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