The Miami Heat have started off in just about the fashion that everybody pretty much expected them to start so far this season. They are 9-3 after their win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, and they have a handful of quality wins on their record.
As a team, they seem to be a bit unhealthy as Dwyane Wade battles injuries here and there and Mike Miller continues to be a creaky old man. Otherwise, they're off to a pretty great start.
Their offense is leading them to most of their wins, as they're leading the league with 103.5 points per game, but their defense is surprisingly sluggish and unimpressive as they're allowing 99.1 points in a relatively moderate pace.
It would make sense if they were giving up points due to a more up-tempo offense, but that's not the case. They average an extremely average number of possessions per game.
So what is it about this Heat team that has them giving the eighth-most points per game early on in this season compared to the team last season that gave up the fourth-fewest points per game? That's the question that everybody seems to be asking.
Let's take a look at a few things that might be ailing Miami right off the bat.
The Small Lineup
One of the things that allowed the Heat to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals last season was their ability to go small and negate the size advantage that the Thunder had over the Heat.
Playing Bosh at the center spot with LeBron James and Shane Battier as forwards and Mario Chalmers and Dwyane Wade allowed them to outrun Oklahoma City, and their collective athletic ability allowed them to play defense well enough to win the finals, obviously.
The problem with that lineup in the regular season is that there's less recuperation time in-between games, and there are much better centers than Kendrick Perkins in the league and much more physical power forwards than Serge Ibaka.
Oklahoma City was forced to counter with Nick Collison, which spread the floor to a point that favored the Heat, but when Bosh has to deal with Marc Gasol and Battier has to cover Zach Randolph, things are going to be rough. Miami's small-ball lineup doesn't fare as well when it's up against physical players.
It might end up working fine during the playoffs when there's a recovery time of at least a day in-between each game, but in back-to-backs or with three games in four or five days, it can wear on guys.
Shane Battier's New Role
One of the most obvious problems has been Shane Battier at the power forward spot. He can guard it, but he's not doing a great job having to defend bigger guys every night.
Last season, of Miami's 10 most-used lineups, eight involved Battier as a small forward or a power forward. This season only six do, but there's a big difference in those lineups. All six of them have LeBron as the "power forward" in the rotation, but when LeBron's on the floor he's usually defending the best wing player, leaving the power forward for Battier. That was only the case in three of those eight lineups a season ago.
Additionally, Miami no longer has Battier coming off the bench, which seems like a good thing on the surface but has been a bit of a double-edged sword. Instead of subbing LeBron out for Battier, and thus losing little on the defensive end, they're subbing the Ray Allen-Rashard Lewis combo in for LeBron and Battier, losing a ton defensively.
This not only means that they don't have any ultra-effective bench defenders, but also Battier only sees a few minutes each game defending the wing, rather than the post.
A lot of the insinuation recently has been that Miami's defense has been as bad as it has simply because the players are not putting in the effort. They won a title last year, and they know when to ratchet up the defense, so why kill themselves during the regular season?
Of course, that's an opinion that Erik Spoelstra completely denies, instead saying it's just a beginning-of-the-year slump. Spoelstra on the insinuation that his team is relaxing (h/t Chris Tomasson):
That’s the easy thing for people to deduce, but it’s not necessarily the case. We’re still working through some things. Different pace. The rotation’s slightly different. Just things that you typically encounter at the beginning of the year. Our guys understand how important it is.
However, the stats might just tell a different story. Breaking down its defense quarter by quarter, Miami gives up an average of 24 points in the first quarter, a whopping 27.1 in the second, 24.3 in the third and then just 23.6 in the fourth.
What other reason besides ratcheted-up intensity and focus would there be behind an obvious up-tick in defense in the fourth quarter. This team knows when to turn it on, and it's done a good job of it so far.
On top of that, Miami played in its first overtime game of the season against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday. The Heat held the Bucks to just eight points to their 15 in the extra period.
Spo says they're not relaxing because he has to, but it definitely seems like there's a bit of a dip in intensity so far this year.
However, I don't think that's something to get concerned about. Miami is going to make the playoffs and it'll probably finish with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Once the Heat get into the playoffs, the games will slow down and the defense will step up.