3 Things That Could Stop Another Miami Championship

The defending NBA champion Miami Heat are 22-8 and the top team in the Eastern Conference. They’re second in the league in offensive efficiency, trailing only the super-hot Oklahoma City Thunder, and they possess not one, not two, but three players that can score 30 points on any given night (remember that asinine meme?). Not only that, but they have one of the best basketball players in the last 20 years and certainly the most dominant player in the game today with LeBron James.

But, there are still plenty of holes in their team. Their title repeat isn’t written in stone, and the inherent difficulty of repeating as NBA champions when everyone is gunning for you is exacerbated by the way the Heat play. Last season was a lockout-shortened sprint, but this season is back to the 82 game regular season grind.

Here are three reasons why the Heat could fail in their bid to repeat. But keep in mind, they’re still the best odds to win the title, and we don’t think Vegas is wrong, either. We just feel these are the three possible foibles in their bid to defend their crown, at least through the season’s first 30 games.

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We all should have seen this coming when coach Erik Spoelstra realized midway through the Indiana Pacers series, in last season’s Eastern Conference Semifinal, that LeBron and Dwyane Wade necessitated some outside the box thinking. Who says you need a starting center and a traditional power forward to team with LeBron in the small forward spot? Currently, the 5-man unit the Heat have used the most this season (via 82games.com), features Mario Chalmers and Wade in the backcourt, Shane Battier at the small forward, LeBron James at the power forward slot and Chris Bosh as a center who spends most of his time on the wing. There isn’t a seven-footer among that group, and only LeBron’s 8.6 boards a game are in the league’s top 35. That is a problem, especially when you consider how much the Heat fly around the court on defense, switching just about everything and turning everyone into a 5-position defender.

The Heat’s defense pulls Bosh and James away from the rim, and allows opponents to get easier rebounds. Because of all those factors, they struggle to rebound, and it’s a continuing problem they tried to address over the last few weeks. Their 48.65 rebounding percentage ranks them 23rd in the league this season, via Hoopdata. Of the seven teams that trail the Heat in overall rebounding percentage, only the Knicks have a winning record. The Heat have also been particularly terrible getting offensive rebounds, ranking second-to-last in the league (with only the Celtics worse) at grabbing offensive rebounds. They snag a paltry 21.30 percent of their offensive rebounds, per Hoopdata. They are a team of shooters, with LeBron and Wade freelancing, and because Bosh spends a lot of his time setting screens – sometimes as far out as the top of the arc – he’s not in a position to rebound when an early Heat shot goes up.

It’s a pretty common assumption that the team who wins the rebounding battle wins the game, at least over the course of the season. But that hasn’t been the case with the Heat so far this season. They’ve been out-rebounded by 15, 17, 19 and 29 boards this season and gone 4-0 in those games. So rebounding isn’t everything, but over the long haul, and especially come spring, it might mean the difference in a tight playoff series.

The Heat can score in bunches, but their feisty defense from last year’s playoff run has been a bit lacking this season. Currently, they’re right in the middle of the pack, giving up 102.5 points per 100 possessions, good for 15th in the league, via Hoopdata. Basketball-reference has them ranked 19th for points allowed and 18th in overall defensive rating. They’re having a hard time rotating as fast and as smart as last season, and for an undersized defense like Miami’s, where any sort of serious post defender has to be doubled (unless LeBron or Joel Anthony is matched up against them), they have to get back to their shooters in time.

This translates into a lot of open looks for their opponent’s three-point shooters, something that was pretty evident in the two blowout losses to their conference rivals, the New York Knicks. In those two losses, the Knicks shot over 46 percent from the floor while attempting an average of 40 three-pointers a game, making 18.5 of them. Two games is a very small sample size, but in all eight of their losses this season, teams have shot 46.6 percent from beyond the arc, and just 31.2 percent in Miami’s wins. If a team can spread the floor with multiple three-point shooters, like the Knicks have, they can give Miami’s help defense a lot of trouble.

Aside from Miami’s big three, the team’s plus/minus numbers are pretty dreadful, too – specifically, those for off-season acquisition, Ray Allen. The Heat actually score more when he’s on the bench (they’re still averaging 110.5 points per 100 possessions when he’s in, which is still good enough to lead the league), but the problem is they also give up almost as many points on the other end, where Allen’s creaky knees don’t help him during the Heat’s frenetic, switch everything, defense. Allen might not have the agility to help out down low and then jump out and contest jumpers, and so they’re giving up 110.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the court, and only 101.1 when he’s off. That’s a dreadful plus-9.3 for opponents when Allen’s matched up against opposing guards/shooters. Allen is hitting some big shots this season for the Heat, particularly in the clutch, but is it worth his inability to play the defense that was largely responsible for the Heat’s title last season?

The Heat’s defense is improving so far this season, though. As noted by Hardwood Paroxysm’s Derek James, they’ve boosted their defense month-to-month this season, lowering their opponents points per game from 99.8 in November to 96.3 in December. James points out this same thing occurred during last year’s truncated season. The Heat gave up an average of 99.3 points in four games of December last year before lowering that to 95.5 in January and 91.5 in February. They had it as low as 89.1 in April, too. James also helps explain why the Heat have struggled on defense with Allen (and Rashard Lewis) on the floor, even as both have shot very efficiently from deep and helped them spread defenses. We have to remember that both Allen and Lewis – in addition to their advanced age – have only played 30 games with this franchise so far, and defensive rotations, especially as often as the Heat make, are hard to get used to. They’re also different than they were last season when both players were on different teams.

The defense is concerning, but it should, and is, getting better. The real question is whether their defensive trend continues as Allen and Lewis get more comfortable supporting the Heat’s big three and learn Spoelstra’s rotations so they’re not just memorized but second nature.

This Heat squad is a far cry from the Cleveland teams LeBron carried earlier in his career, but LeBron is still averaging the most points, rebounds, assists and steals on the team, and he’s also averaging almost a full minute more of playing time compared to last season (38.4 minutes this year and 37.5 last). While this isn’t exactly the 40-plus minutes he averaged for Cleveland from 2004-05 to 2007-08, it’s still more than I’m sure Spoelstra is comfortable with. This becomes even more crucial when you consider the longer season.

LeBron’s struggles in the playoffs with Cleveland weren’t really struggles for mere mortal superstars. He averaged over 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists, and had a PER better than 23 in every year he made the playoffs with Cleveland. But, obviously, he had a couple disappearing acts against Boston for Cleveland and Dallas for Miami, and a lot of people thought it was some mental block. Maybe. But maybe it was just exhaustion? If you compare LeBron’s regular season averages in minutes to his production in the playoffs, you’ll discover an important pattern. The less LeBron played in the regular season, the more dominant he was in the postseason. It’s a pretty simple cause and effect, but it’s not something we’d expect David Hume to extol.

The most dominant postseason LeBron’s ever played, even more dominant than last year’s title-winning run for the Heat, was his 2008-09 run with Cleveland that saw him average 35.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks while committing less than three turnovers a night in 14 games. His PER in those postseason games was 37.4! Last season’s dominant run saw him with a PER of 30.3. The Cavaliers lost in six games to the Magic during that 2009 postseason, but it wasn’t because of anything LeBron failed to do. His teammates just weren’t very good, and the Magic got hot from three (hello Turkoglu pre-game pizza). But if you look at the numbers, that magical postseason run in 2009 was preceded by LeBron playing the lowest number of minutes of his career (before last season), averaging just 37.7 minutes a game (last year he was down to 37.4). So it stands to causality, the more rest LeBron gets in the regular season, the more fantastic he’ll be in the postseason. Again, avert your eyes Hume.

Not only is LeBron doing a lot for the team this season (like he has for every team he’s played on), but Wade and Bosh have too. They’ve been super efficient – both are shooting over 50 percent from the floor – but when does their continued responsibility to light it up begin to take its toll? Combined, the Heat’s big three average 65.1 points per game. That’s over 62 percent of the team’s points every night. That’s a really high percentage of the team’s success hinging on just three players. Yes, that percentage was even higher as Wade and LeBron were scoring more last season while the team scored less, collectively, but as we noted, last year was an anomaly because of the pruning of games from the lockout.

It’s okay for the Heat to rely on their big three in the playoffs, where it’s expected, but night in and night out, the grind of the regular season begs teams to spread the scoring responsibility around. This again comes back to freshness for the playoffs, like we explained with LeBron’s reduced Cleveland minutes in the regular season translating to a better postseason. The Heat need other guys to step up, and it just can’t be a barrage of threes to end a quarter from Ray Allen. Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, Joel Anthony, Norris Cole and Udonis Haslem have to pick it up if they’re going to survive the long haul to April (followed by another month and a half of postseason play).

Listen, this whole piece is grousing at its finest. The Miami Heat have the best player in the world, and two other players within the top 20. They have speed and skill that other teams can’t even fathom. But a full regular season changes things, and they can’t just rely on their big three to make up for their defensive and rebounding lapses. If they want to repeat, it will be a lot tougher than last time.

Isiah Thomas recently pointed this out in his new column for NBA.com, where he started out the piece with, “winning back-to-back championships is the most difficult challenge a superstar can face.” This has always been the case, but never more-so than for this Heat team and their all-world superstar, LeBron James. He got the monkey off his back last season, and he’s again dominating the league this year, with the Heat right at the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

But through all the accolades and numbers there are still murky areas the Heat have to improve if they want to repeat. Not only that, but the hunger has to be there. So far, at least on defense and on the glass, it’s been a bit lacking, but it’s a long season and they have plenty of time to fix things. If not, we might be again trotting out the irrational LeBron doesn’t want it enough trope that, even with a summer and fall sabbatical, is still something most of us would rather avoid.

What is the Heat’s biggest weakness?

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