There’s panic in the air wherever an NBA beat reporter treads in Miami and a giddy glee in the hearts of Heat-haters right now. The malefic trio who came to South Beach with arrogance in its heart and entitlement on its brow has officially stumbled out of the gate.
5-4 is the focus. How can a team constructed with dynastic intentions and the audacity to announce those intentions prior to playing a single game start the season a tenuous single game above .500? How can they possibly lose 3 out of 4 including two in a row at home?First let me feed the paranoia a little. I looked at the starts of the only two teams I could think of with similar triple star player line-ups on largely reconstructed teams. Everyone remembers the 2008 Boston Celtics who won the title. They burst out of the gate winning 13 of their first 15 games and going 36-8 in the first 3 months of the season. The other team that I came up with was the 1997 Houston Rockets, who brought Charles Barkley in to play with mainstay Hakeem Olajuwon and relative new-comer Clyde Drexler. They started 15-1 over the first month of the season. With Barkley healthy (he only played 53 games that season) they had a 77% win rate and projected to win 63 games. The point being that concocting these three star super-teams has not always resulted in slow learning curves. That particular excuse is starting to feel a little thin.
Now let’s drop a chunk of reality and debunk the negativity a little bit. The Heat are currently 5-4. That doesn’t sound very good, but when you look at who they lost to, some of the Horror, the Horror fades out of this particular little Hea(r)t of Darkness tale.
Boston is the defending eastern conference champion, and they look better than they did anytime after the All-Star break last year (including the playoffs). Rondo is playing at a higher level than ever, and Garnett has regained a lot of his upability (to steal a Jeff Van Gundy line). Call the Celtics a bad match-up for the Heat or a better team, I don’t care. The point is simply that half of the Heat’s woeful losses came to what might very well be the best or second best team in the league. There’s no shame in losing to Boston.
New Orleans is playing phenomenal basketball right now. They just are. The Hornets are the only undefeated team left in the league (meaning all the other non-Heat teams that played against them had the same result as LeBron & Co.). As measured by Win Share per minute, Chris Paul, David West, and Emeka Okafur are all playing by far the most efficient ball of their careers. In fact Okafur’s efficiency is at a prime Karl Malone / David Robinson level, and Chris Paul’s is currently above a prime Michael Jordan’s, which means he’s pretty much playing as well as anyone ever has at the moment in terms of per minute production. No shame in dropping a game to that team at that moment.
The Utah Jazz have won 4 come from behind games in a row. That’s no excuse to lose to them. However, Millsap hitting three consecutive three-point shots and getting a miracle offensive rebound tip in play to send it to overtime is an okay excuse to lose to them. Frankly the Heat should have closed out this game in the third quarter and never been in any position to lose. LeBron should have been doing his little Noah-bugging dance, and Wade should have been icing his knees in the 4th quarter. Still it took a career game by Millsap and a pretty unlikely set of circumstances for Utah to take that game, so it’s hard to declare the Heat a bust for dropping this one.
Another way of looking at the inequities of judging a team solely on record after 9 games can be found in modern metrics. The advanced team ranking stat SRS actually rates the Heat as second best in the league (after the Hornets who are one of the three teams to beat them) even though they’ve lost more games than 13 teams. I’ll let Justin Kubatko of the Portland Trailblazers (consultant), Basketball-Reference (founder), and The New York Times (writer) explain:
Simple Rating System is a team ranking that takes into account both point differential and strength of schedule. S.R.S. is denominated in points above or below average, where zero is average. For example, last season the Orlando Magic had an S.R.S. of 7.1, the best regular-season mark in the N.B.A. In other words, we estimate that the Magic was 7.1 points better than an average team.
So maybe Miami isn’t as bad as advertised. Maybe the cries to trade Bosh and move Pat Riley to the bench are a bit premature.
That’s not to say the Heat don’t have their problems. They are getting virtually nothing from their starting center and point guard, and they seem to play better with Haslem on the floor than Bosh. Once again I’m reminded of Chicago’s second dynasty. Harper and Longley contributed very little statistically, BUT they both served a meaningful purpose as defensive stalwarts and great ball movers at their positions (something that can’t be overvalued in the triangle offense). Anthony and Arroyo do not give those sorts of intangibles. They just take up roster spots. That’s not good. You can’t have any player on the court serving no purpose except to occupy space. I also wonder if Bosh wouldn’t be better coming off the bench with Haslem starting. The Heat could use the rebounding and toughness (a la Rodman) that Haslem brings, and Bosh could be free to play as more of a free-wheeler with the second unit (a la Kukoc). I don’t see it happening, but unless CB1 is willing to batten down and attack the glass, he’s going to be a liability out there at the 4 for this perimeter-oriented team.Also the reports that elite point guards are eating Miami alive do seem to be well-founded, though I’m not sure many teams have answers for Rondo, Paul, and Deron. Still the trap and recover defensive style that the Heat play is dependent on Wade and LeBron NOT covering the primary ball-handler and on both of them being fully engaged and active away from the ball. When the team needs their athleticism to handle a speedy PG, that defense is compromised. When they get confused by the constant motion of Jerry Sloan’s offense and Ray Allen’s game, that defense is compromised. When a PG absolutely refuses to give up his dribble until he’s in the paint in position to score or pass, anyone’s defense would be compromised. These are serious issues.
However, as we’ve seen, the Heat are not unique in their inability to clamp down on Rondo and CP3. Boston is the winningest team in the East. New Orleans is the winningest team in the league. Losing to them should not be considered shocking or shameful. And let’s give a little credit to the teams that have won these games. Acting as though the 7-2 Celts and 7-0 Hornets needed Miami to take a dive in order to walk away with wins is insulting to those teams’ early-season achievements.