The Miami Heat are led by LeBron James, a symbol of evolutionary advancement who happens to be better at basketball than anyone else in the world. At his side are two of the best players in the league: Dwyane Wade, a Hall of Fame shooting guard and one of the best finishers of all time, and eight-time All-Star forward/center Chris Bosh.
There isn't a better trio in today's NBA. But in order for any team to win a championship, much is still needed in addition to having three elite talents.
The Heat have done a spectacular job smoothing the edges around their Big Three over the past couple summers, and their ability to implement a system that gets the most out of everyone involved (including the three stars) has been an enthralling journey to watch develop.
From a personnel standpoint, here's how they've made three straight appearances in the NBA Finals, each year adding a new piece to either plug a hole or help shape a new on-court purpose.
When James and Bosh joined Wade in Miami, the Heat knew they'd need to stretch the floor in order to create enough space for everyone to operate. Defenses would do whatever they could to protect the rim against those three, and when they did, Miami would make that strategy pay by raining down open three after open three.
This past season the Heat were the second-most-accurate team from distance in the league, making 39.6 percent of their three-pointers on the sixth-most attempts. Despite winning the title in 2012, Miami didn't utilize the three-point line as much that year, attempting just 15.6 shots per game, which ranked 23rd.
But thanks to the growing analytics movement and new-found knowledge that three-pointers (especially ones from the corner) are incredibly efficient, the long ball was always seen as something Miami would be wise to eventually become master of.
The first player Miami signed that helped give outsiders an indication of where their priorities lay was Mike Miller, an increasingly irrelevant veteran whose career at the time was hanging on to the edge. Thanks to his ability to still knock down the open three-pointer, Miller was/is useful. They overpaid (five-years, $29 million), but it's been worth it.
In 2011 the team re-signed Mario Chalmers—a point guard whose strengths match up with exactly what Miami needs their point guard to do—to a three-year, $12 million contract. He can knock down open three-pointers while still being able to pressure the defense off the dribble with timely penetration.
Defensively, Chalmers possesses lateral quickness and long arms, and he is good enough to take responsibility for opposing point guards, allowing James and Wade to use most of their energy on offense. (They then used their draft pick in 2011 to select Norris Cole, a slightly worse version of Chalmers to run the second unit.)
The team's decision to target Ray Allen, the greatest three-point shooter in basketball history, last summer was a no-brainer, and getting him made it clearer than ever before that the Heat would not be going away from the small-ball strategy that resulted in two straight appearances in the NBA Finals.
All the contracts above are important, but none more so than that of Shane Battier, who took Miami's mid-level exception in 2011. Not only could Battier help spread the floor as a stationary three-point shooter, but his defensive versatility allowed the Heat to first establish their identity as a small-ball team.
Battier can (could?) defend larger forwards in the post on one possession and then step out on the perimeter and corral a slashing guard off the ball. He isn't a shutdown defender anymore, but he always makes the opposition work, which is important.
For 300 minutes during the regular season, Miami went to a Battier-Bosh-Chalmers-James-Wade unit that obliterated opponents, posting a true shooting percentage of 61.1 percent and scoring 117.2 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com/Stats (log-in required). They also shot an insane 41.8 percent on three-pointers while taking 21.4 per 48 minutes.
The small ball strategy has been extremely successful, but basketball is still a game of size. Rebounding and rim protection is still important, which is why in January 2013 the team signed Chris Andersen, a 6'10" ball of energy.
Andersen's speed for a big man also allows him to double ball-handlers initiating a pick-and-roll out on the perimeter, which is the hyper-aggressive strategy Miami utilizes in order to create turnovers and get out in the open court. Miami mainstay Udonis Haslem is also able to do this, while simultaneously providing solid post-defense against teams with capable offensive big men.
Heat general manager Pat Riley wasn't content with acquiring three stars in 2010. He knew that if a championship was to be won, other holes would need to be filled, being that the game is played five on five.
Throughout Miami's run Riley has done a phenomenal job signing players with specific skill sets that fit right in with what the team's trying to accomplish. It will be fascinating to see what additions (or subtractions) are made this summer as the team gears up for a fourth straight appearance in the NBA Finals next June.
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