When the dust settled on The Decision, one of the first questions raised by analysts was an obvious one: How would opposing defenses manage to stop both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, two of the NBA's top five scorers on the same court? As it turned out, coaches around the league needn't have worried. While the Miami Heat's talented wing duo may present some issues to teams with only one strong perimeter defender, a combination of offensive philosophy and redundant skills has meant that James and Wade have rarely both posed a threat at the same time.
Watching the Heat's offense, something jumps out immediately. When both James and Wade are both in the game, they are almost never on the same side of the floor. Sometimes, that means both are waiting as Carlos Arroyo or another perimeter player handles the ball. More often, it translates into either James or Wade initiating the offense (typically out of a pick-and-roll) while the other spots up on the opposite wing.
For opposing defenses, this is essentially an ideal situation. Though James and Wade can still create problems by driving off a cross-court pass, their presence on the weak side usually limits them to serving as stand-still shooters at best and decoys at worst. Scouting reports around the league encourage defenders to force James and Wade to become outside shooters, neutralizing the danger they pose off the dribble, in the paint and at the rim. For a variety of reasons, Miami has managed to do exactly that to its own stars.
The funny thing is that James is actually taking fewer three-pointers than he did a year ago, while Wade's rate of three attempts is up only slightly. Hoopdata.com provides an explanation, however. One of the subtle indicators the site tracks is the percentage of a player's made field goals from each distance that are assisted. Last year, James was assisted on 34.1 percent of the threes he made; Wade just 26.0 percent. This season, both those numbers have doubled to 68.8 and 50.0 percent, respectively.
Instead of attempting threes off the dribble as part of their isolation plays, James and Wade are now shooting more of them off of passes, often from each other. They are doing so with little success; both are shooting in the mid-20s from beyond the arc (James 26.2 percent, Wade 25.5 percent).
The way that James and Wade have forced each other to play to their weaknesses is one explanation for why they have not benefited from playing smaller roles in the offense. Wade (35.2 percent) and James (33.7 percent) ranked one and two in the league in the percentage of their teams' plays they used while on the floor last season. Those numbers have dropped to 31.9 percent (James) and 31.0 percent (Wade) this year. Usually, such a decline would be associated with improved efficiency. But Wade and James have actually seen their True Shooting Percentages decline and their turnover rates increase:
Usage TS% TO%
Player 0910 1011 0910 1011 0910 1011
James .337 .319 .604 .548 .123 .160
Wade .352 .310 .562 .532 .122 .144
In previewing the Heat's lineup the day after it was assembled, I noted that the history of star players in reduced roles (specifically Kobe Bryant) suggested that James and Wade would not derive as much benefit as role players do from reducing their usage. However, the notion that they would become less efficient in smaller roles seemed unthinkable then. Anergy--the opposite of synergy--is part of the explanation, but there are more factors at play.
The other interesting culprit that Hoopdata.com points out is how much less effective James and Wade have been when they do reach the paint. Here, there does seem to be some evidence that the Heat's poor bench is hurting the performance of its stars. James is making 68.9 percent of his attempts at the rim thus far. Previously, the worst mark Hoopdata.com has recorded for James (going back to 2006-07) is 71.0 percent. Wade has taken an even more significant tumble. He's making 55.7 percent of his at-rim attempts, having previously shot no worse than 66.0 percent on these shots. That is a possible indicator that Wade is not right physically.
More striking than James' and Wade's shooting at the rim is their lack of assists to other players who finish at the rim. Last year, they combined 6.2 at-rim assists per game (essentially, passes leading to dunks or layups). This season, that mark has declined to 2.5 per game. Even granting that Wade is handing out far fewer assists (4.1 vs. 6.5) and that fewer shots have been marked as at the rim by Hoopdata.com this season, the two players are setting up their teammates for close finishes less frequently.
Taken together, these numbers seem to suggest that opposing defenses have been able to devote more defensive attention in the paint to Wade and James without paying for it by giving up open buckets to cutters or Miami's post players. Where James' assists are way up are in terms of those leading to 16-23 foot jumpers. Most of his kickout passes have been for these, the least efficient shots in the game. As a team, the Heat ranks second in the league in long-two attempts, which is not exactly an ideal place to be.
These statistics should provide a starting point for Miami coach Erik Spoelstra in making adjustments to the offense--assuming he has accepted that something is wrong, a conclusion he has yet to publicly acknowledge. The Heat badly needs more motion on the weak side of its offense. Instead of setting up for long twos, Miami must find ways for whichever of James/Wade does not have the ball to be cutting to the basket, along with the team's big men. This figures to translate not only into more shot attempts in the paint but also help defenses with less teeth against James and Wade.
The same call made in the last assessment of the Heat's offense about the importance of involving James and Wade in the same play continues to stand. The two players did finally run some pick-and-rolls with each other in Monday's win over Washington, a sign of progress.
Here, I am somewhat more sympathetic to Spoelstra's task. James and Wade have spent their entire careers playing with the ball in their hands, giving them limited incentive to work on the skills they now need playing with each other. This aspect of the pairing is a longer-term one. To coexist, James and Wade will have to either improve their shooting or develop other ways to contribute. For example, a two-man game with Wade on the perimeter and James in the post could be problematic, but James has yet to demonstrate much interest in playing with his back to the basket.
Most of the other issues that have troubled Miami thus far are fixable, at least in years to come. The team's defensive issues seem to primarily stem from poor effort and execution at that end of the floor, as the Heat's blowout win over Orlando showed the team's potential to wreak havoc with strong defensive rotations. This is the worst Miami's supporting cast will ever be, given the injuries that have sidelined Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller and the opportunity to add players in free agency and through the draft in years to come. And Spoelstra will either find answers for creating offense or be replaced by someone who will.
Whether James and Wade can thrive together, however, threatens the very existence of the Heat's super team. If they continue to get in each other's way, Pat Riley may have to consider breaking up the duo to try to get a superstar player who functions better away from the ball.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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