The Miami Heat are not impenetrable. They are not the same juggernaut that, unrestrained from the "ain't won nothing" shackles that dogged their first and second seasons together, blitzed the league to the tune of 66 wins and one of the most memorable NBA championship runs in league history.
As of publication, Miami sits at 34-13 and three games behind rival Indiana for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Because of the invisible line in the middle of the United States separating competent basketball from widespread incompetence, the Heat will still be rewarded with the No. 2 seed and have home-court advantage until the Eastern Finals.
Some of these so-called struggles are by design. Dwyane Wade has missed 13 games, almost entirely eschewing back-to-backs and missing other stretches to rest his oft-injured knees. Erik Spoelstra has tinkered with the team's well-documented attacking defensive style, dropping his bigs back inside the three-point line on pick-and-rolls at times. Those changes have helped ingratiate Greg Oden as a regular rotational cog, after more than four years on the sidelines.
Some of the struggles are just attributable to this being a veteran team that knows April, May and June are the only three months on its calendar. This has always been a roster equipped with a proverbial on/off switch.
Some of the struggles, though, speak to deeper and possibly crippling problems come that quarter-year stretch. Miami is 14th in defensive efficiency as of Feb. 4 and is trending backward. Opponents scored 107.4 points per 100 possessions against the Heat in January, which would rank just better than Utah's league-worst rate over the course of the season.
Players seem lost in space, lazy in rotations and perpetually unwilling to get back in transition. Miami's rotations, damn near perfect when everything is working in rhythm, have been loose and, at times, baffling. Bigs and wings are miscommunicating switches on the perimeter, and the Heat's style has always been prone to allow an open shot or two. Grantland's Zach Lowe did a nice job of highlighting some of the biggest glaring flaws last month.
The Heat will likely ratchet up the intensity and concentration once the playoffs begin, but some of these mistakes are happening due to roster construction. The Big Three era has been highlighted by veteran role players stepping up, taking less money and performing admirably when placed next to the three stars.
This year, those players haven't performed as well—and the results show. So with only a few weeks remaining before the NBA's trade deadline, Miami is very likely to explore making subtle changes to its bench.
Check back here for the latest rumors from South Beach over the next couple weeks.
All advanced stats are courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise stated.
Follow Tyler Conway on Twitter:
Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick breaks down the Heat's trade deadline, and why Roger Mason Jr. was traded to the Sacramento Kings:
Heat are currently at shootaround, but can confirm ESPN, CBS reports on Roger Mason, Jr. It's about creating open slot for buyouts.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) February 20, 2014
Deadline passes with Heat making just the one move: Mason Jr to Sacramento. Now Riley will look for players who get buyouts.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) February 20, 2014
With 15 players currently under contract, the Heat obviously have work to do if they want to add another rotational cog this month. All the contracts were also guaranteed for the season. So that means any deal that happens has to include a player currently on the roster.
That's obviously easier said than done, what with Miami having so many fungible parts at the end of its bench and a couple notable needs. Interior defense seems to be the in-vogue criticism of the Heat's roster construction. They do allow opposing teams to shoot 61.1 percent from the restricted area, and their starting lineup has lacked a "natural" big for years running; it's an easy criticism.
Oden, the ostensive fix to that problem, hasn't done much to help yet. Teams are shooting 63.6 percent when he is within five feet of the basket and the offensive player attempting the shot, per SportVU data released by the NBA. That's not very good, but the sample size is so impossibly small that you can literally take nothing from those numbers. Given the trust that Spoelstra has given Oden when he's been on the floor and the team's allowance of Andrew Bynum to sign in Indiana, it's safe to say there's satisfaction with his progress.
Perimeter defense has frankly been hell in a handbasket at times—especially with the bench. Ray Allen is showing signs of age on both ends of the floor. Michael Beasley is probably trying harder than ever on that end, but he still isn't effective and has lost his place in the rotation. James Jones and Roger Mason don't leave the bench, and Rashard Lewis and Toney Douglas aren't inspiring anyone.
Norris Cole is probably the only non-starter who you can feel comfortable bringing into the game from a defensive standpoint. And still, the five-man lineup featuring Cole, Allen, Lewis, LeBron James and Bosh gave up an astounding 132.6 points per 100 possessions last month.
To the point: Miami badly needs a perimeter defender. More specifically, it needs a proverbial 3-and-D guy, someone who can guard the perimeter on one end and garner attention on it on the other. Tony Allen types are interesting but would create a bad spacing dynamic.
And it seems the team agrees. NBA.com's David Aldridge reported last month that the Heat were pursuing a wing player before the deadline, a process these defensive woes should help expedite. A dream scenario would involve Arron Afflalo falling into their laps, but that would involve Miami having anything of value to trade back to Orlando. As would any possible deal for the Sixers' Evan Turner.
It's likely that, if anything does get done, it's on a smaller scale. The Heat have needs. They just don't have anyone who other teams might need.
That's kinda sorta a problem.
First things first, since his name is in the slide's title: Kyle Lowry should have been an All-Star. He's probably the biggest snub in either conference, considering it would be nearly impossible to sub out any of the Western Conference bigs (DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis, et al.) who didn't make it for ones that did.
Kyle Lowry didn't make the All-Star Game in a dumpster fire of a conference, one in which Brooklyn's Joe Johnson was selected. Yes, the same Joe Johnson with a 14.7 PER (average is 15), who is averaging 15.6 points on 44.4 percent shooting while throwing in a robust 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists. Per Basketball-Reference, there are less than 20 guards in NBA history to make at least seven All-Star games
Johnson is one of those players. Ugh. [Removes self from soapbox.]
All of this is to say Lowry has been an excellent professional basketball player this season. He's averaging 16.5 points, 7.5 assists and 4.3 rebounds per game and has seemed completely and utterly unrestrained after the Rudy Gay trade. There is little question as to who runs the Toronto Raptors offense. DeMar DeRozan is really the only ball-stopper left, and you may have heard the Raps have been quite good of late.
Lowry's not the only reason, but he's probably the biggest.
All of this leaves a somewhat awkward situation in the Great White North, as Lowry seemed all but certain to be following Gay out the door in December. The Knicks very nearly pulled the trigger on a deal just days after that deal before balking at Toronto's demands.
Lowry is in the final year of his contract and makes a manageable $6.2 million this season—making him the perfect type of addition for a contending team. At age 27 and with a longstanding reputation as a contentious personality, Lowry is also unlikely to fit within general manager Masai Ujiri's long-term plan.
It all seemed so perfect—right until Toronto took off instead of tanking. The Raptors are now left to decide whether to hold onto Lowry and risk losing him for nothing next summer while perusing their second playoff series victory in franchise history or trading Lowry and risk infuriating a suffering fanbase.
No matter what Ujiri decides, one thing is clear: Lowry cannot be had cheap. At least not cheap enough for the Heat to have any shot of making a deal happen. Grantland's Zach Lowe noted that Miami made initial inquiries into a Lowry deal before being shot down, which of course went "nowhere."
Norris Cole is probably the only piece who would be even slightly appealing to Toronto, but he's unlikely to go anywhere. Mario Chalmers is a free agent after this season. The Heat will need a cheap replacement in the interim should they get outbid for Chalmers, which is a good possibility with LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh possibly hitting the open market.
Nevertheless, it wouldn't be enough. Lowry has been the best healthy point guard in the Eastern Conference for the last two months. Cole won't and shouldn't be enough to get it done, even if Miami was willing to float his name.