Were the Miami Heat Losing Their Mojo or Just Coasting?

J.M. Poulard@ShyneIVContributor IIFebruary 10, 2014

Many believe that the Miami Heat have been coasting throughout the first half of the season, and it’s tough to think otherwise.

Dwyane Wade has sat out contests fairly consistently as part of Erik Spoelstra’s maintenance program, as NBA.com’s John Schuhmann reported, and LeBron James is playing a career-low 37.2 minutes per game.

The grind of the 82-game season in conjunction with three consecutive trips to the NBA Finals has taken a toll on the defending champs. James offered as much to Ken Berger of CBS Sports:

It's a long and grueling season for all of us, not just us because we're the champs. We've played a lot of basketball in our four years together. It's taken a lot of wear and tear on all our bodies. It's mentally fatiguing. And you just try to find the motivation the best way you can as an individual and as a collective group.

Miami is in the midst of a taxing run, and it prompted the team to take a laid-back approach to the regular season. Tim Bontemps of the New York Post is one of the media members to take notice:

In the meantime, the Heat will continue to coast their way to the playoffs, hoping they can stay as healthy as possible for when the real season begins. And whether or not people are happy with that, their approach isn’t going to change.

The Heat have taken a prudent route considering the mileage on the legs of their players. Indeed, according to HispanosNBA, James and Co. are the oldest team in basketball.

Thus, the coaching staff took the necessary steps to preserve the best players and keep them fresh for the duration of 2013-14. With that said, what apparently looks like a team going through the motions could also be construed as a unit that is declining before our eyes.


Lost Mojo

The Heat’s success in the past three seasons is in part a product of their elite defense. Miami has sported a top-10 defense in every season since James joined the franchise; however, the Heat have been close to average on this end this year.

As Grantland’s Zach Lowe noted, Spoelstra’s group has shied away from their usual aggressive schemes:

Even more interesting: The Heat have moved away from the blitzing defensive style that made them special — the manic trapping that ended Linsanity, flustered Tony Parker, and goaded Indiana into an endless reel of ugly turnovers in Game 7 of last season’s conference finals. I noted it first during Miami’s win last month over Indiana, but it has continued since: There are stretches of games in which Miami’s defense looks very much like the basic conservative defense most of the league plays.

It appears as though Miami has made the decision to change things up on this end given the amount of effort and energy that is required to consistently defend at that championship level.

Also, teams have begun to figure out the Heat a little, which provides context to some of their changes.

For instance, Spoelstra asks his perimeter players to abandon corner shooters and converge on the man diving into the paint when defending the pick-and-roll. Once the roller has been picked up, defenders must sprint back out to pick up shooters.

Watch below as the Utah Jazz take advantage of James simply by forcing him to commit to his rotation:

The four-time league MVP leaves Marvin Williams alone a split-second early, which results in Gordon Hayward hitting Williams for the easy basket. Thus, Miami has opted to switch things up a little and give the opposition a few different looks.

One of the changes revolves around Greg Oden. Spoelstra inserted him into the lineup in the new year, and Oden has given them a different dynamic. He is not as mobile as the other big men on the roster, and consequently the former No. 1 pick tends to stay within proximity of the paint on defense.

Because Oden is still getting himself acclimated to the speed of the NBA game (missed three seasons due to multiple knee injuries), he is often out of place or late when rotating to his assignments. Still, Oden makes up for the rust with his size and shot blocking.

With that said, Miami’s defense will more than likely shore itself up in the second half of 2013-14. The Heat were lackadaisical on this end last season through the early portion of the schedule, and the players began righting the ship in early February on their way to a 27-game win streak.

The stats bear that out: The only statistical difference between the first and second half of last season was their defensive efficiency. The Heat defended at a top-five rate after the All-Star Game per NBA.com.

With January having come and gone, one could say they are right on schedule.


The Dwyane Wade Situation

Wade’s play in support of James has helped Miami collect back-to-back titles. Wade dealt with knee issues last season that slowed him down and forced a few people to ponder whether he was finished as a player.

And yet, every time Miami needed Wade in an important spot, he turned into “Big Game Dwyane.”

The Heat lifer was solid in Game 7 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals against the Indiana Pacers as evidenced by his 21 points and nine rebounds. Still, he saved the best for last.

In the final four games of the 2013 NBA Finals, the man once known as "Flash" averaged 23.5 points and six rebounds on 49.4 percent field-goal shooting, per Basketball Reference.

Wade rose to the challenge when absolutely needed, which served to enhance his legend. Clearly, rumors of his physical demise had been greatly exaggerated.

Fast-forward to this season and, perhaps the initial uninformed line of thinking with respect to Wade’s health was in fact accurate. With the All-Star break looming, the 2-guard has already missed 12 games.

As a reference point, Wade missed 13 contests last season when many believed he could no longer play at an elite level.

To be fair, when Wade has been available, Miami has been a tough out. In the 36 games he has played, the Heat have only been defeated eight times. Remove Wade from the equation, and Spoelstra’s unit is only 7-6.

The future Hall of Fame guard is a vital cog in the Heat’s operations, but his uncertain status affects his teammates. Miami has trouble establishing a rhythm with Wade in and out of the lineup.

James offered his take on the matter to Michael Wallace of ESPN.com:

I can say from a rhythm standpoint, it's kind of hurt us. And we're a team that's built on rhythm, built on chemistry, and we've had so many lineup changes, so many different guys in and out with injuries that it's kind of hurt our performance. We don't like to use it as a crutch or as an excuse.

Luckily for the Heat, the Wade issue seems to be solving itself. Per Basketball Reference, the 2-guard is averaging 35.6 minutes per game in February. That figure is the highest of any month this season in which he has played multiple games.

The spike in minutes is an indication that Miami has made the decision to flip the switch. The Heat must prepare for their playoff run, and they will use the second half of 2013-14 to round into playoff form.

This means that the real Wade will now emerge. If he is anything remotely close to healthy, the Heat remain the favorites to win the title. However, a hobbled Wade turns Miami into arguably the most vulnerable championship contender.


Big Ball?

The Miami Heat lost Chris Bosh during the 2012 playoffs for most of the second round and Eastern Conference Finals due to an abdominal strain. Bosh’s injury forced Spoelstra to adjust his lineups, and that’s where he unleashed his small-ball units.

The coaching staff surrounded James with shooters and watched his emerging post game confound defenses. James turned Miami into an unstoppable offensive force that made it to the mountaintop in consecutive campaigns.

The Heat’s hybrid five-man units were supposed to take the league by storm, and they did until this season. The combination of age and injuries has made it difficult for Miami to keep going to the well.

Keep in mind, the reigning champs are still really good when they play their small-ball groupings, but they are nowhere near as potent as last season.

In 2012-13, the unit of James, Bosh, Wade, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers outscored teams by 19.6 points per 100 possessions. This season, that figure has dropped to 8.6 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com.

If we dig a little deeper, that lineup gets outscored by a staggering 21.8 points per 100 possessions when the opponent is the Indiana Pacers. Indiana simply refuses to downsize against Miami.

Instead, the Pacers prefer to attack the champs on the interior through post-ups and pound them on the glass for second-chance opportunities. The strategy has been effective, and consequently, the Heat have been forced to seek alternatives.

Miami has gone with more traditional lineups featuring two big men. Bosh and Chris Andersen have essentially tripled their on-court time together this year when compared to last season, and it’s helped the Heat anchor the paint against some big teams.

The Heat’s transitions from small to big and vice versa were facilitated with the benching of Udonis Haslem. He is a veteran player who does a good job of rotating in concert with his teammates, but his skills have declined.

At 6'8'', Haslem is an undersized interior player, and he has next to no value as an offensive player. Once upon a time, he was one of the most lethal mid-range jump-shooters in the league, but his jump shot has completely betrayed him. Per NBA.com, Haslem has converted eight of 28 mid-range field goals.

Haslem’s benching has given the Heat a productive big lineup that is just as potent as the smaller ones. With Bosh and Andersen on the floor, the Heat outscore teams by 14.6 points per 100 possessions. Substitute Greg Oden for Andersen, and Miami is still 9.7 points per 100 possessions better than opponents, according to NBA.com.

Spoelstra made a bold move by reintroducing big players into his rotations, and the payoff is a team with more variety.

The Heat have worked through enough reps to play both styles depending on the opponent. The coaching staff did some experimenting during the early part of the 82-game schedule, and they now have the foundation for the rest of the year.

Going forward, this means the Heat have the horses to compete with every upper-echelon team in the league. The Heat coasted through roughly the first 40 games of the 2013-14 season, but that is now behind them.

The champs are getting ready to flex their muscles.

All stats accurate as of February 9, 2014.


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