After a humbling, if not humiliating, loss to the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA Finals, it’s tempting to suggest the Miami Heat’s model is broken. That having the Big Three or—gulp, even a Big Three—is no longer the surest way to win in the modern NBA.
But while there’s a germ of truth in this idea, it ultimately doesn’t hold up.
The assertion reads something like this: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are slated to make $61 million next season. With so much salary allocated to so few players, the remainder of the Heat supporting cast needs to be perfectly constructed, on the cheap, to allow Miami to compete.
The margin for error is effectively zero.
This isn’t a baseless argument. The NBA, under its current system of rules, favors a style of play that’s difficult to swing with a top-heavy roster—though the Heat have managed it pretty well over the past few years.
Zach Lowe of Grantland outlined the salient regulations and the brand of basketball that thrives under them on Monday in his Finals postmortem. The Spurs, not incidentally, are at the head of the class in this sense:
The Spurs were quick to understand the impact of the two major rule changes of the last decade: the crackdown in handchecking after 2004, and the elimination of the old illegal-defense rules. The handcheck ban would free up offensive players to penetrate and kick. On the other end, coaches would use zone-style trickery to squeeze the floor and clog the lane.
Shooting and passing would become paramount. The handcheck ban would enable those things. Sophisticated zone-style defenses would be impossible to beat without them.
Now consider these two related statistical categories. In the 2014 NBA playoffs, the Spurs made 316.3 passes per game, according to NBA.com. The Heat made a comparatively meager 279.0. This wasn’t an aberration. In the regular season, San Antonio—which finished second in the Association by this measure—bested Miami 330.4 to 292.7.
Meanwhile, Miami’s top three scorers—Wade, Bosh and James—contributed 61 percent of the Heat’s points per game during the regular season and 62 percent during the playoffs, while San Antonio's top three accounted for only 42 and 45 percent.
And therein lies the difference between the two teams. The Spurs have a multiple attack where the ball flies around the floor and anyone can take a shot at any time, while Miami is comparatively predictable.
This predictability is, in some part, a function of the salary structures of the respective teams. According to HoopsHype, the Big Three take up just over 70 percent of the Heat’s total payroll, while the Spurs' richest trio eats 52 percent of the pie. Through this lens, having three pricey superstars begins to look less like a luxury than a millstone.
It’s Creativity, Not Cash
But this is where the argument begins to fall apart.
While that 18 percent certainly counts, the primary cause of the chasm between the Spurs' depth and the Heat’s is Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford’s genius for spotting diamonds in the NBA’s rough—an ability Heat executives have flashed at times, but not nearly as consistently.
Boris Diaw and Danny Green were effectively plucked off the scrap heap. Marco Belinelli was signed for a pittance. Kawhi Leonard wasn’t selected until the No. 15 pick of the 2011 draft. Meanwhile, though Chris Andersen was a great find for Miami, Greg Oden, Michael Beasley and Rashard Lewis were nonentities, Shane Battier has collapsed and Norris Cole was a mistake the Heat have been strangely slow to acknowledge.
“We have a very deep bench that helps us,” Danny Green told Christy Cabrera Chirinos of the Sun Sentinel before the deciding Game 5. “All season we haven’t had to play anybody more than 30 minutes on average per game, which is big for us. Everybody’s getting the chance to rest. Nobody’s played major, crazy minutes, and that’s because we have such a deep bench that we can trust them to come in and get the job done. It helps us keep guys fresh.”
Green was correct in identifying the Spurs’ depth advantage as a crucial one, but it had little to do with James, Bosh or Wade.
But while the fact of having a Big Three didn’t hinder Miami in these Finals, the particular trio in question might have.
The issue for Miami is this: The only one of its superstars who has performed like a superstar of late is LeBron James.
Though LeBron is the best player in basketball—there are some statistics that could be bandied about here, but let’s just save the time—Bosh and Wade are, while helpful, no longer players who justify their salaries.
The quick and dirty math: In 2012-13, the value of a win in the NBA, according to economist Dave Berri, was about $1.63 million. In lieu of updated figures, we’ll stick with this. (For the curious, the figure is arrived at by taking the total dollar amount paid out in player salaries in a given year and dividing it by 1,230—the number of wins in a full NBA season. Math!)
According to Boxscore Geeks, Wade produced 18.2 wins the last two seasons for the Heat, while Bosh provided 9.4. This puts Wade’s value at roughly $29.7 million in that time and Bosh’s at $15.3. During this period, Wade was paid $35.7 million, while Bosh earned $36.6 million. Between the pair, the Heat got a whopping negative-$27.3 million return.
Two things to note here. Wins produced is a metric that’s generated a fair bit of controversy, and Bosh in particular grades out better in other statistical systems. According to Basketball-Reference, player efficiency rating and win shares both regard him as a top-50 player.
But this is still difficult to dismiss. Wade will turn 33 next season and has seen his health and production decline in successive seasons, while Bosh is an ace mid-range shooter but is such a liability on the boards that, in the eyes of several advanced metrics, he’s little better than a solid starter.
This all points to a solution to what ails the Miami Heat. The team can continue to win NBA titles with a Big Three formula, but it has to do a better job evaluating the talent that will round it out. And it also has to ensure that its Big Three are actually stars.