precisely when James mysteriously disappeared.

James' level of play is the number one factor determining Miami's success and that has become even more strikingly obvious this season; James is once again leading the Heat in scoring, assists and steals and, if anything, the Heat look even better without Wade than they do with him. I am skeptical of small sample sizes of data that can be skewed for a variety of reasons but the Heat are not just 4-0 this season sans Wade--they are 8-1 in their last nine games without Wade dating back to the early portion of last season (James has missed just four games during that period and the Heat went 2-2 in those contests). This goes beyond the win-loss record, though; both James and Bosh individually perform much better without Wade and not just in terms of raw numbers at the expense of efficiency.

Last season I criticized what I called Miami's "clown car" offense: their half court offense is so disorganized at times that it is reminiscent of clowns piling out of a car at a circus. A major problem for the Heat is that their two best players--James and Wade--do not have complementary skill sets: neither player is particularly good without the ball in a half court offense, so when one guy "takes his turn" the other guy ends up standing around doing nothing. Meanwhile, regardless of whether James or Wade is at the helm, the "clown car" offense transforms--or, to be precise, demotes--Bosh from one of the top 15 players in the NBA to a glorified Horace Grant (no disrespect intended toward Grant, who was a fine player in his own right, but Bosh is a perennial All-Star who should not be relegated primarily to shooting jumpers on the weak side while James or Wade drain the shot clock with aimless dribbling).

I recently offered a satirical take regarding what might happen if Henry Abbott ever became as biased against LeBron James as he is against Kobe Bryant but the grain of truth in that satire is that the way the Heat plays negatively impacts Bosh's game. This is particularly evident when both James and Wade are on the court. When one or the other is out of the game, Bosh performs much better.

After Tuesday's NBA TV Fan Night game--Miami beat San Antonio 120-98 with James scoring 33 points and Bosh scoring 30 points while Wade sat out because of an ankle injury--Greg Anthony said that even though this might sound crazy to some people he thinks that Miami would benefit from getting the ball to Bosh more frequently. Anthony is not Henry Abbott; Anthony is not proposing that Bosh is Miami's best player (which would be as silly as Abbott or the "stat gurus" making a similar claim regarding Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum as long as Kobe Bryant is doing his thing) or that Bosh should get the most shot attempts but Anthony is correct that something is wrong with the way that the Heat run their half court offense.

The Heat are so talented that they may very well win a championship--either this season or within the next few years--in spite of their deficiencies but it is also possible that LeBron James will never surpass in Miami what he accomplished in Cleveland (posting the best record in the NBA in back to back seasons while reaching the Conference Finals twice and the NBA Finals once). The Cavaliers' much-maligned coaching staff and roster were more complementary of James' skill set than this current Miami Heat team is.

My all-time favorite player Julius Erving accomplished far more during his career than what LeBron James has accomplished thus far and, unlike James, Erving raised his level of play when the stakes were highest, consistently acing the Finals test (scoring at least 20 points in 21 of his 22 ABA and NBA Finals games en route to winning three titles); in the 1976 ABA Finals Erving authored one of the greatest single series performances in pro basketball history. However, the arc of Erving's career provides some interesting parallels to James' situation vis a vis Wade. When Erving joined the Philadelphia 76ers prior to the 1976-77 season one could have argued that the 76ers were George McGinnis' team; McGinnis was a championship-winning player (albeit with the Indiana Pacers, not the 76ers) and McGinnis clearly had been the 76ers' best player the previous season when they returned to the playoffs for the first time since 1970-71--but Erving (who, like McGinnis, was already a two-time ABA champion) was simply a better player than McGinnis and Erving emerged as the 76ers' leading scorer. Erving and McGinnis--helped by Doug Collins, a third All-Star--carried the 76ers to the 1977 NBA Finals but the 76ers blew a 2-0 lead and lost to Portland in six games. The 76ers were considered to be the most talented team in the NBA but within two seasons the coach had been fired and McGinnis had been traded for Bobby Jones, a very good player who was not as talented or dominant as McGinnis but whose skill set better complemented Erving's. It will be very interesting to see if the Heat ever make it back to the NBA Finals with this nucleus or if they will be as bold as the 76ers were and trade their second best player in the interest of forming a more complementary talent blend.

Erving's 76ers made it back to the Finals in 1980 and 1982 but did not win the championship until 1983. The arrival of Moses Malone put the 76ers over the top. Malone won the 1979 and 1982 MVPs prior to joining the 76ers, while Erving captured the 1981 MVP (becoming the first non-center to receive the NBA MVP since Oscar Robertson in 1964). Publicly, Malone said that the 76ers were Erving's team and that he (Malone) just wanted to help Erving to get an NBA championship ring--but the on court reality proved that Malone was the team's best player. Erving (who finished fifth in the 1983 MVP voting and earned his fourth straight All-NBA First Team selection) was hardly a slouch--and the 76ers clearly could not have won the 1983 championship without his significant contributions--but Malone won the regular season MVP in a landslide and he won the Finals MVP as the 76ers swept the Lakers in the NBA Finals.

What does this history lesson mean? The 76ers were not McGinnis' team just because he had been there first nor were they Erving's team after Malone arrived. Basketball is a team sport, so perhaps it does not even make sense to say that a given team "belongs" to one player but if we are going to employ this common trope then it must be used logically: the 1977-82 76ers were "Julius Erving's team" because he was the best player on the team during that time but the arrival of a younger, more physically dominant Moses Malone changed that dynamic. The Heat were "Dwyane Wade's team" for several years but the arrival of a younger, more physically dominant LeBron James changed that dynamic.

Erving came close to leading the 76ers to a championship--and it cannot be reasonably said that it was his fault that they fell just short several times--but during that era it was essential to have a dominant big man to go all the way and, except for the 1979 San Antonio Spurs, every team that defeated Erving's 76ers in the playoffs from 1977-82 had a Hall of Fame center (Bill Walton, Wes Unseld/Elvin Hayes, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Robert Parish) who was in his prime and/or performing at a very high level. Can LeBron James be the centerpiece of a championship team a la Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan (and Erving and McGinnis in their ABA primes)? Or will James only win a title later in his career after being paired with a dominant big man, as was the case with several Hall of Fame perimeter players, including Erving, Jerry West, Oscar Robertson and Clyde Drexler?

I don't know what will happen but I will make a few predictions:

1) The Heat will not win a championship with a "clown car" half court offense.
2) The Heat as presently constituted will not win a championship if LeBron James fails to be the best player on the court in the Conference Finals and NBA Finals.
3) Even though Wade is one of the five or six best players in the NBA he is not necessarily the best complement to James; James would be better served to be paired with either a dominant big man or an All-Star who can consistently connect from midrange and long distance. James and Wade can use their athletic talent to overwhelm most teams in the regular season but in playoff competition there will likely always be at least one or two teams that are able to seal off the paint and force James and Wade to consistently do the two things that they both are not very good at doing: making jump shots and playing without the ball in a half court set.

I am not saying that the Heat should or even could trade Wade the way that the 76ers swapped George McGinnis for Bobby Jones--the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement likely would make it difficult for the Heat to trade Wade for a player who better complements James--but I am saying that complementary skill sets are more important than raw talent when building a championship roster ("stat gurus" around the world are cringing in unison because they think that productivity--as determined solely by "advanced basketball statistics"--is by far the most important factor in building a roster and that is why the "stat gurus" predicted a Miami Heat dominance that has yet to fully materialize outside of their spreadsheets). The Heat are clearly the most talented team in the league--no other squad has three All-Stars who are each in their primes--and it could be argued that they have more raw talent than several teams that have won championships but it is far from clear that they will actually win a title.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:49 AM

10 comments

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10 Comments:

At Wednesday, January 18, 2012 5:39:00 AM, Anonymous Chris said...

David,

Nice article. Isn't the obvious move here for Miami to offer Wade in a trade for Dwight Howard? A LeBron, Howard, Bosh trio makes much more sense for Miami and Orlando would get to save face by getting back another superstar.

A Miami team with Howard would be so talented that even LeBron's shortcomings would probably not prevent them from winning the title.

As a side note: If I'm the Clippers GM, I'm calling up Orlando and offering Blake Griffin for Howard right now (you might have to throw in some other players to make the salaries work).

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2012 11:41:00 AM, Anonymous boyer said...

I do think it's basically irrelevant for the heat to classify who's team it is. Or maybe not. It seems that when lebron and wade are in the game together, they just each take turns with the ball. I hear lots of people think that wade plays well off the ball. I'm not quite sure about that. Maybe if the heat basically declare that it's lebron's team, then he gets the ball most of the time, so they better know their roles on the team.

Lebron is surely better than wade, but it is somewhat relevant to know that lebron joined forces with wade, and wade already has a ring. Couple this with the fact that lebron just stopped playing hard in last year's finals, while Wade didn't. Wade played poorly, but he didn't quit on his team. And I saw and heard several times of Wade giving pep talks to lebron to snap out of it during the finals. I wouldn't say either one is really a leader, but wade gets it a little when the going gets tough, and lebron really doesn't. The media made a huge deal of lebron being the vocal leader of the heat's first preseason practice back before the 10-11 season. It's one thing to do that in the first preseason practice. It's another thing to do it in the finals.

In one way, it's hard to see the heat not winning the title. They're a younger team, so the condensed schedule won't affect them as much as other teams probably. They have miller, haslem, battier, cole, and jones coming off the bench. All of those guys are better than anyone off the bench that the lakers have, and the heat's starters are better overall, too. The team is stacked. But, if the bulls win the east. conf., that will help them a lot come playoff team if they meet the heat.

It is comical to hear wade backers declaring wade better than kobe or lebron. Wade has certainly become a very good player. But, even now, when he's supposedly should be surpassing Kobe, the reverse is happening as Kobe is widening his gap between the 2. Wade and Kobe are both injury prone, but only one of them is able to play effectively through his injuries. But, Wade has the privilege of resting and getting completely healthy given that his team is still one of the top 5 teams in the league without him.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2012 3:30:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Chris:

Yes, I think that Dwight Howard would fit in with Miami much better than Wade does; James would not have to compete with Wade for perimeter touches, Howard would relieve Bosh from ever having to play center and the Heat would become even better defensively.

The deal will not likely happen for two reasons:

1) I doubt that Pat Riley wants to give up on his "Big Three" just a year and a half after putting them together.

2) The Magic probably want to get another big guy in exchange for Howard, even though Wade is better than any of the big guys they are likely to get.

Howard is better than Griffin, but Griffin is much younger and has a huge upside. If I were running the Clippers I would not trade Griffin, even for Howard.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2012 3:37:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

Ten second pep talks done to impress the cameras don't mean much. Leadership has to be consistent to be effective and, ultimately, it has to result in improved play. Kobe Bryant consistently sets the tone for the Lakers in terms of practice habits and in-game execution. Over the years he has pushed and pulled numerous players to perform better than they did before and/or after they were Lakers (a subject that I will explore in an upcoming article).

James and Wade both have leadership qualities but they do not lead the way that Bryant does, as indicated not only by James' playoff performances versus Boston (2010) and Dallas (2011) but also by how quickly the Heat collapsed under Wade's watch in the wake of the 2006 championship season.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2012 4:02:00 PM, Anonymous boyer said...

I agree. They're both not exactly awful as leaders, but they're both not really in the conversation when you think about 'leaders.' Purely from an individual level of playing basketball, they're right up there, but all the other qualities of leadership will to win, etc. puts Kobe over the top. Obviously, Kobe's improved in his leadership qualities over time. What's most ironic is that Kobe is painted as the most selfish player and a terrible teammate, when in fact, the complete opposite is true.

I wonder what the point of wade and lebron bashing Dirk over his coughing in the finals was all about. Was this gamesmanship or just nonsense? Bad leadership? I don't know. Maybe Wade just did it for the cameras, who knows. And I heard he did it again in-between games as well, though. But, regardless of why or when he did it, the main pt. is that it needed to be done. Why did lebron need someone to try to get him to play hard. And then after bashing Dirk, Jason Terry calls out Lebron. You'd think Lebron would just kill Terry on the court after that, but the reverse happened. That's quite telling when Jason Terry is schooling you in the 4th.

 
At Wednesday, January 18, 2012 4:49:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Boyer:

After James milked a phantom elbow injury (during the 2010 playoffs) and Wade was carted off in a wheelchair for a shoulder injury (a few years ago) they are among the last people who should have ever mocked Dirk Nowitzki, who played through not just the sinus infection that caused him to cough but also a torn tender on his left middle finger.

I don't know why James and Wade mocked Nowitzki but it showed their immaturity and it looked even more foolish after he outplayed both of them combined in the key moments during the Finals.

 
At Thursday, January 19, 2012 3:05:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sharp

Someone once described Lebron to me as talking more like a kid who is trying to lead than an actual leader. You listen to him speak in some of Miami's huddles, and it almost seems like he's just regurgitating lines from Remember the Titans and Coach Carter.

Sinus infections are nothing to make fun of. Playing through one of those is just like playing through a migraine headache. Says a lot about Dirk Nowitzki that he played through and got the job done.

 
At Thursday, January 19, 2012 6:19:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To expand on Chris's comment, it would also make sense, I think, for Miami to offer LeBron for Howard. Miami is basically unbeatable with Bosh, Howard, and either Wade or LeBron. Orlando certainly pulls the trigger on a Howard for LeBron swap (David makes the good point that the Magic might want a big man instead of Wade, but LeBron's enormous talent and draw swamps that, I think). And it's easier, in a way, for Miami to give up a carpetbagger than Wade, even though LeBron is clearly the better player. Still tough for Miami to make the trade, I guess, in part b/c Wade, LeBron, and Bosh are good friends. But winning cures a lot...

 
At Friday, January 20, 2012 10:44:00 PM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Why not offer Wade and Bosh for Howard, and take back Turkouglu's salary? This would make Miami a dynamite team.

 
At Saturday, January 21, 2012 12:43:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Purely from a basketball standpoint I'd definitely make that deal if I ran the Heat but only the Magic know exactly what they have been offered and what their plan is. I suspect that Riley would be concerned about a fan backlash if he traded the very popular Wade when Wade is still a top five or top six player; Pat Riley may also look at the team differently than I do and he may believe that James and Wade can figure out how to make their skill sets more complementary.

 

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