The predictable wave of panic and hand-wringing has engulfed South Florida, and next comes the advice from the peanut gallery. Everyone has an opinion about how the Miami Heat should change strategy, coaches or even players if they are going to reach their overhyped potential.
The mighty Heat, after the smoke-spewing championship celebration in July, are 8-6 and on a two-game losing skid heading into Orlando on Wednesday night for a rematch with the Magic, a team they throttled in Miami a few weeks ago. Since then, the only significant beatings the Heat have inflicted have been to the sizeable egos of their superstar trio.
|Dwyane Wade is 'the best open-court player in the history of the game' according to one coach. (Getty Images)|
We can't fix all of them, but here's one idea that's pretty simple and can be incorporated immediately: play faster.
Miami's weaknesses are obvious: rebounding and point guard play. But their strengths are overwhelming, and rival coaches and front office executives believe the Heat aren't taking full advantage of them.
The Heat have two players who are virtually unguardable in the open court in Dwyane Wade and LeBron James. Yet too often, their predictable offense operates robotically with the ball in neither player's hands. The Heat are 20th in the NBA in pace with 93.8 possessions per game. Just about every team ranked behind them with a better record -- Orlando and Boston, for example -- plays that way for a reason. They have what Miami lacks: a true post-up center, or at least a replica.
None of those teams has a player with the open-court gifts possessed by Wade or LeBron. That would be impossible, unless Pat Riley has a cloning lab. There are no other players in the NBA with the size, strength, and open-court abilities of the Supertwins. So in speaking with an NBA head coach recently about the Heat's struggles, it got me wondering if LeBron wishes he'd paid a little more attention to the presentation Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni made to him during the team's July recruiting pitch at the IMG offices in Cleveland.
"I don't understand why they don't play like Phoenix," the coach said, referring to the up-tempo, triple-threat offense employed full-time only by the Suns and Knicks. "Nobody can guard that guy in the open floor."
He may have been referring to either Wade or LeBron. But in this case, the coach was talking about Wade, who is, according to the coach, "the best open-court player in the history of the game."
Better than Michael?
"I don't think Michael could do what Dwyane Wade can do in the open floor," the coach said.
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But Wade can't do it in the offensive system the Heat are running. Michael Jordan couldn't have, either. Miami is scoring -- fourth in the league with 107.9 points per 100 possessions -- but they're working too hard to score. There are too many restrictions, too much riding on every possession. James' recent comment about playing too many minutes was misplaced. It's not the minutes; it's the work required to score, and the pressure that goes with it.
The expectation for this team to win every night is immense; just listen to James' frustration and coach Erik Spoelstra's exasperation, which soon will morph into panic. The elite defensive teams are too good. The ball gets awfully heavy with that much precision, work and pressure riding on every shot attempt.
As the late, great John Wooden used to say, "The team that makes the most mistakes will probably win." I've never been in Spoelstra's office, but I bet that quote isn't on his wall -- not to mention Riley's.
Which brings us back to the IMG offices in July, when D'Antoni made the most impassioned -- and, in my view, most convincing -- case for where James should have taken his talents.
If James, Wade or both had joined D'Antoni in New York, you never would've read a quote like the one from James after the Indiana debacle Monday night. After losing to the Pacers by 16 points at home, James said, "We're not having fun at all."
That's because he took his talents to the wrong place, to the wrong coach and to the wrong system.
D'Antoni, who has the Knicks on a four-game winning streak with only one star player, laid it all out for James back in July. Either he wasn't interested, wasn't listening, or had already made up his mind. With a fast-paced system with alternating wings and bigs running pick-and-roll on either side with shooters in either corner, James would have been unstoppable. Wade, too. Both of them on a team playing that style would've been historically impossible to defend. Not only would they have enjoyed more possessions, but also more opportunities to create with the ball in their hands while surrounded by open shooters and/or rollers to the basket. It would've been a cornucopia of can't-guard-that.
So it isn't a matter of LeBron and Wade not fitting together. They don't fit together in a plodding, half-court offensive style with so many restrictions and with the ball getting heavier with every pass.
"LeBron James coming at you full speed in the open court," the coach said, "is like having a freight train coming at you."
In essence, imagine the Knicks running D'Antoni's offense with Wade and James initiating pick-and-rolls and attacking the defense instead of Raymond Felton and Toney Douglas. Unlike what's going on in Miami at the moment, that would be fun.
How can it happen in Miami? It won't. Spoelstra is a Riley clone, and playing fast isn't Riley's style -- unless he has three or four Hall of Famers on his team, with one of them being Magic Johnson. Miami may not win a championship this season with this group -- especially with the injuries -- but they certainly could take better advantage of their most lethal weapons. They should be better than this, and increasing the tempo and loosening the reins on James and Wade would be a fairly reliable way to start heading in that direction. And what better way to go there but fast?
But to play that way requires the coach to give up something almost no NBA coach will relinquish: control. It's easy to say, harder to do. If we know anything about the Riley-Spoelstra regime, it's that control is job No. 1. LeBron must not have been listening to that part of the presentation, either. His heart was already in Miami. Little did he know how much fun could've been had elsewhere.