I don’t know what Chris Bosh values in life. I can’t presume to speak for what would make him and his family happy. And if I did know, I wouldn’t be in any position to challenge those things—to tell him what he should want.
So, when evaluating Bosh’s decision to spur the Houston Rockets' advances in favor of returning to the Miami Heat on a five-year, $118 million contract, I necessarily restrict my analysis to what happens on the floor. To who gives one of the sport’s preeminent stretch 4s the best chance to win. And through that lens, Bosh made a foolish decision in returning to Miami.
The Heat, even in the East, are unlikely to be a very good basketball team next season. We’ll take it from the top: LeBron James isn’t there anymore.
Basketball metrics are still pretty unsettled—the sport hasn’t found anything as roundly agreed upon as baseball’s Wins Above Replacement—and spit out staggeringly different values for different players. (For instance: DeAndre Jordan was worth 11.2 wins to the 2013-14 Los Angeles Clippers by measure of win shares, per Basketball-Reference, but 19.3 by wins produced, according to Boxscore Geeks.) But they are in effective consensus with respect to the value of one star: LeBron.
James is worth about 20 wins a season, according to most systems. This is extraordinary. It’s also irreplaceable. Take it from Matt Yglesias. As the academic and author pointed out on Vox the other day, when you subtract James from the Heat, the four-time defending Eastern Conference champions become just one of the guys.
NBA player evaluation is a controversial subject, but different metrics reach a pretty broad consensus that LeBron James is personally worth about 20 wins in the NBA (here's Nate Silver's preferred metric, here's one I like developed by economist Dave Berri) which is slightly larger than the gap in wins between Cleveland and Miami last season.
In other words, the Heat were a lot better than the Cavs solely because the Heat had LeBron James and the Cavs didn't. Add LeBron to the Cleveland roster, and the team is just as good. Except Cleveland, unlike Miami, has some young talent on the roster.
And Miami hasn't done much to replace James, not that such a thing is possible. Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger and Shabazz Napier are nice pieces, but even taken together, they don’t even scratch the surface of what James brought to Miami. According to Basketball-Reference, Deng, Granger and McRoberts combined were worth a little more than two-thirds of the win shares LeBron offered. And this skirts an important issue. You can only have five players on the floor at a time. Even if all three exceeded the production of James, it wouldn't do Miami much good because they can't have three players simultaneously play the 4.
As big as the loss of James was, the players the Heat didn’t lose are almost as disconcerting. Dwyane Wade was reasonably efficient last season—his 22 player efficiency rating and .149 win shares per 48 minutes put him among the top guards in the East, per Basketball-Reference—but he accomplished this while playing only 54 games.
The Heat managed Wade’s minutes so carefully throughout the regular season that if he didn’t have a great season, it would have suggested something was seriously amiss. As it was, Wade posted the third-lowest win shares and PER marks of his career.
The odd thing, though, is this: Keeping Wade could be ruinous to the Heat’s long term fortunes—if Wade at 32 looks enervated, Wade at 35 could be a limping disaster—but losing him could have been even more damaging to their near-term prospects.
So, suffice it to say, the Heat are in a tight spot. Minus LeBron, they look less like a 50-60 win team and more like a 40 win also ran: The Atlanta Hawks with bigger names. The Houston Rockets conversely were in a terrific position to contend when Bosh chose to pass up the four-year, $88 million contract Daryl Morey practically begged him to take.
Houston won 54 games last season—the same number Miami managed—with a 4.6-point scoring differential. And this is without a 6’11” stretch 4 who can defend the perimeter, is money from 18 feet and has begun extending his range to three-point land. It’s hard not to image Bosh fitting tremendously on offense, tucked in next to James Harden and Dwight Howard in the Rockets' high-flying attack, then tightening a Houston defense that, despite the addition of Howard, finished just 12th in the NBA in defensive efficiency.
The last point is especially significant. Bosh, for all the ink that's spilt about his stellar mid-range shooting, has developed into a unique defensive presence—and one that would slot in uniquely well alongside Dwight Howard. David Thorpe of ESPN (subscription required) wrote the following love note to Bosh's D in December:
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.
With Howard holding down the interior, and Bosh shutting down opposing stretch 4s on the outside, an average Houston defense could have plausibly joined the NBA's elite.
Did Chris Bosh Make the Right Decision by Returning to the Heat?
With a potent Big Three, the Rockets would have had as good a chance as anyone in the rugged Western Conference of earning a 2015 Finals berth. “Adding Bosh to a core that already features Dwight Howard and James Harden would quickly make Houston one of the most talented teams in the league and an immediate title contender,” wrote SB Nation’s Satchel Price.
The Heat, of course, likely won’t be.
This is okay, as far as it goes. Bosh has built a family in Miami. He’s raising his two boys there. He’s gotten to know and love the city, and it him. Furthermore, as he told ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh, he’ll get a chance to be a No. 1 option again in Miami, something he hasn’t enjoyed since his final season with the Toronto Raptors:
I think sometimes you miss it. You wonder if you can still do it and step up to the challenge. I haven't had to be that guy. I played with the best player in the world. I didn't have to be the alpha. But now, I get to see if I have it in me, and not many people are going to believe I have what's necessary. But that's what makes it exciting.
An exciting situation? Sure. A winning one? Not exactly.