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Why This Year’s Miami Heat Team Is Their Best Yet

When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh rose out of the stage amid the pyrotechnics and billowing smoke that bore resemblance to meeting the end boss of a video game, we were inclined to believe that these three alone were going to be devastating enough of a trio to wipe the floor with the NBA. Any record that had stood the test of time was to be toppled over, becoming nothing more than a pile of dust in the wake of this super team. 72 wins, unbelievable winning streaks, and dynasties were going to cower in fear and submit to a new idea of success.

What we failed to realize, and what history should have told us, is that three All-Stars, no matter their influence or talent, was not going to be enough to win a title or create the dynasty we envisioned.

That’s why it wasn’t until the 2013-14 season, after two championships and three Finals appearances, when the Heat have come closest to their greatest potential.

They head into their Wednesday night contest with Washington possessing a 27-10 record that has gone largely unnoticed because of their indifferent approach to nearly every game they played this season. With the exception of their two contests against the Indiana Pacers, winning one in Miami and losing the other in Indiana, the Heat have largely kept any sight of their famed playoff-level defense under wraps.

They currently rank tenth in the league in defensive efficiency, which pales in comparison to any of their defensive efforts in previous seasons with the Big Three. They ranked fifth in their first year together, fourth in their first championship season, and seventh last year, never allowing more than 100.7 points per 100 possessions by season’s end.

They’re giving up 101.9 points per 100 possessions this year. They recently gave up 123 points to the league’s 12th ranked offense in Golden State, and rank 26th in three-point percentage allowed. They’re also allowing opponents to convert nearly nine three-pointers per game, ranking 28th in the league. The 40.6 points in the paint per game they’re giving up this year is up from 39.8 points last year.

And yet, this is the best Heat team I’ve seen in the Big Three era. It’s not the wins against the likes of Indiana or Portland, sans LeBron, that’s convinced me, either. It’s the entire approach they’ve taken and how well they’ve executed, despite treating the regular season thus far as nothing more than an extension of the preseason.

Defense has never been a problem for the Heat and that still applies to this year. Their style of defense is dependent purely on the effort that goes into the double teams and constant rotations that force turnovers that lead to fast-break points. If one rotation is off, they’re giving up an open three-pointer or an open layup.

Nevertheless, of the otherwise sleepy approach they take on the defensive end, the Heat still lead the league in turnovers forced per contest, making their opponent cough up the ball 17 times a game.

If it hasn’t been apparent enough from observations of the game alone, then here’s one key stat of the Heat’s defensive effort thus far: they’re giving up 103.9 points per 100 possessions when LeBron James is on the court. In comparison to last year, the Heat were allowing only 99.3 points per 100 possessions when he was on the court.

In fact, as if this season hasn’t been strange enough, the Heat are actually significantly better defensively when LeBron hasn’t been on the floor this year, giving up only 95.3 points per 100 possessions; that’s actually the lowest defensive rating of any Heat player when they’re off the court.

So much for that Defensive Player of the Year push, even though James is holding his assignments to a PER below 13, per 82games.com.

Don’t get too worried, though, because the Heat are still a better team on the offensive end with LeBron on the court. The team only goes as far as LeBron takes them. If he’s playing subpar defense, then it’s likely his teammates on the floor are following suit.

Click to find out why the lackluster defense doesn’t really matter…

Take a look at the starting lineup as an example. In 203 minutes together, the most heavily used Heat lineup, featuring Shane Battier at power forward, is giving up 103.1 points per 100 possessions.

By comparison, that same lineup was only giving up 97.5 points per 100 possessions last year.
LeBron-led lineups aren’t going to give up 103.9 points per 100 possessions through the entire regular season. More importantly, they’re not going to give up that many points once the postseason rolls around, especially with the number of offensively-deficient teams out East.

Of the league’s best teams in terms of offensive efficiency, the Miami Heat are the only team out East in the top ten. The Indiana Pacers, their strongest competitor in the conference, currently rank 18th.

This is exactly why this Heat team is the best we’ve seen. The fact that LeBron James may — statistically [Eds. note: on/off numbers aren’t the only barometer for defensive success, especially when you take into account the fact LeBron plays against the best an opponent has to offer in effort and personnel] − be the reason why the team is suffering defensively, they currently rank tenth in defensive efficiency, and by observation alone, appear to sleepwalk through three-quarters of their games. Yet, they’re still 27-10, which is reason enough this is their best team of the current era.

It’s obviously not that Miami forgot how to play defense since last year. Or that replacing Mike Miller‘s role with Michael Beasley and Rashard Lewis has suddenly caused a steep decrease in the defensive effort.

No, it’s more having won back-to-back championships and taking the regular season for what it’s worth.

Chris Bosh and LeBron James are both averaging career-lows in minutes, while Dwyane Wade is averaging the second lowest amount of minutes in his career. The heavy burden and responsibilities that were formerly bestowed on the Big Three’s shoulders have since lightened, having that weight transferred over to the improved bench.

It’s on the bench where the Heat’s success this season, and in future games, lies.

Let’s take a walk down memory lane for a moment. It wasn’t too long ago when the Heat’s bench featured Juwan Howard, Eddie House and James Jones as members of the rotation, even playing significant minutes in Miami’s doomed trip to the 2011 Finals.

The fourth, fifth and sixth highest scorers on the 2010-11 roster? Udonis Haslem, Mike Bibby and Eddie House, respectively. Spare me.

Replacing those three, at the moment, are Michael Beasley, Ray Allen and Mario Chalmers. Instead of Erick Dampier, it’s Chris Andersen. Instead of Mike Bibby, it’s Norris Cole. Instead of James Jones, it’s Shane Battier.

A summer passes and the Heat show the sporting world how management is supposed to be done. It helps to have Pat Riley flashing his rings and the city of Miami providing a backdrop like no other NBA City can, but it’s also that the Heat franchise is one of the most competent and well-run in the league.

The team goes into the summer with an idea of what they want and they come away with their target. They wanted shooters, they got Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and Shane Battier. They wanted scorers, they got Michael Beasley and Norris Cole. They wanted rim protectors, they got Chris Andersen and Greg Oden.

Not only has the personnel improved, but the starters and reserves have successfully acclimated themselves to the Heat system, and its yielded incredible results on both sides of the floor.

The defense will come around when needed. No matter how mundane the effort is on that end of the floor, there clearly is another level the Heat can turn to once the postseason rolls around.

It’s on the offensive end where the Heat have been at their best all season without anybody noticing. They currently rank second in the NBA with an offensive efficiency of 109.3 points per 100 possessions, which is down from last year, possibly on account of their inferior three-point shooting.

Find out why Miami’s offense is better than its ever been…

In another instance of the them failing to play up to their full potential this year, the Heat’s three-point threats haven’t been, well, threatening. A year after shooting nearly 40 percent from three and ranking second in the league in three-point percentage, the Heat are fifth and shooting 38 percent.

LeBron James and Norris Cole are the only Heat players attempting at least two three-pointers per game and converting them at a 40 percent clip. Meanwhile, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and Shane Battier are all shooting in the 35-37 percent range, below their usual averages.

Allen, especially, has seen his shooting percentage taper off this year. The 40 percent career shooter from deep is converting only 35 percent of his threes this season, the lowest mark of his career. At some point this season, one has to imagine that percentage will increase.

Nevertheless, even shooting below their usual clips, the Heat are still an efficient beast on the offensive end. They’re fifth in the league in assists per game, have the third-best assist ratio, and are head and shoulders above everyone else when it comes to true shooting percentage and effective field goal percentage.

The Heat have seen those advanced shooting numbers gradually increase since their first season together in the Big Three era. Consider it a testament to their committment to moving the ball and rarely settling on the type of shots that caused them to falter in the first NBA Finals they played together.

But as I’ve mentioned before, the Heat we get today — the ultra efficient, well-oiled machine — may not be the same if not for that loss in the 2011 Finals. After all, we all learn from our mistakes, and the same goes for the likes of coach Erik Spoelstra and LeBron James, who have since made a furious committment to always find the best available shot.

All of the failures, mistakes and regrets the Heat have experienced in the Big Three era have culminated in their greatest season yet. Miami has turned into a team that craves ball movement and feasts on open looks, revolutionizing the NBA with its smaller, evenly-spaced lineups.

But the main reason this particular Heat team sets itself apart from Heat teams of the past three years is their current record after observing the effort they’ve exerted. This team fully recognizes at what point they have to turn it on. Since they’ve been at this junction before, perhaps we should give them the benefit of the doubt.

Plus, don’t forget that the Heat from last year, the 66-win team that won 27 games in a row, was 29-14 at one point. We were saying the same things we’re saying now: the defense isn’t the same, the effort isn’t there, the team is coasting.

Or, my personal favorite, wake me when the playoffs get here.

What do you think?

Follow John on Twitter at @JFriel1990.

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