When you have someone like LeBron James around, traditional point guards almost seem unnecessary.
The four-time MVP has established himself as the planet's very best thanks in large part to his extraordinary playmaking ability. He may be a forward on paper, but in practice he's also a floor general who can run and initiate offense with the very best of them.
Now the Miami Heat confront a post-LBJ era, an era in which point guards are suddenly anything but unnecessary.
While Dwyane Wade remains a capable ball-handler and facilitator, he'll need help—the kind of help Miami sorely missed during the 2014 NBA Finals.
The question is where that help will come from.
Grading 2013-14's Point Guard Performances
Maybe it's unfair to judge starting point guard Mario Chalmers on the basis of his NBA Finals performance alone, but it's awfully hard to ignore.
After a season in which the 28-year-old tallied 9.8 points and 4.9 assists per contest, Chalmers saved his worst for last—averaging just 4.4 points and 2.8 assists through five games against the San Antonio Spurs. For the series, he was just 7-of-21 from the field and turned the ball over 10 times through the first four games.
By the end of Game 3, Chalmers' confidence had all but collapsed.
"I think everybody else is doing their job and I'm being that guy that's not helping out," Chalmers said after the game, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick. "I don't want to be that guy."
Chalmers added that he was "still at the drawing board."
After Game 4, it was time for change. Head coach Erik Spoelstra benched Chalmers for Game 5, instead inserting shooting guard Ray Allen into the starting lineup. The decision conceded the Heat were struggling at a position widely regarded as the most important on the floor—and that backup point guard Norris Cole offered little hope.
During the season, Cole averaged just 6.4 points and three assists in 24.6 minutes per game. Beset by uneven playing time in the Finals, those numbers dropped to just 3.2 points and 1.8 assists per contest.
After three seasons of running point for Miami's second unit, Cole clearly hasn't instilled much confidence. He's a frenetic player with solid defensive ability, but he's less adept at hitting the open shots Chalmers ordinarily made. Recall that Chalmers converted on 38.5 percent of his three-point attempts during the regular season.
Cole made just 34.5 percent of his.
On paper, Chalmers' Finals implosion was untimely but also anomalous. Yet concerns about his fit on a championship team were nothing new.
Hardwood Paroxysm's William Bohl recently wrote that, "He was, in the eyes of his superstar teammates, their idiot younger brother, always to blame when mistakes were made, the whipping boy when a defensive assignment was blown or an open man wasn’t passed to on offense."
Bohl adds that, "LeBron, especially, wasn’t afraid to let 'Rio have it from time to time, often over Chalmers’ shot selection, defensive intensity or lack of court vision."
Though Chalmers seemed to justify himself with a surprisingly electric performance in the 2013 NBA Finals, it's this June's disappearance that left a lasting impression. He looked like a backup guard in over his head—which puts Cole's limitations in even greater perspective.
Team president Pat Riley called in some reinforcements this summer, but there's little reason to believe it will be enough.
The organization's big acquisition came on draft night when, per The Palm Beach Post's Jason Lieser, "Miami immediately traded for [Shabazz] Napier [taken No. 26 overall] by giving up its first-round spot, second-round pick (No. 55), an unspecified future second-round selection and cash."
The 23-year-old most recently averaged 18 points and 4.9 assists per game as a senior at Connecticut.
His subsequent performances at the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer League tournaments left something to be desired. Through his first five games, Napier made just 15 of 55 field-goal attempts. After piecing together a couple of respectable games, he finished by going 9-of-42 from the field in his final three games.
"I definitely needed this one to understand the game much better," Napier said during summer league play, per Jeff Shain's special to the Miami Herald. "It’s a big adjustment, but I’m looking forward to it."
Napier offered an example, adding, "I was unable to do a lot of things I did in college as far as passes. I’m going to have to learn how to adjust and make those certain passes on an NBA level. That’s the learning curve.”
More recently, Napier cited another culprit.
"But my biggest thing is getting comfortable with that basketball," he said, according to The Associated Press (h/t USA Today). "That's one of my biggest problems and it's kind of ironic, because it's a basketball. But it's different than a college basketball.”
Assuming those issues work themselves out in time, Miami should have some additional firepower in its backcourt this season.
Otherwise, little has changed.
The franchise re-signed Chalmers to a two-year deal reportedly worth a total of $8.3 million, and Cole will make $2,150,188 this season in what could be his last with the Heat (the club can make him a restricted free agent next summer with a qualifying offer).
Miami certainly hasn't taken a step back at the point guard spot, but nor has it made significant strides.
Napier could certainly evolve into a starting-caliber floor general, but it's hard to see where he fits in this season. Assuming he shakes off whatever ailed his summer league shooting, he should be able to carve out a few minutes early on. Whether he plays enough to make a consistent impact remains to be seen.
There could be some additional opportunities for Napier in the event Chalmers begins adopting a slightly more versatile role.
"We're looking at Mario differently in this roster," Riley explained, per the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson. "He's a point guard, but we're also looking at him as a [shooting guard]. Mario can be very effective as a long-armed [shooting guard] who can shoot the three."
For what it's worth, Riley added that Napier, "struggled this summer somewhat shooting the ball, but we still feel he has a tremendous upside."
At the moment, however, the starting gig belongs to Chalmers. And at the very least, the Kansas product should be good for a few passes and around 10 points per contest—perhaps more without James around to soak up touches.
The good news is that Chalmers has been with this team since he was drafted in 2008. He preserves some measure of corporate knowledge and understands Spoelstra's system. His experience in Miami could be instrumental to the club's ability to steady the ship in the wake of James' departure.
The bad news is that by now Chalmers is what he is. It's unlikely he takes a significant step forward this late into his career. The odds of Cole rapidly ascending the point guard ranks aren't much better.
While this team's need for a credible floor general is suddenly acute, its ability to meet that need is in question.
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