“The Decision” in 2010 did more than just permanently vilify LeBron James. Miami’s move to ink free agents James and Chris Bosh in addition to re-signing Dwyane Wade brazenly proclaimed the old blueprint of a championship NBA team was obsolete.
Do you really need a deep bench, skill-specific role players and a well-balanced roster when you have an inordinate amount of talent at three positions? This was the question indirectly asked by Miami’s 2010 free-agent moves, and it has yet to be definitively answered.
Though we can clearly see the results the first year of the Heat dynasty brought, opinions of just how successful Miami’s season was vary dramatically.
Some argue that coming up just short in the NBA Finals in the first year of Miami’s existence in its current form is a success. The team can only manage to get better once cohesion is consistent and significant role players such as Udonis Haslem can stay healthy.
Others would deem anything short of a title an abysmal failure considering the Heat employ two of the top five players in the league. I personally have a hard time seeing a team getting farther than anyone else in their conference a failure. However, it’s completely reasonable to burden a team with such tremendous talent with lofty expectations.
Some would argue the so-called “Big Three” Boston Celtics team were the first to use the “stars and scrubs” roster strategy and did so with great success. However, there are noticeable differences between the two teams.
The free agents acquired by Boston GM Danny Ainge were much older than their Miami counterparts. Ainge also seemed to put more emphasis on acquiring great players whose skills did not overlap. Allen’s dead-eye shooting, Garnett’s interior presence and defensive prowess and Paul Pierce’s supreme scoring ability and team leadership fit together perfectly.
Conversely, Miami overlooked the fact that James and Wade had very similar skill sets and did not concern themselves with the unavoidable conundrum of who should have the ball in his hands in crunch time. The boldest proclamation made by Miami was that the unparalleled level of talent would more than make up for the imbalance it caused.
Even with Boston’s better balanced team, they still heavily relied on key role-players such as PJ Brown, Eddie House and James Posey to earn the first NBA championship for Boston since the Larry Bird era.
If history has shown us anything, it’s that a title is incredibly difficult to win without significant and even unexpected contributions from role-players.
As much elite talent as the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs had, both teams would have less hardware to display were it not for the efforts of Steve Kerr. Robert Horry’s entire career was defined by drilling clutch shots in the finals for three different teams. Horry’s seven championship rings effectively demonstrate the importance of role players.
This is certainly not to say Miami is doomed to several years of futility with their current core of Wade, James and Bosh. In fact, Miami is the prohibitive favorite to win the title this year, and I think it would surprise no one if LeBron and company are hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy come June.
But is this because LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh have stepped up their games to even higher heights? Not really. It seems to be more due to the emergence of Norris Cole, the offseason acquisition of Shane Battier and the health of Haslem. Again, it seems that the quality of the supporting cast and the second unit is what sets teams apart.
The New York Knicks are the team that has most closely followed the blueprint of the Heat by acquiring Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire. The trade that brought in Anthony was made possible by the sacrifice of several key depth players such as Raymond Felton and Danilo Galinari.
Like Miami in 2010, the Knicks gambled on a few superstars making up for a lack of talent everywhere else. Thus far, it really hasn’t paid off. Were it not for the tremendous ascension of Jeremy Lin, the Knicks would be staring the lottery in the face, probably looking for a new coach and having serious discussions about blowing up the team again.
One of the most interesting byproducts of the “stars and scrubs” ideology is the number of teams who seem to have taken the opposite approach. Teams like the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers have assembled talented teams and have had surprising success without having one true superstar on the team.
These teams have several advantages over star-heavy teams like the Heat and Knicks. There is not the significant drop-off in talent from the first unit to the second as there is with Miami. Because the talent level is consistent throughout the entire roster, minutes can be divvied up more evenly, keeping starters better rested throughout the season.
Opponents of these “star-less” teams also run into the problem of having a hard time figuring out who to focus on defensively. With teams such as Miami, New York, Oklahoma City and both Los Angeles teams, it’s clear who needs to be stopped. On teams such as Denver and Portland, putting special attention on one player puts another and likely equally talented player at an advantage.
But just like the Heat, the “star-less” teams have not seen an NBA championship recently. Coincidentally, the last time a “star-less” team won a championship was the 2004 Detroit Pistons, who soundly defeated a “stars and scrubs” Los Angeles Lakers team that had signed Gary Payton and Karl Malone the previous offseason.
While both of these methods and myriad others have been used by championship-winning teams, the jury is still out on both the “star-less” and “stars and scrubs” roster strategies. In either case, the recurring point seems to be the importance of depth.
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