On Wednesday, Tom Haberstroh, in the finest tradition of statistical analysis, asked if team chemistry could be more accurately quantified by altering the statistical indicators we currently use, like usage (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while he was on the floor), individual and team field goal percentage. Four months ago, when I envisioned the two best wing players in the world on one team, I saw endless high flying alley-oops, backdoor cuts and the seemingly limitless potential for defense-obliterating pick-and-rolls between Wade and James. We’ve seen some dunks, but, as Haberstroh notes, despite being friends off the court, there seem to be some very real chemistry issues between Wade and James that are entirely rooted in on-court dynamics.
I hate to play the role of hoops psychologist, and I’m not a fan of using out of context quotations to make sweeping generalizations about a player’s character or attitude. But, uhm… here I go.
It’s my belief that LeBron and Dwyane’s chemistry issue—which has caused LeBron to turn the rock over at a league high rate and Wade struggle with his field goal percentage (a career low 44.3%)—stems from a lack of definition in their offensive roles. For their entire careers, both players have had free license to define their roles as they saw fit. This is not because the two All Stars share a deep seated hubris (though this is a possibility), but because their talent for pure creation both as scorers and passers defied the traditional scoring/distributing dichotomy. LeBron in particular is famous for switching between what is often called “Magic” and “Jordan” modes. They earned that freedom by taking on more responsibility than practically all other players in the league.
It seems to be both Wade and James’s hope that playing together will not necessitate any drastic alteration to their role-blurring habits. Said James, “I can’t change my game dramatically and I don’t think he [Wade] can either. It doesn’t make any sense to do that. I’m not going to. I’d just be a role player at that point.”
The operative word here for me is “just,” because the truth is, every player is a role player.
There is a perception, particularly aimed at scorers, that certain players aren’t “role players” because they seem to have permission from teammates and coaches to break plays and freelance for scoring opportunities. However, there are few great scorers that do not function as a part of an efficient offensive system (Exhibit A: Allen Iverson). A scorer who makes a habit of hurting the team by forcing shots is different from a scorer who doesn’t get many assists and is an occasional ball stopper but functions in the context of an efficient system. The latter isn’t selfish, he’s simply playing the role that is required of him by the team’s design.
For their entire careers, Wade and James have been free to define their own roles as they saw fit, often morphing within a single game as required by circumstances. This was highly successful because both were always the best passer, ball handler and scorer on their team. That’s no longer necessarily the case.
Each time I see the Heat play, I am struck by the unproductive redundancy in James and Wade’s half court offensive approaches. On a few occasions each game, Wade (or James) will penetrate and kick to his superhuman counterpart, who will catch in plenty of space before attacking any defender attempting to close out. If the second penetrator, in this case James, cannot reach the rim, he often kicks back to Wade who again looks to attack the rim. While this is occasionally effective, usually it results in one of the two stars settling on a contested two point pull up. Both are programmed to attack off the dribble, but it seems passive aggressive if neither wants to take a wide open three. Even if neither shoots a high percentage, the threat will at least force a more aggressive close out and better open up driving lanes.
I don’t think either player needs to make radical adjustments to his game. Rather, small tweaks, like being prepared to catch and shoot instead of looking to re-create, would go a long way toward smoothing over their on-court awkwardness. As an imperfect analogy, observe the way that Paul Pierce and Ray Allen altered their games as Celtic teammates. In Seattle, Allen was regularly featured in pick-and-rolls and perimeter isolations (he’s such a phenomenal jump shooter, few may remember that he torched Bruce Bowen in singular fashion by shredding him off the dribble), and prior to the formation of the Big Three in Boston, Pierce was an isolation wizard. With better players around them, Pierce has become a much more reliable three point threat and still makes his money in step back 18 footers, while Allen has assumed the “pure shooter” role and now looks to penetrate when his defender overplays a shot-fake or trails him on a screen.
Allen and Pierce instinctively operate in different roles, but they quickly scrapped parts of their extensive games to better compliment each other. in contrast, Wade, James, and Spoelstra need to figure out how best to combine their skills without looking like the world’s two fastest sprinters competing in a three-legged race.
Without intimate knowledge of the locker room dynamics, it’s hard to say whether the disharmony is a result of LeBron/Wade refusing coaching, or maybe Spoelstra not effectively communicating the role he desires each player to assume. My gut is that neither star is eager to alter his game, and that Spoelstra hoped things would shake out naturally as the two gained experience playing together. As an outside observer, it seems clear that the Heat suffer from a severe lack of urgency in their offensive execution, and this sleepwalking attitude may emanate from #6. Is this because Spoelstra, James and possibly Wade are in a tug of war for control of the team, either deliberately or subconsciously? Is James so unwilling to assume the point-guard or post up roles that he actively sabotages attempts to use him as such? Impossible to say from here, but what I can say with confidence is that coach Spoelstra, Wade, and James need to reach consensus as to each other’s roles if they hope to fulfill the exciting potential of all that talent in South Beach. In doing so, Wade and James may realize there’s no shame in being a role player.