In the NBA, “superstar” is a helpful, if blunt, expression.
For instance: The Miami Heat have the luxury of employing three players fans and pundits happily and frequently call “superstars,” but they’re not created equal. Not by a long shot.
LeBron James occupies his own tier of stardom of course—both in South Beach and around the Association—but, behind him, there’s some question about who the rightful owner of the No. 2 mantle in Miami is.
This isn’t a question of solely academic interest. The Heat have an NBA-high 13 potential unrestricted free agents this offseason—two of which are Wade and Bosh, who each have an early termination option in their contracts. There’s no reason to believe Miami is looking to move on from one or both of its overqualified second and third bananas, but it’s clear changes are coming for the champs. Maybe big ones.
It’s not difficult to imagine Pat Riley eyeballing the Heat roster this summer—regardless of how the season plays out—and deciding that, for the future of the franchise, it would be best to retool the Big Three; to swap out Wade or Bosh, or both, for some fresh superstar blood to surround LeBron with.
Decisions like that are still a ways off, though. In the meantime, the urgent issue is the 2014 Larry O’Brien Trophy. And while it’s unclear which of Wade or Bosh has more value to the Heat beyond 2014, it seems likely that Wade will have more say in whether the Heat add the hardware to their suddenly full trophy case.
The guard hardly takes it in a rout though. Bosh, despite his comparatively lesser celebrity and esteem around the association, actually profiles as the more important player of the two for this particular team.
His mid-range efficiency—and the manner in which is forces opponents to adjust—are each devastating weapons for Miami. The former Raptor uses the threat of his jump-shooting prowess to pull defenders out of the paint, opening up slashing lanes for Wade and LeBron. This in turn further opens up the outside for Bosh, improving his own percentages and putting opponents into an even more difficult bind.
To wit: In 2013-14, while Miami has slipped a notch or two, each member of the Big Three is posting a true shooting percentage that is well north of his career average.
Per Basketball-Reference, LeBron is at 64.9 this season, relative to a 58.1 career mark. Bosh is outshooting his average 60.1 percent to 57.3. Wade is at 59 percent, a few percentage points over his 56.8 career average. Each of the stars also outperformed their career numbers in 2012-13.
This production hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“[Bosh] is our most important player, and he’s as steady and consistent as he always has been for the last two and a half years,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters back in November of 2012. “He makes it look easy and he makes it look quiet, and yet he’s so impactful in the game. He was big under the rim and not just his scoring, but the big plays defensively at the end.”
What’s especially helpful about Bosh’s skill set is how rare it is. There are few men on the planet who can shoot a basketball from 15 feet the way he can, and fewer still who are nearly 7 feet tall.
Wade’s abilities, meanwhile, can seem a bit redundant even on his own team.
The guard is a high-intensity slasher with an outside shot that’s the weakest component of his game. There isn’t anything Wade can do that LeBron, in a pinch, can’t provide for Miami. Of course, James can’t play two positions at once, but the Heat seem like they’re capable of weathering absences from the guard.
Things change though when the analysis shifts from theory to numbers. While Bosh is three years younger (he’s 30 while Wade celebrated his 32nd birthday in January) and has a skill set that makes him a better fit in Miami’s uber-efficient, space-contingent offense, there’s still this fact to grapple with: Wade, over the course of their respective careers, has simply been much better.
While the advanced metrics are unable to articulate some very consequential aspects of the sport—like, for instance, nearly everything of import that happens on defense—they can be pretty darn helpful. Now consider this: Since Wade and Bosh both entered the NBA 10 seasons ago, Wade has dwarfed Bosh’s production, outperforming him in win shares (105.4 to 95.9), win shares per 48 minutes (.193 to .162) and player efficiency rating (25.3 to 20.7), per Basketball-Reference.
This, granted, isn’t a completely fair analysis. Wade was 22 during his first season in the Association, while Bosh was a relatively green 19. It figures that Wade’s first 10 years, on average, would be stronger than his counterpart’s. But even in recent seasons, with Wade on the decline, the guard has outperformed his teammate.
According to Basketball-Reference, in every season of the Big Three era—2010-11 to now—Wade has posted a higher PER than Bosh and, in each season but this one, beaten him with respect to win shares per 48 minutes as well. Bosh has a .166 to .155 edge in the season’s final month. By measure of wins produced, according to Boxscore Geeks, Wade has more than doubled Bosh's per-minute production so far in 2013-14, even in his (relatively) enfeebled state.
The human brain is a tricky thing: We prefer stories to numbers. In this case, the story we tell ourselves about Wade and Bosh is that the guard is a veteran in decline who's a (sort of) redundant part on a tremendous basketball team, while Bosh is a rare player and a perfect fit in the same system. The numbers, however, tell us a different story, and one that's difficult to square with the facts we thought we knew.
It's an open question who will be a more valuable player for Miami going forward but right now, and in the recent past, Wade has been a more significant component of Miami's success.
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