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Thursday, November 08, 2007

Doesn't Miami's Championship Season Seem Like it Happened 10 Years Ago?

The Miami Heat won the NBA championship in the summer of 2006 but doesn't that seem like it happened a long, long time ago? Since then, the Heat got embarrassed by the Chicago Bulls on ring night to start the 2007 season and swept by the Bulls in the playoffs to close the 2007 season--and Miami has not won a game since then. In fact, the Heat have lost the last 17 times that they stepped on the court: the final two regular season games in 2007, the four game sweep by the Bulls, seven preseason games and the first four games of this season, the latest defeat being an 88-78 loss on Wednesday night to the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs. Manu Ginobili had a game-high 25 points, plus seven assists and seven rebounds. Tony Parker added 23 points and eight assists, while Tim Duncan had a quiet night (12 points, eight rebounds, three assists, one blocked shot). Shaquille O'Neal scored a season-high 17 points for the second game in a row but he shot just 6-13 from the field and had only three rebounds in 31 minutes. Ricky Davis had 14 points, also shooting 6-13 from the field. Smush Parker emerged from Coach Pat Riley's doghouse to play 27 minutes but his four points on 2-9 shooting coupled with his unwillingness to run the offense the way that Riley wants it to be run suggest that he will have some more DNP-CDs in the near future.

Dwyane Wade may be returning to action soon for the Heat, so ESPN's Jon Barry says that Miami fans should not worry because Dallas started out 0-4 last year and still won 67 games. Earth to Jon Barry: the Mavericks had the league's MVP (Dirk Nowitzki), a rising young All-Star (Josh Howard), one of the NBA's top sixth men (Jerry Stackhouse) and talented point guards Jason Terry and Devin Harris plus several excellent role players. Meanwhile, Riley is so desperate to add athleticism to his roster that this offseason he brought in Davis and Parker, two players who have little interest in playing defense and even less interest in adhering to the structure of Riley's offense. I have a better chance of dunking from the free throw line than Miami does of winning 67 games this year; it will take a Herculean effort out of Wade to carry this team to a 41-41 record.

Other than a brief flashback moment when he caught a lob and dunked on Fabricio Oberto, O'Neal seems to have little lift or lateral mobility. Moves that used to end in resounding dunks now result in layup attempts, some of which O'Neal misses. His defense, rarely a strong suit, now consists primarily of committing hard fouls against driving opponents (or simply watching them stroll to the hoop). In fairness to O'Neal, it should be mentioned that it seems like the only player on the roster who knows how to correctly feed the post is Penny Hardaway. Sadly, Hardaway seems to have even less explosiveness left than O'Neal does, although he put up a solid stat line (eight points, four rebounds, five assists, three steals) simply by using his veteran wiles to make up for what he has lost physically. If Hardaway's body can hold up to the workload, he should get some of Davis' or Parker's minutes simply because he actually understands how to play winning basketball and the offense runs more smoothly when he handles the ball. As Barry correctly noted, "The pass to the post is a lost art in the NBA." Maybe that is why the only player on the Heat who can do it correctly had been out of the league for two years.

The Spurs looked bored and sluggish in the first half. Miami's only hope, as assistant coach Bob McAdoo admitted to ESPN's Lisa Salters at halftime, is to slow the game down and muck things up. San Antonio only led 39-38 at halftime. Tony Parker had 12 points on 5-7 shooting but he told Salters that it would be his responsibility to speed the game up in the second half and to get Tim Duncan (eight points on 2-7 shooting) more involved. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich sought to provide a second half spark by starting Ginobili in place of Michael Finley and that move paid immediate dividends as Ginobili scored 12 points in the third quarter, helping the Spurs to go up by as many as 15 points.

One thing that Davis can do is score, as he showed by putting up nine points in less than three minutes late in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter, helping Miami trim the lead to 65-60. After that, the Spurs quickly pushed the margin back to 15 and led by at least eight points the rest of the way. Miami's players either don't know how to feed O'Neal in the post or are disinterested in doing so. The interesting thing is that, other than a brief complaint after the first game of the season, O'Neal is not raising much of a fuss in public about this. Perhaps he has mellowed, perhaps he is resigned to his fate or perhaps he realizes that he does not have the ability to get off 20 good shot attempts a night. However, even though O'Neal can no longer score like he used to it still makes sense to at least start the halfcourt offense by passing him the ball. That forces the defense to react and could create some better shot opportunities for the perimeter players; O'Neal is a willing and effective passer out of the post and could still be of some value in that role.

Anyone who thinks that Wade can single-handedly save Miami should consider a couple things. One, Wade may not be full healthy when he returns and he certainly will be rusty, so the Heat are not getting back the player who was the 2006 Finals MVP; that player may not show up until after the All-Star break, if at all, this season. Two, the Heat's record with Wade last year was 27-24 and their record without him was 17-14; his presence alone did not have much impact on the team's record (which highlights how remarkable it is that Kobe Bryant almost single-handedly carried an even more injury depleted Lakers team to a playoff berth in the deeper Western Conference). The Heat had a 19-22 record when O'Neal returned to action after missing most of the first half of the season and then went 23-13 in the games that he played in the rest of the way. In other words, what salvaged the Heat's regular season last year was not Wade but rather the play of a relatively healthy and in shape O'Neal down the stretch--but watching him lumber up and down the court now, the O'Neal who can change the game in that fashion seems like an even more distant memory than Miami's championship.

posted by David Friedman @ 5:23 AM



At Thursday, November 08, 2007 3:40:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just read Dennis Hans column on Shaq.

Was it some sort of joke, like a parody or irony or somesuch?

At Thursday, November 08, 2007 10:11:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

I assume that you are referring to his article at HoopsHype.com. I don't think that it was intended as a joke but it certainly leaves a strange impression. I don't agree with blaming Riley for Shaq's recent decline/injury woes. Occam's Razor says that we should favor the simplest explanations. Shaq has spent most of his career in less than optimal physical condition. He is a large man who has played tens of thousands of minutes of NBA basketball. It should not be surprising that he has lost a lot of athleticism. I don't believe that if O'Neal starts disobeying Riley that O'Neal will suddenly become a better player. O'Neal has some lingering injury issues and if they clear up--no certainty at his age and with his attitude toward conditioning--then he will play better later in the season than he is now but the best Heat fans can realistically hope for is a Shaq who averages 17 and 8 with a decent field goal percentage, with maybe an occasional breakout game of 25-30 and 12-15 (which used to be a normal game for him).

At Friday, November 09, 2007 2:59:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found the whole reasoning quite preposterous.

Comparing Shaq's and Wilt's careers, for instance, makes little sense. In terms of games and minutes played, the 60s were quite a different era; plus, Chamberlain had a career-threatening knee injury but other than that was always in peak physical condition. His athleticism may not have been the same after 1970 but his stamina and overall health were not compromised. Shaq has never had a serious injury, but he has not been in peak physical condition for years and years, at least not consistently.

The way he dismisses Shaq's mobility problems, which are plain for the eye to see, is what made me think it was some sort of ironic doubletalk.

I'd understand it if he contended that Riley is not using Shaq adequately (getting him the ball in favourable spots etc), but the picture of Shaq logging 35+ minutes consistently playing at near top level seems like a pipedream to me.

At Friday, November 09, 2007 11:29:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You conveniently ignore the fact that when Wade played without Shaq, he also played without several other key members of the rotation as well as Pat Riley on the bench or the addition of Eddie Jones. Wheras when Shaq played without Wade, he basically had the full complement of the rest of his team. Also, the timing of Wade's early season injuries (before the shoulder tear) could not have been worse-- whenever the Heat seemed ready to go on a run, he would miss a stretch of games. The most obvious example was the game against the Bulls right after the nationally televised Christmas day game where he torched Kobe (relax, Kobe is still better). The Heat had won three or four straight coming into Chicago and were 13 - 14, but then Wade went down in the first quarter, and by the time he game back a couple weeks later, they were far under .500 again.

At Friday, November 09, 2007 4:38:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Wade torched the Lakers' bad pick and roll defense; for the most part, he did not beat Kobe one on one, as I explained in my recap of the game:


While it may be true that Shaq had a better hand to work with than Wade did, Wade is considered an MVP-level player now, while Shaq is not. People talk a lot about Kobe not being able to carry the Lakers to much better than a .500 record but Wade was working with a team that had just won a championship; even if it was injury depleted, the roster was still better than what Kobe had.

I don't mean this as a knock on Wade; I'm simply pointing out, as I've said here several times, that one guy cannot "carry" a team anywhere for an extended period. I also predicted when Wade went down and Shaq came back that the Heat would be better with Shaq and without Wade than vice versa, which is exactly what happened.


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