It's the midway point in the 2009-2010 NBA season and it has been a first half full of excitement. As the playoff race heats up, teams are vying to gain ground and put themselves in a position to be prepared for the grueling postseason.
The Miami Heat are 44 games into their season and their year can be summed up by one word: Inconsistency.
The Heat sit at 23-21 and hold a slim half game lead of the fifth seed over the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference playoff race. They are a team that can win ball games, but struggle to find the formula to win on a consistent basis.
Miami has had a firm grasp of the fifth seed for the majority of the season and has flirted with coveted fourth seed, but once they gain some ground, they ultimately slip up and remain in the middle of the pack.
The Heat's 2009-2010 campaign has been a rocky road that can be characterized by inconsistency, a heavy reliance on superstar Dwyane Wade, a tenacious defense when they decide to turn it on, a lack of consistent offensive support from the role players, and a team that has an abundance of fight in them.
Heading into the year, the Heat had pretty high expectations in the fact that they believed they could top last year's fifth seed finish and first round playoff exit. They had expectations of a top four finish with a possible conference semi-finals appearance.
They were relying on their internal improvements in order to exceed last year's efforts. They were betting their success on the development of second-year players Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers, as well as a rebound from former All-Star Jermaine O'Neal, and a repeat of Wade's heroics from last season.
Unfortunately, Miami pretty much has remained status quo. Their record is almost identical to last year's record at this point and their position in the East is the same as last season.
These results are from several key factors: The Eastern Conference improved vastly over the offseason, the Heat failed to make any outside improvements other than acquiring Quentin Richardson and Carlos Arroyo, and the team continues to have problems playing on the same level every night.
While Michael Beasley has certainly matured this year and made strides in his game, he still isn't the complete player Miami wants him to be.
Beasley's numbers have improved to 16.2 points per game and 6.8 rebounds per game and he is certainly a major force on offense, but his defense still doesn't match his offensive prowess. And Beasley still hasn't become a guaranteed second scorer on a nightly basis.
Chalmers has taken a step back after a successful rookie campaign. He lost his starting job after 104 consecutive starts at point guard in favor to veteran Carlos Arroyo. Then, the Heat signed Rafer Alston a few weeks ago, which solidified Chalmers spot as reserve point guard.
His scoring, assists, steals, and minutes have all nosedived and it is questionable if he will ever be Miami's answer at the position. While he remains a solid role player, he has not contributed to the improvement of the team.
As for O'Neal, the former Indiana Pacers star has acquired some of his game back and has shown flashes of his former self, but it is evident that his career is on the decline. O'Neal's injury problems have decreased, but his skill level has also gone south.
While there is no doubt that he has become a more consistent threat for the Heat, he just simply isn't enough of a force anymore to bring Miami to that next level. JO's rebounding numbers and field goal percentage are up significantly from last year, but his scoring average and blocks are down.
The biggest disappointment, however, is Dwyane Wade. While disappointment might seem like a harsh word with a stat line that consists of 27 points, 6.2 assists, five rebounds, 1.8 steals, and 1.2 blocks per game. But, Wade's stats have certainly tailed off from last season's record setting year. In addition, the six-time All-Star is averaging a career low 46.5 percent shooting from the field.
While part of this drop can be attributed to Wade sacrificing some of his numbers in order to allow his teammates to contribute, some of it has to be blamed on his conditioning.
Even GM Pat Riley was quoted saying that Wade isn't as explosive as last year and his conditioning is not at the same level.
But, Wade cannot be expected to shoulder the entire load, especially in a contract year where the Heat want to retain him. He is looking for his teammates to step up and become effective role players. He has stated numerous times that it is about winning for him and that one player cannot do it by himself.
While Miami has been stuck in a state of mediocrity for most of the year, there still has been several bright spots on this young roster.
First of all, Beasley has undoubtedly improved his skills. He rebounds at a much higher level, plays better defense, and has made a noticeable jump in his hustle. He is often seen diving for loose balls and using his length to outrebound his opponents. He has also developed a smooth shooting touch from various spots on the floor.
Another good story that has evolved this season has been Udonis Haslem successful integration into a reserve role. At first, the co-captain was upset with the move and felt disrespected by head coach Erik Spoelstra's decision, but it ultimately has benefited the team greatly.
Haslem averages 10 points and seven boards a game in 27 minutes of play, while continuing to be the emotional leader of this ball club. He still hustles and plays with more passion than most players in the NBA. He has become an effective force off the bench and is a much needed producer on a rather thin second unit.
The Miami Heat's defense has also been a bright spot of this season. For as much as their offense lacks, their defense, at times, makes up for their scoring struggles. They rank ninth in the league in points allowed, limiting opponents to 96.8 PPG. They also rank ninth in field goal percentage allowed, limiting teams to 44.8 percent from the floor.
At times, Miami boasts one of the most dynamic defenses in the NBA. When their D is on, they have the power to shut down many of the top players in the league. At times, they have the ability to play the lock down defense that severely limits even the top offensive teams in the NBA.
They have shown that type of defensive tenacity against top teams such as the Nuggets, Suns, and Magic this year. But, the problem is if their defense isn't on, Miami doesn't have the offensive punch to counter their opponent's offense. And that's a major reason why inconsistency continues plague this team.
While Miami's year has been up and down, there still has been some impressive individual accomplishments by certain players. Wade became the franchise's all-time assists leader, passing Heat legend Tim Hardaway, in a game against the Thunder earlier this month. Wade also was selected to his six-straight All-Star game, breaking Alonzo Mourning's record of five All-Star appearances.
Haslem has solidified himself as a franchise legend as he has moved into the Heat's top five in games played and rebounding this year.
With the Heat reaching the midseason point, they have began to focus on their flaws and needs. They made a big transaction a few weeks ago when they signed Rafer Alston for the remainder of the year after he was bought out by the New Jersey Nets.
Alston, who played with Miami back in the 2003-2004 season, is a huge improvement over Chalmers and Arroyo at the point guard position.
He has great playoff experience (last season with Orlando Magic) and is a true court leader. He demands respect, is an excellent dribbler, and excels in defense. He easily fits into Miami's system and will be a big part of their postseason run.
The addition of Quentin Richardson to the starting lineup has also turned out better than expected. Miami only lost little used Mark Blount and received a starting small forward in return. Q has been effective on the defensive side of the ball, drawing numerous charges throughout the year.
While he has been streaky, he is still third on the team in three-point field goal percentage at just under 40 percent, to go along with eight points and 4.7 rebounds per game.
Another bright spot has been the development of former first round draft pick Dorell Wright. His solid play has given him a consistent spot in the rotation. He has become the team's reserve small forward and is averaging almost 19 minutes per game after taking over Daequan Cook's minutes (Cook has fallen out of the rotation due to his sub par play).
His stats, six points and three rebounds per game, are misleading.
While those numbers don't scream production, Wright has been effective. He hustles, plays good defense, takes charges, and is a good rebounder. He is very lengthy and athletic, which he uses to his advantage. Wright has been a solid addition to the second unit.
Overall, the Heat have had a decent first half of the season. They have won more games than they lost, beat some elite teams, played with heart, remained competitive in the East playoff picture, and set themselves up for a possible run at the fourth seed.
They will need to overcome their inconsistency and play a full 48 minutes if they are going to have any chance at taking the fourth seed. If the Heat can get more of a team effort with consistent production from their role players, while playing good from start to finish, they have a legitimate opportunity to succeed.
This is a team that is very dangerous when they are on and can cause a scare for a lot of the top teams in the league. Hopefully, Beasley will continue to improve and form a dynamic scoring duo with Wade. If O'Neal and Haslem can contribute to the scoring load as well, Miami has a very potent top four.
It just all comes down to which team they want to be: The inconsistent team that wins, loses, wins loses, or the team they have the potential to be when they play aggressive defense and receive help from the bench.
Either way, look for this Miami Heat team to have an exciting second half of the season and hopefully make a push for the coveted fourth spot in the Eastern Conference.