5-3-3. Those are the biggest numbers in Miami Heat basketball right now.
As in: Miami is five wins away from a three-peat that could be it for the Big Three.
Though the current contracts of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh could keep the three in South Beach through 2015-16, each of the stars has an early-termination option in his deal that, if exercised, would render him a free agent this offseason.
Some eras end with a whimper. In such a scenario, this one would go out with a bang.
On the heels of its four finest seasons—four of the finest seasons any NBA franchise has put together—Miami could be facing a massive rebuild. Or a retooling. Or something in between, depending on which of the Big Three make an exit.
It’s a strange place for a franchise to be: A looming finest moment could double as its last gasp.
Granted, it seems unlikely that the any of the troika depart this summer—especially if the Heat manage to grab another title next month—and especially unlikely that all will walk. But stranger things have happened in this league. For instance, the formation of the very unit whose dissolution we're considering.
And it’s a scenario for which the Heat are certainly planning. The only defection that would truly be demoralizing and disqualifying for Miami would be LeBron's. Either or both of Wade or Bosh's departure could be weathered with some crafty roster construction and some characteristically thoughtful coaching by Erik Spoelstra.
Below we take a look at what those moves might look like.
If Bosh Bounces
Bosh is considered by many savvy analysts to be the glue guy for Miami. A selfless player who, in joining the Heat, passed on a more individualized stardom for team success. Good on him.
There’s truth in this assessment. In an offense that hinges on spacing, Bosh—a midrange maestro—is an expert at drawing big, post-prowling defenders away from the basket. This opens lanes for James and Wade to drive to the hoop, which in turn creates more room for Bosh to operate outside.
In large part due to Bosh's presence, Miami opponents are left with a choice between two bitter poisons.
Bosh also provides excellent defense. As David Thorpe wrote for ESPN Insider (h/t Rob Mahoney), there might not be another big in basketball who can stick with his man outside the restricted area like Bosh does:
Bosh is quickly becoming known as maybe the best defensive power forward on the perimeter, and Miami uses his rare quickness and agility to great advantage; it’s the best overall pick-and-roll defensive team in the league.
If Bosh leaves, and the other two superfriends stay in place, ideally he would be replaced by a player with a similar skill set. One attractive, albeit unlikely, option is Kevin Love.
While Love is nowhere near the defender Bosh is, he's an even better perimeter shooter. Though Love shot 39.3 percent from midrange to Bosh's 48.4, per NBA.com, the former is a much more capable three-point marksman. Love is lifetime 36.2 percent shooter from beyond the arc who made a career-high 190 triples in 2013-14. Bosh, comparatively, has made 160 threes in his career on 31 percent shooting.
Throw in the fact that Love is five years younger (30 to 25) and has, per Basketball-Reference, considerably higher rebound and assist rates over his career than Bosh, and it begins to look like a Bosh-for-Love swap would be—if managed—a boon for Miami in 2014-15 and beyond.
Again, the odds of such a move do seem slim. Bosh said on The Dan LeBatard Show he's keen on maintaining residence in South Beach—"I like it here. It’s Miami. Everybody wants to come here," the big insisted—while Love is still under contract for another season with the Minnesota Timberwolves.
So it would take a trade to bring Love to Miami. For such a deal to work, Bosh would have to opt into his deal, Love would have to agree to an extension with the Heat, and both organizations would have to come to terms on all the other moving parts of what would certainly be a mega swap.
Long story short: Don't count on this coming to fruition.
If Wade Waves Goodbye
The architect of the Big Three seems the least likely of any of the trio to say goodbye to Miami, but his is the absence the Heat could most easily work around.
For starters, age and injury are encroaching on Wade, and his athleticism is ebbing. The guard is 32, well into a decade when most players begin to decline, and he missed 28 games in 2013-14 with creaky knees and an assortment of other injuries.
Meanwhile, one pretty enticing replacement is Carmelo Anthony. 'Melo also has an ETO in his deal with the New York Knicks and is considered a sure bet to opt out this summer, so he'll be available to Miami if the Heat can make the financials work.
'Melo profiles as a sound replacement for Wade. He's two-and-a-half years younger than the former finals MVP, sturdier (Anthony missed five games this season to Wade's 28), more productive (the Knick posted nearly twice as many win shares in 2013-14, per Basketball-Refence) and will certainly be capable of filling in as the second scorer behind LeBron.
Anthony has not been a perfect player for the Knicks, or the Denver Nuggets, but Miami is the kind of organization that can iron out the kinks in his game. Anthony has oodles of ability, but has long suffered from disciplinary lapses when the basketball in his hands. With James as motivator/taskmaster, the problem of Anthony forcing shots seems unlikely to persist were the Knick forward to join Miami.
LeBron's presence also solves another potential issue that could arise with the arrival of 'Melo: a logjam at the forward position. Most teams would have a difficult time winning with two superstar forwards and little else—plus Bosh, who's only nominally a center—but LeBron's versatility obviates those concerns.
James could, for instance, easily slide back into the sort of point forward role he played in Cleveland, with Melo and Bosh as shooters. Or it could be something entirely different. With LeBron's ability, and willingness, to wear many hats, and Spoelstra's imagination, the Heat are probably the team that's best suited to deal with this kind of positional redundancy. Remember: it wasn't long ago that analysts were questioning whether James and Wade could play together.
If Wade leaves and Anthony can't be lured, Kyle Lowry and Luol Deng would also make attractive alternatives, albeit without the shine of a star like Anthony...or, for that matter, the player they would be replacing.
If LeBron Leaves
Disaster. Dystopia. Full-scale societal breakdown.
It'd be difficult to overate the blow it would be to the Heat if LeBron were to decide to play savior for the Cleveland Cavaliers or another franchise. He simply can't be replaced.
Talking about potential stand-ins for LeBron James is a patently ridiculous exercise. It's like plotting alternate modes of transportation to the moon: If the space shuttle doesn't pan out, you can't exactly ride your bike there, guys.
Chew on this: Box Score Geeks, a Wages of Wins blog, put LeBron down for 19.75 wins produced in 2013-14. Basketball-Refence has him at 15.9 win shares. According to these stat mavens, sans James, the 2013-14 Heat are a sub-40 win outfit.
If you were to replace James production with someone as valuable as, say, Chris Bosh (who offered 4.12 wins produced and eight win shares for Miami this past season), the Heat win somewhere between 40 and 46 games. That's not within shouting distance of contention. And there's no one in this free-agent class who can bridge the gap.
Not that it would stop the Heat from trying. If LeBron left, Miami probably wouldn't be willing to blow things up and start from scratch, or turn the American Airlines Center into merely a venue for the long farewell tour of an aging star (Wade) like the Los Angles Lakers are doing for Kobe Bryant. Pat Riley is much too impatient for that.
It's difficult to identify which players the Heat could use to replace James—a sign-and-trade to get back as much value as possible, or desperation deals for Deng or Lowry make some sense—but the Heat should be able to stay respectable absent LeBron. Miami is an attractive place to live for a young millionaire, after all.
But respectability is a long ways from contention. Sure, as the old saying goes, "the graveyards are full of indispensable men." But if Miami were to lose it's most valuable player, it's title hopes, for the foreseeable future, would be dead and buried.
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