A lot of inches of column space were devoted, in the preceding four seasons, to celebrating the Miami Heat’s Big Three.
A once-in-a-generation stable of selfishly selfless hardwood maestros—they took less money in salary to make more in endorsements; they accepted downticks in their counting stats to raise their profiles within the sport—LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade owned the Association.
Though James was always the greater among equals—he won the MVPs and earned the GOAT talk—there was always a notion that he needed the Heat nearly as much as the organization relied on him. Miami, after all, is where he won his first two titles and appeared in four of his five NBA Finals.
The events of this season, however, have called that narrative into question.
James and his Cleveland Cavaliers are coasting after an early-season swoon. Before losing three of their last four, LeBron and Co. ripped off an eight-game winning streak that quieted concerns that the King’s new Big Three were an ill-fitting bunch.
While James himself is still off his game—per Basketball-Reference.com, he’s posting the lowest total win shares per 48 minutes since his rookie season, and his 58.5 true shooting percentage is his worst since 2007-08—his teammates are beginning to jell. Kyrie Irving is having a career season, and every day, Kevin Love looks more like the sweet-shooting double-double machine he’s been throughout his career. The 2014-15 Cavs, the hoops world has conceded, will be just fine.
But the Heat likely won’t be.
Chris Bosh has been a solid, steadying force in Miami’s lineup, but the expectation that he would considerably raise his game in James' absence now feels foolish. Bosh has been productive—the addition of a three-point shot to his repertoire was huge—but, while he’s doubtless Miami’s best player, he’s a bit overmatched as a No. 1. Bosh’s Heat-leading 2.2 win shares are good for just 41st in the NBA, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
In short, if your best player is the 41st-best player in the NBA, you’ll be hard-pressed to win unless you have exceptional depth, which Miami doesn’t.
Beyond Dwyane Wade, who’s fought through injury to have a fine season, Miami is wafer thin. Chris Andersen, at 36, has collapsed. Danny Granger has made no impact whatsoever for the Heat. Big-ticket—well, as big-ticket as it got for Miami this summer—offseason acquisition Josh McRoberts has been at turns injured and ineffective since he came to Miami from the Charlotte Hornets. He's now out indefinitely with a torn meniscus.
Meanwhile, Mario Chalmers has never been anything more than an average basketball player, and Norris Cole would have to improve by leaps and bounds to even sniff average. The pair play, combined, more than 55 minutes per game for Miami.
There are some interesting young pieces on the team—Shabazz Napier and James Ennis are chief among them—but they’re secondary pieces. They’re not players, not yet anyway, who can carry a team.
Consequently, the once-mighty Miami offense is now 16th in the league in efficiency, per ESPN.com. A defense that was on a downward slope the last few seasons has slipped further. The Heat are just 25th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions.
Help is likely on the way, in the form of a free-agent splurge in the summer of 2016 or even this offseason. But for the time being, Miami just doesn’t have a roster that’s capable of making noise in even the enfeebled Eastern Conference.
The Heat’s struggles in 2014-15 also raise an interesting question: Absent LeBron, was this ever a particularly strong roster to begin with?
At first blush, it’s a silly, even blasphemous thing to question. Last season, Miami had three sure-fire Hall of Famers on its roster—James, Wade and Ray Allen—and a potential fourth in Chris Bosh.
But if you look a little deeper, problems were apparent long before this year. Miami, for a long time, has been old. Last season, according to Deadspin, the Heat had the oldest roster in the NBA.
And even at the top, minus LeBron, it wasn’t that productive.
Outside of James, the most productive member of the Heat in 2013-14 was Bosh, who checked in with eight win shares, according to Basketball-Reference.com. This placed him at No. 26 in the NBA.
This wasn’t the exception, either. The only season during the Big Three era in which the Heat placed three players in the league’s top 20 in win shares was 2012-13—when James (No. 1), Wade (No. 13) and Bosh (No. 20) each made the cut.
Now, the fact that Miami failed to place three guys in the top 20 in win shares every season is no great indictment of the team. That’s a pretty incredible accomplishment.
It’s simply to underscore the fact that there was a gulf between the conventional wisdom of how productive Miami’s non-James players were and how much they actually offered.
The moral of the story: As good as life is with LeBron James, it can be that difficult without him.
The best player in basketball makes a fine deodorant.