Thursday, March 24, 2011

Despite Flaws, Miami can win it all

This post examines in depth the uncomplimentary nature of Miami's stars, the team's impressive statistical profile, and the question of the talent advantage necessary to overcome chemistry problems and role confusion on a basketball team.  This is not a generic Heat article exclaiming their glory or their doom but an objective look at the likelihood that one of the most impressive statistical trios the league has ever seen will ultimately work.

Can the Miami Heat win a title as currently constructed?  The answer to that question, contrary to what some believe, is a definitive yes.  The question we should be asking ourselves is whether or not they will win it.  There is quite a difference between the two and its one that should be emphasized more often in a sports media world that likes to talk in extremes.  The reality is somewhere between 'they can't and they won't.  The Heat can win a title but many things pertaining to their interaction on the basketball court would have to change.  The chances of these problems(admittedly minor compared to other teams) working themselves out though is low, but not impossible.

The axiom of the Big 3 is a popular one in team sports, but especially in today's NBA.  The trend that the Boston Celtics effectively started in 2008, the Miami Heat took to new levels last offseason.  Bosh, Wade and James are supremely talented, yet they're not perfect fits on the court. 
     The largest problem lies in their supporting cast, but it is one that can be alleviated internally with improved play from Mike Miller and the return of Udonis Haslem.  The rest of the Heat's roster is limited but not entirely useless.  They have multiple players who, while they don't produce in multiple facets of the game, will likely knock down open shots for them in the playoffs.  Judged solely on metric like John Hollinger's PER (a helpful tool in player analytics), the cast is weak.  This will often be true however of low-usage perimeter players who typically don't fair well in the metric.  PER can't consider the 'role' of the player on the team and its immunity to context will often limit its helpfulness in regards to judging supporting casts (I feel it does do a respectable job of judging star players' offensive contributions).  Case in point is Aaron Afflalo, a very highly regarded shooting guard who has blossomed  in Denver.  Afflalo has a PER in the 13 range but is filling his role off the ball and defensively as well as the Nuggets could reasonably have hoped.  Back on point, while none sport high PER's, all have a true shooting percentage above 53% and some like Mike Miller are likely to rebound upward to their career norms.  The most important thing the Heat's supporting cast can do is knock down open shots and defend.  Individual defensive reputations put aside, Miami is fifth in the NBA in defensive efficiency (they are third offensively).  

I have faith Miami's shooters can make teams pay when left open, but Miami's supporting cast is also aging and presents a long-term problem of their effectiveness in subsequent seasons.  They are locked into long-term deals with Miller, Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem but not with any other role players.  Miami will need to replace at least a few of House, Ilgauskas, Howard, Magloire and Dampier with productive players to stake a claim as title favorites.

This problem is unlikely to be ultimately fixed, however, because of the restrictions the new collective bargaining agreement is likely to put on team construction.  It is entirely possible that there will no longer be any cap exceptions, hampering the ability of capped-out teams like Miami to add any players above replacement level.  The acquire stars and fill in  the rest model was formed under the current CBA but might not be feasible under the next one.  They also traded away their 1st round picks every other year for the foreseeable future in the Bosh and James sign and trades.  These factors taken together seriously inhibit Miami's ability to add young talent to their roster. 

The second largest problem lies in the manner that LeBron, Dwyane and Chris have played their entire careers.  Each has thrived as a first option.  Each now has to play either some of most of their minutes in a different role.  Bosh has had particular trouble pertaining to his appropriate level of aggression.  LeBron and Dwayne are plenty different as basketball players but are similar enough that they suffer from role replication.  What I mean by that is their greatest asset on the basketball court is their shot creation abilities, either for themselves or others.  In economics terms, the marginal value going from one elite shot creator to two is not as great as going from zero to one.  In layman's terms some value is lost by the mere fact that one is playing without the ball.  It is inherent in their nature to be ball-stoppers as they each like to initiate offense which usually includes surveying the situation and then creating offense.  There is a myth that the mere presence of each other will allow them to play 1 on 1 without any help defense.  The reality is that you can double team off of certain star players.  While it is not a good idea to leave Dirk Nowitzki, neither LeBron or Wade are elite outside shooters and that fact combined with their ball stopping tendencies make this tactic possible.  Doubling and recovering tends to negate any offensive advantages gained if ball movement is not maintained.  In addition, neither moves instinctively off the ball.  This can lead to stagnation in their sets and makes defending them easier.  Essentially, the attention that should be committed to an off-ball Wade or James is focused on the ball handler because that off-ball player is just standing around. 

I have run through a few of the primary problems that are facing Miami without going into many of the positives yet.  While LeBron and Wade duplicate the talents of each other to an extent, Bosh is a great fit for most any team.  Bosh and either LeBron or Wade mesh together very well in my opinion. Both LeBron and Wade are skilled passers, good decision makers and pose the threat of a drive or a jumper (though LeBron can still improve his midrange J)  to the defense in ball screen situations.  Bosh, meanwhile, has the shooting talent and range and to be  a pop man and the agility and finishing ability to be a roll man in ball screen situations.  Last year, Bosh ranked first among free agents in a compatability test done by John Hollinger and dubbed the LeBron rating.

For the concern that role replication plays with James and Wade, there are advantages to having multiple elite scorers/creators on the same team.  First, this allows them to devote more attention to the defensive side of the ball.  Both now don't have to fill the defensive stopper role and the offensive initiator role.  This can be very taxing on a player asked to do both and it is a reason you often see a team's best offensive wing 'hiding' on defense against a non-threat to conserve energy for the offensive end because their energy is most needed and best utilized in the 'creator' role.  Miami doesn't have this problem, much the same as the Chicago Bulls didn't have it (Pippen guarded the teams top perimeter threat.  The Lakers also addressed this need by grabbing Ron Artest so Kobe can rest or freelance on defense).  Taking turns creating offense can cause some assertiveness issues in the two players but it also keeps them fresher for the end of games.  

Even in spite of the problems, the Heat still have the leagues second  best point differential (a better predictor of future success than win-loss record).  While arguments can be made as to the quality of the teams Miami has racked up that positive differential against, their +7.1 differential puts them in the neighborhood of championship teams past and above or near their championship-contending peers (LA, Chicago, San Antonio and Boston all sport differentials in the +6.1 to +7.4 range).  This speaks to a couple of factors.  First, Miami's problems are dissected more than those of any other elite team despite being a similar quality team.  You can argue they brought this upon themselves with quotes mentioning "six or seven championships", the 'Decision', the questionable decision to have an introductory dance off and, above all, their choice to play together.  Second, this shows us they are a very talented basketball team which, despite being poor fits at times on the court, is good enough to be on pace to win 57 games.  They've debunked the 'can't beat good teams' myth by stomping San Antonio and I firmly believe the close game failures are part bad luck and part stagnation on offense.  The latter, I believe, is fixable I am not sure we've seen many teams in NBA history suddenly lose the ability to play basketball just because the game is close in the late stages.  Some young teams may struggle more with this scenario than others, but Wade and James have been good clutch players their entire careers, with LeBron posting ridiculous numbers.

LeBron James is still the best player in the league and has been, in terms of regular season performance, for at least the past 3 years.  Dwyane Wade is a top 5 player in the league and is in the eyes of some the second best player in the league.  Chris Bosh is at worst a top 30 player in the league and has nights where he plays as well as any power forward in the league.  These 3 can carry a team to a title if they get rebounding contributions from their bigs, shooting from their wings and maintain a commitment to defense that they've shown most nights this season.  In short, I think Miami is better than its record and I believe they are a legitimate title contender.  In terms of winning a title, I am not concerned about the quality of the team. 

I am, however, concerned with how they matchup with their biggest obstacles to a title in the Eastern conference.  They have lost all six meetings against the Bulls and the Celtics and have had trouble scoring in 5 of the 6. Miami's offense is prone to wild swings in productivity as some nights they look flawless and others they struggle to score. Their high offensive variance rears its ugly head most often against Boston and Chicago.  As most astute observers know, Tom Thibodeau is the mastermind behind both defenses, which utilize a strong side overload and force the ball into help very effectively.  Teams need good ball and player movement to consistently score on it.  These are things that Miami does not have at this time and goes back to the point of their uncomfortability playing together and their offensive creativity.  I think Spoelstra is a good coach who is excellent defensively but suffers from a little bit of Mike Brown disease on offense.  This could be an unfair criticism as most of LeBron's offenses have been criticized for their stagnation and lack of movement while also being ranked near the top of the league.  Coach Spoelstra does need to crack the code to Boston's D and cause some confusion in Boston's rotations.  If Boston knows where the offense is coming from they are too disciplined to be beat.  If LeBron and Wade get hot and just take over in isolations and ball screens, their talent can carry them to a series victory (flukes can happen in small sample sizes).  But if nothing changes from the status quo of Miami's bland attack plan on offense, LeBron and Wade are unlikely to be efficient enough to beat the Celtics.

Miami matches up very similarly with the Bulls offensively.  Chicago has supplanted Boston as the best defensive frontcourt in basketball with the addition of Omer Asik and Boston's loss of Kendrick Perkins.  They employ many of the same principles as Boston and they own the league's top ranked defense.  Derrick Rose is no longer a liability defensively and their wings are excellent defensively, especially Brewer and Deng.  On defense, Miami could stick Wade and Rose given Chicago's relative non-threats at shooting guard and Wade would likely do an admirable job on the likely MVP (whether he deserves it or not).  I like Miami's chances against Chicago better than against Boston based on what we've seen so far, but Boston hasn't exactly taken off since their recent trade.  Questioning the Celtics has been proven unwise the past few years, so writing them off would be an overreaction. 

(As a quick aside, I actually like how Miami matches up with the Lakers.  They won both meetings this year, one convincingly on Christmas Day in a game which the occasionally motivation-challenged Lakers were definitely trying.  Though they could have trouble with LA's quality size (LA has the best bigs in the NBA), they match up well with Bryant.  LeBron and Wade could alternate on him and LeBrons length would definitely give Bryant trouble finishing and could hurt his efficiency in a potential NBA Finals series).

I think it is obvious that Miami's talent is not living up to expectations.  There are good reasons for this.   LeBron and Wade have very diverse skill sets, but they are skill sets tailored to playing with their former teammates.  These skill set weaknesses prevent them from being quite as good as their talent suggests they should be as they may the premier current example of the whole being less than the sum of the parts.  These weaknesses play into the larger theme of the Heat's offense being subject to role confusion as Miami has neither clearly defined roles nor ones in which is stars are accustomed to playing.  This has caused a drop in their productivity and combined with a lack of help from the rest of the team has led to their underachievement.  Miami's talent is that of an unbelievable team but instead they're merely a very good title contending one.  They are not out of the ranks of the NBA elite.  Their statistical profile shows they belong and their chemistry, which is bound to improve at least some, and lack of depth is the only thing holding them back.  Their issues may very well prevent them from winning a title this year but it does not preclude them from the conversation.  Do I think Miami will win the NBA title this year?  No, but it would not surprise me if we were laughing at these supposed issues in a few months.

I would like to get in the habit of posting anticipated criticisms at the end of any column to help negate any thoughts that I am a complete idiot.  Some of my opinions can be debated, but that's one of the main reasons for a sports blog.  Reasonable minds can differ.
You say the Heat have trouble in close games and their role confusion and stagnation contributes to this but then say its bad luck and not a big deal. Why? 
Well, they have been bad in close games because of those reasons, but I think highly enough of their coach and of Miami's players basketball IQ's to assume they'll figure things out.  After all, they're the same players they've been the last few years.  Does their relative incompatibility playing together cause some problems? Yes.  Can they make adjustments to overcome this? Yes, they can and I believe they will.
What adjustments?  
Running multiple actions off the ball so as to make rotations more difficult.  It is much easier to play help defense (a must against James' drives) when you're staring at the player the entire time.
Why haven't they done this yet?
I don't know.  I have a feeling there are certain things that LeBron is comfortable with and Spoelstra doesn't want to step on any toes in terms of taking the ball out of his or Wade's hands at the end of games.  I think they are both naturally comfortable in isolations, however ineffective that strategy may be for NBA teams.
Miami has no good centers.  Why didn't you even mention this?
As long as they don't get owned in the paint and give up offensive rebounds, they should be fine.  I think Dampier is playing decent enough.  They are also unlikely to face Dwight Howard in the playoffs.  Miami's centers are not good offensively.  Having a good offensive center is not a prerequisite for a title though.
Why is point differential so important?  Wins and losses are what counts, right?
Yes, wins and losses are all that counts, but aggregating all the points a team has scored and given up on a season tells us more about them than their record.  If you don't believe this, here is an example.  Who is better: an 82-0 team that won every game by 1 point or an 81-1 team that won games by an average of 30 points.  I think the answer is obvious.  Point differential has proven throughout history to predict future success best.  Look it up.
Why didn't you mention Miami's fast break prowess and how that plays into things?  And how teams with stars play better in the playoffs because those players can play the whole game eliminating a depth issue?
Yeah, those things are both points that I didn't fit in.  They only add to my argument that Miami is really good and people just hate them and revel in their failure.

*Comments are welcome and considering that I am just starting this blog, yeah I'll definitely respond to them, if they are courteous enough.

*sorry for writing about the Heat.  I am not a Heat fan though.  This is completely unbiased.
*sorry for the formatting issues.  I suck at blogger.