It's easy—and not altogether unfair—to give the lion's share of the credit for the Miami Heat's dominance this season to the star power of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. But the act of attributing Miami's success to the talent of its transcendent trio constitutes a failure to acknowledge a few other key factors.
There will never be a more important component to an NBA team than star-quality talent. But without a sound system, willing role players and good execution, all the talent in the world won't amount to much.
In short, the Heat have pulled off one of the most difficult tricks in sports: They've married elite talent to a well-executed plan. And that's the kind of union that takes a team from "very good" to "historically great."
But First, LeBron
It'd be intellectually dishonest to make the case that the Heat are a good team without James. In fact, all of the evidence shows that they're actually pretty darn bad without him.
Miami's offensive rating with James on the floor is 112.8, a figure that is better than the team's league-best rating of 110.4 on the season. Looking at it that way, it might seem as though LBJ's contributions on offense aren't all that significant.
But a look at how the Heat fare on offense without him quickly highlights James' immense value. With No. 6 on the bench, the Heat score at a rate of 101.4 points per 100 possessions, which would rank 19th in the NBA on the season.
Defensively, James makes the Heat nearly four points per 100 possessions better.
You can run down the stat sheet, and the story will be the same. Miami's assist ratio goes up, its turnover rate goes down and its true-shooting percentage differs by a full five percent—all depending on whether James is on the court.
Virtually every meaningful statistic shows that the Heat are an average (and in some cases, below-average) team without James, but a great one with him.
You can file all of the preceding information in the "Hardly a Newsflash" folder. Everybody knows James makes the Heat go. But it's still worthwhile to preface an analysis of the other reasons for Miami's excellence by first mentioning the biggest one.
Obviously, Miami has plenty of talent. But the way the team is using it has changed this season.
According to Grantland's Zach Lowe, the Heat have all but abandoned a staple of NBA offense in favor of a more unpredictable approach:
Predictable offenses just aren't good enough anymore against elite competition; that's why Miami no longer runs simple LeBron James-Chris Bosh pick-and-rolls while the other three Heat players just stand around—something that happened a lot in the 2011 Finals against Dallas.
Instead, the Heat now employ lots of decoy action to bait defenses into overloading the strong side. When that happens, their ball-handlers are highly adept at quickly whipping a skip pass to the weak side for an open three-point look.
Watch a Miami game and you'll certainly notice how often the ball swings from side to side. But the numbers show that the offense is different, too.
Last season, the Heat shot about 16 threes per game. But in 2012-13, Miami has been casting away nearly 22 times per contest. Those extra triples are a direct result of an increased emphasis on ball movement and a willingness to make the quick pass to the weak-side corner.
It's not surprising that Miami's assists per game have gone up from about 20 per game in 2011-12 to 23 this season, despite the fact that the team's slower pace this year has resulted in about one fewer offensive possession per game.
Ultimately, the Heat have made the conscious effort to value unselfishness and trust over a more isolation-heavy style. The result has been a more balanced, less predictable offense.
The Other Guys
Of course, the changes in Miami's style wouldn't count for much if it didn't have supporting players who were capable of carrying them out.
Specialists abound on the Heat, and their willingness to sacrifice for the greater good is yet another indicator of how fully the players have bought into the team concept.
Shane Battier essentially does one of two things on offense: shoots threes or quickly moves the ball to the next shooter when he's not open. That might seem like a role anybody could fill, but Battier has done it at a remarkably high level.
Just how specialized is Battier's role? Well, he takes five shots per game. Of those attempts, 4.4 of them are from beyond the arc.
He's hitting 42.5 percent of his triples this year and has played terrific defense on the other end.
Ray Allen's job is similar—except for the defense part—and Chris Andersen has been a hugely valuable interior presence whose only job is to do the dirty work.
The stars have been great, but Miami's role players have been just as good in their own, more limited ways.
The Man with the Plan
It's funny how the public perception of a coach can change so quickly. Until Erik Spoelstra won a championship with the Heat last season, he seemed like a seat-warmer for whichever big-name coach team president Pat Riley was eventually going to bring in.
But now that he has his ring, Spoelstra is regarded as one of the sharpest young coaches around.
Looking at his overall results does give a good indication of Spoelstra's fitness for the job, but the better indicators are a little subtler. Consider the following: After winning a ring, Spoelstra shredded Miami's offensive system, eschewed a conventional lineup and basically started over from scratch.
How many coaches would have done that?
Spoelstra's bold moves illustrated his understanding of the defensive changes that were happening in the league and showed that he had the foresight to work out a way to stay ahead of the game. Toss in the way he's dealt with outsized expectations and juggled the egos of his stars, and it's clear: Spoelstra really is an elite coach.
The Sum of the Parts
There's no getting around the fact that the Heat are a dominant team because of their superstar talent. But there's so much more going on in Miami from a strategic and team-building perspective.
Stars will always matter, but it's time the other reasons for Miami's success got a little shine.