Why the Heat’s Big Three Are Champions and the NBA’s Star System Works
Stars win or lose basketball games in the postseason. That’s what everyone says, anyway. They play more minutes as the stakes rise and coaches shrink their rotations. Tim Duncan, ageless freaking Tim Duncan, just played 44:26 and 43:10 in back-to-back games in which he put up lines of 30-17 and 24-12 on 21-of-39 shooting from the floor combined. He also shot 12-of-13 from the line in a pair of games we should not forget when retelling the legend of Tim Duncan. Remember when Duncan was a bad foul shooter, by the way? My dad and I used to have good-natured arguments in the early 2000s during Spurs playoff games about Duncan’s place in the NBA’s hierarchy, with my Dad citing Duncan’s shaky foul shooting as a reason for skepticism that he might be the best guy in the league. I was the Duncan fanboy then, in love with his fundamentals and his defense, but it seemed like he went 1-of-2 on every big trip to the line when my dad and I would watch together.
Duncan shot 82 percent from the line this season. Isn’t that the damndest thing? With the season in the balance, Duncan put up box score lines — including in the “minutes column” — that you’d look at and just assume were from 2003. The Spurs damn near won the title despite a hamstring injury that clearly limited Tony Parker and, in the process, robbed the Spurs of their fine-tuned pick-and-roll game.
So, yeah, even 37-year-old stars play more in the playoffs. John Hollinger, formerly of ESPN.com and now with the Grizzlies, picked the Heat over the Thunder last season in part because Miami had been pretty much untouchable with all three of its stars on the floor, and against the league’s second-best team, all three stars would be on the floor for as many minutes as possible. Bob Myers, the Warriors’ GM, wasn’t exactly going through deep mental anguish at the thought of reconstructing his bench on the cheap this summer when I spoke with him a few weeks ago on the challenges of doing so without any cap flexibility. “What you see in the playoffs,” Myers said, “is the top six or seven guys basically determining the outcome of every game. You can spend a lot of time trying to fill out the rest of the roster in the perfect manner, but if your top five guys can’t get the job done, it almost doesn’t matter.”
The best guys ultimately decide the NBA championship, which is why a lot of fans think the league is sort of boring, or don’t like the “superteams” they think are a new thing but have actually existed since the league’s toddler years. The Heat have LeBron and two supplementary stars, including one of the five best shooting guards ever, and so they’ve appeared in three straight Finals and won two of them. Duh.
And there’s something to that. It’s sort of amazing that the Heat’s astounding success has been met almost immediately with cries to break up the team by trading one of the three stars. You can almost see where it’s coming from. The LeBron James–Dwyane Wade coexistence seems dicey at times, because Wade remains a below-average shooter who can look shockingly like a liability when his knees won’t allow him to contribute in all the ways he must as LeBron’s sidekick — with a nifty post game, explosive off-ball cuts, and transition madness. Chris Bosh is essential to everything Miami does on both sides of the floor, but he barely posts up anymore in his role as an elite jump-shooting floor spacer within Miami’s pace-and-space offense. The Heat were minus-12 with all three stars on the floor against Indiana, and a disastrous minus-27 against San Antonio. Against the best teams they faced, and against the best lineups those teams could put out there, the star-centric model didn’t work very well.
With LeBron in his prime and massive tax bills potentially looming over the next two seasons, it’s fair to wonder if the Heat might be better off swapping Bosh for a sub-elite facsimile and searching for puzzle piece role players on the cheap. Guys like Paul Millsap, Al Horford, David West, and Brandon Bass can hit midrange jumpers at elite rates for a fraction of Bosh’s annual salary. And if the Heat could somehow parlay Bosh (or Wade, really the more tradable guy from Miami’s theoretical perspective) into a legit rim protector and rebounder, they might be able to dial back the frantic nature of their hyper-aggressive defense a bit. That defense works very well on balance. The Heat just repeated as champions, and their flying athleticism smothered San Antonio’s precision passing attack in Miami’s four championship wins.
But that defense is also exhausting. The Heat in all three of their playoff runs have shown off-and-on signs of serious slippage in executing that defense — against Dallas in 2011, Boston last season, and both the Pacers and Spurs this season. Those teams are all very good, but Indiana this season was a mediocre offensive team, and the 2011-12 Celtics were one of the half-dozen worst scoring teams in the league. All of those teams deserve credit for periodically slicing up Miami’s high-risk defense, but the film shows a lot of very basic errors an amped-up Miami team doesn’t typically make — fatal ball-watching, miscommunication, lazy rotations, and traps that lack the Heat’s normal oomph. James is 28, Bosh is 29, and Wade is 31 with annual late-season injury issues. Finding a way to dial back the hyperactivity might be a good idea, and adding a more traditional paint presence would allow them to do that.
But then you kind of slap yourself. The Heat with those three stars have been by far the best team in the league since they came together. The Heat with those three on the floor outscored opponents by 13.4 points per 100 possessions in the regular season, 12.8 points in 2011-12, and 15.3 points in their first title run together. Those are gargantuan numbers, better than any actual team puts up over a full season. Everything is fine with these guys. Everything will be fine as long as the world’s best player is in his prime, and that half-sentence works as both a defense for keeping the team together and a potential argument for at least thinking about trading Wade or Bosh as a way of maximizing available salary. If LeBron is this good, do they need two other stars — especially when the reliance on a nontraditional big man, Bosh, has shaped the helter-skelter style in which the Heat play defense?
But change for the sake of change can be dangerous. Bosh has unfairly become a punch line at times and scored as many points in Game 7 as I did, but he’s also the linchpin of what Miami does on both ends. Lots of big men can space the floor, though only a few do so at Bosh’s level, and those that do cannot defend from the rim to the midcourt line with Bosh’s speed and disruptive long arms. Millsap’s a fine player, but good luck asking him to do what Bosh does defensively in this system. A dozen or so heavy-minutes big men can outdo Bosh on the defensive end, but they can’t shoot like him.
Want to flip this guy, banking on LeBron’s brilliance, Wade’s health, and your ability to construct a more fine-tuned supporting cast around LeBron? Good luck. It’s possible, but my hands would be shaking while picking up the phone to call the league and finalize that trade.
A word about LeBron: It’s over now. The noise needs to stop. The guy has really had three subpar playoff series, by his high standards, in his career: the 2007 Finals, when he was a kid; the 2010 conference semifinals, his last series with the Cavs, when he put up very good numbers but looked weirdly disengaged while battling an elbow injury; and the 2011 Finals, when he clearly melted down under pressure.
That Finals resulted in a Men in Black–style (or maybe Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a much better movie?) memory-wiping of everything that had come before it — the 25 straight points against Detroit in 2007; the Game 7 masterpiece against the heavily favored Celtics in 2008; the unthinkable 38.5-8-8 line he put up against Orlando in the 2009 conference finals, a series in which LeBron hit an unusually high number of clutch shots and free throws in multiple games. It was as if this stuff had never happened, even though everyone knew it had.
James has done nothing but eviscerate the league since those 2011 Finals. He might be the game’s best elimination-game player since Bill Russell, and maybe the best ever. The next time he has a so-so Finals performance, please spare me the dreck about how he’s shrinking from the moment. He’s faced more big-stage moments than any player on earth over the last two seasons, and he’s risen to all of them. If he looks passive in one or two games, as he did in Game 3 of this series, it’s not because he’s mentally weak or unsure of himself as a player.
It’s probably because a smart team with big players at multiple positions is packing the paint in ways that were against the rules when Michael Jordan, the false foil for LeBron, was in the league. And if we know something about James after all these years, we know this: He’s a thinker. When he sees Kawhi Leonard and Duncan in the paint, with a third defender ready to pounce behind them, his first response will be to think. And that thought process will include lots of things: Do I have space to drive? How’s my midrange shot feeling? Can I somehow get one of my 3-point shooters a wide-open look instead of forcing a tough floater? How much energy do I need to save for the fourth quarter, and for the next games, and to play defense in a hyperactive system that also would have been illegal for much of Jordan’s career? Did Mike Miller really have a pet monkey? Because that is kind of weird. Does Birdman like me? He seems distant. Why are all the fans leaving with a minute left?
That kind of thinking can result in “passivity” over a single game. LeBron is only going to play 42 minutes or so in a playoff game, and if he spends 20 of those minutes trying to suss out the best way to attack what is essentially a hybrid man/zone defense, the end result might be a fairly pedestrian 42 minutes for him. But that’s not the same as being passive, or weak, or shrinking from the moment IN A WAY MICHAEL JORDAN NEVER WOULD HAVE IN HIS PRIME!
That story is over.
The story of how teams manage their assets under a new collective bargaining agreement is just starting. And these playoffs, in a way, have reinforced the idea of the star system — that the teams with one or two of the top 20 players in the league will go very far in the postseason.
But look again. So many players had their moments in these playoffs — essential moments for their teams. Miller was a forgotten amnesty candidate until he led a late rally in Game 6 against the Pacers. He’s been a rotation piece since then, and Erik Spoelstra’s move to insert him into the starting lineup changed the series and rendered Tiago Splitter irrelevant. Miller’s promotion sent Shane Battier to the bench — right up until Battier caught fire again, allowing Spoelstra to keep him on the floor for his much more sound defense without sacrificing as much floor spacing. Boris Diaw was a legitimate short-term game-changer on both ends of the floor after falling out of the rotation in Game 3. Matt Bonner played 44 very important minutes over the first two games of the conference finals against Memphis before riding the bench as the Finals became a small-ball festival. Gary Neal did his Gary Neal thing, for better or worse. Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem took turns fluctuating between indispensable and useless.
And it wasn’t just these two teams. Could the Pacers have pulled off an improbable upset with a better backup point guard than D.J. Augustin? How in the world would Memphis have broken 70 points against San Antonio without Quincy Pondexter, as anonymous a player as there is in the NBA?
The stars matter most, obviously. But if you want to get through four playoff series against the best competition in the world, you are going to need almost everyone at some point. If you skimp on the bench, or blow a couple of key free-agency signings designed to bolster that bench, it will cost you. (Memphis fans will never forget Gilbert Arenas and Hamed Haddadi somehow being on the court during the fourth quarter of a Game 7 last season.)
The key going forward in the new NBA will be getting those pieces at the right price. It’s easier to do that when you’ve got the stars already, since players enjoy winning and exposure, and stars help create that sort of winning culture. The Spurs would have a hard time selling their “culture” without the lottery luck of landing Duncan in 1997. Other teams are going to have to find ways to cultivate that appeal, or at least to avoid overspending on role players when there are other guys available who could bring 85 percent of the value at 25 percent of the cost. The Spurs got Diaw at a sub-market contract because he wanted to win, and he felt comfortable in San Antonio. They’ll get Manu Ginobili back on the cheap for the same reason, if he chooses to play again. The Heat paid Battier about 60 percent of what Boston paid Courtney Lee this season. Nick Young and Landry Fields each earned nearly seven times Neal’s salary. Bass earned significantly more this season than every big man who played in the Finals, save for Duncan and Bosh; could Boston have found 80 percent of Bass’s production without signing him to a three-year deal that will pay him nearly $7 million in 2014-15?
You need players six through 10 on the depth chart, but you need them at cost, especially if you have the requisite two stars (at least) on the roster — or hope to get them. This is the challenge of the harsh new CBA, and the Spurs and Heat are not immune. This is why Splitter is one of the most interesting free agents of the coming offseason. Splitter’s market value is a popular topic among executives during spitballing sessions right now. Most peg it at somewhere between $8 million and $10 million, and some think it might end up higher.
Splitter’s a nice player — the Finals were not representative of his season, or career — and Duncan is aging, but the history of the Spurs suggests they might balk at that kind of number. They could also have significant cap room if they re-sign Ginobili for peanuts and let Splitter walk. So is he a future starter worth that kind of dough? Or a borderline starter who can be replaced at cost?
These decisions are trickier under the new CBA, and more important as contenders chase Miami. As great as the Heat have been for three seasons, they’ve been on the precipice of defeat in each of them. Injury issues have contributed to their vulnerability over the last two title runs, but that’s the point; injuries impact almost every postseason. Reaching June at full health is the exception, not the norm.
The Heat will enter next season as the favorites, and their roster will probably look much like it does today. They may use the amnesty provision on Miller, who is overpaid, but they needed Miller for this run, and cutting him loose does zippo for their cap flexibility. They’ll still have only the mini midlevel exception, set for about $3.19 million next season, and they’ve got another key outgoing free agent in Andersen. After the mini midlevel, only the veteran’s minimum is left.
Other rivals — Indiana, Chicago, New York, Oklahoma City, Memphis, the Clippers — will rearm with varying levels of cap flexibility, and they should all be in “go for it” mode. The Rockets or Mavericks might join them there if they nab Dwight Howard or Chris Paul. A “win now” mentality is appropriate for all of those teams. They’ll be underdogs, but if any number of variables break right for them, they could all push the Heat — and perhaps even topple them.
But Miami, even if they stand pat, will start next season as the favorites for a three-peat. I can’t wait.