When a group of superstars unite like Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will in Miami after James' announcement Thursday that he will sign with the Heat as a free agent, the retort is always that there is only one ball to go around. From a statistical perspective, that's not quite the issue. Instead, it's a matter of divvying up plays.
Last year, Wade led the league in using plays, ending 35.2 percent of Miami's attempts to score (either a field-goal attempt, a trip to the free throw line or a turnover) while on the floor. Number two? James, who used 33.7 percent of Cleveland's plays. Bosh was 10th in the league at 28.8 percent of Toronto's plays. Together, their usage rates totaled 97.7 percent of plays. Needless to say, this is a lot for three players.
Neil Paine has been ahead of the curve in terms of quantifying the Bosh-James-Wade Big Three at the Basketball-Reference.com blog. He found no trio in the modern era that had combined to use more than 90 percent of their teams' plays the previous season. From that standpoint, the Heat's combination is essentially unprecedented.
Depending on how Miami fills out its roster, however, the distribution of plays might not quite be so extreme. Let's say, for example, that the Heat starts holdovers Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony alongside the Big Three. Here's how the possession usage looks for that lineup.
There is precedent for lineups with combined usage rates this high or higher, and we don't have to go far to find one of them. When Miami threw out a lineup of Jason Williams, Wade, Antoine Walker, Udonis Haslem and Shaquille O'Neal during the 2005-06 season, that group had a combined usage rate of 124 percent the previous season. The 2003-04 L.A. Lakers, with their starting five of Gary Payton, Kobe Bryant, Rick Fox, Karl Malone and O'Neal dwarves those figures with a combined usage rate of 134 percent.
Inevitably, when Wade, James and Bosh are all on the floor together, they will have to sacrifice some plays, even if they are joined in the lineup by non-scorers like Anthony. They can make up part of the difference by dominating the ball more when reserves are on the floor. What could make the Heat's lineup especially lethal is the ability to have either Wade or James on the floor at all times, not unlike the way Phil Jackson used Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago.
Let's take an early run at what Miami's usage might look like as a team. The team is reportedly close to signing Mike Miller, who used 14.8 percent of Washington's plays. To fill out the roster, let's assume the rest of the Heat's players average a 13.0 percent usage rate, which is definitely on the low side. It's reasonable to assume most of the players Miami targets will be low-usage role-player types, and frankly that's all the Heat can afford at this point.
Estimating minutes for the players already under contract and filling out the rest, we get a combined usage rate for Miami as a team of 107.4 percent of plays. Again, that's high but not extraordinarily so. In fact, it's actually very similar to the Heat's total projection last year, which was greater than 100 percent because of the expected growth from Michael Beasley and the presence of Jermaine O'Neal for a whole season.
Still, that does mean a cut. If it was distributed equally, Wade's usage rate would fall to 32.8 percent, James' to 31.4 percent and Bosh's to 26.8 percent. The interesting thing to watch will be how that affects these players in terms of their efficiency. We talk a lot on Basketball Prospectus about the trade-off between usage and efficiency, which in general sees a player gain about a point per 100 possessions of Offensive Rating for each percent of usage they drop.
Each player has a unique relationship between usage and efficiency, however. Dean Oliver calls these skill curves, and his work investigating them in Basketball on Paper remains seminal. Basically, what Oliver found was these curves are very steep for role players, who become much less efficient as scorers as they're asked to create more of their own shots. Star players distinguish themselves by having flatter skill curves, which means they can take on more possessions but also means that lowering their usage offers less benefit in terms of efficiency.
The best example of this in recent memory is Bryant, whose True Shooting Percentage has been largely flat over the course of his career. It did increase from 55.9 percent to 59.0 percent from 2005-06 to 2006-07, but doing so required a historic drop in usage rate from 39.0 percent of the Lakers' plays to 33.8 percent. As a result, Bryant has generally been more valuable in his prime when using more possessions. The same should be true of James and Wade and, to a lesser extent, Bosh.
We will likely see diminishing returns in other areas as well. Both James and Wade were among the league's leading assisters last season, averaging assists on 10.3 percent and 8.5 percent, respectively, of their team's plays. There wasn't a duo that played together on a regular basis last season that saw both players post assist rates higher than 8.0 percent of possessions.
All of that makes projecting a record for the Heat a little trickier than adding up the team's WARP totals from last season. Doing so, however, is a scary proposition. James and Wade combined for 45.4 Wins Above Replacement last season, while Bosh added 12.4 more and Anthony, Chalmers and Miller (whose pass-happy ways will be welcomed in Miami) combined for 6.0 WARP. That's a total of 63.8, and adding the 10 wins we grant for replacement level suggests the Heat flirting with the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls for the best record of all time.
Again, I think that estimate is very optimistic. At the same time, Miami has the chance to potentially lure players who can contribute positive WARP despite having only replacement-level salaries to offer. 60-plus wins seems to be the statistical consensus for what the Heat might achieve. John Hollinger estimated 61 wins, Paine's various estimates had a floor of 61 and Haralobos Voulgaris comes up with 64 wins. That's despite the fact that all those projections filled out the roster with nothing but replacement players, not giving Miami the benefit of Chalmers or Miller.
If that's the starting point, it's truly frightening to think how good the Heat might be in a couple of years. What makes this Big Three so unique is that all three are in the prime of their careers. Miami's roster will be top-heavy this season, but--depending on how the next CBA changes things--the Heat will have the ability to go over the cap and add a player with the mid-level exception next season, as well as its own first-round pick and a shot at getting a second pick from Toronto if the Raptors make the playoffs. With all three players apparently set to sign on for the long haul, last night was very likely the start of a dynasty in Miami.
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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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