Is it worth worrying about the Heat?
The Miami Heat's midseason slump has become an annual tradition at this point. The Heat suffered midpoint stretches of 4-6, 3-4 and 1-5 in the first three seasons of the “Big Three” era and ultimately rebounded well from all of them.
So generally, the fact that the Heat began the month of January with a 5-5 record wouldn't raise too many eyebrows—and maybe it shouldn't, seeing as they've ripped off three straight wins since that sluggish start to the new year. After all, they're second in the Eastern Conference at 32-12, and they're a sparkling 13-4 against teams at .500 or above.
Still, this year's version of the Heat is struggling with some issues that didn't exist in the past, and if left unchecked, those issues could ultimately derail Miami's season.
Why We Shouldn't Worry...
LeBron James Isn't Going 100 Percent
LeBron James has been fantastic this season, which should come as no surprise because LeBron James is fantastic every season.
LeBron is averaging 26 points, seven rebounds and 6.5 assists per game and is doing so on 66 percent true shooting. It's nuts to think that he could do that without going 100 percent at all times, and yet, it's pretty clear that he's conserving his energy for the playoffs, especially on the defensive end.
The Heat have been 7.5 points per 100 possessions better defensively with LeBron on the bench this season, per 82games.com, a massive number that's roughly equivalent to the difference between the Golden State Warriors' fifth-ranked defense and the New Orleans Pelicans' league-worst defense. Obviously, that can't all be pinned on LeBron, but he's been far from the sideline-to-sideline wrecking ball we're accustomed to seeing defensively, and some advanced metrics have him pegged as a net minus on that end.
LeBron has recorded a whopping 13 total blocks this season. Thirteen. To put that into perspective, LeBron has swatted fewer shots than defensive stalwarts like Raymond Felton, Kyrie Irving and Jeremy Lin. Box score statistics have never accurately measured defense, but in this case, they're actually pretty telling.
LeBron's not exactly killing himself on the defensive end right now, and that bodes well for Miami's league-average defense when he does inevitably ramp up the intensity.
Dwyane Wade Is Being Rested
This is a big one. The Heat have been extra cautious with Dwyane Wade's health, and while that has hurt them in the short run, it could pay huge dividends in the playoffs.
Wade's averaging 19 points, five rebounds and five assists per game this season, he's scoring more efficiently than he has in years and he's even thrown down a few vintage Wade jams to boot.
Miami's at its absolute best when it surrounds LeBron with four shooters, per NBA.com, but that's not to minimize Wade's importance to the team. Wade may be getting up there in years, but he's among the league's top handful of post players, per Synergy Sports Technology (subscription required), and he's still a killer in isolation and pick-and-roll situations.
It's also thanks to Wade that LeBron doesn't have to carry too big a burden. The “LeBron plus shooters” lineups are deadly, but they also force LeBron to do a ton—he creates nearly every shot for those lineups and is tasked with guarding the opponent's best player on the other end.
That's too much for one player to handle over the course of a playoff series, and if not for Wade's ability to step in and split the shot-creation duties, LeBron would be forced to pick his spots much more carefully.
Underscoring Wade's importance is the fact that he has rested in six of the Heat's 12 losses. Assuming Wade's presence would lead to wins in just half of those games (a conservative estimate), that would put the Heat at 35-9, the best mark in the NBA. Not too shabby.
The Offense Hasn't Missed A Beat
The Heat are known for their frantic, blitzing defense, but it's their offense that's been consistently elite over the past few years.
Miami boasts the second-best offense in the league, and it's scoring at almost exactly the same rate as it did in last year's championship season, per NBA.com. The Heat excel at generating the two juiciest shots in basketball—corner threes and shots at the rim. They also lead the league in shooting percentage on both types of shot, per NBA.com, thanks to some improvement from a few key contributors.
Chris Bosh's experiments with the three ball have been particularly rewarding for Miami. The Heat have long had Bosh linger around the corners, knowing he could hit from outside if the ball swung to him, but they're now actively running plays to get him easy looks from deep.
Bosh is on pace to shoot over twice as many threes as he has in any other year, and he's hitting 37 percent from outside. Defenders often leave Bosh to collapse on Wade or James when they enter the paint, and the two are deft enough passers to make opponents pay for that mistake.
Norris Cole's improvement has also been huge. Cole has always been the obvious weak link on Miami's roster—the team used to bleed points when Cole was on the floor, per 82games.com—but he's found a clear niche as a spot-up shooter. Cole's hitting 44 percent of his spot-up threes this season, per Synergy Sports Technology, making Wade's repeated absence much easier for the Heat to stomach.
This is small stuff, but it makes Miami even more versatile and much trickier to defend come playoff time.
...And Why We Should
Shane Battier Is Wearing Down
Shane Battier has been Miami's most important role player for the past few years, but he's wearing down, and the Heat don't have any great options to soak up his minutes right now.
Battier has spent the past two seasons banging with 4s so that LeBron hasn't had to, and that's finally started to take its toll on him. Battier can still shoot from outside (he's hitting 37 percent from three on the year), but he's no longer the versatile defender he once was, and opposing power forwards have steamrolled him this year, per 82games.com.
Battier is down to a career-low 20 minutes a game, and the Heat can no longer trot out Mike Miller when they need off-the-bench shooting and passing in critical moments.
Michael Beasley and Rashard Lewis are Battier's current replacements, and while neither has been terrible this season, they're also not exactly appetizing choices to play big minutes in the playoffs. Beasley is still more fond of deep twos than threes, per NBA.com, Lewis is shooting less than 35 percent from outside and both men are poor defenders.
The Heat seem to be playing Battier sparingly in hopes that he'll be back to his old self soon, but if he's not, they've got some tough decisions to make down the stretch.
The Defense Is Changing Schemes
As Grantland's Zach Lowe recently pointed out, the Heat have, at times this season, moved away from their trademark defense in favor of a more vanilla system that drops bigs back on pick-and-rolls in an effort to limit dribble penetration.
It's a conservative scheme that many of the league's best defenses—the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies, for example—employ. But the Heat are departing from their standard defense not for strategic reasons—not primarily anyway, they don't have the rim-protecting bigs the Grizzlies and Pacers do—but because they want to conserve their energy for the playoffs.
The Miami system, which basically consists of trapping ball-handlers on every pick-and-roll, puts opposing offenses in uncomfortable situations and forces a ton of turnovers that lead to easy transition opportunities. But as Lowe mentioned, it also requires a ton of effort to run properly, as it essentially guarantees a three-on-four situation if the trapped ball-handler gets the ball out cleanly.
Clever players are often able to slip the ball to their rolling big or string out the trap with careful dribbling (as Manu Ginobili does below), both of which require perfect, sweeping rotations from the Miami defense.
And even when the scheme does what it's designed to—fluster ball-handlers into ill-advised passes—it still requires a ton of effort. Just look at the rotation Joel Anthony has to make on this forced turnover:
It seems as though Miami has decided to ditch running its system around the clock in order to save energy for the playoffs. It might be a smart move, but it's dangerous. The Heat are well-known for flipping the switch when they need to, but this would be something new entirely.
The Indiana Pacers Are Scary
Since it seems almost certain that Miami and Indiana will meet in the playoffs, it's worth pointing out that this is a better Pacers team than the one that took the Heat to seven games last year. Much better.
The Pacers have lost just nine games this season, six of which have come on the second night of a back-to-back. There are no back-to-backs in the playoffs. The Pacers are 21-1 at home, they have the NBA's best point differential and they're packing the best defense the league has seen since the 2003-04 season.
Indiana has also bolstered its bench, Paul George and Roy Hibbert have taken huge steps forward and Lance Stephenson has grown into an All-Star-caliber guard and solid shot-creator—exactly what the Pacers were missing last year. This team was built from the ground up to beat Miami, and it's safe to say the Heat have never seen a challenger like this in the Eastern Conference.
When healthy and playing with maximum effort, this season's Heat look as good as they've ever been. But those moments have been few and far between, and hoping to simply flip the switch come the postseason is a dangerous game even for Miami.
The Heat have sprouted a few troubling leaks, but any team with LeBron, Wade and Bosh on it should never be counted out. One thing's for sure: This year's playoffs are going to be something special.
All statistics accurate as of 1/27/2014 and courtesy of Basketball-Reference, unless specifically stated otherwise.