We'll see proof of LeBron James' greatness in the way he changes the prospects of the Cleveland Cavaliers, but we may get an even clearer picture of his worth by looking at what happens to the Miami Heat in his absence.
When James bolted Cleveland in 2010, the Heat immediately became legitimate contenders—even title favorites. The picture was bleaker for the Cavaliers, who went into a four-year tailspin that has only just now been corrected by James' return.
A number of factors contributed to the Cavs' fate, with the main one being Cleveland's unpreparedness for James' departure. In 2010, the Cavaliers had no backup plan in place, and they certainly lacked the flexibility the Heat enjoyed this summer.
Despite those differences, we're about to get another case study in what happens to a team when James leaves—a better one than we saw four years ago.
Analyzing a team this way is familiar. We often use this kind of logic when discussing MVP awards: "Where would his team be without him?" we ask.
We're about to get an answer to that question with this year's Heat.
James registered an assist percentage of 31.1 percent last year, meaning he was the officially credited "helper" on nearly one of every three baskets scored by his teammates during his time on the floor. That figure ranked 14th in the league, per NBA.com, and James was the only non-guard to crack the top 25 last season.
Perhaps you've heard: LBJ can pass a little.
Making up for that kind of facilitation will be immensely difficult, but the Heat aren't without options. In fact, Wade's career assist percentage is 31.8 percent, per Basketball-Reference. That's the good news.
The bad news is that he hasn't reached that figure since 2008-09, when he was a ball-dominant, do-it-all force for Miami. Relying on D-Wade for that kind of high-usage responsibility was an option six years ago.
It probably isn't now.
Outside of the occasional bursts, Wade isn't capable of filling James' playmaking void. That means Miami might feature more lineups with dual point guards—or even a more conventional, motion-based attack—instead of the "spot up and wait for James to make a play" offense it employed so often during the past four years.
In addition to missing James' passing, Miami will also find it hard to replace his versatility. Remember, Erik Spoelstra's decision to scrap conventional centers in the starting lineup two years ago happened largely because he could get away with using James as a power forward on offense.
Playing small will always be an option, but losing James means the Heat simply won't be able to do it as effectively.
Perhaps the biggest loss brought about by James' departure will be the constant comfort his presence gave teammates, fans and coaches.
Having LeBron on a roster imparts a sense of calm and confidence matched by no other single player. Every team relies on its stars, but for the Heat, James was something more. Not only could teammates and coaches rely on him to make the toughest decisions under pressure, but they'd seen him do it enough times to flat-out expect greatness.
James kept things in order for the Heat. He was the sun around which Miami's other planets orbited. Everyone's roles on the club existed in relation to him. He had gravity, holding things together while everyone else flew freely around the space he controlled.
Now that he's gone, it's hard to know if the center can hold.
Finally, Miami's days of coasting are done, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
By the time the shock wears off and the summer winds down, the Miami Heat will come up with their post-Big Three marketing theme. An early suggestion, "Every Game Matters." Because every one will, enough that Dwyane Wade won't be able to cherry-pick his playing schedule, enough that the Heat won't be able to say, "It's only Sacramento" or "It's just Utah."
For the Heat, James' exit means their last easy day was yesterday.
Replacing the Irreplaceable
Luol Deng, come on down!
Pat Riley: “Signing Luol Deng is one of the most important free agent signings that we have ever had in the history of the franchise."— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) July 15, 2014
Despite Pat Riley's irrational exuberance, Deng isn't going to make Miami fans forget about James.
But Deng will compete. He'll defend. He'll be the great teammate he was for the better part of a decade with the Chicago Bulls. There's value in those things, especially for a Heat team that might need a gritty tone-setter to face a harsher, James-less future.
Critically, Wade and Bosh will also have to do more—both as on-court producers and locker-room leaders. Both have filled those alpha dog roles in the past. The only question now is: Has it been so long since they last led that they've forgotten how?
Bosh, in particular, must justify his new max deal. From the sound of it, he has the right attitude about what lies ahead. Bosh told Tim Reynolds of The Associated Press:
"I can't lie to you: I'm excited. I'm excited for the challenge," Bosh said during a break from NBA Africa duties. "I want to step up to the challenge. I feel this is a chance to prove to myself and others that I can still do this.
"I want to see if I can do what's necessary to go in there and win every night. That's the challenge of being a leader. It excites me. It's been a long time and I feel like I'm a much better player and a leader now, so it'll be fun."
If Bosh is ready to lead, and Wade can stay healthy enough to help, they'll find a supporting cast with improved depth ready to pitch in.
Josh McRoberts is a real rotation big, young gun James Ennis has looked impressive in summer league, and even Danny Granger might have something left to give. Plus, Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole will all be back.
And while we've already established that losing James makes everyone else's job more difficult, there's a case to be made that it also liberates those supporting players. Instead of waiting around for shots created by James, guys like Chalmers and McRoberts can attack on their own or, even better, be creators for others.
While the possibility of offense from multiple sources won't make the Heat better than they were with LeBron, it at least makes them less predictable.
We already have a pretty good idea of James' value—those four MVP trophies are sound indicators of his place in the NBA hierarchy—and there's no real case to be made the Heat are better without him.
Bosh called the upcoming post-LeBron era a "challenge," but it's also an experiment. It's a rare thing in the NBA to see a team lose its superstar while staying relatively intact otherwise. Typically, the departure of a transcendent player is accompanied by major overhauls that come in a rebuild or loads of moving parts in a blockbuster trade.
Not so with the Heat, who brought in a replacement in Deng and retained most of the key players with whom James played.
We'll all focus on the way James improves the Cavaliers this season, but the more interesting study of his worth will take place on the team he left behind. There, we'll see all the gaps created by his absence, the voids his missing greatness will expose.
And we'll watch as a team tries its best to carry on without him.
The Heat won't be better this season, but they might very well be more interesting.