Grow Up, LeBron
Issue   |   Wed, 01/25/2012 - 01:27

“I’m taking my talents to South Beach.” Those words will go down in history as some of the most infamous in sports history. Yet, a year and a half later, it is time to ask whether LeBron James lied to us.

Where is that MVP-level talent now? The talent that led the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals and two straight 60-win seasons? Admittedly, the numbers are still there for LeBron ­­— the points, assists and rebounds. But where is his will to win? Where is that drive, that competitive ferocity that made comparisons to Jordan seem reasonable? Did he really bring those talents to South Beach or did he leave them back in Cleveland?

During the great free-agency campaign of 2010, the Miami Heat courted both James and Chris Bosh in the hopes of creating a “superteam.” Owner Pat Riley provided the cap room, Dwayne Wade provided the incentive and the big-market of Miami provided the ideal backdrop. However, after losing in the NBA Finals last year and in the midst of a mediocre start to the 2011-2012 season, the Heat have certainly not succeeded as they proclaimed they would. Right now, they sit at sixth place in the Eastern Conference and, with the first quarter of the NBA season wrapping up this week, it seems like an appropriate time to examine at Miami’s experiment: will the Big Three work?

The idea of bringing all-star level talent together is not at all unique to the NBA. The Boston Celtics put together their own Big Three in 2007, trading for Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett to complement Paul Pierce. By most accounts, this “Boston Three Party” was certainly a success, winning a championship in their first year together and reaching the NBA Finals, even as a relatively old team, two years later. The fact of the matter is that an accumulation of all-star talent does lead to success. You can look at Jordan and Pippen, Shaq and Kobe, Magic and Kareem. But if all-stars combos are so successful, why have the Heat had so many hiccups?

The problem is an obvious one. LeBron James and Dwayne Wade both need the ball to be efficient. They are at their best when they control their offense. That is what James had in Cleveland and Wade had in Miami prior to their teaming up. However, ever since that fateful “Decision,” the two have faced this question about their ability to co-exist on the floor. Every time they have deflected the issue, diminishing its significance. Yet, it is not a minor issue. It is the fundamental problem behind Miami’s lack of success.

Erik Spoelstra, coach of the Miami Heat, has attempted to solve this problem with what seems like an irrational solution. Both Wade and James need the ball to succeed, so what has he done? He has taken the offense out of both of their hands and put it instead in Mario Chalmers’, a mediocre point guard. Rather than a solution, this would seem to worsen the problem.
If James and Wade both want the ball, it does not make a lot of sense to put another ball handler on the floor. Instead, why not play a great shooter to spread the floor and make life easier for all three stars? That too, Wade and James are easily quick enough to defend the guard spots if need be. That strategy would create huge matchup problems for other teams, smaller guards going up against the stronger Wade and James.

But, in any case, I digress. Regardless of the solution, the main problem remains that James and Wade need to learn to complement each other.

This chemistry is the reason for the success of past all-star tandems. Using the Celtics as an example, they have three very “complementary” players. Paul Pierce is the typical guard-forward, needing the ball in his hands to create his own shot, whereas Kevin Garnett patrols the post, scoring from the block without anyone else “stealing his touches.” Ray Allen, though, is the key cog in this trifecta, the ideal teammate. He does not need the ball to be successful, spreading the offense as a great shooter and moving without the ball to create looks. In some sense, the Celtics’ Big Three come together like puzzle pieces, meshing perfectly to give success.

On the other hand, we can also look at the San Antonio Spurs, whose Big Three of Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli might just represent the most unique example of chemistry between teammates. For years now, Parker has controlled the offense, while Duncan has been a pillar in the paint. Ginobli though, like Parker, needs the ball in his hands to be successful, so he has accepted a role coming off the bench. In a funny way, Ginobli and Parker coexist by not coexisting — each plays without the other, giving one the opportunity to dominate the ball while the other rests.
Meanwhile, the Heat have not found any kind balance between their stars. Looking at the facts, the Heat are 5-4 when both James and Wade have played this season, but are 6-1 in games when LeBron alone has played. This is not to say that the Heat are a better team without Wade, who has been out with an ankle injury. James is simply taking over, stepping into the dominant role reminiscent of his Cleveland days. There is a flow to the offense, because everyone knows where the ball is going — to LeBron — that is just not there otherwise.

Admittedly, it is a particularly difficult task for the Heat to achieve this chemistry because of how similar James and Wade are. Their styles are more alike than other all-star tandems have ever been. Also, their relationship is not as simple as two “all-stars,” but two superstars. Their combination represents an alignment of MVP-level talent that has no precedent.
However, while this talent has hampered their ability to coexist, it is also the reason for their relative success. We cannot forget that Wade, James and Bosh were within two games of an NBA Championship last season. Even without great chemistry, they are a pretty darn good team. For the Heat, their talent is in such great excess that they are able to overcome, to a certain extent, their poor chemistry.

I do not dispute that the Heat are a good team, even a great team. In fact, they are my favorites to represent the East in the Finals this year.

That being said, there is really no team in the NBA that should be able to compete with Miami. The talent on Miami’s roster is so much greater than that on any other team that it should be a huge upset any time they lose. We have a situation where the sum is lesser than the individual parts. If Wade and James can separately lead great teams, their combination should be untouchable.

LeBron may have brought most of his talents to South Beach, but he left behind the simplest of skills. It is actually a kindergarten lesson: learn to play with others.