Is Miami Heat's Supporting Cast Good Enough for a 3-Peat?

Tom Sunnergren@@tsunnergrenContributor IMarch 30, 2014

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

In the NBA, contenders are born from superstar talent, but championships are often won by the little guys. This has been, in no small part, the Miami Heat’s story.

In the deciding Game 5 of the 2012 NBA Finals, Mike Miller shot 7-of-8 from three-points and scored 23. On the night LeBron James won his first championship, four Heat players broke 20 points, and six scored in double figures.

In 2013, Shane Battier turned a similar trick, scoring 18 on a 6-of-8 mark from three and, in 29 minutes off the bench, posting a game-high plus/minus of plus-12. In each clincher, a middling contributor got off the bench and changed the game.

Even in the regular season during its current title run, Miami has been buoyed by tremendous contributions from its secondary and tertiary pieces.

During 2012-13, per Basketball-Reference, Miami had seven players, outside of the Big Three, who posted win shares per 48 minutes marks of above .1, the league average. Norris Cole and Rashard Lewis were the only members of the Heat rotation during the 66-win campaign who didn’t break this average. That’s a lot of depth.

2011-12 was the same story, as the only Miami regulars who failed to exceed the league win share-per-48-minute average were Norris Cole and Terrel Harris. (Relatedly, we’re noticing a trend here Norris Cole. We’re guessing Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra have too.)

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In each of 2011-12 and 2012-13, Norris Cole was one of only two Heat regulars to fall below the league average in win shares per minute. Now, the guard has plenty of company.
In each of 2011-12 and 2012-13, Norris Cole was one of only two Heat regulars to fall below the league average in win shares per minute. Now, the guard has plenty of company.Gary Dineen/Getty Images

The formula was a straightforward one: Three superstars plus great coaching and a topnotch supporting cast equals championships. But now a leg of the stool seems to be missing.

"The 'other' guys just aren't in rhythm,” ESPN’s Israel Gutierrez observed earlier this month. “The combination of Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, Ray Allen and Norris Cole shot a combined 33.7 percent in the Heat's four recent losses, with Battier's 15 percent shooting (2-of-13) being the worst of the group. That tells you they're not getting the same opportunities as usual, or at least not regularly enough to find a rhythm. That's resulted in the league's most efficient offense shooting 47.5, 43, 40.5 and 48.5 percent in those losses."

Think about the aforementioned win shares figures. Now think on this: In 2013-14, outside of the Big Three, only reserve bigs Greg Oden (who’s played a scant 198 minutes through March 28) and Chris Andersen have posted above-average win shares per 48 minutes numbers. Every other member of the roster is, relative to league average—and, in many cases, past performance—struggling.

Consider Ray Allen. The NBA’s all-time leading three-point shooter is connecting on 36.9 percent of his triples—well below his career average—and his .096 win shares per 48 minutes, if it holds up, would be the lowest mark since his rookie season, per Basketball-Reference. His 12.8 player efficiency rating, if it doesn’t improve, would be by far his poorest in his 19-year career.

While the veteran is still productive, Ray Allen's shot is off this season.
While the veteran is still productive, Ray Allen's shot is off this season.Brian Babineau/Getty Images

Meanwhile Norris Cole has been his usual self, Michael Beasley has gone from cautionary tale to redemption story to cautionary tale about telling redemption stories too soon, and Shane Battier has been…well, this warrants its own paragraph.

It's fashionable in sports journalism to call players "nonentities" when they don't perform. The implication being that they, the players in question, are making little to no contributions to their respective teams. This is almost never precisely true: They're usually doing something; it just isn't helping. Except in the case of 2013-14 Shane Battier. He's actually been a nonentity.

Unless you're looking very closely or with a large magnifying glass, you might have missed Battier's 2013-14 stat line: 4.2 points, two rebounds and 0.9 assists in 20.4 minutes a night, with shooting averages of 37.8 percent from the floor and 33.3 percent from three-points.

Even for a putative "No-Stats All-Star," this is not a lot of stats. And each mark, according to Basketball-Reference, represents a decline from 2012-13. 

Part of the problem here with Battier and the other struggling supporting pieces is age. The Heat, at 30.7, are the oldest team in the NBA, and the team's stable of secondary parts is disproportionately responsible for this longness-in-the-tooth. Battier and Chris Andersen are 35. Ray Allen is 38. Udonis Haslem and Rashard Lewis are 33 and 34. 

"No-Stats All-Star" Shane Battier now just looks like a guy who doesn't put up any stats.
"No-Stats All-Star" Shane Battier now just looks like a guy who doesn't put up any stats.Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

While the Heat will have an opportunity for a wholesale roster makeover this summer—the team has a league-high 13 potential unrestricted free agents—the 2013-14 squad, to borrow a usually useless expression, is what it is. No more help is walking through the door. And improvement will have to be internal.

The improvement may yet come though. While the NBA regular season is a grind (the 82 games are packed tightly and irregularly over six months, etc.), the playoff schedule is a relative breeze, with back-to-backs banished, travel schedules tamped down and conditions generally perfect for older players—and teams—to succeed.

The Heat, more so than most teams, have a capacity for fixing their eyes squarely on the future.

"You have to move on in this league," James told ESPN's Brian Windhorst after a Friday night win over the Detroit Pistons. "As much as we wanted that game [in Indiana], you have to move on from it and learn from it, and we did that."

This has happened in the past in Miami, of course: The successful gleaning of a lesson from a defeat and moving on. Before his efficient outburst in the clincher against the San Antonio Spurs, Battier was so bad in the 2013 playoffs that it was an open question whether he was through with professional basketball.

(Even including his 18-point Game 7, the veteran posted a meager 48.9 true shooting percentage during the postseason, per Basketball-Reference. Also, given his play this season, the question might not have been that crazy.)

If Miami's supporting cast doesn't improve, the fate of the 2013-14 Miami Heat tilts even more heavily onto LeBron James' shoulders. A broad pair to sit on, sure, but in the hothouse of the postseason, it helps to have a few extra hands to bear the load.