When NBA superstars depart: Heat trying to avoid fall clubs often take

It’s no surprise that NBA teams generally get worse when they lose a superstar.

But teams that saw a significant decline the year their stars left often turn it around by the second year and about a third of them see no significant drop in win percentage at all, a Palm Beach Post analysis shows.

The findings offer hope to Miami Heat fans beginning  a season without the team’s two remaining superstars from the LeBron James era, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

And, in fact, the Heat did better than most teams after losing a superstar the year James left for Cleveland after four trips to the NBA Finals. Some analysts now expect the Heat to remain competitive in the immediate aftermath of losing Wade and Bosh.

“When you start off with (team president) Pat Riley, that Heat organization and (coach) Erik Spoelstra, the culture is already there,” ESPN analyst Mark Jackson said. “They compete at a high level. I expect them to still shockingly be fighting for a playoff spot in the East and have a legitimate chance because of the way they get after it and culture that has been instilled there over a long time.”

Jackson’s partner at ESPN, another former NBA coach, Jeff Van Gundy, agrees.

“The defense the effort they’ll expend on a nightly basis. You have (center Hassan) Whiteside as an elite shot blocker and you have Erik Spoelstra who’s and elite coach and you surround them with a bunch of hard-playing younger players and they’re going to get after you and it’s not going to be easy.

Teams trading or signing to get superstars improved their record 83 percent of the time, while those that lost their superstars got worse 66 percent of the time in the season immediately following the superstar’s departure.

The Post examined players who ranked among the top 10 in the league in any year since 1985 and who left their team around the time they were ranked. The Post relied on rankings by Basketball-Reference, a sports statistics site.

Thirty-eight players, ranging from James and Michael Jordan to James Donaldson and Vin Baker met the criteria.

Nearly half the teams had a better record two years after their superstar’s departure. The team improving the most? The 2003-04 Phoenix Suns after the loss of point guard Stephon Marbury. The Suns signed now-Hall-of-Fame guard Steve Nash in 2004, who helped carry the team to the 2005-06 playoffs.

The team that did the worst? The Cleveland Cavaliers after James left for the Heat in 2010.

The Cavs worsened by virtually every measurable statistic — its win percentage more than halved, they made fewer shots and were scored on more often.

When the Heat lost James, the fall was not nearly as severe. Riley made some key signings, including free-agent forward Luol Deng and the little-regarded Whiteside. He also traded for point guard Goran Dragic at the All-Star break to complement Wade in the back court. 

The James-less Heat missed the playoffs and its record dropped by 200 percentage points to .451, a slightly steeper decline than other teams with post-superstar losses. But the Heat rebounded quickly.

The next season, with Wade and Whiteside — now an All-Star caliber player — leading the way, the team recovered to a winning percentage of .585 and advanced to the second round of the playoffs. In both seasons, Miami dealt with Bosh missing the second half of the season while dealing with blood clots.

The Heat were one of 16 teams to begin improving the second season after a superstar departure.

Thirteen teams saw no deterioration in win percentages at all.

As expected the loss of Michael Jordan — twice — in the 1990s struck the Chicago Bulls hard. But, aside from the Cavs after James, no team fell as much as the Bulls when Jordan retired for the second time in 1999. That same year, the Bulls lost future Hall-of-Famers Scottie Pippin and Dennis Rodman.

The Bulls were world champions in 1998, defeating the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals four games to two. The next season, with Jordan gone, Pippen traded and Rodman eventually released, the Bulls won only 13 games and were the lowest scoring team in the NBA.

Departures as extreme as James’ and Jordan’s might be the easiest to remember, but they are outside the norm. Teams that lose superstar players average a loss of 190 percentage points, while James and Jordan left their respective teams with deficits of about 500 percentage points.

The Portland Trail Blazers lost Clyde Drexler to the Houston Rockets after the ‘94-95 season and saw no change to their win percentage the next season.

The Bulls also saw no decline after Elton Brand left in 2001, but mostly because they were so bad, they could hardly get worse.

The team had a .183 win-loss percentage before Brand left, the worst in the NBA. Their record improved slightly, but remained the worst in the Central Division the following season as the team continued to struggle.

So what does all this mean for a Heat team without Wade and Bosh? 

Only a season will tell, but history shows it doesn’t have to be doom and gloom for the Heat and their fans.

“They’re certainly going to miss Chris Bosh and what he does and what he brings to the table,” ESPN’s Jackson said. “They’re going to miss a guy like Luol Deng and what he brought on a daily basis. Obviously they’re going to miss Dwyane Wade. It’s going to be a question of searching for an identity, who they’re going to trust when it matters most when the game is on the line. The one thing you do know with that team they’re going to play hard and they’re going to defend at a high level.”

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