Are Miami Heat More Vulnerable Than We Think Entering 2014 Playoffs?

Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistApril 13, 2014

MIAMI, FL - April 11: LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat handles the ball against the Indiana Pacers at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida on April 11, 2014. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory copyright notice: Copyright NBAE 2014 (Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images)
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Invincibility doesn't win NBA championships. There is no such thing as the perfect team or stainless playoff run. All teams are vulnerable to some extent—including the reigning champion Miami Heat.

The trick, as it's always been, is limiting vices, counteracting collective gremlins with balance and—more importantly—notching wins. 

Winning is a cure-all. Selective amnesia sets in when winning trumps everything, when it outnumbers weaknesses and injuries and dispiriting losses. 

For three-plus seasons, winning has been the Heat's panacea, shielding them from criticism that isn't fleeting or exclusive to one game. Frequent attempts to humanize them have proved fruitless long before LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh won their first championship together. To this point, while delivery methods have varied, the message has remained the same: Doubt Miami at your own risk.

Gradually, that's changed. Though it's not standard practice to write off the Heat, it's become acceptable to question them. Their record of 54-26, while still impressive, puts them on track for their lowest winning percentage of the Big Three era. Wade's health has become a more pressing issue. Efforts on both ends of the floor seesaw between obscenely dominant and flagrantly disinterested.

All of which have been issues in the past, from season to season. But not like this. 

By now, the Heat have normally muted doubters with at least one convincing stretch of truly transcendent basketball. There have been no such magic bullets this year, as the Heat prepare for a playoff run draped in more suspicion and confusion than they've seen before.


Defensive Struggles

Lynne Sladky

At the forefront of Miami's concerns is defense. 

The Heat remain one of the more balanced teams in the NBA, but they've regressed a bit on the defensive end. Where they ranked seventh in defensive efficiency last season, they now check in at 11th—still good, but the worst mark of their Big Three era.

Champagne Problems
Off. Rtg. Rank3612
Def. Rtg. Rank54711

Heads needn't spin at Miami's defensive showing. They're still a good defensive team. Having the 11th-most efficient defense is only a concern for them because 1) they're held to a different standard and 2) no team has won a championship while ranking outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency since the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers.

If there was a squad worth betting on to break that 13-year trend, it's the Heat. But championship campaigns aren't supposed to be predicated on breaking long-spanning patterns, especially when the Heat pride themselves on just the opposite.

In each of their last three seasons, the Heat have ridden a top-seven defense to the NBA Finals. So in a way, they are breaking a trend—their own trend.

At the same time, their offense is powerful and efficient enough to render said difference nearly inconsequential. They're still a top-two scoring outfit, and as Bleacher Report's Grant Hughes explains, that matters in the scheme of championship basketball:

A good defense is generally important in winning a championship, but we have no evidence to suggest a team could win a ring on the strength of its stopping power alone.

Based on Paine's work, many have concluded that a good defense is marginally more important than a good offense, but Alvarez's research suggests the difference is practically negligible. What matters is effective, top-10 ratings on both ends of the floor.

So, defense does win championships, but only if it's paired with a good offense. How's that for a revelation?

Pretty good, if you're the Heat. 

Although they're not out of predator-packed woods just yet, hovering outside the top 10 of defensive efficiency, they are right there. And if that's one of their biggest concerns leading into the postseason, they're in damn good shape.


Way of Wade

John Amis

Wade's injuries are also of concern—just as big, if not bigger than, their defense.

Miami's shooting guard has missed 28 games to date. Since the Big Three joined forces, he has never been absent more than 17 times. 

While resting him has become standard, his protracted absences have long-term repercussions. James stressed the importance of rhythm and chemistry earlier this month, per Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick, both of which suffer when Wade trudges in and out of the lineup:

It may be a little bit of a rhythm thing. It's something you can't take for granted. I mean, obviously, we've been together for almost four years now, but you can't take those opportunities for granted. We haven't practiced much together, we haven't played as much. So see what happens when we get out on the floor. It's going to be very challenging. But I think it's something we can figure out.

Even though it shouldn't be. 

Familiarity between the Heat's two top players shouldn't be an issue nearly four years into their tenure together. Oftentimes, James and Wade appear to have this telepathic connection on the court, one that seemed automatic just last year.

That immeasurable dynamic has come under siege in recent months. James and Wade seldom see the court together these days, because the latter has missed 11 of the last 13 games. 

Their collective playing time is down significantly as a result. They've played 1,162 minutes alongside one another this season, down from 1,933 in 2012-13, 1,315 in 2011-12 and 2,242 in 2010-11.

The impact they have on each other has changed drastically as well. James' three-point shooting is worlds better with Wade off the court (39.8 percent) than with him on (33.7), per (subscription required). The Heat's net ratings are generally more impressive with them in the game, but it's just not the same. 

Last spring is also fresh in the minds of everyone. Wade struggled during the playoffs, and the Heat barely escaped the Eastern Conference Finals. With their defense already a cut below last season's, the Heat don't want to enter the postseason with James and Wade on different wavelengths.

The Eastern Conference is weak—historically feeble—but the Heat need Wade for later rounds. Facing a team like the Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets or Indiana Pacers without him is far from ideal. On the off chance James cannot play Cleveland Cavaliers LeBron James basketball, the Heat could find themselves stumbling toward an early exit.


So What?

The Heat are vulnerable. They've been vulnerable in different ways for almost four years.

Last year, Bosh and Wade couldn't muster complete postseason performances. The Heat were undersized. Health was an issue.

This season, health is still problematic, their defense has been inconsistent and Wade's well-being has taken center stage over everything else. That's what happens over the course of 82-game seasons. Players fall. Teams of all statuses struggle. Things change.

But does that leave the Heat more exposed than last year or the year before? Does it make them more vulnerable than we think? Just because there has been no 27-game win streak to buttress their campaign?

Absolutely not. 

Panic buttons are typically hit when the Heat lay an egg. One night, they're unstoppable, asserting themselves against the Pacers. The next, they're submissive, falling to the lowly Atlanta Hawks. That's just how it goes.

Interest has always been a conflict for this team. The Heat were assembled for the postseason. They exist to win championships and build a dynasty. Regular-season basketball is a formality to them, now more than ever, two championships and three NBA Finals appearances into their time together.

Right or wrong, that's the Heat. They've consistently downplayed the importance of opponents and seeding because they've been here, mastered this before. 

When the playoffs roll around, a switch will be flipped. It's an intangible, ineffable switch, but as Hughes previously uncovered, it does exist.

For the Heat, it exists.

"We definitely wanted to play better basketball being on our home floor against a very, very good team," James said of the Heat's most recent win over Indiana, via USA Today's Jeff Zillgitt. "It was a good response."

And their response to that was an unpredictable dud against the Hawks. And our response to that is doubt and skepticism. It's a cycle—a meaningless, drummed-up cycle.

The Heat inspire, and we believe. Then they stagger, and we doubt.

No amount of regular-season success or disappointment is an accurate barometer for these Heat, though. We've seen enough from them in the playoffs to understand their liabilities now, regardless of how much merit or attention they're given, mean little later.

So we must judge them accordingly, based not on what we're seeing now, but what we know has happened in the past later on, when the games matter more and the Heat reveal how indomitable or vulnerable they really are.


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