LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh may be greater than the sum of their considerable parts. It wasn't always that way.
The Miami Heat are, in the richest possible sense of the word, a beautiful basketball team to watch.
The Big Three era has been, for hoops junkies, for folks who find meaning in athletic competition, a joyful thing to behold.
But perhaps more impressive than the component parts of the Big Three is the way they harmonize. The synergies they create on the floor. The gestalt. The symbiosis.
They’re better together than they would be apart.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. When Wade, ‘Bron and Bosh were first thrown together—well, threw themselves together—they were ill-fitting. A patchwork. In a sense, a waste.
The offense was unimaginative, ordinary, insufficiently shrewd in its deployment of the overwhelming talent it possessed. It was iso-heavy and reliant on a high-pick-and-roll attack that a mindful defense could disarm.
Though the Heat finished third in the NBA in offensive efficiency during 2010-11, per ESPN (h/t Kirk Goldsberry), they placed just 22nd in assist ratio. And while Miami, by the sheer brutish force of its superior talent, was able to advance to the 2011 Finals, it was handled by the Dallas Mavericks.
And yet the same Mavericks, just a few years later, wouldn’t have stood a chance. “I guess we were lucky to have caught them in the Finals that first year,” Dirk Nowitzki admitted to Grantland's Zach Lowe last spring.
What happened in the interim was this: The team’s sense of itself, of how to best use its unique personnel, sharpened. It became integrated.
“We went from a team that played a lot of isolation basketball to [being] first or second in the league in assists,” James told Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry. “Everyone on the team feels so comfortable offensively. We get the ball from one side to the other side, shifting the defense then attacking it or spraying out for 3s.”
LeBron and company were reborn as a cutting, pass-whipping, whip-smart, small-ball menace. Cooperation was the thing. The individual subsumed into the whole. To wit: Between 2010-11 and 2012-13, Miami shot from 22nd in assist ratio to third, according to ESPN, a position it's held this season.
This reinvention was precipitated by a key schematic shift.
Bosh and James, in some ways, flipped responsibilities. James, after spending the 2011 offseason training in Houston with Hakeem Olajuwon, refashioned himself into a low-post maestro. Meanwhile, Chris Bosh migrated out to mid-range.
The effect of this switch was devastating. With Bosh playing outside, nominally as a center, he would often draw the opposition's best post defender out, giving James and Wade freer rein to attack the basket.
“It becomes a matchup problem,” James added in his November conversation with Goldsberry. “Anytime you can bring one of the best defenders out of the paint—you know, like Roy Hibbert, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler, or any of these guys like Marc Gasol that protect the paint so well—that allows driving lanes for myself and D-Wade to come much easier.”
The perspicacious James was, and is, exactly right.
With Bosh anchored in the middle distance, LeBron has set career bests in field-goal percentage the last three seasons, checking in at 51.0, 53.1 and 56.5 percent—and is at 57.4 so far this season—while Wade, ostensibly in decline, notched his best-ever mark in 2012-13 and is on pace to do so again in 2013-14.
The knife cuts both ways. Bosh has been both beneficiary and benefactor of the new tack. In the 2012-13 season, the former Toronto Raptor hit 50.2 percent of his mid-range attempts and this season has hit 45 percent, per NBA.com.
In this way, the least heralded member of the Big Three can be considered its linchpin. When the defense keys on a slashing James or Wade, they bounce it out to Bosh. If they maintain assignment, Wade and James take it.
The Heat offense as a whole doesn’t thrive as much as dominate when these three play together. According to NBAwowy, since October 2012, when Bosh, Wade and LeBron have been on the floor, the Heat have scored 113.6 points per 100 possessions. This season, with its three musketeers all in the game, Miami has a true shooting percentage of 61.2.
It’s unclear if this is it for the Big Three. They’re getting older, as is the rest of the Heat supporting cast, and ambition and financial considerations threaten to pull them in different directions.
If so, that’s a shame. They may not need each other, but people who love basketball—we might need them.