After watching the first three games of the first-round series between the New York Knicks and Miami Heat, I think it's fair to say that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Heatles are ready to legitimately contend for the 2012 NBA title.
The Heat have dominated the Knicks by an average of 20 points per game in their first three meetings, which isn't exactly what Knicks fans were expecting to see.
At the forefront of the Heat's dominance thus far is the play of James and Wade, who've combined for an average of 49 points, 9.9 rebounds and 9.4 assists per game against the Knicks.
With a series sweep right around the corner, it's time to assess which player—LeBron or Wade—is more important to the Heat's playoff success this season, as they inch toward their second straight appearance in the NBA Finals.
First off, let's take a look at each player's statistical production throughout the postseason so far.
LeBron James: 27.7 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 5.7 APG, 2.7 STLPG, 4.1 TOPG
Dwyane Wade: 21.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 3.7 APG, 2.7 STLPG, 2.7 TOPG
It's clear that LeBron leads the way when it comes to overall statistical production, aside from his slightly higher turnovers-per-game average.
A simple comparison of pure production is not enough, though, when comparing the importance and intrinsic value of two players. To gain a more complete picture of LeBron and Wade's value, we need to look at their shooting percentages and amount of field-goal attempts per game.
LeBron James: 17.7 FGA, 50.9 FG%, 3.0 3PA, 33.3 3P%, 11.3 FTA, 76.5 FT%
Dwyane Wade: 16.0 FGA, 56.3 FG%, 2.0 3PA, 33.3 3P%, 4.0 FTA, 66.7 FT%
At first glance, Wade appears to be the more efficient and effective shooter, and while that's true, the most telling statistical difference between Wade and LeBron exists within each player's amount of free-throw attempts per game.
It's amazing that LeBron is averaging 7.3 more free-throw attempts per game than Wade is, as Wade only trailed LeBron in that category by an average of two attempts per game throughout the regular season.
The fact that LeBron is getting to the line more often than Wade points to the fact that LeBron has amped up his physicality so far in the playoffs and has been taking his game straight to his opponents.
The underlying importance of LeBron's free-throw attempts isn't that he's giving the Heat more offensive production. It's that he's forcing players on the other team to get into foul trouble, which has a serious impact on the game's outcome.
Another important aspect of these players' value to the Heat is their defensive performance. LeBron has been guarding Carmelo Anthony for the entirety of the series so far, and 'Melo has struggled from the field, to say the least.
Carmelo Anthony: 21 PPG, 21.3 FGA, 34.4 FG%, 11.1 3P%, 4.0 TOPG
While Wade has held his own against the Knicks shooting guards so far—and he certainly could hold his own defensively against 'Melo—he doesn't have the physicality and strength in his defensive skill set that LeBron has.
With all that being said, it's clear that LeBron and the way he's been playing so far throughout the postseason is more important to the Heat's success than Wade and his play.
As we move toward the Eastern Conference finals and the NBA Finals, the importance of this question will increase.
And if LeBron continues to play the way he has in the playoffs so far, the answer might very well stay the same.