Stumbling Heat Once Again Falter in the ClutchThe Miami Heat built a 12 point lead versus the Chicago Bulls but once again collapsed down the stretch, losing 87-86 after both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade missed last second shots. Derrick Rose poured in a game-high 27 points, added a team-high five assists and scored eight fourth quarter points in a performance that may have clinched the regular season MVP (voters seem to be unduly swayed by what happens in hyped up, late season nationally televised games, which is not to diminish the fact that Rose is a legitimate contender for MVP honors). The Heat fell to 0-3 this season versus the Bulls and they have now lost five of their last six games overall, including four in a row. Three fourths of the way through the regular season, the Heat most assuredly are not who the "stat gurus" thought that they would be: not only have the Heat failed to win even one game against the league's top four teams (by current won-loss records), they have a losing record versus plus-.500 teams and they have performed atrociously in close games.
It is foolish to overreact to one game or even to a stretch of games during the regular season; we have seen teams struggle for long periods of time only to perform brilliantly during the playoffs (the Boston Celtics pulled that off just last season). The only good thing about hearing Mike Wilbon repeatedly say that the Chicago game was a "must win" for Miami is that this gave Wilbon less time to harp on his bizarre belief that the Lakers would be better off if their best player shot the ball less frequently. Miami's loss to Chicago hurt the Heat in terms of playoff positioning but it did not eliminate them from the championship chase and therefore was not, by any stretch of the imagination, a "must win."
However, in the course of 63 regular season games the Heat have certainly shown us enough to draw some preliminary conclusions about their team and about their three stars. Let's start where I left off near the end of my early season article about the Heat titled Lukewarm Heat on Pace for 47 Wins:
I have made this point many times but it simply cannot be overstated (particularly since the mainstream media largely refuses to acknowledge it): Pau Gasol was not considered an elite player prior to joining the Lakers but teaming up with Kobe Bryant has transformed him into a likely future Hall of Famer. Gasol's skill set has not changed much (he added some strength after the 2008 NBA Finals so that he could better hold his ground in the post) and his statistics are essentially the same except for increases in field goal percentage and offensive rebounding (thanks primarily to Bryant drawing double teams and creating easy opportunities for Gasol) but Gasol is perceived differently now because he is more comfortable playing one on one as the second option as opposed to carrying the burden of attacking double teams as Memphis' top option. If you believed the narrative that the "stat gurus" have constructed about James and Wade then you had to think that James and Wade would have an even more dramatically positive effect on Bosh, whose pre-Miami career was more effective and much more decorated (five All-Star selections, one All-NBA selection, seventh in 2007 MVP voting) than Gasol's pre-L.A. career (one All-Star selection, no All-NBA selections, not a single MVP vote)--but this has not been the case at all. Gasol arrived in L.A. in a midseason trade and instantly bonded with Bryant but James, Wade and Bosh play like strangers despite having a complete offseason to figure out their roles; even with Wade missing the preseason it still should not be that difficult for the supposedly two best players in the NBA to figure out how to effectively utilize a player as talented and versatile as Bosh. Gasol is a better passer than Bosh but otherwise their skill set strengths and weaknesses are quite similar: they are both lithe, lanky, agile big men who like to face the basket on offense, who gather rebounds based on their length/mobility more so than their strength/size and who can be pushed around by physical defenders.
It is funny to watch Pau Gasol be "promoted" to mythical best big man in the NBA status while Bosh is "demoted" to some minor figure, because neither statistics nor the "eyeball test" support either of those contentions. Last season, Chris Bosh averaged career-highs in scoring (24.0 ppg), rebounding (10.8 rpg) and field goal percentage (.518). Bosh joined the Heat as a perennial All-Star entering his prime; Gasol joined the Lakers as a one-time All-Star who had yet to win a single playoff game. James and Wade are generally considered the top two players in the league by "stat gurus," while Kobe Bryant barely cracks the top five--yet after Gasol teamed up with Bryant in the middle of the 2008 season the two players immediately jelled and the Lakers made the first of three straight trips to the NBA Finals. In contrast, James and Wade have had almost an entire season with Bosh but are still trying to, in their words, "figure out" how to play well together; James and Wade are putting up numbers that are comparable to their career averages, while Bosh is playing exactly the same minutes per game that he did last season but his scoring and rebounding numbers have plummeted to their lowest levels since his second and first seasons respectively. This is not just a matter of fewer touches, because Bosh's field goal percentage has dropped from .518 last season to .485 this season. It is very interesting that Wilbon and other media members repeatedly say that Bryant does not feed Gasol the ball enough but I have yet to hear anyone seriously suggest that perhaps James and Wade are not properly utilizing their perennial All-Star big man. If James and Wade are pass-first players who are much more efficient and unselfish than Bryant--the story that has been repeatedly told for years--then why has Bosh languished in Miami while Gasol has flourished in L.A.? Something just does not add up. It seems like James' media darling status at ESPN grants him a pass from meaningful criticism on most of their platforms, while Wade's lone championship earns him similar status across the board; Bosh and Coach Erik Spoelstra better hope that things turn around quickly for the Heat, because otherwise they are positioned to be the two primary scapegoats if the team falls short of expectations.
Prior to this season, a lot of people foolishly compared the 2011 Heat to the great Chicago Bulls teams of the 1990s but the reality has been a lot different. Playing with James and Wade has transformed Bosh from a rising star into a glorified Horace Grant: the Heat station Bosh on the weak side and ask him to defend, rebound and make open jumpers when James or Wade deign to pass him the ball. The Chicago-Miami analogy that many people employed cast Wade as Michael Jordan and James as Scottie Pippen but I never accepted the notion that Miami would be "Wade's team" because Wade had been there first and/or because Wade has already won a championship; I refuted that idea in It is Wrong to Call LeBron James "LePippen":
The fact that Wade was in Miami first does not make James a "sidekick" any more than Moses Malone was Julius Erving's sidekick for the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers; Erving won the 1981 MVP as a 76er, Malone won the 1982 MVP as a Rocket and Malone won the 1983 MVP (while joining Erving on the All-NBA First Team) as the Sixers rolled to the championship.
It not only is silly to call James a "sidekick"--at least until we actually see what roles James and Wade fill for the Heat--but it makes no sense to supposedly denigrate James by comparing him to Pippen. Scottie Pippen did not elect to leave a team in his prime years to join a team with an established star who was his own age (the "crime" that the "LePippen" chanters are charging James with committing); in fact, as mentioned above, Pippen embraced the challenge of being the lead guy after Jordan retired. Teammates and opponents alike laud Pippen's versatility and unselfishness. Regardless of how many awards James wins and how much money he accrues he should hope and pray that when his career ends he will be as well respected by his peers as Scottie Pippen is.
James is leading the Heat in minutes, scoring and assists and he ranks second on the team in rebounding; James, not Wade, is the player who invariably handles the ball when the team goes into a set play at the end of a quarter or down the stretch when the game is close. In fact, what happens at the end of close games is not that Wade becomes Jordan and James becomes Pippen; what actually happens is that James tries to be Jordan but fails, while Wade waits behind the three point line doing a John Paxson/Steve Kerr imitation.
Why does James end up with the ball in those late game situations? The answer is simple: James is the best player on the team. The coaching staff knows it, James knows it and the other players know it. The problem is that James still does not have a complete skill set, nor does he have the ability and/or willingness to actually run an efficient half court offense in such situations. Skill set differences really matter; the detailed analyses that I have provided for years explaining why Kobe Bryant is the most complete player in the NBA explain more about the differences between the Heat and the Lakers than the nonsense spewed by "stat gurus" or the biased shrieking of various commentators who have obvious axes that they repeatedly grind. James has been a more productive regular season player than Bryant for the past couple seasons as an aging Bryant has reduced his minutes and dealt with some nagging injuries but the weaknesses in James' skill set--lack of a consistent jumper not just from three point range but also from the midrange area and the lack of a consistent post up game--crop up when James is faced with crucial late game situations and/or when James has to play against an elite defense during a playoff series (those two situations are actually quite similar, because in both instances teams load up to protect the paint, something that elite teams can do for an entire series but that even lesser teams can do for a few late game possessions).
Remember when the "experts" kept criticizing Cleveland Coach Mike Brown for his supposed lack of offensive creativity and blamed him for often just having James go one on five? A whole lot of nonsense was written about John Kuester being the Cavs' offensive guru when the team's offensive productivity improved--yes, the same John Kuester who is running such an innovative offense as Detroit's head coach. The reality is twofold: one, Coach Brown is a defensive-minded coach who nevertheless presided over a steadily improving Cleveland offense; two, it is becoming increasingly evident that when the Cavs deviated from their successful five man offense this was not Coach Brown's choice but rather James' choice, because this season when the Heat enter crunch time James demands the ball and then dribbles around until he decides to shoot or pass. When James did that in Cleveland, Coach Brown received the blame but now that the same thing is happening in Miami we either have to conclude that Coach Spoelstra is running Brown's "offense" or that James simply does whatever he wants to do in those situations. After one of Miami's many late game debacles, TNT's Charles Barkley joked that Coach Spoelstra should be fired for drawing up such a bad play; it was clear that the Heat had in fact freelanced and not done whatever the Coach had asked them to do.
The Heat's problem is not that James has the ball in these situations; the best player should get the ball, either immediately or after running some action (depending on how much time remains on the shot and/or game clock). The problem is that the Heat do not run any off of the ball action to force the defense to do something other than load up in the paint. Neither James nor Wade are great outside shooters, yet the Heat's "go to play" is for James to get the ball at the top of the key while Wade and the other three players spot up; Wade is not a catch and shoot threat and James is not a major jump shooting threat, so the defense's task is easy: don't let James dunk the ball. If James or Wade could either post up or make a shot coming off of a screen then both players would be viable threats no matter who has the ball. That is why anyone who is clamoring for Wade to have the ball instead of James is missing the point; it makes no more sense for Wade to dribble around aimlessly while James spots up then it does to have James dribble around aimlessly while Wade spots up.
Shooting percentages on last second shots can be a misleading statistic because this invariably involves a small sample size--and a sample that is likely contaminated by last second heaves that do not provide much evidence of a player's true clutch prowess. What really matters is the ability to control a game down the stretch. If the Heat had just lost a few games after James, Wade or someone else missed some 35 foot heaves at the buzzer then there would not really be a problem to discuss, because last second heaves are low percentage shots; the Heat are losing close games because their half court offense down the stretch is not very effective: the Heat's biggest failure--for which James must receive a significant amount of the blame, because he is the team's best player and the ball is usually in his hands--is their inability to execute effectively on offense in the last few minutes of close games, not just that James and others have shot poorly in small sample size of last second shots. The Heat have repeatedly blown double digit leads because their half court offensive execution is pitiful, particularly in the fourth quarter; the missed last second shots are just the final blow, not the primary problem. Henry Abbott's repeated attempts to "prove" that Kobe Bryant is not a great clutch player look even more ridiculous after nearly a full season of watching LeBron James and Dwyane Wade team up to look like clowns piling out of a car at the circus every time the Heat are in a close game; last season we saw Bryant repeatedly nail game-winning shots--shots that ultimately lifted the Lakers to the top seed in the West instead of potentially being the seventh or eighth seed in that competitive conference--but, more significantly, we have seen that throughout his career he can take over games for extended stretches, including playoff games against elite defenses. We are still waiting to see James and/or Wade demonstrate a similar capability after assembling their South Beach Super Team and proclaiming that they are going to win not one, not two but multiple championships.
The most obvious characteristic of the Heat--an even larger and more important issue than their well documented problems in close games--is that they are a frontrunning team: they beat up on the league's weak teams but fold when they face any real resistance. In that regard they take after their leader and best player, LeBron James: to cite just one example, recall what happened to Team USA in the semifinals of the 2006 FIBA World Championship (as I recounted in
Greece Shreds Team USA's Defense, Wins 101-95):
Team USA took its biggest lead, 33-21, after a Joe Johnson three pointer early in the second quarter and, according to an Associated Press report, LeBron James told his teammates on the bench, "They don't know what to do."
However, when Greece made their run and took over the game, James could not be found saying (or doing) anything. Contrast that with what happened in the gold medal game of the 2008 Olympics: Team USA took a 58-44 first half lead over Spain but when Spain rallied to cut the margin to 93-89 in the fourth quarter, Coach Mike Krzyzewski knew who had to close the deal--and it wasn't LeBron James: Kobe Bryant made the key plays down the stretch.
I would be the first person to say that FIBA basketball and NBA basketball cannot be directly compared but my point is that James thrives when he can dominate lesser competition but when the opposition is not intimidated by his physical prowess he sometimes seems to lack a backup plan. James misjudged the Greeks; they were not intimidated by Team USA and they proved it. James and the Heat look unbeatable when weaker NBA teams turn the ball over and let James and Wade throw alley oop lobs to each other--but when the opposition looks the Heat dead in the eyes and punches them in the mouth (metaphorically speaking) the Heat panic (during the game) and look for excuses (after the game).
"Real talk" has become a popular catchphrase, so here is some "real talk" about the Heat:
1) The 2010 Cavs were a better, more complete team than the 2011 Heat; if we could put both teams in a time machine and have them meet in a seven game playoff series the Cavs would win. This is something that "stat gurus," biased commentators and many fans may never accept but even though the 2011 Heat have more top level talent they are a flawed team, while the 2010 Cavs had a deep, well balanced roster and they were an outstanding team defensively and on the glass (the 2009 Cavs were probably even better than the 2010 Cavs but that is another story).
2) When evaluating LeBron James' impact on team success the correct comparison is not between the 2011 Cavs and the 2010 Cavs--two teams that have vastly different rosters and different head coaches--but rather between the 2009/2010 Cavs and the 2011 Heat; the popular storyline is that James left Cleveland because his supporting cast was weak but anyone who believes that to be true must explain why the 2011 Heat are on course to win fewer games than those supposedly flawed Cleveland teams. It cannot simultaneously be true that James singlehandedly led Cleveland to 61-plus wins two years in a row but yet is struggling to guide the Heat to 60 wins; if James can singlehandedly lead a team to 60-plus wins then he surely would be doing so now--and the reason that he is not doing so is that team success in the NBA involves more than just throwing stars together.
3) Even though the Heat are a flawed team, the fact that several of their games versus top teams have been close indicates that it is possible that they can make some adjustments and perform better in the playoffs. Right now, the Heat look a bit worse than I expected them to look but I would not be surprised if they find their way to the Eastern Conference Finals before being eliminated by the Boston Celtics. The Heat should never, ever be compared with the 1996 Bulls or other truly great teams but--despite their problems--they cannot simply be dismissed as a playoff threat.
posted by David Friedman @ 4:16 AM