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Saturday, March 03, 2007

Why the Heat Won't Miss Dwyane Wade as Much as Most People Think

The Miami Heat moved to 3-2 since Dwyane Wade's shoulder injury after Shaquille O'Neal had 31 points and 15 rebounds in an 85-82 win over the Detroit Pistons, the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Everyone's been writing eulogies for the Heat since Wade was wheeled off of the court but Miami is far from dead, particularly considering the state of the "Leastern" Conference. The Heat are now the seventh seeded team in the East and only trail Indiana by a half game for the sixth spot. The Pacers have lost four straight, all by double figure margins, and are moving south so quickly that they will be in the Caribbean by next week.

Has anyone noticed that Dwyane Wade was not even able to carry last year's champions to a .500 record when O'Neal was injured? Wade is a great talent but he cannot carry a team like Tracy McGrady does in Houston without Yao Ming or like Kobe Bryant does in L.A. despite losing Lamar Odom, Luke Walton, Kwame Brown, Chris Mihm and Vladimir Radmanovic for all or part of the season. Give Wade all the credit in the world for his Finals performance last year but there is a reason that Dallas did not double-team him: the Mavericks knew that if they did not slant their defense toward O'Neal that he would beat them, as he did to the tune of 30 points and 20 rebounds in the clinching game of the first round versus Chicago. Dallas Coach Avery Johnson understood O'Neal's capabilities during last year's Finals, which is why he single-covered Wade, taking his chances on Wade beating the Mavericks as opposed to having O'Neal shoot 60% from the field on shots in the paint.

Bryant and McGrady score points and make plays despite facing double and triple teams. Prior to Houston's 108-97 win over Denver on Friday night, Nuggets Coach George Karl called McGrady the second best playmaker in the game behind Bryant, adding, "I think that the presence of McGrady is probably as powerful as Nash." Bryant and McGrady are the ultimate playmakers because of their size, speed and unstoppable scoring ability combined with their passing skills and willingness to give up the ball. Nash is a wonderful shooter and a gifted playmaker but he has two All-Star level finishers (who finished just fine in the All-Star Game without him) and several excellent shooters flanking him. Bryant and McGrady are keeping patchwork teams afloat because of their overpowering ability to score regardless of the defenses that they face and because of the way that they force double teams, affording their less gifted teammates the opportunity to shoot wide open shots.

There are a couple reasons that the Heat will do better down the stretch with O'Neal and without Wade than they did earlier in the year with Wade and without O'Neal. One, O'Neal is well rested after sitting out for most of the season. Meanwhile, most of the players he is facing are worn down after playing so many more games. In 1961-62, Elgin Baylor played in only 48 games because of his military obligations. He averaged a career-best 38.3 ppg, including 41.3 ppg in December 1961 (Wilt Chamberlain and Kobe Bryant are the only other players who have ever averaged 40-plus ppg for a calendar month). During that season's NBA Finals, Baylor scored a playoff record 61 points in game five, a mark that stood until Michael Jordan's 63 point game in 1986. Baylor later mentioned that he had the advantage of being more well rested and less beat up than the players who had played for the entire season.

A second thing in O'Neal's favor is that the finish line is in sight, so he does not have to pace himself, as he would have had to do if he had played an entire season. O'Neal is not as quick or explosive as he once was but he still cannot be covered one on one--and he takes pride in this fact: "I take it personal when people don't double me. It's against my religion not to double me. It upsets me. It makes me think they're saying to themselves I don't have it anymore," said O'Neal after he destroyed the Pistons' frontcourt on Friday. The greatest thing about O'Neal has always been that he understands what he can and cannot do--and what he should and should not do. He is a devastating inside scorer, so he stays in the paint. O'Neal does not shoot three pointers and does not try to prove that he can hit face up jumpers; he plants himself in the paint and dares the other team to stop him. He cannot perform at a high level for an entire season anymore and last year he understood that it would be better for all concerned if Wade took the leading role most of the time.

O'Neal will spend the latter part of this season shooting high percentage shots, getting the opposing team into foul trouble (and the Heat into the bonus) and drawing double-teams that will lead to open shots for his teammates. O'Neal is still capable of being a dominating force, particularly against single-coverage.

Now, let's play the "what if?" game. What if O'Neal had recognized a few years ago that his skills were starting to erode and that it was time for Kobe Bryant to be option 1 and O'Neal to be option 2? The formula that worked for one title last year in Miami could have worked for multiple titles in L.A. Bryant has shown that he can average 40 ppg for a month and 35 ppg for a season. He has shown that he can carry an otherwise mediocre team into the playoffs. In other words, he has shown that he can do more with less compared to what Wade can do. Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, these are not new developments. Back in 2002-03, O'Neal was banged up and Bryant averaged 30.0 ppg as the Lakers tried to win a fourth straight title. Instead of petulantly feuding with Bryant, O'Neal should have dealt with him the way he dealt with Wade last year; that should have been the time that Bryant became the main option, with O'Neal being an even deadlier second option than he was last year. Yes, O'Neal and the Heat got one championship by the skin of their teeth after Dallas blinked with a 2-0 lead. No, the Heat will not win another title. So, the "what if?" question is what would have happened if O'Neal would have accepted Bryant's emergence as the number one option in 2002-03 instead of fighting it every step of the way? I have always said and still believe that if O'Neal would have been willing to work with Bryant the way that he worked with Wade that the Lakers would have continued to win titles--not every year, but they would be like the Spurs: in the hunt perennially. The Spurs won three titles in a seven year stretch (and are not out of the race for this year's championship, either). O'Neal and Bryant won three in a row and could have continued to win titles in O'Neal's declining years. If O'Neal and Bryant were on the same team this year, Bryant would have kept the team in the hunt to a greater degree than Wade did in O'Neal's absence. Furthermore, Bryant has played longer than Wade and has yet to have an injury serious enough to cause him to miss the playoffs. If things had gone differently, O'Neal could be chasing his sixth title instead of being stuck on four.

Back to reality: if O'Neal avoids further injury, the Heat will move up to sixth in the East. The idea that they will miss the playoffs because of Wade's injury is nonsense. In fact, even without Wade the Heat could conceivably win first round matchups with either Washington or Toronto; those teams do not have the inside presence or playoff savvy to beat Miami in a seven game series. The Eastern team that is best suited to beat Miami in a playoff series right now is Chicago. The Bulls gave the Heat a dogfight last year, but could not deal with O'Neal inside. The presence of Ben Wallace will make a big difference this time around, plus the Bulls will have a decided advantage on the perimeter with Wade on the shelf.

posted by David Friedman @ 1:53 AM

12 comments

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12 Comments:

At Sunday, March 04, 2007 7:33:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

Interestingly, Jordan, like Baylor was well-rested when he had his 60-point playoff game (having missed most of the season with an injury).

Let's not forget though, that Jordan needed two overtimes to get his 63 and his team lost. Baylor got his 61 in regulation, led his team to victory, and also got 22 rebounds. Few people give credit to Baylor for his regulation record, and too many people overlook his performance and go on and on about Jordan's 63.

 
At Sunday, March 04, 2007 7:56:00 AM, Blogger vednam said...

I think you are being a bit too hard on Dwyane Wade. I don't think the earlier part of this season was a good indication of how well Wade can carry a team missing Shaq (or its second best player) for a few reasons.

First, aside from Shaq being gone, Jason Williams has been hobbled and Pat Riley has been in and out, leaving the Heat with instability in two of the most important spots: pg and coach. Second, the Heat's roster is filled with veterans who (especially after a championship season) probably didn't have the chops to compete at the highest level early in the season. Also, aside from each player's individual outlook, I believe that given the age of the roster, the recent title, and what we saw from the Heat last year, the team as a whole appeared to be on cruise control. I, and many NBA observers, expected the Heat to coast through the first half of the season and then try to build momentum after the All-Star break.

The way the Heat started this season reminded me a lot of how the Lakers started the 2002-03 season. Shaq was out at the start of the season and the Lakers started slow, and even after he came back, they didn't really pick it up until January or February. One could have concluded from this that Kobe couldn't carry a team, but as we've all seen, Kobe definitely can. I think the real problem with those Lakers is they appeared to be on cruise control.

Considering all of these things, I think the worst one can say is that the jury's still out on whether Wade can carry a team without Shaq (or the team's second best player).

I don't know how you can hold it against Wade that Dallas didn't constantly double-team him. Wade definitely made them pay for it. His finals performance was incredible. He willed his team to victory, and he recieved very little help from Shaq. Unfortunatley, this performance has been tainted in many people's eyes (including my own) due to the absurd amount of free throws Wade attempted, as well as some obviously bad calls. I wish they would allow hand-checking again.

 
At Sunday, March 04, 2007 1:56:00 PM, Blogger illest said...

Jordan also did it against one of the greatest teams in history that last one home game all season going 50-1 including the playoffs. That Celtics team probably should have won 74 games.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2007 2:05:00 AM, Blogger alternaviews said...

this stuff about wade is nonsense

last yrs finals was better than Jordan ever was in a final

 
At Monday, March 05, 2007 6:51:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Yes, MJ's 63 point performance is another example of the benefits of a season's worth of rest. Before MJ's first retirement, he told Phil Jackson of his plans to see if his coach could offer him any challenge or inducement to keep playing. One of the things that MJ wanted to do was skip all or most of the regular season and just play in the playoffs. Ironically, baseball's labor strife led to MJ doing just that in 1994-95. The downside of all that rest, of course is rust. Baylor did play in 48 games, so he was in basketball shape. MJ sat out for 18 months, so when he came back in 1994-95 he was clearly rusty.

I agree that Baylor's performance was fabulous and is too often overlooked. It suffers from the same problem as Dr. J's ABA performances, which we discussed in another set of messages: Baylor did not perform before a huge national television audience and then have his moves endlessly replayed on SportsCenter.

The '03 Lakers--when Kobe had one of his 40 ppg months and carried the team while Shaq recuperated--went 50-32 and never looked as bad as the Heat did this year without Shaq.

I don't hold it against Wade that Dall didn't double-team him. I'm just pointing out that Shaq had a lot to do with Wade's success and the type of defense that Wade faced. With Shaq out and defenses able to play differently, Wade is apparently not quite the same player.

Illest, the '86 Celtics won 67, so they did OK overall. The '96 Bulls actually could have won 74 if not for a couple dubious calls near the end of that season. One was by Hue Hollins, who made a more famously bad call against the Bulls in the '94 playoffs. I don't think that I've seen a team in any sport that treated even "meaningless" regular season games with such ferocity (well, I guess the '72 Dolphins went 17-0, but the football season is a lot shorter). MJ and Pip seemed like they were trying to go 82-0. The only bad loss that I remember off the top of my head was when the Knicks beat them 104-72 (or something like that).

MJ's career Finals average is 33.6 ppg , which is almost as good as what Wade did in his only Finals appearance so far. I'd probably rate each of his Finals above what Wade did but if I had to pick one, '93 is pretty tough to top: 41.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 6.3 apg. I know that you like looking at shooting percentages; MJ shot .508 in that series, much better than Wade shot against Dallas.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2007 12:56:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave,

You say that the Heat struggled without Shaq, then imply that the Lakers did fine without him. It was my understanding -- perhaps wrong -- that in the Shaq-Kobe era, the Lakers' record was not very good when Shaq was out of the lineup. (I thought it was sub-.500 across either that whole era or a pretty large part of it when Shaq was out.) Meanwhile, I thought the Lakers' record was *better* when Kobe was out (and Shaq in) than when both Shaq and Kobe were both playing.

If true, this would seem to indicate that Kobe has in fact grown a player (and, to a lesser extent, that Lamar Odom is a pretty good player too).

This is what I remember reading, but again, I may be dead wrong. Can you please comment? I'm especially interested in having the record set straight on, well, the Lakers' record without Shaq when both he and Kobe were on the team.

Many thanks.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2007 4:18:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

You are correct that the Lakers' record during the Shaq-Kobe era without Shaq but with Kobe was worse than their record without Kobe but with Shaq. By the way, this is not entirely surprising since those Lakers' teams were clearly built around Shaq. In theory, Wade is the top guy on this Heat team. Yet, this year without Shaq the Heat were not even a playoff caliber team in the weak Eastern Conference. When Kobe played without Shaq the Lakers were still a viable team. Kobe has also done some things in terms of scoring production (40 ppg in a month two different times, amount of consecutive 40 point games, 81 points in one game, etc.)--both with Shaq and without him--that no one other than Wilt or MJ has done.

 
At Monday, March 05, 2007 9:17:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous: I went back into the archives and tried to find out the Lakers' records with/without Shaq and Kobe after Phil Jackson arrived in 2000 (Kobe played in all the games in 1999 and Shaq missed just one; prior to that season, Kobe was not yet the team's second option). Kobe was clearly defined as the second option on those teams, while Wade has been the Heat's primary scoring option all along (so, in theory, Shaq's absence should have less impact now than it would have for the Lakers).

In 1999-2000, the Lakers went 55-11 with Kobe and 12-4 without him; they went 66-13 with Shaq and 1-2 without Shaq.

The Lakers went 11-3 without Kobe and 45-23 with him in 2000-01; they went 5-3 without Shaq and 51-23 with him. That team went 67-15 the previous season so, quite frankly, they were better than the Heat were last year or this year.

The Lakers went 0-2 without Kobe and 58-22 with him in 2001-02; they went 7-8 without Shaq and 51-16 with him.

When comparing Wade without Shaq to Kobe without Shaq I was thinking of the 2002-03 season and specifically February 2003, when Kobe averaged 40 ppg for the entire month and had a lengthy streak of 40-point games. That was the season when Shaq's recovery from his toe surgery extended into the regular season (Shaq said, "I got hurt on company time, so I'll heal on company time."). The Lakers got off to a 3-9 start without Shaq but the thing is that even when he came back they were hardly tearing up the league; in other words, their early problems went deeper than just Shaq being out. They went just 16-14 in the next 30 games despite having both superstars on the court, so that 3-9 mark with Kobe and without Shaq may not have been much better than 6-6 even if Shaq had played. Kobe resurrected the season by going on an incredible scoring binge, starting on January 29, 2003 when he scored 40 points in a 99-90 win over Phoenix. That was the beginning of a season-long seven game winning streak for the Lakers. The Lakers went on to go 11-3 in February, with Kobe averaging 40.6 ppg. That included a nine game stretch during which the Lakers went 7-2 while Bryant averaged 44 ppg and had at least 40 points in every game. Shaq actually only missed three of those nine games (I thought that he had sat out more during that stretch), with the Lakers going 2-1.

Reviewing all of these numbers, I think that the T-Mac/Yao situation from the past two seasons--which I mentioned in the original post--is actually a better comparison to Wade's situation this year. T-Mac has had to play without Yao for an extended stretch in both years and has been able to keep the Rockets well above .500 in those games.

In contrast, this season Wade was not able to elevate his game or his team's performance when Shaq was out. Another thing worth noting is that the past two years Kobe has kept the Lakers in playoff contention in the tough Western Conference despite not playing alongside another All-Star. Presumably, if the Lakers were transplanted to the East they would have an even better record.

 
At Tuesday, March 06, 2007 12:07:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dave,

Thanks very much for tracking down and evaluating those numbers.

 
At Wednesday, March 14, 2007 8:25:00 AM, Blogger illest said...

Jordan is Jordan. Wade's finals wasnt close to any of Jordan's. Im aware that the 86 Celts won 67, they should have won more.

Shaquille doesnt have any centers to play against. Plus he has been in the game long enough to be able to play effectively at his age. Im not surprised.

 
At Friday, June 15, 2007 2:35:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

How many times has Kobe got out of the first round without Shaq? 0. How man Finals MVP does Kobe have? 0. While Wade, playing with Shaq yes, was only the fourth player in NBA history to score 35+ ppg in the finals (the others: Jordan, Barry, Baylor). How did Kobe do in the 2004 finals playing with a more dominating Shaq? He choked in every sense of the word. The only thing Kobe is capable of doing is scoring alot of points when it means nothing. What an idiot find a new job.

 
At Friday, June 15, 2007 6:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kobe has played three seasons without Shaq. In year one, he was hurt down the stretch and the team fell out of playoff contention. In year two he nearly led an undermanned seventh seed to an upset of the second seeded Suns. In year three he carried an otherwise garbage team into the playoffs. I could just as easily turn your statement around and ask when has Shaq ever won anything without having the benefit of playing with an All-NBA level guard.

 

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