The Miami Heat are 6-4. That is, to put it mildly, a much worse start than Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh or really anyone expected.
But while the whole world seems to be savoring this unanticipated opportunity to kick the big, bad, arrogant bully off his pedestal, the reality is that burying this team as a hollow contender right now is premature. Very premature.
The only thing less important than November basketball in the NBA is preseason basketball. So while we should continue to monitor Miami’s struggles, we should also remember these six reasons to not panic just yet.
1. They Haven’t Lost to a Bad Team Yet
The Heat obviously didn’t want to start off 6-4. But they have not lost to teams that are playing poorly. Their first and fourth loses came against the defending Eastern Conference champion Celtics, who are deeper than ever and look like they are going to actually try in the regular season this year. Their second loss came in New Orleans against a team that just suffered its first defeat last night. And their final loss came against Utah.
At the time, this looked like a monumental collapse by the Heat — and it was. But given that it took two three-pointers — and another jumper — from Paul Millsap in the final 12 seconds of regulation just to send the game into overtime, and considering that the Jazz have been causing a lot of other teams to “collapse” of late, this looks more like a tip of the cap for Utah than a wag of the finger for Miami.
2. They Have the Highest Scoring Margin in the NBA
Through 10 games, Miami’s average scoring differential is +9.4 ppg. They have definitely played a few cupcake teams (looking at you Minny and Jersey), but their strength of schedule as ranked by overall opponents’ winning percentage (.534) is actually the 10th hardest thus far. The 8-2 Lakers currently have the second-best scoring differential at +8.9 ppg while playing the 19th toughest schedule. (LA’s opponents are a collective .459 thus far.) The only other squads in the league that have even beaten other teams by an average of more than 5.5 ppg are New Orleans (+8.0 ppg), San Antonio (+7.78 ppg) and Orlando (+7.1 ppg). (And among those, only New Orleans has played a schedule with opponents that are over .500 collectively).
In many educated NBA circles, margin of victory is one of — if not the — best predictor of Playoff success. Part of this is the fact that very good teams regularly blow out the dregs of the Association. But it is also because good teams rarely themselves get smoked. That has so far been the case for the Heat.
Yes, the Heat lost to Boston by 8 points on opening night. But their other three loses have been by a combined 10 points (by 3 to NO, by 2 to Utah and by 5 to Boston the second time). Any loss is a bad loss, but we should probably reserve “the sky is falling” talk for those truly getting smacked around. Admittedly, the final score in both Boston games did not tell the whole story, as the Celtics thoroughly outplayed the Heat in both contests.
But importantly, even playing bad, they had chances to win both times.
3. Miami’s Preseason Was Unlike Boston’s in 2007
When Boston’s Big Three assembled like Voltron in the summer of 2007, there was a feeling of sudden, unexpected joy for Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and — especially — Kevin Garnett. They had all be languishing away their primes on mediocre-at-best squads and became caught up in a whirlwind Danny Ainge talent grab that shocked everyone. Then they met up before the season and headed off to enjoy a team-bonding preseason in Rome followed by another game in London. By all accounts, the three stars were able to kick back and dream on the upcoming season in a care-free European climate, soaking in the fact that they were now, on paper, the best team in the NBA. They also got to chill in Rome, which most people will agree is pretty relaxing.
The Heat’s assembly was almost the complete opposite.
There was no surprise. There was big unveil of The Decision, sure, but LeBron, Wade and Bosh all knew that the 2010 summer was their summer and that they very well might be playing with at least one of these two other guys. Then, after the paperwork was finalized, they faced perhaps unparalleled media coverage and scrutiny. Much of it they brought on themselves, no doubt. But it did happen, and they were never able to escape the cameras like Paul, Kevin and Ray were able to do when they flew across the pond to Italy.
Maybe most importantly, Dwyane got hurt in Miami’s first preseason game of the year. So the team never played together against NBA-level competition until the regular season began. You probably can’t find a person who thinks what happens in preseason is more meaningless than I do, but that has to matter. Rotations, offensive sets and just learning each other’s tendencies does require some time spent playing together — no matter how good the players are.
4. They Weren’t Supposed to Be Historically Good This Year
Forget what you have heard from the talking heads on TV and the new blogs that have been created solely to chart the 2010-11 Miami Heat season. When Pat Riley cleared his entire salary cap just to give nearly every dollar the league will allow him to pay in salary to three guys, it was a coup.
But it wasn’t a 2010-11 title-guaranteeing coup.
At the time, most NBA experts said “Wow. They might win three or four titles together.” Few thought they would be able to fill out the roster well enough to dominate the league and go take the title in year one. Just on talent alone, they might be able to “steal one” if the Celtics, Magic and Lakers came up with some bad injuries or just hit the skids for whatever reason. But there weren’t many who said “Dwyane, LeBron, CB4 and Chalmers? Champ-ion-ship.”
5. Mike Miller Is Injured
As noted above, depth was always going to be the Achilles’ heel of this team. One thing that actually made the case that a 2010-11 Heat title could become a reality was Pat Riley’s unexpected moves to acquire Mike Miller, Eddie House and Big Z while also retaining Udonis Haslem.
Initially, it looked like it would be LeBron, Dwyane, Bosh, Mario Chalmers, Joel Anthony, a few waaaay-past-their-prime guys willing to play for the minimum (looking at you, Juwan Howard and Jerry Stackhouse) and a roster filled out with D-League call-ups. By getting two very valuable role players in Miller and Haslem as well as LeBron’s very-shaky-but-serviceable-for-a-few-minutes-a-night former running mate from Cleveland, it started to look like this team could have an actual 7- or 8-man rotation.
Mike Miller was the guy that made it seem like the Heat could actually be a team rather than an incredible core surrounded by nothing. Without him, the team quickly reverts back to “this will be fun but I’ll start taking them seriously when I see who they can acqure next summer with the mid-level exceptions, minimum-salaries and the draft.”
6. The Struggles Are Strategic — Not Structural
Kevin Arnovitz knows a ton more about basketball than I do. Here, he poignantly breaks down three key flaws we have seen in Miami’s first 10 games: (1) an inability to stop the opponent’s second option in a half-court set on defense, (2) an inability to get easy buckets near the rim on offense, and (3) an inability to prevent points in transition.
These are major things indeed. Great teams don’t struggle with such fundamental concepts of high-caliber basketball. But they are not structural flaws based on the typical talking head rhetoric of things like “Chris Bosh is soft,” “LeBron is not an alpha dog, dawg” or “Wade and James cannot co-exist.”
Kevin’s conclusion on the nature of these strategic flaws must be remembered. “For Miami, each of these three shortcomings is imminently fixable.”
These are Xs and Os of basketball problems. And the fact that they are occurring to the degree that the are, while perhaps surprising, is not shocking. It’s a completely revamped roster featuring three of the best players on the planet trying to adjust their instincts (“it’s going to demand that Wade, James and Bosh each perform a little rewiring,” notes Arnovitz) and several guys who barely belong in the rotation of any NBA team. Yes, that includes the T-Wolves
None of this means that we will see a parade in Miami seven months from now. They very well might not win the title this year.
But this team is far from being a failure — not yet anyway.
So let’s just all calm down.