We’re deep enough into the season for me to have a feel for how most of the teams, or at least the good teams, are playing, and so it’s time to introduce a new feature here at Double Dribble: Team Profiles! I’m going to write a piece on how each team is playing, strengths and weaknesses, and projections. And I’ll start with the champs.
I’ve written a lot about LeBron James this season, but I haven’t written too much about the defending champion Miami Heat. After last night’s victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, the Heat’s record stands at 27-8, tied for 2nd place overall in the league and 2nd in the East behind the Indiana Pacers. They are 4th in margin of victory just ahead of the Portland Trailblazers, 2nd in points per possession just behind the Trailblazers, and 9th in points allowed per possession behind the Toronto Raptors. They have had one of the easiest schedules in the league so far (they are in the East), but you can’t blame them for that.
Overall this isn’t a bad position for the Heat to occupy. LeBron James is playing his lowest minutes per game of his career. Dwyane Wade is sitting out the second game of back to backs (the team is 4-4 without Wade and 23-4 with him). They are a veteran, two time defending champion that is conserving its strength for the playoffs.
BUT, you knew there was a “but” coming, the Heat do seem to be distinctly more vulnerable than they did last year in two areas. First and most obvious is on defense. 9th overall in points per possession isn’t terrible, and they do lead the league in turning the opposition over (which helps them achieve their league leading eFG% on offense). However, they are allowing opponents to shoot 51.5 eFG%, 2 points above league average and ranking in the bottom 8 overall. At the same time they are a little below middle of the pack in defensive rebounding. So not only do they allow teams to shoot a high percentage, but they don’t dominate their defensive glass either. Their league leading ability to cause turnovers is the only thing keeping them from falling out of the top 10 defensive teams completely.
The other issue facing the Heat is trouble maintaining offensive possessions. The Heat currently have a 14.7% turnover rate which is the 7th worst in the league. Last year they were above average, ranked 13th best in the league. A high turnover rate isn’t a killer necessarily. Indiana is 5th worst in league in turnover percentage. However, the Pacers help to offset their turnover issues by playing the best defense in the league dominating the defensive glass (3rd in the league). They give it up on offense, but they control their defensive glass. The Heat are a mediocre defensive rebounding team and dead last in offensive rebounding. Overall they remain a net plus in possessions per game thanks to their high steals rate; however, they are a net minus in “plays” per game because of all the offensive rebounds they allow.
The danger, as I see it, is that their high level of play is mostly dependent on incredible shooting and turning the opposition over at an extremely high rate. These two factors are likely to be difficult to maintain in the post season. Better defenses will make it harder to get clean shots off, and more cautious opponents will be less likely to turn the ball over so much. Last season the Heat’s effective field goal percentage dropped 3.6% from the regular season to the playoffs, and while their opponent turnover percentage increased, it increased from a more reasonable 14.8% to 15.6%. The Heat’s opponents are currently turning the ball over at a rate of 17.2%. It seems highly unlikely that a rate so high could be matched in the post-season much less increased.
The good news for the Heat is that the Eastern Conference is so bad right now that they might not even be challenged until the conference finals. The other possible good point for the champs is that they are more committed than ever to their small ball style. Yes the lack of size and complete abandonment of the paint on offense is the reason they recover less than 18% of their missed shots and the reason that their defensive efficiency isn’t what it once was, but their ability to limit their offense to nothing but shots at the rim and three pointers is predicated on the spacing provided by going small.
With no weakside big man near the rim, it’s very difficult to hedge towards the post, and it’s a long way to come to double team. There’s a reason LeBron James is scoring 25 points per game on 16 shot attempts and a reason that the team’s eFG% is 56.6, 3 points higher than the runner up Spurs and 7 points higher than the league average. Teams have not figured out how to deal with a monster like LeBron in the paint and defend the perimeter at the same time. It’s like the Shaquille O’Neal / Kobe Bryant Lakers if O’Neal could make free throws and got fastbreak points. The Pacers and Spurs both played LeBron straight up last year with help only in situations where it was prudent, and it almost worked. Do they have the guts to do it again knowing that there’s rarely a Chris Anderson or Udonis Haslem on the court to help off of? If they do, will it work any better than it did last year? If Wade is healthy in the playoffs, then it may be a moot point, because teams that game plan for James will be susceptible to one-on-one attacks from other players.
The other trick that the Heat have in their back pocket is simply a reserve of energy. The Heat’s best offense is created by their very aggressive defense, and that defensive style is very energy consuming, pressing in the back court, trapping and recovering on post scorers, and blitzing pick and rolls. So they don’t go all out all the time. This means that in a given quarter or a given playoff game, they have the ability to play at a higher level than their season average indicates. Their chief competition does not have the ability to kick it up to the same gear that Miami does. I have a bad feeling for the Pacers that they may learn the same lesson that the 1993 Knicks and 1998 Jazz learned. Having a better regular season than the champs is not the same thing as playing eye to eye with the champs. From what I’ve seen so far this season, I’d say the Heat are in good shape to repeat as Eastern Conference champs and NBA Finals winners.