Erik Spoelstra and his system won’t adapt to the loss of LeBron James, because it’s impossible to adapt to the loss of LeBron James.
He was the Miami Heat’s "sine qua non." The straw that stirred the drink. The indispensable component. Miami’s system can no more recover from the loss of LeBron than your search browser could recover from the loss of the Internet. He was the engine that drove everything. He was Miami’s system.
So that’s the first thing to bear in mind when mulling what comes next for the Heat. The system won’t “adapt” or “adjust”—it’ll have to be completely reinvented. Secondly, let's ponder what that new thing might look like.
"I think right now we have the correct infrastructure to compete for a championship," Chris Bosh told ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh after re-upping with the Heat. That’s a bit of a Pollyannaish view, but in the East it certainly might be enough to compete for a top-four playoff seed.
Defensively, Miami was savvy in tapping two-time All Star Luol Deng to replace James. Deng isn’t nearly as dynamic as James—he can’t switch with the ferocity of LBJ, nor can he guard as many positions—but he’s more than capable as a perimeter defender.
Perhaps most importantly, Deng is a very solid defender. He's not a prime Shawn Marion and won't be able to switch onto opposing point guards in most match-ups, but he does a very good job on opposing wings. He's fantastic at defending the pick-and-roll and does a surprisingly good job of shutting down power forwards, even in the post (this obviously hinges on match-ups, but it's worth mentioning).
Swapping LeBron for Deng is a strong indicator that Miami will play less of the hyperthryoidal, frenzied, trap-a-minute defense it’s become known for over the last few seasons and more of a disciplined—detractors might call it "vanilla"—style.
This transition also makes sense in light of the advancing age of Miami’s principals. Sure, Shane Battier and (probably) Ray Allen are gone, but this is still an old roster, one that’s probably ill-suited, minus a freak athlete like James, to exert the kind of defensive effort they have in seasons past.
Granted, this is a defensive style Miami may have played even if James was returning for a fifth season in South Beach. Spoelstra pumped the brakes on his frenetic D last season, according to Grantland’s Zach Lowe:
Even more interesting: The Heat have moved away from the blitzing defensive style that made them special—the manic trapping that ended Linsanity, flustered Tony Parker, and goaded Indiana into an endless reel of ugly turnovers in Game 7 of last season’s conference finals. I noted it first during Miami’s win last month over Indiana, but it has continued since: There are stretches of games in which Miami’s defense looks very much like the basic conservative defense most of the league plays.
On the other end of the floor, it’s less clear how Miami will adjust in James' absence.
One possibility is that the fundamental shape of the offense will remain the same, but Chris Bosh will slot into LeBron James’ roll as the versatile scorer who makes most of his hay in the post. Josh McRoberts will then assume Bosh’s responsibilities as the sweet shooting frontcourt player whose range stretches defenses. Wade will keep doing what Wade does.
This is sensible. For all the plaudits Bosh rightly received for his mid-range prowess in 2013-14, he was also great down low. Last season, per NBA.com, he placed fourth in the NBA in field-goal percentage from within five feet. There’s reason to believe he could do a passable LeBron impression—on the stat sheet at least—from inside.
McRoberts, meanwhile, attempted 65 percent of his field goals from farther than 10 feet from the basket for the Charlotte Bobcats in 2013-14, according to Basketball-Reference.com. He hit 63.2 percent of his shots from 10-16 feet, 30.5 from 16-23 and connected on 36.1 percent of his three-point attempts.
Now, none of this is to say that this will actually work. The Heat, with this arrangement, almost certainly won’t post a true shooting percentage of 59, as they did in 2013-14, or lead the NBA in offensive efficiency, as they did in their 66-win 2012-13 campaign, per ESPN.com.
Even with the savvy addition of McRoberts, there will be spacing issues. Neither Wade nor Deng is a capable perimeter shooter. In the modern NBA, that’s a problematic characteristic when it's shared by both your shooting guard and small forward.
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There’s also the matter of how effective Bosh will be sans LeBron. Since James came to South Beach, his numbers have ben considerably worse when James hasn’t been on the floor.
Consider this: According to NBAwowy.com, last season Bosh posted an effective field-goal percentage of 58 with LeBron in the game and a true shooting percentage of 61.7. Those percentages dipped to 45.3 and 48.9 percent, both below league average, with LeBron on the bench.
Over the course of his Heat career, Bosh has logged an eFG% and a TS% of 55.7 and 59.5 percent with James, compared to a 49.9 and 54.1 percent without him.
Despite Bosh’s overwhelming success with a mediocre supporting cast during his time with the Toronto Raptors, it’s clear that in the last four seasons he hasn’t been the same player when he doesn’t have the NBA’s biggest talent flanking him.
In this way, Bosh is microcosmic of the present-day Miami Heat. There’s reason for optimism, sure, but they’re both defined by what's no longer there.