Needing to maintain competitiveness in a wide-open Eastern Conference, without James, is a multifaceted problem. He was the Heat's best player—not to mention the best player in the league—and everything they did at both ends of the floor was built around his unique abilities.
The challenge is particularly large at the offensive end.
According to the NBA's SportVU player tracking statistics, James touched the ball 5,821 times last season. The Heat had 5,667 offensive possessions with James on the floor, meaning on average he touched the ball more than once on each possession. He led the team in points, assists, three-pointers and free throws. In short, his departure for Cleveland leaves an enormous hole.
The Heat still have a diverse array of efficient offensive players, but over the past four seasons it has been James who held the system together. Now the Heat need to figure out how to keep that system running with some combination of Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Luol Deng as the offensive engine.
Deng is the least likely of those three candidates to assume a primary offensive role, having never really filled it for any team during his NBA career. While Wade and Bosh have both been offensive focal points in the past, their metamorphosis into supporting players over the past four seasons leaves plenty of questions about their abilities to step front and center again.
The infographic below shows the percentage of offensive possessions for Bosh and Wade that came in a featured role each of the past five seasons. The data comes from mySynergySports.com (subscription required).
I'm defining a featured role as possessions used in isolation, post-ups or as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll, essentially an offensive possession where they created a shot for themselves. From 2010, their last seasons without James, you can see an enormous drop-off in the portion of each player's offense that came in these kinds of featured possessions.
The drop-off for Bosh is particularly compelling. Because of his age and relative health, he seems the more likely candidate than Wade to step into a more primary offensive role. However, only about one out of every eight offensive possessions he used last season came in those type of situations.
This next infographic shows the same timespan but looks at each player's average points per possession on these featured offensive possessions.
While the decline here isn't as steep, it's just as significant. Wade's efficiency has steadily trickled away, and although Bosh saw a slight uptick last season, remember that it came on an absurdly small number of possessions.
Bosh has talked about being a leader for this new iteration of the Heat, but his comments to ESPN's Tom Haberstroh reveal a lot about how he envisions that role playing out:
I think right now we have the correct infrastructure to compete for a championship. We have to get much better at certain positions, and there's a bunch of things that have to continue to happen. But you know a team like the Spurs, they had a lot of guys that people underestimate, but as a team, they were outstanding.
It's interesting that Bosh specifically mentioned the San Antonio Spurs, because their balance may be the template for how the Heat need to go about creating an efficient offense. By that I don't necessarily mean copying the Spurs playbook, but the way the Spurs use multiple players to bend the defense in different situations.
Obviously, Wade will still handle the ball plenty for the Heat next year, especially in the pick-and-roll. But moving Bosh around to different locations may also allow some of the Heat's other complementary players to work effectively off of him.
When Bosh was the primary offensive weapon for the Toronto Raptors, he spent a lot of his time in the low post. But as the range on his jump shot has extended, he may be more of an offensive threat working around the elbows.
Although it was often a situational occurrence, dependent on matchups, Bosh has shown that he is more than capable of taking a slower defender off the dribble.
His ability to either shoot or drive from that spot on the floor can also hold the defense, allowing other actions to spin around him.
Here, a curl from Ray Allen acts as a decoy, allowing Rashard Lewis to pop out for the open three-pointer.
On this play, Bosh occupies the defensive focus (with a little help from LeBron) and allows Wade to lose his man and head for the rim.
These kinds of setups will work well for Deng, who has plenty of experience running baseline curls and elbow screens from his time in Chicago.
We may see this be of similar benefit to Wade, who has spent much of the last four years figuring out how to be a potent off-ball threat, despite his lack of a consistent outside shot. Both he and Deng could be extremely dangerous running curls and cuts from the baseline down. With Bosh pulling the defense at the elbow and players like Norris Cole, Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts around the three-point line, there should still be plenty of space to operate efficiently.
The problem is that this whole plan relies on precise and collaborative execution.
The reason everyone doesn't just copy the Spurs system of balance and movement is that it's really, really hard to do well. The Heat have some of the pieces and some experience with these sorts of sets, but making this the backbone of everything that they do will be new.
It seems inevitable that Bosh will bear a lot of responsibility next year because of his age, health and versatility. But just making him the Heat's new lead scorer is not really the answer. Tom Sunnergren wrote for Bleacher Report last month about how Bosh may work as a centerpiece for the Heat offense:
This is the future of the Miami offense. It's still built around a multifaceted chess piece who carries the offensive load, and, in doing so, creates space and opportunity for his teammates to get the most out of their own abilities. It's just that the piece itself is a bit less multiple, and the abilities of the teammates not quite as pregnant with possibility.
That paragraph sums up what is facing the Heat this season. Many of the pieces are in place, but without James' individual brilliance to buoy the offense, the margin for error becomes infinitesimally smaller.
LeBron James was the alpha for the Heat offense the past four seasons, and it grew into a devastating system.
Trying to force Bosh, Wade or anyone else into that role is probably a recipe for disaster.
What the Heat need for success is not a new alpha. They need their many betas to figure out how to effectively play off each other.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats