The 2015 Miami Heat Without LeBron James

If there’s any test for whether or not a player is a superstar that bridges the gap between the analytics crowd and conventional analysis, it’s how well his former team does when he leaves either via free agency, a trade, or retirement. It’s in some ways a version of plus/minus, but it’s simple enough for every fan to understand.

Obviously, there are other factors to consider. The standard in sports analytics is to compare a player to replacement level, but they’re not going to replace LeBron purely with guys you’d find at the end of the bench. With his large salary off the roster, they enticed Luol Deng with a generous contract and brought over Josh McRoberts, who went from believing he’d be throwing alley-oops to LeBron James to wondering if they’ll even make it out of the first round.

Everyone’s engrossed in the Cleveland Cavaliers and how they will do, but many are forgetting the Miami Heat. They’re coming off a paltry 54 wins, paltry given their expectations, and Wade’s health has been problematic.

I’m estimating their 2015 win total in the same fashion as I predicted wins last season, where I beat many predictions from the media and even Vegas. The basis for this is some form of RAPM with a few smart tweaks like an aging curve. The most important step for this is the minutes projection. This is perhaps the most undervalued step in NBA prediction, and it’s the most important: optimistic projections of the Bulls and Rose destroyed a few 2014 predictions.

Minutes per Player Projections

2600 Chris Bosh
2550 Luol Deng
2300 Josh McRoberts
2200 Mario Chalmers
1950 Dwyane Wade
1600 Norris Cole
1200 Chris Andersen
850 Michael Beasley
850 Danny Granger
800 Rashard Lewis
700 Toney Douglas
550 Udonis Haslem
500 Shabazz Napier
330 Roger Mason
300 James Jones
300 Greg Oden
100 Justin Hamilton

Wade’s minutes are the most difficult to pin down given his history and how Miami may or may not repeat their rest program given that they can’t rely on LeBron anymore. Without LeBron and with no other major additions, they rate as a mediocre team and like one that they’d dispatch in the first round.

Win projection, neutral schedule (2014’s strength of schedule):
43.2 (44.9)

Offensive efficiency:
-0.4 (-0.4)

Defensive efficiency:
-1.2 (-1.9)

Miami drops nearly ten wins from the season before thanks to an imploding offense. They actually improve on defense due to switching LeBron with Luol Deng (LeBron’s defensive marks were mediocre last season) and (most likely given the reports) losing Ray Allen. LeBron’s a one-man offense, capable of carrying an average offense into elite territory.

However, there’s an issue here. Players do not have concrete values. They’re dependent on roles and how they’re used. With LeBron gone, the offensive burden shifts to the other players, Bosh and Wade in particular. Some critics have stated those two stars were hindered by LeBron’s presence and ball dominance. It’s their time to prove this theory.

A demonstration of this theory is using Wade and Bosh’s ratings in 2010, before they played with LeBron, and applying an aging curve to estimate their respective values with larger roles in the offense. Bosh is a little better by this method, but Wade’s value skyrockets. The team would have a projected win total of 55, taking into account the easier schedule in the east.

But this is unrealistic as the aging curve doesn’t correctly apply a decline to Wade given his poor track record of health. Looking for a similar player — a superstar shooting guard with severe, reoccurring injury problems — there’s Tracy McGrady, whose ratings started to fall by 1 or 2 points a year. Applying that to Wade, let’s give him a -3 injury penalty along with his aging curve. This gives them a win projection of 51 wins, and this doesn’t include an increase in minutes.

Yet it’s a fool’s errand to estimate a player’s value from a rating four years ago when he was healthy. Another method is to look at how Wade and his lineups have done with and without LeBron. Using from the past couple seasons, when Wade, LeBron, and Bosh are on the court, they outscore the opposition by 8.2 points per 100 possessions with an offensive rating of 112.4. When Wade and Bosh are on the court without LeBron, they’re actually outscored by 0.5 points. The 8.7 point difference nearly matches Real Plus/Minus’ rating of LeBron at 9.2.

On a more optimistic note, Wade and Bosh are outscored because their defense collapsed with LeBron to a degree that doesn’t seem sustainable. Perhaps it’s because LeBron-less units more often had a rookie Cole, Ray Allen, or other bench players. Their offensive rating only declines by 2.7 points to 109.7 points per possession, which is still potent. (The TS% declined from 58.3 to 56.1, and their turnovers dropped by one per 100 possessions.) This is more in line with the projection using an injury penalty and an aging curve from 2010 for Wade. The defensive problems are troubling, but Miami is bringing in Deng.

The NBA world is starting to embrace advanced metrics, but their complexity will keep some fans wary. Not only are some stats based on thousands of data points and statistics beyond most college graduates, but they’re variable based on a player’s given role. LeBron’s a legend in his prime and Cleveland fell apart without him years ago, but here’s the opportunity to see just how valuable he is. If he was suppressing Wade and Bosh, we’ll see it in the numbers next season.

Wade will remain with the Heat for now, for better or worse, as initial reports are stating he signed a two year contract worth roughly 15 million a year. His smaller contract will allow them to absorb Bosh’s max and Deng, without hitting the luxury tax.

They’re living to fight again another day, raging against the dying of the light. But will this fight be futile? Where are they now?