The Miami Heat have made it clear that they're no longer concerned with convention. Erik Spoelstra's squad is going all-in on a position-less offensive system built around LeBron James' peculiar talents as a "point-power forward" and supported by Chris Bosh's "stretch five" skills and Dwyane Wade's combo capabilities.
As long as the Heat are busy bucking/setting trends, why not take things a step further with, say, a full-court press?
I know what you're thinking: "A full-court press? Didn't Rick Pitino try that with the Boston Celtics in the late 1990s?"
Yes, and indeed, he fell flat on his face, to the tune of a 102-146 record prior to his resignation in 2001. In all fairness to the press, Pitino's failures had more to do with his unyielding fealty to his collegiate pupils and his antagonism of everything Beantown than with his strategic preferences.
But why the press for the Heat? Why try to fix something (i.e. Miami's smothering defense) that ain't broke? Save for their opponents' three-point percentage, the Heat were a top-10 team according to nearly every defensive metric last season. Their opposition shot poorly, scored infrequently and turned the ball over with nearly reckless abandon.
Why change anything, especially when that formula propelled Miami to the apex of the NBA?
There's always room for improvement, even for a team that has as rosy an outlook as the Heat. Miami has a reputation for pushing the pace thanks in large part to the centrality of LeBron and D-Wade on the team, though the stats paint a different picture. The Heat certainly forced turnovers at a high enough rate to get out on the break; 17.1 percent of their opponents' possessions ended in takeaways, which was the third-best mark in the league, per Team Rankings.
Even with LeBron and Wade routinely pulling off plays like this:
Forcing the issue on defense will make it that much easier for Miami to convert turnovers into transition baskets, if for no other reason than the fact that the Heat will regain possession much closer to the hoop. A full-court press might limit opportunities for spectacular 90-foot lobs, though the ends—more points on the board with less energy spent—may well justify the means.
Doing so would fit rather neatly into the Heat's ethos of setting up opportunities for easy baskets whenever possible. As Wade recently told Joseph Goodman of The Miami Herald:
Obviously, we have enough talent to play a half-court game, and that can be efficient for us, but that puts more stress on our defense when you just play a half-court game. So, if we can get out in the open court a little more and get more opportunities without having to grind, grind, grind every play, that gives us more opportunities to score and takes more pressure off us on the other end of the floor.
The same principles of which Wade speaks apply to a full-court press. Playing such an aggressive style of defense would require tremendous focus and intensity, but only in short bursts. If executed correctly, a press would be no more taxing than having to stay down in a defensive stance for a full 24 seconds (or longer if there's an offensive rebound) and would do plenty to save the Heat's legs when the freneticism of it all results in quick turnovers.
That is, assuming that such tactics help the Heat to build big leads and allow Spoelstra to limit his key players' minutes.
Miami would appear to have the proper personnel to send other teams into such a tizzy. LeBron is arguably the best perimeter defender in the NBA (if not the best defender, period), Wade is an All-Defensive performer who's been known to be a pest on the ball and Bosh is very much an underrated asset in that regard, as is Mario Chalmers. Shane Battier is no longer the defensive dynamo he once was, but he is still smart enough to put himself and his teammates in proper position to make the right play.
More importantly, the Heat, as a whole, have already bought into the concept of playing team defense. They're superb at switching, they hustle and they make a concerted effort to help the helper.
What's more, the Heat put a tremendous emphasis on pressuring the ball at the point of attack as is. They smother ball-handlers, be it with one man or two, and front receiving passes so effectively that they are able to create turnovers time and again.
Realistically, then, a full-court press would be a logical extension of what Miami already does on the defensive end. Bring another defender or two into the backcourt and up the trapping ante, and the Heat could have the full-court press down pat.
Should the opposition break the press, Miami has the athletes (i.e. LeBron and Wade) to sprint back and prevent an easy basket.
This isn't to say that the institution of a full-court press would necessarily be a slam-dunk for the Heat. Aside from the perils of shifting a team's defensive philosophy this close to the regular season, there's always the concern about the draining effect of maintaining such a fast-paced and physically taxing style of play over an 82-game campaign and a long playoff run.
Even more so when one of the key catalysts (LeBron) has basically been going nonstop since last December while the other (Wade) is prone to injury and is on the wrong side of 30.
And, again, it's not as though Miami needs to make any drastic changes on either end of the floor to defend its title.
Then again, extending a half-court press into a full-court nightmare might not qualify as "drastic." The Heat have the horses, the championship pedigree and the commitment to team defense to pull it off.
The Heat will be the title favorites this season regardless, but why "simply win" when you can dominate the NBA like no team has since, perhaps, Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls? That wouldn't be too conventional, would it?
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