The Miami Heat will finish up their pre-All-Star break schedule late tonight, with a road game against the Golden State Warriors (10:30 PM ET, NBA-TV). The Heat are sitting on a 36-14 record, 3 ½ games back of the Indiana Pacers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference and a game and a half behind the Oklahoma City Thunder, a potential NBA Finals opponent. TheSportsNotebook takes a closer look at how the Heat’s bid for a third straight NBA title is faring.
Miami is the polar opposite of Indiana, whom they are almost certainly going to play in the conference finals. While the Pacers play supremely good defense, crash the boards hard, are young and hungry, but have a mediocre offense, the Heat have quite a different profile. Miami has the most efficient offense in the NBA (points, adjusted for tempo). They have championship-savvy veterans. They hit the three-ball with consistency, ranking 10th in the league. But the rebounding is truly awful, and the defense around the middle of the league.
LeBron James continues to put up MVP-caliber numbers, with 26 points/7 rebounds/7 assists per game, as he carries a larger share of the load during the regular season, with Dwayne Wade’s minutes being closely monitored due to his knee. LeBron likely trails Kevin Durant in the MVP race right now, but that’s about Durant’s excellence rather than any slippage on LeBron’s part.
Wade’s physical limitations dominate most media reports about him right now, but when he’s on the floor—which is still most of the time, Wade averages a 19/5/5 line, so it’s not as though his game itself has slipped. Chris Bosh rounds out the Big Three, averaging 17 points/7 rebounds.
The problem is that Bosh, a natural forward who likes to float to the perimeter, has been placed in the role of center. The Heat are experimenting with Greg Oden, the one-time stud center of the 2007 Ohio State Buckeyes, but whose NBA career has been wracked by injuries and a struggle with alcohol abuse.
But even if the experiment works, it’s not anticipated to be more than 5-8 minutes a game. Chris Andersen, the tattoo-laden “Birdman” gets five boards a night. It’s nice supplementary work, but the Heat need more than supplements down low. They need a real big-time rebounder.
Miami was soft inside last year and made it work with superior depth on the perimeter. The players are still there—Mario Challmes at the point, Norris Cole backing him up and Ray Allen and Shane Battier as the veteran leadership. None of the four can really be said to be having a stellar year though.
Perhaps the veteran experience will come through in the playoffs, but that’s something to assess in the spring. For now, the fact the backcourt is merely good, as opposed to great, is going to keep Miami a step behind the Pacers and Thunder in the race for homecourt advantage. Miami has won three Game 7s at home in their title runs in 2012 and 2013, so they understand the value of the rest of the regular season.
Understanding the value of homecourt and being in position to go do something about it are two different things though. It’s just not smart for Miami to push Wade any harder than they are now, and while Allen and Battier don’t log major minutes, you don’t want to burn their legs out. Head coach Erik Spoelstra has a clear choice—go into the playoffs healthy, but likely without homecourt, or take a major risk to get the #1 seed. No coach in his right mind would do anything other than the former and that’s what Spoelstra is doing.
That’s why it’s tough to know how much we can read into these All-Star break numbers for Miami. There is absolutely no way a team can play average defense and have the 28th-rebounding team in the league and still win a championship. But are we are going to see a substantial elevation of intensity, and thereby performance in those areas come the postseason?
I also wonder just how hungry Miami is. This week, the highlight reel everyone was talking about was LeBron putting on a dunk show at practice for the TV cameras. Doing a dunk show and being hungry to win are not mutually exclusive, but I wonder about the mental edge.
I’m sure Miami wants to win. But do they feel they must win, as was the case the last two years? Indiana and Oklahoma City feel that way, and won’t really get a good read on this Heat team until they play either foe. Right now though, Miami doesn’t have a championship feel to me.