Unlike the start of the 2012-13 season, the Miami Heat aren't going to let championship fatigue impede them from starting off their title defense with the type of play that put them in their rare position.
The 14-3 Heat have taken advantage of a relaxed schedule that ramps up later this week with a four-game road trip, which includes stops in Chicago, Minnesota and, the last Eastern Conference matchup of any interest, Indiana. They are winners of their past 10 and are a few free throws and timely jumpers away from being undefeated.
Their three losses have come by a combined six points, two coming by only one, one coming on a buzzer-beater. They're the only team in the NBA to have not lost a game by double digits, with their biggest loss of the season being a four-point defeat at Philadelphia's home opener.
Miami has taken on and defeated whatever competition its schedule has delivered thus far, including home wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Dallas Mavericks. The Heat will face their first real tests of the season when they take on two of the league's top defensive teams, including one that is setting historical marks, over the next week.
But the Heat seem ready to embrace a challenge from an elite opponent, which have been few and far to come by in the diluted Eastern Conference. With Derrick Rose no longer a threat this year, the Pacers may just be the only team in the East capable of dethroning the Heat.
Fortunately for Miami, this year's Heat team may be the best of the Big Three era. LeBron James is about to create his own historically significant standard of efficiency, while Dwyane Wade is bearing more of a resemblance to the former MVP candidate he once was. The depth of the roster is also showcased on a regular basis, led by early-season surprises in Norris Cole and Michael Beasley.
With all but one player, only because of injury, being utilized at some point this season, the roster has shown that it is more than capable of leading another championship run and becoming the first teams since the 2000-03 Los Angeles Lakers to win three consecutive titles.
We take a look at how each member of the Heat roster has fared, grading them on a criteria that includes how they've played, as well as their expectations leading into the season.
All statistics via Basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Greg Oden has yet to be featured in a game since making a rare appearance in a preseason contest with the New Orleans Pelicans, where Oden displayed some of those dominant traits we came to expect from the former No. 1 pick.
Despite the dunk on his very first possession, the two rebounds and the solid defense, Oden has yet to be active for a regular-season game. There's no timetable set for a return, and there may not be for a while, considering the Heat would prefer to have Oden healthy come postseason time when they may have to challenge Roy Hibbert and the Indiana Pacers again.
Until then, however, it's just waiting until the coaching and medical staff deem it fit for Oden to attempt to integrate himself back within the pace of the game.
With Chris Andersen usurping his role, Joel Anthony has found his minutes harder than ever to come by.
He's only played in six games this season, and a majority of those appearances came in games where the contest was already well in hand for Miami. In the short time he's played, 30 minutes to be exact, he has taken four attempts, making only one, grabbed five rebounds and sent back four shots.
Per 36, Anthony is averaging 4.8 blocks per game. To be fair, though, the sample size may be a tad small.
Don't expect his role to change anytime soon. Miami has been trying to rid itself of Anthony's contract since last summer but has found no suitors willing to take on the expiring deal that would pay him over $4 million.
As great a defender as Anthony is, it's tough to blame any general manager for not wanting to make a trade. His offensive repertoire may be the least plentiful in the game, as shown by the 2.4 points per game he's averaging for his career and that his scores come off of little more than dunks and the occasional jump hook.
It took an injury for the Heat coaching staff to come to their senses and start Shane Battier, instead of Udonis Haslem, at power forward.
In terms of net rating, which is the disparity between offensive and defensive efficiency when a player is on the court, Udonis is the lone player on the Heat to be in the negative at minus-11.2. Even Anthony in his time on the floor has recorded a positive net rating, but the same can't be said for Haslem, who is giving up 113 points per 100 possessions when on the floor.
Haslem had started the first six games of the season, before a back injury forced him to the bench. That represented the beginning of the end for Udonis' time in the starting lineup, as he has only been featured in three games since returning, not even playing in games when listed as active.
In his return from injury in a win over the Atlanta Hawks, Haslem accomplished the impossible by fouling out in only seven minutes, 53 seconds worth of action, on top of scoring seven points and grabbing two rebounds.
Haslem is no longer a necessity. Since suffering a torn ligament in his foot back in November 2010, Haslem has found his numbers across the board drop, namely his rebounding totals and his ability to consistently knock down the mid-range jumper.
With those two attributes absent, especially the ability to stretch the floor, Haslem's place in the rotation has been replaced by those who can fit into Miami's offensive system of spacing the court.
Just consider Roger Mason Jr. to be another one of those players on the Heat often described as always needing to stay ready.
Because despite playing only six games this year and being a DNP on most nights, Mason has already started in a game and earned himself minutes in a rotation role on two other occasions.
While the sharpshooter only contributed three points on 1-of-3 shooting in 15 minutes in his start, he did make an impression in his 20-minute stint against Charlotte, where he finished with nine points on 2-of-5 three-point shooting to go along with four rebounds.
He also played 18 minutes against Phoenix, but his time was largely forgettable as he failed to score and picked up three fouls.
It's not to say Mason hasn't taken advantage of the minutes and shots he's received this year. He's 5-of-11 on three-point attempts and should continue swapping with James Jones when it comes to who starts at shooting guard on nights where Wade is out.
What better example of always staying ready than Jones.
Often left in the lurch when it comes to minutes, Jones will occasionally receive a nod to the starting lineup if Wade is out that night. Jones has only played in four games this year, but he started in two of those, both times responding with impressive shooting nights.
In a start against the Atlanta Hawks, Jones shot 2-of-3 from beyond the arc and finished the night with seven points in 16 minutes of action. He did himself one better the next night when he started against Orlando and wound up converting five of his seven three-point attempts to finish with 17 points.
He had the same look of the player who once received minutes rotation on a consistent basis with the Heat as recently as 2011. At the time, Jones was one of the top contributors off a bench that featured other former bench stars in Eddie House, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Juwan Howard.
Jones was averaging 20 minutes per game that season and was actually playing a heavier role in the Heat's run to the NBA Finals in 2011. Even in the year after he played in 20 postseason games, albeit at only nine minutes of action per night.
Last year, however, he played only nine playoff games and averaged four minutes. It appears to be the same case for Jones this year, especially with Rashard Lewis and Beasley playing as well as they have.
However, he will always be needed at the ready, just in case the team needs that shooting touch when Wade or even James isn't on the floor that night.
It was speculated at the beginning of the season whether it would be Lewis, Jones or Beasley filling in that vacant role left behind by Mike Miller.
What most people didn't remember from Miller's time as a member of the Heat was that he played in half the team's games, and when he did, he was either starting in Wade's absence or playing the role as a ninth man.
He was a break-in-case-of-emergency type of player. If the Heat were struggling on offense or needing some more effort from guys off the pine that night, they'd call on Miller's number. He'd make a few shots, we'd lose our minds and then he'd fade back into obscurity until the next night he was needed.
There was no role to really live up to. What coach Erik Spoelstra has done this year, however, is embrace a deeper rotation and utilizing more of the assets he has off the bench. With this year's Heat team being the deepest yet, Spoelstra is using guys like Lewis and Beasley, even going as far as using 10 players in a game.
Lewis has been a major surprise this year; not just because of the minutes he's receiving, but because he's actually performing well enough to earn them.
Despite shooting 32 percent from beyond the arc, Lewis has contributed in other areas of the game. Already this season he recorded a five-steal outing in a win over Atlanta, a nine-rebound outing in a win over Charlotte and a five-assist outing in a win over Toronto.
Those aren't the numbers you've come to expect from the 34-year-old shooter, but it's definitely aiding his stock as he continues to receive calls off the bench before Beasley.
Each season from beyond the arc appears to be hit-or-miss for Battier.
He shot a career-low 34 percent from beyond the arc in his first regular season with the Heat, only to make up for it with an exceptional shooting performance in the 2012 NBA Finals. The following season he shoots a career-high 43 percent from beyond the arc but struggles significantly with his shot in the playoffs, up until Games 6 and 7 of the finals.
This year is looking to be more like that first season with Miami. Battier has gotten off slow, shooting only 34 percent and averaging 4.8 points per game, or the exact same amount of points per he was putting up back in 2012.
Battier's role is one of the few that has changed early on in the year. He started off the season coming off the bench but slid into Haslem's former starting position at power forward, a move that was meant to create space in the lineup and force defenders to pay more attention to the perimeter.
It's worked out well thus far, as the Heat's current starting lineup of Mario Chalmers, Wade, James, Battier and Chris Bosh is garnering 100.4 points per 100 possessions on offense and giving up only 93 points per 100 possessions on defense, per SportVu.
Compare that to the Heat's former starting lineup that had Haslem in and Battier off the bench. That lineup was scoring a meager 90.1 points per 100 possessions on offense, giving the team a net rating of minus-9.3—one of the few Heat lineups that was used consistently and didn't have a positive net rating.
Battier's role in the lineup has seemed to aid the Heat in their need for an offense that requires more shooters to work. The starting lineup is scoring nearly 10 more points per 100 possessions than they were with Haslem clogging lanes, due to his lack of a respected outside shot.
For a moment there, I thought the days of Chalmers struggling were past us.
But then we get the open three-pointers being missed and the balls being dribbled off his foot out of bounds and then you say, "Oh, there's the Mario I've come to know."
Those types of moments can be reversed, too. In a win over Charlotte, Chalmers was mired in a 3-of-18 shooting slump from three, enabled by an 0-of-3 start to the game against the Bobcats, yet made up for past wrongs by pulling up and knocking down his only three-pointer of the night to help turn a 14-point deficit into three with five minutes remaining.
That's the Chalmers we've come to know: unpredictable, capable of great things and fearless, which is by far his greatest asset. Otherwise, he may have just passed up on that three after missing 15 of his previous 18 attempts from a similar range.
All right, maybe we're being a little too hard on him. After all, he is having a solid start to the year, shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc and averaging a career-high five assists per and 1.8 steals per game, as well.
He's been off and on recently when it comes to hitting shots he usually makes, but he's been making up for it with solid off-ball defense and an improved playmaking ability, evidenced by the 26.3 percent assist percentage, defined as an estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while he's on the floor.
Chalmers has been playing so well this year that he may just earn himself a contract this summer that may be too much for the Heat to match. If that is the case, then the next player to be featured on this list should have no trouble filling the void.
Credit needs to be given when it's due: Cole deserves some acknowledgement for future considerations of the league's Most Improved Player.
The third-year point guard has gradually improved since his rookie year, when he shot 39 percent from the field, 28 percent from beyond the arc and a player efficiency rating of 7.9. Seventeen games into the 2013-14 season, however, Cole is shooting 43 percent overall and a staggering 46 percent from beyond the arc.
Formerly Cleveland State's primary scoring option, Cole has adjusted greatly to his new role as a backup point guard with the Heat, especially since his rookie year. After struggling significantly with his shot, playmaking ability in the half court and finishing in the open court, Cole has seemingly mastered each of those attributes that were once absent from his game.
He's moved his shooting range to beyond the arc, can be trusted leading an offense and is now playing with his head up when running the open court, keeping his options open beyond blindly taking it to the rim.
On top of shooting career-high percentages, Cole is also averaging a career-high 3.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game, and also leads the league in net rating, per SportVu, among Heat players that have played at least 14 games. He is capable of being trusted with the second-unit offense, even leading the way without a member of the Big Three on the court.
His 20 percent assist percentage is also a career high, while his 17.4 percent turnover percentage is a career low.
Another key component of the league's deepest bench, Andersen has been flourishing in what should be his first full season with the Heat.
Andersen comes into the 2013-14 season still riding high from a dream postseason run that had him shooting an absurd 81 percent from the field, which included a streak of 17 consecutive baskets made.
He's shown no ill effects of an offseason layoff. He's still playing as hard as he was last effort, still leaving everything on the floor, and still contributing as a threat around the rim, rebounder and shot-deterrent. He almost makes you forget that Anthony played in his role for over two years.
"Birdman" remains a fan favorite in the Miami community and not just for the 6.2 points on 64 percent shooting he's putting up. He's becoming the defensive centerpiece on the second-unit lineups that aid the Heat in pulling away from opponents, after the starting lineup plays with complacency the first six minutes of the first and second halves.
The Heat are giving up only 96.4 points per 100 possessions when Birdman is on the floor, the best among players who have played in at least 14 games.
Andersen is another example of an improvement the Heat front office has made to its bench over the past two years. Andersen joins the same company as Ray Allen and Battier taking over for Eddie House and Jones or Cole taking the duties of former backup point guards in Carlos Arroyo or Mike Bibby.
He's also one of a few Heat players living off a veteran's minimum, joining other notables in Lewis and the next player on this list, who is a tad younger than what you would consider to be a veteran.
Beasley has exceeded the expectations of every single person who has watched him throughout his career.
That includes myself. But can you blame me, or anyone else for that matter, for doubting Beasley after the career he's had? After the consecutive years of negative win shares? The arrests for possession? The career-low numbers with Phoenix from last year?
Or are you a part of the minority that predicted Beasley would have a PER of 21.2, would be a part of the Heat's late-game lineups and would be shooting 54 percent from the field and 43 percent from beyond the arc? You want to give me the Powerball numbers while you're at it?
Nobody could have predicted the start Beasley has had in his second tenure with the Heat. He's making shots of all kinds, playing within the rhythm of the offense, contributing on the defensive end and is improving on his rebounding since a slow start to the season.
Outside of Jones' small sample size, Beasley leads the team in net rating. The Heat score 110.3 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor and are giving up only 94.8 points per possession on defense. He has been a huge upgrade to a bench that once lacked a healthy, versatile and athletic player who could contribute on both ends.
Beasley's numbers will drop in time, but the maturity has been shown, as has the trust that has been put into him, evidenced by his insertion into the crunch-time lineup of Miami's recent win over Toronto.
Strange to ask, I know, but has Allen discovered the fountain of youth since his teaming up with the Big Three in Miami?
At the age of 38, Allen is still putting up numbers that most players nearly half his age wish they could be putting up. Off the bench, Allen is dropping 10 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game, while shooting 45 percent from the field and 39 percent from beyond the arc.
The 39 percent he's shooting from three would actually be his lowest percentage since the 2009-10 season. That represented the last time Allen had shot less than 40 percent from the range where he had the greatest moment of his career from.
That spot in the corner of the American Airlines Arena will be memorialized at some point in the future. If Michael Jordan gets his number retired at the Triple A, Allen deserves his own spot for the shot that was arguably the biggest shot in the 25-year history of the franchise.
Allen hasn't missed much of a step since last year. He's still finding ways to get open, despite being the one player you don't want to leave open, and has already made at least three three-pointers in five of the 14 games he has played in.
He's also gone for at least 15 points on three occasions, including dropping a season-high 19 points in a loss to Philadelphia, which also featured this incredible shot.
With the way he's been playing, even scoring on drives to the rim, Allen has the look of a player who could sign another deal that could extend to three years. He's still driving with the confidence of a player half his age, yet continues to play with the veteran savvy that has won him two championships.
Per Synergy (subscription required), Allen ranks 70th in the league in points per possession on spot-up jumpers and 10th in the league off screens.
Try not to allow Bosh's incredible shooting display from the conclusion of Sunday's win over Charlotte cloud your vision too much.
No Heat player has sacrificed their minutes more than Bosh, who is averaging a career-low 28 minutes per games and less than 10 shot attempts per game for the first time since his rookie season. The 14.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per are also career lows for Bosh, who appears to be getting more and more squeezed out of the Big Three as the years pass.
Well, it looks like that if you go by the numbers. Bosh's numbers are low because of foul trouble, he's averaging over three for the first time in his career, and because guys like Andersen, Beasley and Lewis have been dependable in the frontcourt.
Plus, why play him now when his importance is far more vital come postseason time? Allow Bosh to play less than 30 minutes per game, so that 35 to 40 minutes per game in the postseason won't be as laboring and enduring as it will be in years where he'll usually play that many minutes in the regular season.
But if you go by the numbers that take further analysis into consideration, you'll notice why Bosh is so significant within the Heat's offense. Per Synergy, he ranks 32nd in points per possession off of spot-ups, 23rd as the pick-and-roll man, 16th off cuts and fourth in post-ups.
His role as the team's resident scoring big is imperative to Miami's success on offense. He stretches offenses and keeps opposing post-defenders out of the paint, is arguably the team's best shooter (53 percent overall and 47 percent from beyond the arc) and has even taken his game into the post, accounting for 14 percent of his offensive production, per Synergy.
The three-point percentage is what truly stands out. He's taken 30 three-point attempts and is hitting them with the consistency of the league's top perimeter shooters.
His defense has also continued to improve, as he currently ranks 25th in the league in points per possession given up.
"Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated."
As much as some of you want him to, Wade isn't going anywhere. Not after the postseason where he endured a nagging knee injury. Not even after not playing basketball from Game 7 of the NBA Finals until August, only a few weeks before training camp began.
No, Wade is here to stay, and he's still better than the sidekick people envision James having in Cleveland or Los Angeles or whichever fantasy city is concocted in the minds of those who wish to break up one of the most successful eras of basketball in recent history.
Although Wade is only averaging 18.5 points, he's doing so on a career-high 53 percent from the field, while dishing out 5.4 assists per game, the most he's averaged in his time as a member of the Big Three, and has been hitting the mid-range jumper with the consistency of 2006-era Wade.
He's only a 37 percent spot-up shooter but is converting 52 percent of his shots in isolation opportunities, 46 percent as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and 63 percent off of cuts. He's also continuing to display his mastery over opponents in the post, shooting 50 percent and ranking 22nd in the league in points per possession.
His efficient field-goal percentage is also at a career high. There's a trend among league leaders in efficient field-goal percentage, with that trend being there are many Heat players within the top 50, as well as eight in the top 100. Wade represents the last of those, despite having an efficient field-goal percentage of nearly 54 percent.
Just chalk Wade up as another player who has bought into this idea of playing with extreme efficiency by always looking for the best possible shot. Wade's early-season success, as well as the 33 minutes per game he's averaging, bode well for the rest of the season, as he will be a necessity for the Heat once the postseason rolls around.
What more can be said about LeBron that hasn't already been said?
In fact, where do you even begin? The 60 percent he's shooting? The 48 percent he's shooting from beyond the arc? The 81 percent free-throw percentage? The absurd 65 percent efficient field-goal percentage?
No matter which stat you begin with, James has played as near perfect as any perimeter player can be. He's taking two fewer shots per game than last year, but he is also playing fewer minutes than he has his entire career on account of the improved play and trust instilled into the bench.
If LeBron doesn't need to be on the court in a regular-season game, the Heat will take it. Miami can no longer allow to have LeBron borderline fatigued come NBA Finals time—which seems to have occurred in his past three NBA Finals. The weight on James' shoulders has exhausted him to the point of cramping and asking to be taken out of significant moments on the grandest stage.
The Heat will need LeBron more than ever with the way the Indiana Pacers have been playing.
James seems to have taken an even heavier investment into his efficiency standards. Ever since losing the 2011 NBA Finals, LeBron has become an ardent supporter of stats, sacrificing long-range and low-percentage jumpers for open shots, extra passes and shots closer to the rim.
Also, that newfound ability to hit the three. It's more than likely LeBron doesn't make nearly half his three-pointers throughout the year, but it's still entirely within the realm of possibility he shoots above 40 percent from beyond the arc for a second consecutive season.
How has he improved his three-point shot so significantly? It's not all because of a reduction in shots, it's also because of a vast improvement in where he's taking his shots, as well as the time and effort needed to improve with such results as the numbers LeBron has been producing.
I didn't think it possible for LeBron to compete with his play from last year. As it was last year when I thought he couldn't top himself after 2012, though, I've been wrong before.