What's Gone Wrong for Sliding Miami Heat?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 23, 2014

USA Today

LeBron James and Chris Bosh are sick of excuses, so let's call what follows a search for "explanations" behind the Miami Heat's troublesome swoon.

Without a doubt, the Heat are playing their worst ball of the season. They've dropped seven of their past 11 games during an awful stretch that only seems to be getting worse. Since March 14, Miami has dumped three contests to teams that won't even sniff the playoffs.

Bosh, always outspoken and honest, is fed up.

Per ESPN's Michael Wallace, he had this to say after the Heat's ugly 105-95 road loss to the New Orleans Pelicans on March 22:

We’re going to have to draw the line in the sand somewhere,. We don’t talk about it. We’re not expressing ourselves in the locker room or on the court. So I figure I’ll be the first one to say it. We suck. And if we don’t play better, we’ll be watching the championship at home.

And James isn't even willing to get into the reasons for his team's poor stretch:

It’s too many excuses; everything is an excuse. We do something wrong, it’s an excuse. We don’t get a stop, it’s an excuse. We turn the ball over, it’s an excuse. What we’re doing right now ain’t good enough...Guys who are on the floor need to produce. It’s that simple. It’s very frustrating. We’re all frustrated. We just got to all get on the same page. I don’t know what we’re going to do, but we’ve got to figure it out.

Broadly speaking, many of the issues plaguing Miami lately are the same ones that always come up, which is both encouraging and discouraging for the team's chances to win a third straight title. On the one hand, the Heat have faced similar difficulties in the past.

On the other, they've never run into a stretch quite this long—or this bad.

Hidden Flaws

What's odd about Miami's struggles is that the big numbers—the most obvious ones—don't really show what's going on. Sure, you can find signals in the overarching stats, but knowing the Heat's offensive and defensive ratings are both heading in the wrong direction doesn't explain why things have fallen apart:

Miami Heat Ratings
Points per 100 Poss.NBA Rank
ORtg Through March 3110.61
ORtg Since March 4104.319
DRtg Through March 3102.813
DRtg Since March 4106.317

OK, so the Heat are scoring less efficiently over their past 11 games than they did in the months leading up to them. And at the same time, they're also allowing opponents to score with an alarming increase in efficiency. Those are bad trends, ones that typically lead to losses.

But we need more information to explain what's going on, and a deeper look into the stats doesn't paint a clearer picture.

Some of the Heat's key defensive numbers haven't changed much since their slide began on March 4.

Per NBA.com, they've allowed opponents to hit 60.9 percent of their attempts in the restricted area over the past 11 games. That figure ranks 14th in the NBA and might seem like a reason for Miami's defensive slippage. But the Heat allowed opponents to hit 60.5 percent of their shots in the restricted area through March 3, which ranked 16th.

That's hardly a significant change.

By and large, the Heat have defended the most vulnerable area of the floor about as well as they have all year. And the story is mostly the same from the other key defensive battleground: beyond the arc.

Heat's Opponent Three-Point Shooting
PercentageNBA Rank
3FG% from Left Corner Thru March 3.40823
3FG% from Left Corner Since March 4.3245
3FG% from Right Corner Thru March 3.43627
3FG% from Right Corner Since March 4.37810

Miami has defended the deadly corner threes better than ever lately.

Shooting stats aren't telling the tale, so maybe we should look to what the Heat do to make other offensive tasks difficult for their opponents. Maybe there's an answer there.

For as long as they've been together, the Heat have relied on an aggressive defense to force turnovers and create scoring opportunities. Yet again, though, Miami's numbers haven't meaningfully changed since the losses started piling up.

Through March 3, Miami turned opponents over on a league-best 17.9 percent of offensive possessions. Since then, it has continued to force giveaways at an excellent rate—17.0 percent—that ranks fourth in the NBA during that span.

Essentially, the Heat are allowing opponents to take the same shots they did when things were going well and at roughly the same success rate. Plus, the turnovers that matter so much to Miami's success haven't disappeared.

So what gives?

Personnel Issues

As previously noted, we know Miami's offensive efficiency has taken a hit. And it doesn't take much digging to figure out why: James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade have all been less productive than usual during the Heat's slide.

Because everything for Miami starts and ends with James, it makes sense to focus specifically on him—even if he's the one seemingly most allergic to excuses like the one that follows:

James is banged up. It's that simple.

He tweaked his right ankle against the Pelicans, has suffered similar minor issues with both ankles during the season and has dealt with a sore back for weeks. As such, he's seen his numbers dip along with those of his star teammates:

The Big Three's "Decline"
James Thru 3/327.
James Since 3/422.
Wade Thru 3/319.
Wade Since 3/420.
Bosh Thru 3/316.
Bosh Since 3/415.

Those numbers, across the board, are still darn good. If anything, the way a mild statistical decline by the Big Three has caused such disastrous effects for the Heat speaks to just how fantastic James, Bosh and Wade have been during most of the season.

They've had to be great for Miami. When they're merely "very good," it seems the Heat fall apart.

That's unfair, an inequity brought about by the quiet decline of just about everybody on the supporting cast. For nearly four years, the Heat's role players have given—at best—sporadic help. And it's safe to say the backups and less heralded members of the starting lineup aren't in one of their "helpful" phases right now.

Shane Battier's minutes are way down of late, something his woeful shooting and lack of mobility necessitated. To compensate for Battier's missing minutes, Erik Spoelstra has upped Ray Allen's playing time, which always, always means the Heat's defense suffers.

Watch here as Allen ventures way too far into the lane in offering totally unnecessary help and can't recover to his man in the far corner:

Via NBA.com

Via NBA.com

Via NBA.com

We've established that Miami's defensive numbers aren't all that different lately, but this is a basic mistake that leads to shaking heads and pointing fingers. It's just one play, but it's indicative of the unfocused gaffes that have hurt the Heat lately.

Per ESPN's Tom Haberstroh, Allen and Battier's declines are a serious issue with far-reaching effects:

Allen and Battier are two of the Heat's snipers who serve as floor spacers for the Big Three, so if they're not firing on all cylinders, opponents will have an easier time packing the paint and making it tough for James, Wade and Bosh to attack. And what's fascinating about this is that Erik Spoelstra has abandoned using Allen and Battier next to the Big Three this season.

Even if we find fault with the Big Three, or single out Battier and Allen as scapegoats, it feels like an incomplete analysis. As B/R's Ethan Skolnick points out, the truth is that pretty much everybody is accountable:

Strategic Failure

Back in January, Grantland's Zach Lowe identified an interesting change: The Heat stopped playing like the Heat.

More specifically, they cut back on their trademark trapping against the pick-and-roll. Instead, they increasingly dropped the big man into the lane to contain penetration and (hopefully) force a mid-range jumper. That's a sound strategy, one employed by some of the league's best defenses, notably the Indiana Pacers and Memphis Grizzlies.

But it's not what earned Miami a couple of rings.

It's harder to force live-ball turnovers when the big man doesn't show on the pick-and-roll. It's harder to rush opponents' shots. Most of all, it's harder to wear other teams down.

The Heat seem to have recognized the age and mileage of their roster and made a strategic adjustment to ease the defensive burden. It's difficult to consistently muster the effort necessary to play Miami's brand of defense, which is why even when the Heat were at their best, their defensive potency was never a permanent thing.

Miami always defended in spurts, calling on a full-tilt effort for short spans to blitz opponents, force turnovers and go on lightning-fast 10-0 runs. A more conservative style has largely eliminated those short bursts.

Again, most of the numbers (in terms of shots allowed and turnovers forced) in this small, unsuccessful sample since March 3 are similar to Miami's results from earlier in the year. But stylistically, the Heat are different.

Bosh seems to think the change has to do with effort, which is partially true. Miami's not playing with urgency, but it's also not employing the tactics that call for it. Dropping the big man is the safe play, the passive one. It works, but it's not the way to create chaos.

The Heat have been through periods of malaise plenty of times before. The timing of this one is bad, and it's admittedly worrisome that injuries, age and mileage make it seem like the current swoon is likely to stick around for a while.

But there's nothing systemically wrong with the Heat. As both Bosh and James said, they're simply not communicating and not producing. Those are fixable issues, and we know that because the Heat have fixed them in the past.

If anything, it's good the Heat are getting a wake-up call now, when there's still enough season left to sort things out.

Panic vs. Concern

Mar 22, 2014; New Orleans, LA, USA; Miami Heat center Chris Bosh (1) against New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) during the first quarter of a game at the Smoothie King Center. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Remember, the Heat aren't a superteam. They got a couple of lucky bounces and a miracle shot from Allen to survive Game 6 against the San Antonio Spurs last year. They're very, very good, though—probably capable of being the league's best when all cylinders are firing.

Admittedly, it's harder than ever to brush off this streak of poor play. Miami is older than ever, more fatigued than ever and it's never taken this long for it to find itself.

But, as Bosh said back in January (via Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel): "If you're panicked, you're an idiot."

There's still nearly a month of regular season left, and the Heat will get a pushover first-round matchup once the playoffs start. Three-plus years of elite play—complete with three straight trips to the Finals—should weigh a little more in the final analysis than any 11-game stretch.

James is still James, and we've seen the rest of the Heat round into form when they've had to. Panic isn't necessary.

A bit of worry is probably fair, though.


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