The most obvious example of a team that is comparable to this year's Heat featured the same center -- the 2003-04 Los Angeles Lakers. Role players Derek Fisher (14.7 possession percentage) and Robert Horry (12.4 percent) were replaced in the starting lineup by NBA legends Gary Payton (26.4 percent) and Karl Malone (27.8 percent). The results:
2002-03 Lakers Starters
2003-04 Lakers Starters
The Lakers' moves were not nearly as successful from this perspective asHouston's addition of Barkley. However, most of the enormous drop-off can be traced to Rick Fox's shooting struggles after missing the first half of the season following foot surgery and O'Neal's shooting percentage taking a hit.
There is an important point to be taken from Bryant's and O'Neal's statistics. For role players such as Fisher and Horry, efficiency is usually tied to possession usage. Using more possessions means forcing more shots against tougher defenses, meaning lower efficiency. Part of the reason players like Bryant and O'Neal are so useful is that they can shoot so frequently without doing much harm to their efficiency. The trade-off is that when these players see their load reduced, their efficiency doesn't tend to increase. Olajuwon and O'Neal, for example, both became less efficient.
Both the '96-97 Rockets and the '03-04 Lakers won more games and went further in the playoffs with their new lineups.
For a more pessimistic possibility, let's take a look at a slightly different example: when Chris Webber returned to the Sacramento Kings lineup from microfracture knee surgery that forced him to miss the first 58 games of the '03-04 season.
I don't have numbers specifically broken up by Webber's presence in the lineup, but we can look at the Kings in the first and second half of '03-04:
2003-04 First Half Kings Starters
2003-04 Second Half Kings Starters
Like Walker, Webber was less efficient than the players he replaced in the lineup. Despite struggling as he worked his way back to full health -- a point he may never again reach -- Webber continued to fire the ball up like the superstar he's reputed to be. He took possessions away from three players -- Vlade Divac, Brad Miller (whom he replaced in the starting lineup) and Peja Stojakovic. While this wasn't a big deal in the case of Divac, Stojakovic and Miller were the two most efficient players in the NBA's best offensive attack at the time of Webber's return.
The enormous bottom-line drop-off caused by Webber's return explains why a team that was rolling (Sacramento was 43-15 in the first 58 games of the season) added such a highly-regarded player and tanked down the stretch (12-12 in the last 24 games). It also explains why the Kings ultimately traded Webber for a package of players that couldn't come close to Webber's name value. And it is this scenario that must worry Miami because, like Webber, Walker is a low-efficiency, high-volume player.
Here's what the Heat's potential lineups look like by the same chart (2004-05 statistics):
2004-05 Heat Lineup without Walker
2004-05 Heat Lineup with Walker
So far, the Heat seems to be making the right moves to be successful with Walker. Making him the go-to player on the second unit would enable Walker to get his shots without taking them away from Wade and O'Neal. Orlando had some success with this strategy with Dennis Scott in the early '90s, when he started behind role player Donald Royal, and last year's Bulls found their way to the playoffs last season by rarely played leading scorers Eddy Curry and Ben Gordon together.
Walker remains one of the Heat's most talented players, however, so Stan Van Gundy will inevitably tempted to play him down the stretch. When that happens, it could cause problems for the NBA's second-best offense last season.