As the Heat roll into Cleveland in a few hours for the latest and likely most vocal Boo-Fest on their 2010-11 Boo-o-Rama tour, much has been made recently of the Heat’s unthinkably poor 11-8 start (last year’s Heat were 10-9 at this point after a one-point loss to the Lakers in LA).
Everyone has a theory to explain why Miami isn’t looking like a 60-win team (let alone 73-win), the most common one being that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are too similar for a club to concurrently benefit from both of their skillsets. Sure, James is a SF and Wade a SG, but James’ input shades strongly into guard territory (team-best 7.5 apg) and Wade’s input shades strongly into forward territory (team second-bests 5.8 rpg and 1.0 bpg – both better than James).
Their basic styles of play are even more similar than simply saying you got a forward with something of a guard’s game and a guard with something of a forward’s game. Both rely heavily on overwhelming their defenders with quick-for-their-size, strong-for-their-size bursts to the hole that result in layups, dunks, short bunnies, or the impending free throws. If none of that is available, both are reasonably adept creators on the move; each has averaged at least 7.5 apg twice in his career. Unfortunately, these passing numbers are often only the result of collapsing defenses reacting to their drives, leaving someone wide open somewhere, not either player actually setting up the defense from the perimeter and then solving the puzzle he just rigged (think Deron Williams – he moves the other team with a watchful eye and the ball in his hands 20 feet away from the hoop, and then he makes the play that he just arranged happen). So both James and Wade can get to the basket or improvise some passes on the way there, but what else do they bring to the offensive end of the floor?
Outside shooting? Hardly – neither one is a real three-point threat. James once hit an OK 35% of his bombs for a season, but that was six seasons ago (29% now). Wade once averaged more than 0.9 triples per game, but he also shot an unimpressive—yet career-high—32% from deep that year (2008-09, 25% now). And the pay-off becomes much worse if you spot either one up for long twos, where both are considerably less efficient than Chris Bosh. In fact, both are shooting below the league average from anywhere outside of 10 feet.
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Offensive rebounding? Although both post good rebounding numbers and have for quite some time, neither grabs too many of the offensive variety, which are the hard ones to earn that keep offensive possessions alive. The duo’s Offensive Rebounding% numbers of 4.1 (Wade) and 2.2 (James) are behind every Miami big man who actually plays in the post (3-point specialist James Jones is lower): that would be Magloire, Ilgauskas, pre-injury Haslem, Anthony, Howard, Bosh, and the new Dampier. James also falls below Stackhouse. This is not an area in which the dynamic duo is anything special.
Screening and decoying? This isn’t exactly why these two were brought in, so it’s not like they put a lot of effort into setting good picks or making their man defend them on the perimeter away from the ball.
OK, we’re all on board that James and Wade rely heavily on driving to the rim, something only one of them can do at a time. Plus neither is too good at spotting up for a three while the other is driving, or getting into a position to fight for a short miss from the other. But the question still remains: Aren’t they just too talented a pair to not overcome these issues and win a title someday soon? That answer will obviously take some time, but we can look at the track records of NBA champs to see if their have been similar squads with two top-10 caliber, ball heavy, not-able-to-shoot-from-distance players winning the big prize together. Here are the candidates:
2008 Boston Celtics
You had alpha-dog HOFers Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett all coming together, but the differences between them and the Heat are pretty glaring. Allen and Pierce are great outside shooters (40% and 39% for the year), plus Garnett is a far better mid-range shooter than either James or Wade. Not only were they all able to shoot, and therefore be threats away from the ball, all were past their primes and willing to sacrifice for the team. None had a Usage% (how often offensive plays end with that player) higher than 26% during the regular season or 27% in the playoffs. Guys like Leon Power and Eddie House and Glen Davis were able to play significant offensive roles because the Big Three enjoyed making that happen (special tip of hat to KG); James and Wade are both over 30% right now, and Bosh is the only other player who can expect to see the ball regularly. Throw in a young Rajon Rondo, and the C’s top players were far more willing and able to pass and/or spot up for jumpers than Miami’s Big Two right now.
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2007, 2005, 2003 San Antonio Spurs
I have a hard time including these squads because neither Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili has ever been a top-10 talent, but I figured I’d include them because someone was bound to ask if I didn’t. Again, the contrasts with James and Wade are big ones. Ginobili is a far more capable shooter than either Miami player, so he could create space on the floor and be useful without the ball. Parker was a masterfully natural passer on those squad, plus both were willing to play supporting roles to Tim Duncan, the team’s obvious best player.
2004 Detroit Pistons
Like with the Spurs, this is also a bad team to compare to the Heat because Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, and Chauncey Billups all have reputations for doing things to make others look good and being OK playing without the ball. Rip lead the team with a 26% Usage%, and Prince’s was way down at 16% (and only 15% in the playoffs). Also, Billups and Prince were both accomplished outside shooters, and Hamilton was the king of the mid-range J, so they could legitimately spread the floor in a way James and Wade can’t.
1991-93, 1996-98 Chicago Bulls
Their two best players, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, were guys who usually got things going with the ball on the perimeter and who were consistently the team’s top two scorers and assist men (except the couple times Kukoc’s assist numbers edged Jordan’s). So far, we’re looking fairly similar. But then again, MJ and Pippen both shot well from outside for a few of those rings (Pippen shot 37% from behind the arc in ‘96 and ‘97; MJ shot 35% in ‘93, 43% in ‘96, and 37% in ‘97). Also, Pippen was the greatest willing-to-be-second-fiddle in league history. He joined the Bulls in 1987, right after MJ averaged 37 ppg; his place was clear and he was OK with it. Pippen focused on defense, and he also averaged 6 or 7 apg for every championship team. Not only that, with those six squads, his Usage% never reached 25%, something I can’t imagine James or Wade dropping to. With a clear pecking order and better off-the-ball movement and skills, the Bulls’ duo isn’t too similar to Miami’s.
1989-90 Detroit Pistons
We already know this is a bad comparison without even looking up any numbers. Isiah Thomas was the star way before Joe Dumars became a Piston in 1985, so pecking order and hero status was already established. And Thomas, way unlike James and Wade, was a real PG with real table-setting abilities – this is important because his teammates were actually expecting to be part of the offense and not an oh-crap afterthought.
I can keep going back in time and laying out for you how different each champ’s top two duos were from Miami’s, but you get the idea. Usually a post player was one of the two big dogs (drastically changes spacing and creates clear division of roles), or one of the two was a legit point guard and could set everyone up, or one of the two could shoot from outside, or no one was reaching 30% Usage% (usually only a handful of guys league-wide dominate the ball this much in a season). I’m not saying it’s impossible for the Heat to win a ring with two perimeter-oriented players who are so similarly abled and challenged, but it’s never been done before. Good luck, Pat Riley...er, Erik Spoelstra.