It hasn't been the easiest start to the season for the Heat's point guards.
Coming into training camp, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra raved about the way each of his point guards had prepared for the season—with Mario Chalmers working primarily on his passing and Norris Cole on his shooting.
Early signs were promising.
Cole hit an absurd 7-of-9 shots from three-point range in the preseason, after making just 27.6 percent as a rookie. Then, in the first four games of the regular season, Chalmers did something he didn't do all of last season, posting double-digit assists in a contest—with a pair of 11-assist, one-turnover gems.
So what's happened since?
Cole's percentages have actually dipped from last season, down to 36 percent overall and 23.5 percent from three-point range. Even so, Spoelstra has granted him increased playing time, largely because Chalmers hasn't shown any consistent ability to handle opposing point guards at the point of attack, which is leading to breakdowns in the Heat's help defense.
When asked recently why Chalmers has developed a foul habit, Spoelstra was succinct: “Everything that we’ve talked about. Early, stance, feet first, awareness, alertness, sense of urgency, discipline.”
Since his last 11-assist game, Chalmers hasn't had more than five in any contest and is averaging just 3.3 during that stretch. And, as a shooter, he is below his career accuracy overall, from three-point range and from the free-throw line.
So, does it matter? That's a reasonable question, considering that the Heat won a championship with this same duo last season.
On the next five slides, here's the case that it does:
(Note: All quotes for this piece were collected as part of the author's coverage of the Heat for the Palm Beach Post. All statistics were accurate as of Sunday morning.)
The Hawks guards can leave others chasing.
It appears that the Southeast Division banner—should the Heat even care to raise it—can stay in storage a little longer than expected.
The Hawks are hot, winning nine of 10, including victories against the Clippers and Grizzlies. And while the rest of the division has quickly, predictably been reduced to rubble, Atlanta has quickly created a new, successful approach in what was supposed to be a transition season after the trade of Joe Johnson.
The Heat, at 13-5, are just one-half game ahead of the Hawks.
"They’re so different compared to last year," Shane Battier said. "Last year it was all iso ball. And now with those three quick point guards, they are attacking and playing a very different style."
"You could feel it right away, the speed," Spoelstra said.
Miami beat the Hawks in Atlanta on Nov. 9, without Dwyane Wade. Still, that contest was close mostly because starting point guard Jeff Teague torched the Heat in the second half. Lou Williams and Devin Harris—the Hawks backcourt off the bench—struggled in that game, but it is comparable to Jamal Crawford and Eric Bledsoe, the Clippers duo that decimated Miami last month.
So, the Heat will count on Chalmers and Cole to provide an earnest effort to keep Teague, Williams and Harris from violating the first line of defense and causing the helpers to scramble out to shooters Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow.
If they can't handle that assignment, Miami can count on a challenge in Monday's contest, and perhaps down the line as well.
Say this for Chalmers: he has proved he's not afraid.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade do not spare feelings when they address Mario Chalmers.
Since James arrived, and most of the Heat's young players—including those with whom he was close such as Michael Beasley and Daequan Cook—left, Chalmers has assumed the role of everybody's little brother.
At times, he has bristled at the harsh tones that the Heat's stars have taken with him in public, but he has tended to react positively.
James and Wade have both insisted that they chide Chalmers because they believe in him and know the import of his role to Miami's success. Wade has gone so far as to say that Miami is a "much, much better team" when Chalmers is playing well.
Plus, they know that he's capable, when he gives each area of the game the proper attention. He has proven, whether at Kansas or in either of the past two NBA postseasons, that the moment does not shake him.
In Game 7 of the 2012 Eastern Conference final against Boston, he made 4-of-6 shots with seven assists. In Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals against Oklahoma City, he scored 25 on 9-of-15 shooting.
When he's providing a productive perimeter option, it helps space the floor for James and Wade. When he slides his feet defensively—while quickly sticking his hands in passing lanes—that leads not only to stops, but transition opportunities.
No, he doesn't throw the league's best lob, and his finishing ability still doesn't rank with his premier point guard peers. But he's a good fit for Miami, when his inconsistency isn't giving teammates fits.
While too kamikaze at times, Norris Cole's speedy style serves a purpose.
Pat Riley has made it no secret over the course of his executive career.
He prefers old hands.
The only issue with such experienced players is they also have old legs.
And while LeBron James and Chris Bosh are still on the right side of 30, the majority of the Heat's rotation has crossed that threshold—whether it's Dwyane Wade, Mike Miller, Shane Battier, Ray Allen, Udonis Haslem or Rashard Lewis.
So the two youngest players who actually play—which excludes Dexter Pittman and Terrel Harris—are Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers.
And one would guess, especially because they are splitting time, that they will be fresher than many of the others come May and June. Cole, in particular, can help energize the second unit, as he did in Game 4 of the NBA Finals.
The flip side is that, in a championship-or-bust situation, the Heat cannot tolerate many youthful mistakes, especially from Chalmers, who needs to know better by now.
So that's where Miami is: needing Chalmers and Cole for the energy they can offer, to pick the team up.
Needing both to sometimes tone it down.
Otherwise, Spoelstra will have no choice but to sit at least one down.
Ray Allen and Dwyane Wade have accommodated each other, even if the collaboration can be challenging.
Dwyane Wade and has been playing against Ray Allen for a long time, dating back to Allen's days at Marquette when Allen was still a member of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Wade certainly prefers playing with Allen, and welcomed the former Celtic's acquisition. Though both have been 2-guards over the course of their careers, Wade and Allen have already spent plenty of time on the court together, as was expected.
That has especially occurred down the stretch, which makes sense, considering they have been two of the game's better closers in recent years.
Still, even for a team that touts itself as "positionless," the Heat would be best served in most situations if they were playing together at the 2 and 3 spots along with a more traditional point guard, rather than serving as the team's backcourt.
The offensive side isn't so much the issue for them, since LeBron James can pick up playmaking duties—something we will address in the next slide. It's about defense, especially against smaller backcourts.
Does Miami really want Wade chasing Chris Paul or Rajon Rondo?
Does it want to expose Allen, who was a step slow defensively even before adjusting to a new system, to the opponent's other point guard, if the opposing coach chooses to toss one out there?
And, as we'll also cover in the next slide, does it really want LeBron James doing it for more than an occasional possession?
This is where Spoelstra needs to be able to rely on Chalmers—or if he's not up to it, Cole—to do that dirty work. At this stage of his career, and in a league that has gone small, Wade is much more capable of sticking—and jumping—with a small forward than with a slick point guard.
There are times that LeBron James would like to hand off ball-handling responsibilities.
LeBron James can do everything.
That's a blessing and a curse, since Miami uses him to fill every gap on both ends, expecting him to take that burden without it taking any toll.
And while he may appear indestructible, he has admitted at times—as he did with Mario Chalmers hurt and Norris Cole unavailable in a loss at Washington—that the ball-handling responsibility has worn on him.
At the end of games in particular, James is often called upon to chase around the opposing point guard on pivotal possessions. That makes sense. But when he needs to play point guard as well, possession after possession, getting up teammates, he can tend to play passively.
It also prevents him from getting him in the post as much.
That's not in the Heat's interests.
Erik Spoelstra responded this way Saturday when asked if he likes having a point guard on the floor:
"It can be beneficial for us, but we've also proven in certain stretches of the game, we can give another dynamic look, with Dwyane or LeBron handling the ball, getting us into offense, and having Ray (Allen) or Mike (Miller) or Shane (Battier) out there, whoever it may be."
Absolutely, they have.
Still, there's a difference between doing so out of preference, or out of necessity.
That's another reason why Chalmers and Cole need to play better.