For a two-time defending champion with a 33-13 record entering Monday's action, multiple Hall of Famers and the best player on the planet anchoring their lineup every night out, the Miami Heat don't inspire a lot of confidence.
Consider the headlines: “What’s Wrong With the Heat?” Grantland’s Zach Lowe asked on Jan. 23. “Struggling Heat Humbled After White House High,” AFP's Jim Slater thundered the week before. “Heat Try to Work Their Way Out of Slump,” ESPN's Michael Wallace announced when Miami dropped a mid-January tilt to the Washington Wizards, its third straight loss.
While the team has righted the ship some since those midseason doldrums, doubts, with good reason, linger. A defense that finished fourth and seventh in the NBA in efficiency during the two title campaigns—the dynasty's secret foundation—has slipped into the great, murky middle. Entering February, the Heat are tied for 13th in defensive efficiency with the flat Atlanta Hawks and Memphis Grizzlies.
Miami opponents are shooting a tick over 46 percent, a worse figure than all but six of the Association’s squads have allowed. It puts the team dead even with the Philadelphia 76ers—a roster deliberately constructed to be awful and fulfilling this ignominious purpose due largely to a D that’s historically generous to opposing shooters.
More grist for the mill: At an average age of 30.7, the Heat have the oldest team in the NBA.
The Rise of the Rest
In the midst of this uneven start, two pieces of conventional wisdom that buoyed Miami’s three-peat hopes—the notions that the Heat have an easy path through the Eastern Conference and that, no matter what happens, LeBron James will always be the best player on the floor—have been challenged, or outright debunked, in the season’s first three months.
Kevin Durant—long the Clyde Drexler to LeBron’s Michael Jordan—has surpassed James in every metric imaginable in 2013-14. He’s outscoring and out-rebounding the MVP (31.1 to 26.3 and 7.6 to 6.8), has nearly pulled even with LeBron in assists and betters him by considerable margins in advanced stats like PER (31 to 29), win shares (12.5 to 9.3) and wins produced (13.4 to 11.5).
And Durant’s Thunder have the best record in the rugged Western Conference while James and Co. are struggling to keep pace with a certain rival in the otherwise feeble East.
About that rival: The Indiana Pacers—the young, long upstart who took them to seven games in the conference finals the previous spring—have grown into something of a juggernaut.
While Indiana sits just three games ahead of Miami in the standings and has split its two regular-season matchups with the champs, the Pacers have a scoring differential of eight points per game to the Heat’s 5.4. By this consequential measure, Indiana has roughly the same edge on Miami that the Heat have on the Raptors. As impressive as Kyle Lowry has been, this doesn’t augur well for an aspiring contender.
The team's struggles have not been lost on its best player.
"With some of the guys being in and out, and with the concern with D-Wade, it's been tough on all of us trying to fill that," James told ESPN.com's Michael Wallace late last month. "We've just got to be able to do a little bit more consistently."
So with the season into its fifth month, all these facts and impressions have accreted and calcified into something like an elephant in the lobby of the American Airlines Arena: Are the Heat finished?
A Very Powerful Engine in Low Gear
Lost in the handwringing over what’s ailing the Heat is a salient fact, the salient fact, about the defending champs: This is still an improbably great basketball team.
While the Miami defense has taken a (likely temporary) step backward, the Heat O has continued its development into a scoring machine of terrifying and nearly unprecedented efficiency.
The team has posted a true shooting percentage of 59.8 on the season. It’s worth pausing a moment to reflect on this figure. This is not only the highest mark a team has managed in at least the last 10 years, but it’s better than Kobe Bryant’s best season.
More bewildering is that Miami has accomplished all this while on, for all intents and purposes, autopilot. The Heat don't have much incentive to play hard in in the regular season, and they have performed accordingly. Thing is, for a veteran bunch that’s played a lot of extra games the last three summers, home-court advantage isn’t as valuable as entering the postseason with good health and fresh legs.
“There is a sound logic behind coasting,” Kelly Scaletta wrote in a Jan. 24 article in defense of contenders who take it easy during the regular season. “As teams pile up trips to the finals, they’re accruing a massive number of minutes. In the Heat’s three previous trips to the postseason, they’ve played a total of 67 games. That’s almost the equivalent of a full extra season.”
And take it easy they are.
This explains away many of the Heat defensive problems. Miami, at its best, plays a hyper-frenetic, trapping defense that makes tons of sense (and wreaks tons of havoc) in a short playoff series, but is unsustainable for a full season—especially when the team in question is the oldest in the NBA and played, again, a total of 67 extra games over the previous three seasons.
(Encouragingly, there's precedent for a defensive turnaround. Last season, the Heat D also sputtered out of the gate—it was 19th in defensive efficiency at the beginning of December and 16th at the start of January—before tightening down the stretch.)
The superstars seem to be coasting as well. LeBron, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are all playing career-low minutes. And there are indications that, when the Big Three are on the floor, they aren’t playing as effortfully as they have in past season's. Consider LeBron.
While James has been tremendous—his 65.9 true shooting percentage is a career high and leads all players with a usage rate over 20 percent—his “hustle stats” have taken a precipitous dip. The reigning MVP is posting career lows in block and steal percentage and has his lowest rebounding totals since he joined the Heat. He's also attempting the fewest shots per game of his career.
That the Heat have accomplished what they have this season despite their glaring flaws should make them more feared, not less so, around the league. Watching LeBron and Co. dominate as they have this season, so effortlessly, with so little of themselves invested in the outcome, brings to mind an old David Foster Wallace line: “The suggestion is one of a very powerful engine in low gear.”
Imagine when they gun the thing.