There is no replacing LeBron James, the world's best basketball talent, and yet the Miami Heat have done a fantastic job offsetting the gaping holes he created when he left for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
They just aren't done.
They can't be.
Not until they land a true point guard.
Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade continue to headline what should be a playoff-bound Heat team, no small feat considering the circumstances under which James left. His decision wasn't swift, his delivery wasn't expedited. He was with the Heat, and then, after more than a week—time Pat Riley could have spent courting others—he wasn't.
Reacting quickly, the Heat added Luol Deng, a two-time All-Star and one of the NBA's best two-way talents. They retained Wade, Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem. Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger were already in place.
The Heat essentially combated James' exit by adding and retaining shooting, scoring, defense and energy—areas in which James always excelled or came to dominate (shooting). They did not acquire additional playmaking. Not enough of it anyway.
Wade has long been an underrated playmaker. He averaged at least 4.6 assists per contest in each of the last four seasons and compiled an average of 6.6 in the seven years preceding James' arrival.
McRoberts also brings understated court vision with him. He dished out a career-high 4.3 dimes a night with the then-Charlotte Bobcats last season
Neither Wade nor McRoberts is a point guard, though. And while Wade is actually equipped to run the offense—McRoberts is more of a standalone facilitator—his rotting knees and mandatory maintenance program make it difficult for the Heat to count on him as anything more than a secondary playmaker.
And the point guards the Heat currently have aren't good enough.
Chalmers tied a career high with 4.9 assists per game last season, and Norris Cole set one with three. They put up respectable numbers...for complementary point men.
Cole never projected as a primary point man, dating back to his time at Cleveland State. Chalmers has always been valued for his ability to play off the ball—he hit 38.2 percent of his spot-up bombs last year, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required)—a requisite virtue when playing alongside the ball-dominant James.
Both players disappeared during Miami's most recent postseason run. Their assist totals plummeted, and the offense—during the NBA Finals specifically—was stagnant and unorganized for quarters at a time.
With Wade's role forever changed and Chalmers and Cole falling a cut below traditional distributors, the Heat need a floor general. They need a natural-born leader to direct the offense and ensure their standing as the league's fifth-best offense isn't compromised in significant fashion.
Is rookie—and, ironically, a favorite of James—Shabazz Napier that commandeering presence the Heat need?
In time, maybe.
Right now he's not.
Novices don't quarterback playoff teams. If there are rookies who can, Napier isn't one of them. He looked out of place and indecisive throughout the NBA Summer League, revealing himself to be a project who is unlikely to pay immediate dividends, as Jack Moore of Hot Hot Hoops discusses:
Shabazz's jump shots have been falling short, his passes seem to be soft and his decision making is scarce. He doesn't look like the player that led the University of Connecticut to a national championship and certainly doesn't look like the player the Heat want to start their new era with.
Beyond Napier, Chalmers, Cole and Wade, there is no one. There is offensive creativity by committee, where the Heat rely on anyone and everyone to move the ball and hope it's enough.
All while knowing it's not enough.
The Importance of Playmaking in Miami
This isn't a Heat squad that boasts a vast array of shot-creators. There's Wade and...well, there's...there's not really anyone else. Not a heralded self-sufficient scorer.
Not even Bosh, their new No. 1 option.
More than 80 percent of Bosh's made field goals came off assists last season, per NBA.com. Within the Heat's star-packed offense, he developed into a glorified spot-up shooter who was neither asked nor expected to create the majority of his own shots. Almost 34 percent of his field-goal attempts came as catch-and-shoot opportunities in 2013-14.
Adapting to his new role as the No. 1 option isn't as simple as reverting back to his Toronto Raptors days. Bosh has never been the most self-sustaining of scorers.
Roughly 50 percent of his made shots during his last season in Toronto came off assists. That team missed the playoffs.
Deng isn't much of an independent point-totaler, either. He can put the ball on the floor and find his own opportunities, but he's always been best served alongside an offensive catalyst. More than 63 percent of his successful field-goal attempts came off assists last year.
Point being, the Heat are still built to score off ball movement like they did this past season, when more than 45 percent of their shots came within pick-and-rolls and spot-up opportunities.
That's all well and fine when you have James to run your offense. He's a point guard trapped in the body of a bruising forward. The Heat never concerned themselves with finding a legitimate floor general because they had one in him—someone who improved their offensive efficiency by 8.9 points per 100 possessions while on the floor.
Now they don't have him.
Nor have they found a good enough replacement.
When your new No. 1 option isn't fit to create for himself regularly—less than 13 percent of Bosh's offensive touches came within post-ups or isolations last year—you need that proven, established, healthy floor general to run things.
The Heat, as currently pieced together, don't have him.
But they can still get him.
Most options are already off the board.
Potential upgrades like Steve Blake, Luke Ridnour, Devin Harris, Greivis Vasquez and D.J. Augustin have signed elsewhere, leaving the Heat with limited choices, most of which are underwhelming.
One of them is not: Jameer Nelson.
While it's true that Nelson wasn't the player he once was, there is plenty of value in bringing in a veteran who can help mentor Napier (a small guard in his own right) and Cole.
That intelligence could pay dividends for the Heat, as going through the lumps with a rookie point guard might not always be ideal, especially in late-game situations. Nelson could provide a calming presence, even if he'd likely shift from a career starter to a reserve.
This late in the offseason, and with a series of big-money contracts already on the books, the Heat aren't going to make a splash to end all splashes. There isn't an available point guard who can come in and supplant all—or even half—of James' playmaking value.
There is no replacing him, period.
But, like the Heat have been doing all offseason, they have to try.
Doing so puts less pressure on Wade to be a pseudo-point guard. It ensures Bosh doesn't have to drastically alter his offensive game. It diminishes the need for Chalmers and Cole to step outside their comfort zones.
It prohibits the Heat from asking too much of the not-yet-ready Napier.
"Micky, Erik and I remain committed to doing whatever it takes to win and compete for championships for many years to come," Riley said in a statement. "We’ve proven that we can do it and we’ll do it again."
Finding a proven point guard who has piloted playoff teams is the final stage of the Heat's contingency plan. They've done everything else. They prevented Bosh from signing in Houston, they brought Wade back at a discount and they have assembled a respectable supporting cast.
They, unlike the Cavaliers in 2010, have given reason to believe James' free-agency decision won't preclude them from salvaging their immediate future.
All that's left to do is put the finishing touches on a roster that, even without James, is one tried-and-true point guard away from being something more than just an also-ran playoff team.
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