LeBron James clutches for air (Getty Images)
The Miami Heat are no stranger to slow starts. Though the team hopped out of the gate in good enough form during the 2012 and 2013 championship years, Miami infamously started the 2010-11 run with a 9-8 record. And during both of the team’s championship terms, the squad really didn’t hit its stride until early spring (with its massive winning streak in 2012-13) or early summer (when the team downed the demons late in the 2012 postseason). As befitting of one of the league’s oldest teams, Miami needs a while to ease into things.
The Heat have won “just” four of seven to start this season, hardly cause for concern on paper with 75 games to go, and a possible two-month playoff turn following that slog. Dig past that paper’s front page, though, and you’ll find some worrying defensive stats, numbers that can’t be sloughed off two weeks into the season. The Miami Heat, frankly, stink terribly at defense right now, and the team’s biggest mouthpiece (figuratively and literally, I’d suspect) in LeBron James is well aware of it.
"It's simple," James said as the Heat prepared for Tuesday's home game against the Milwaukee Bucks. "These first seven games, we're playing like s--- defensively. It's that simple. We're not a sugarcoat team. We came in and got right down to it. We're terrible on defense, and we've got to change that."
The Heat have matched up against opponents with the potential to be very good offensive teams as the season moves along – Brooklyn, Chicago, the Clippers and Raptors come to mind – but they’ve also played some squads that shouldn’t be so hot offensively, and were. Losses to Philadelphia and Boston to start the season should have embarrassed the Heat, and the team that has shown some defensive potential (like holding the Washington Wizards, a squad that has greatly improved offensively in 2013-14, to 93 points) has to figure out a way to work its smallball attack in a league that is desperately attempting to grow wise.
Miami is 27th out of 30 NBA teams in points allowed per possession, and great teams just don’t spiral out of rankings like that. Why else would the Heat be stuck at 4-3, even while working with what is far and away the NBA’s top-ranked offense? Both sides count, and yet the Heat aren’t closing out on the perimeter, they’re getting killed by cross matches in transition, and they’re letting opponents shoot way, way too good a mark from the field.
Think about that list. Those are three hallmarks of the Heat’s own killer offense, one that dragged LeBron and company to consecutive championships. Hallmarks that are leading that top overall offense two weeks into the season. Less severe but nearly as worrying are the opponent three-point (22nd in the league) and free throw attempts (16th) the Heat are allowing, two other mainstays of both the team’s offensive game plan, and preventative study on the other end.
This is why coach Erik Spoelstra ran the team through a massive practice on Tuesday, a rare day of the game sprint session, ignoring the offensive side throughout the run. All strange to see even just a fortnight into the season, because the team swears it mostly focused on defense while spending training camp in the Bahamas last month.
You wouldn’t know it by the team’s contributions on both sides of the ball thus far, but here we are. It’s more than possible that the Heat can turn this around completely, and dive back into the top five defensively (where it spent 2010-11 and 2011-12) by season’s end. Still, those rankings came when Chris Bosh was still suiting up at power forward. Things have changed a bit since then.
This is nothing to worry too much over, the Heat remain the championship favorites, their top-ranked offense has looked marvelous thus far, and Ray Allen’s obsessive pregame shooting routine has attracted some new followers (though, we submit, those followers have played a combined 15 minutes total this season). There are still 75 games to go, and a whole lot of permutations to work through. It’s early.
Still, it’s nice to see James fretting a bit. From the Sun-Sentinel:
"Through seven games, we've played unmotivated basketball. I don't know if it's going through the motions, guys are injured, a long season, short summer, I don't know what it is."
You want your superstar wondering about these things, even in November. I mean, Philadelphia? Boston? Come on. That ain’t right.
We’ll see if it gets any worse before it gets better on Tuesday night.
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