He’s a devastatingly efficient scorer, one of the best in the sport. A few inches below 7'0", he’s made his mark on championship teams despite some unflattering off-court headlines.
And the Miami Heat are going to have an impossible time replacing him.
Yes, life without Chris Andersen will be difficult in South Beach. And the time is rapidly approaching.
The 12-year veteran is cratering this season for the Heat. Stymied by age—Andersen turned 36 in July—and injury, the Birdman is a shell of his once-potent self.
Having appeared in just nine of Miami’s 18 games, the 6’10” big man is muddling through the worst season of his professional career. His game, across every meaningful statistical category, has collapsed.
Per Basketball-Reference.com, his defensive (15.9), offensive (7.1) and total rebounding rates are each the lowest of his career. His 3.8 block percentage is 42 percent under his career average and, if it held up, would be the lowest single-season mark of his career.
His true shooting percentage, from last season to this, has plummeted from 68.3—one of the best marks in the NBA—to 45.6, one of the worst. His usage rate has dropped, and his turnover percentage has doubled.
The advanced stats underscore Birdman’s rapid descent. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he’s produced .003 win shares per 48 minutes, a figure that’s 3 percent the league average. BoxScore Geeks has him worth minus-.032 wins per 48 minutes. By this formulation, not only has he failed to produce, but he’s actually taken wins off the table for Miami.
There’s little reason to believe Andersen is capable of reversing this trend.
For one, he’s dealing with injury. He has a high-ankle sprain, which he suffered on Nov. 23 against the Charlotte Hornets, that should cause him to miss another week. Injuries like this become increasingly common with old age, and cruelly, the recovery timelines lengthen.
Age itself is another reason to think Andersen is nearing the end. Basketball is a young man’s game, and at 36, Andersen is decidedly not a young man.
According to research by Dave Berri and others, NBA players tend to peak in their mid-20s, plateau for a few seasons before beginning to decline as they approach 30 and then fall off completely by their 32nd birthday.
Andersen has already fought back the grim effects of aging for several seasons—during which he’s had some of the finest years of his NBA career—but, given the level of his performance to start 2014-15, it’s impossible to believe it will continue.
It’s likewise impossible to believe the Miami Heat will be able to find someone who can replace him.
Andersen, in his Heat career, has simply been tremendous. Even including his dreadful nine-game start to this season, his numbers are staggering.
According to Basketball-Reference.com, he’s posted a true shooting percentage of 65.8 with Miami with .192 win shares per 48 minutes. This is nearly twice the production of the average center/power forward, let alone a backup.
It’s hard to overstate how valuable Andersen has been to Miami. In 2013-14, the final season of the Big Three era, it wasn’t Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh, but Andersen who finished second to LeBron James in both wins produced and win shares, according to Basketball-Reference.com and BoxScore Geeks, respectively. And the Birdman accomplished this while playing just 19.4 minutes a night across 72 games.
He’s been even better in the postseason, which were the games that truly mattered in the now-bygone LeBron epoch. According to Basketball-Reference.com, Andersen posted a true shooting percentage of 72.2 across the 2012-13 and 2013-14 postseasons.
On a per-minute basis, by measure of win shares, he was the most valuable player in the 2012-13 postseason. In the 2013-14 playoffs, he posted the highest defensive rebounding and total rebounding rate.
At risk of sounding grim, this is irreplaceable production, especially at Andersen’s salary. Over the course of 2012-13 and 2013-14, including the playoffs, Miami paid Andersen $2.1 million. That’s about what Joe Johnson earned every eight games.
The only one comparable to Andersen over the past few seasons, the player who roughly matches his skill set while approximating his production at a below-market cost, is the Dallas Mavericks' Brandan Wright.
Wright, since 2011-12, per Basketball-Reference.com, has posted win shares per 48 minutes figures of .215, .172, .227 and, so far in 2014-15, .287. This season he leads qualified players with a field-goal percentage of 73.1.
It’s possible the Heat could swipe Wright away from Dallas after this season at a dirt-cheap rate. The power forward/center signed a two-year, $10 million contract in July of 2013 that expires this offseason, but given Miami’s apparent commitment to keeping its books clean in advance of a monster free-agent run in the summer of 2016, he seems an unlikely acquisition.
And, beyond Wright, that’s it. There’s no one else who can do what the Birdman does, let alone at the bargain-basement rate he’s willing to play for. He was—is, in memory at least—a singular figure. The quiet, anonymous engine behind the second half of the Heat’s mini-dynasty.
LeBron’s departure loudly declared the end of an era for Miami, sure. But the Birdman’s decline, while less trumpeted, is its punctuation point.