Two of the best teams in the Eastern Conference this season are the New York Knicks and the defending champion Miami Heat. As longtime rivals, it is only fitting that they rank first and second in the conference, respectively.
However, as well as both squads have played this season, their recent problems have been notable.
New York has considerably cooled down following an 8-1 start, and injuries have started to take their toll on the lineup. The Knicks are still playing fairly well, but their rotation is as close to one put together by Scotch Tape as one can get.
Miami's issues are a horse of a different color. Despite handily winning last year's NBA Finals, the team's struggles in 2012-13 have been puzzling. After playing some lockdown defense all of last season, both in and out of the paint, the Heat just aren't the same team anymore.
Unless both teams fix their problems down the stretch, their dreams of a championship will be shattered into thousands of pieces. However, the question presents itself: Whose problems need to be fixed faster?
Let's start with the Knicks. Their defense has looked superb under head coach Mike Woodson, and they have actually defeated Miami twice this season. Even more amazing is that one of those wins came without star scorer Carmelo Anthony, who missed the game with a lacerated finger.
New York ranks 12th in points allowed compared to just 26th in rebounding, but the Knicks still do a good job defensively. Players like Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith have improved their half-court defense, and the knack of these two players for making clutch shots has greatly helped the Knicks this season.
However, the Knicks have struggled badly at some points, especially over their last ten games, going 4-6. Against the Boston Celtics on Jan. 7, the team was held to 41 percent field goal shooting. Anthony was limited to 20 points and shot 6-of-26 and earned himself a one-game suspension due to a postgame altercation with Kevin Garnett.
As a result, New York looked even worse against the Indiana Pacers on Jan. 10. The team shot just 35 percent from the field and 20 percent from three-point range en route to an 81-76 loss.
But wait a minute. What happened to the deep and talented New York Knicks team that managed to defeat the defending champion Miami Heat without Carmelo Anthony? Why didn't that team show up in Indianapolis?
Well, ladies and gentlemen, the answer is simple: For the game against Miami, New York had starting point guard Raymond Felton and reserve Rasheed Wallace to compensate for the lack of scoring from other players. In Indiana, both Felton and Wallace were unavailable due to injury, and veteran big man Marcus Camby injured his foot as well.
Herein lies the problem that has dogged the Knicks all season long. As well as they have played, the injury bug always manages to find them. Felton, Wallace and Camby have missed a combined 43 games due to their respective ailments, and the number of games missed by Knick players skyrockets when you factor in that Amar'e Stoudemire has appeared in only five games this season and second-year guard Iman Shumpert has yet to play after tearing his ACL last season.
Injuries can be tied to another season-long trend of the Knicks: the team's reliance on three-point shooting. Despite having a defensive head coach, the team ranks fifth in three-point percentage and first in three-pointers made. As a result, they can both live and die by the three.
Seeing that Felton and Wallace rely so much on the longball as part of their game, their absences hurt New York's offense. Shumpert also has a developing three-point shot, so his absence does not help either.
It should also be noted how much of the Knicks offense early in the season was off of forced turnovers, where the team currently ranks seventh with 15.2 forced per game (compared to the number of turnovers they commit on offense, a league-best 11.1).
Combined with their hot three-point shooting, the Knicks' pressure defense triggered their blistering start. But this is one of the cruel tricks of the game. As easy as it is for a hot streak to start, it is even easier for it to end.
As annoying as these problems have been for the Knicks, they aren't really issues that can be fixed. Basketball is a sport with a lot of physical contact, and people are going to get hurt. There's no way to coach around that.
Regarding the team's reliance on three-point shooting, being streaky at times is just the nature of the game. Coaches do all they can to prevent it, but there really are no Xs and Os to combat a cold shooting spell.
The problems of the Miami Heat, however, can be fixed via coaching.
No matter how you look at it, the team is not the one fans have come to know and love the past two seasons. Miami used to be all about fast-paced offense combined with suffocating defense, and that approach helped them make the NBA Finals in 2011 and win it all in 2012.
This year has been a different story. After ranking ninth and 21st in rebounding the past two years, the Heat have sunk all the way down to 29th in 2013.
Even sadder is that the team's rebounding woes are painfully visible. Of Miami's 11 losses this season, nine have come against teams with pure defensive centers (e.g., New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies, etc.). The other two losses, to the Washington Wizards and Golden State Warriors, were really just the result of some bad luck.
To give a greater idea of how bad the Heat have looked defensively, just take into account how they have recently performed. The team has lost three of four and, in two of those losses, was out-rebounded by a 103-64 margin. Over their last ten games, the defending champs are only 5-5.
Unlike the Knicks' injury woes, however, the Heat's rebounding issues are easy to fix. All that head coach Erik Spoelstra has to do is start someone other than Chris Bosh at center.
Don't get me wrong. Bosh is not a bad option at center by any means. He has great size for the position at 6'11", 235 pounds, and his player efficiency rating (PER) of 21.96 is his highest since coming to South Beach in 2010. On the season, Bosh is averaging 18.1 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game, and he has shot 55.5 percent from the field.
Bosh has also averaged three blocks over his previous five games, so to say that he is a bad option at the 5 is farfetched.
However, as his shot chart below indicates, Bosh likes to shoot perimeter jump shots on offense. Rather than stay in or around the paint as truer centers like Tyson Chandler and Dwight Howard do, Bosh prefers to stretch the floor, even out to three-point range.
This helps Miami's offense, particularly because so much of its strategy is to play at a fast pace and just overwhelm the opposition with its Big Three. But this style is a double-edged sword. The approach turns Bosh into more of a scoring power forward as opposed to a dominant center, and the team's defense suffers as a result.
Fortunately, this can be easily repaired. All that Spoelstra has to do is move Bosh back to the 4 and be willing to either take a hit on size and start someone like Udonis Haslem at center, which could actually work, as he is the team's all-time leading rebounder.
Another option is to give Joel Anthony some extended minutes. He is also smaller than Bosh at 6'9", but he did well for Miami in the postseason last year, averaging 4.6 rebounds and 1.8 blocks over 27.4 minutes. His offense does not fit well into a fast-paced system, but that does not matter as Miami only needs him to play defense.
The only other choice that Miami would have is to try and acquire a center via a trade or free agency. They have been linked to free agent Greg Oden, as Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated reported, but he will not be ready to step on a court until next season. Seeing as how the best trade chip Miami has is shooter Mike Miller, one can see how limited their options are when it comes to fixing their issues.
That all being said, it is clearly obvious that the Miami Heat's problems are the bigger ones to fix. Injuries and streakiness happen and are annoying but preventing them is borderline impossible unless the team's training staff is like the legendary crew of the Phoenix Suns (h/t, Paul Forrester of Sports Illustrated), or if players are just that amazingly fit and lucky.
Defense and rebounding, on the other hand, are very fixable. It is all a matter of the coach making adjustments, and Spoelstra has yet to do that with the Heat's lineup.
Bosh is starting at center but is playing like a scoring power forward. The fact that teammate LeBron James is averaging almost one full rebound more than he is is ridiculous, as he is best suited to focus solely on scoring while rebounding and passing when necessary.
The fact of the matter is that teams are starting to figure out Miami's defense, and hopes of a second consecutive championship will be in the wind unless the old defensive philosophy is soon brought back. This can happen quite easily because unlike injuries and streaks, as were mentioned earlier, defensive problems on any team are capable of being fixed.
Miami's problems are just a bit more unique than others. Though they can be fixed, they become even more critical if they are NOT taken care of.
At that point, Miami's management and fans will look at the New York Knicks and wish that their problems were solely injuries and inconsistency.