After struggling to an eight-point loss to the Boston Celtics on opening night, the Miami Heat have dominated opponents en route to a 3-1 record to begin the 2010-2011 NBA season.
They've won their last three games by a combined 59 points, lead the league in opponents points per game and also rank first in efficiency differential.
All that aside, there is obvious room for this team to improve. The scariest thing about the Heat is that they've yet to scratch the surface of their offensive potential, and will only get more comfortable on defense as the season wears on.
By indications from the season's first week, Miami will certainly live up to expectations as one of the NBA's elite teams this season.
The following are 10 ways the star-laden team can markedly improve.
Miami has cruised to victories in their last three games, and as a result have been able to play LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh less minutes than they're accustomed to.
None of the new Big Three are averaging more than 35 minutes per game. Obviously, the more court time they get— whether it is one, two or all of them on the floor—the better Miami will be.
The current breakdown is ideal for the Heat, as there is no reason for them overwork their star players. But, if the Miami Thrice approached their career averages in minutes of closer to 40 per game, the Heat would be even better.
Current starting PG Carlos Arroyo is a serviceable NBA player, but is not an ideal fit alongside elite playmakers like James and Wade.
Backup guard Mario Chalmers has all the attributes Miami needs out of its starter at the 1. He is a good long-range shooter, plays tough defense and is comfortable without the ball in his hands. His presence in the starting lineup makes much more sense than that of Arroyo.
Hampered by an ankle injury in the preseason, Chalmers finally got off the bench in blowout wins over Orlando and New Jersey. Whether or not his playing time is related to his injury is unknown. But, it is clear that if he plays up to his potential, Chalmers is a better option for Miami's starting five than Arroyo.
In James and Wade, the Heat possess two of the best open court forces in recent memory. Both of them are huge threats as either a facilitator or finisher on the break.
Coupled with Chris Bosh, they form one of the fastest and most explosive trios in the league. On every defensive rebound, Miami would be wise to push the pace and look down floor for long outlet passes, as James or Wade is sure to be streaking towards the bucket for a potential slam.
The Heat have played some in transition thus far this season (the alley-opp from James to Wade against Orlando an example), but would be well served to play a pace akin to that of the Knicks or Warriors.
The effects on the scoreboard, opponents' morale and the rim would be absolutely devastating.
Big men Dwight Howard and Brook Lopez dominated in one-on-one matchups against Heat starting center Joel Anthony.
To curb the effectiveness of good low-post scorers, Miami should occasionally play a 2-3 zone. While rebounding is notoriously more difficult out of a zone defense, that negative would be outweighed by the positives of frustrating a player like Howard with multiple and different players defending him. Additionally, it would give Wade and James even more freedom to play passing lanes.
While defense is obviously not Miami's problem, they'd be well-served playing zone defense every now and then against scorers on the low block.
This suggestion is meant more for the season's final stretch and playoffs than it is for the present.
Miami has been more effective thus far with Ilgauskas on the floor in place of Anthony. His plus/minus numbers have been overwhelmingly positive this season, as his shooting ability pulls opposing bigs out of the lane and his sheer height is a headache for teams on the glass.
Ilgauskas is notoriously fragile, so the Heat should keep his minutes down during the regular season. But, as the postseason approaches, don't be surprised if he sees 20-25 minutes per game.
Chris Bosh is Miami's lone frontcourt impact player. Guys like Ilgauskas, Anthony and Udonis Haslem are role players. With that in mind, the Heat need more aggressive play on both ends of the floor from Bosh.
Defensively, he needs to have the mindset of a difference-maker. He's got the length, agility and hands to be a force on the glass, as well as the feet to be a very effective pick-and-roll defender. Bosh has to play bigger and tougher than his listed weight suggests, and it begins with his mindset.
When Miami has the ball, Bosh needs to play like the awesome third wheel that he is. He'll get his fair share of post-up opportunities, but his greatest impact will be made hitting open jumpers while rolling off screens and spotting up during penetrations by James and Wade. Additionally, Bosh needs to crash the glass with abandon, as he has proven a very good offensive rebounder in the past.
Whether or not Miami lives up to its potential may ultimately come down to Bosh accepting his role as a physical presence on defense, and a glorified role player on the other end of the floor. If he does, the sky is the limit for the Heat.
In James, Wade and Bosh, Miami has three great pieces to be utilized in ball screens.
Over the season's first week, Bosh has always played the role of screener to James or Wade. While that strategy is an obviously effective one, the Heat's potentially best pick-and-roll leaves Bosh out of the equation.
James screening for Wade.
Never in league history has there been two perimeter oriented teammates with the size, athleticism and all-around ability of James and Wade. By involving both of them in a ball screen, countless options would open up, as both are adept passers, finishers and shooters.
Quite simply, the opportunities created by a rolling James and creating Wade—or vice versa, depending on their defenders—are endless, and amazingly exciting.
While a ball screen involving two wings is unconventional, if all goes right it would prove to be the most devastating play in basketball.
Though not a common thought, it is arguable that injured wing Mike Miller is more important to Miami's offensive success than that of Bosh.
The Heat drastically miss Miller's long-range acumen and surprising ability to pass. In the lineup, he gives James and Wade the ultimate kick-out or skip pass option, a player that led the league in three-point shooting percentage last season. Additionally, he has great size and is a willing rebounder and capable of initiating fast breaks.
Miller is out until at least January after thumb surgery in October. As a result, the Heat's true potential won't be known until late in the NBA season, a frightening thought for the rest of the league.
During James' time in Cleveland, the Cavaliers played some of their best basketball with him at the 4, surrounding the King with shooters and playing at a frenetic pace.
There's no reason to believe a similar formula wouldn't be at least as effective in Miami. A five-man lineup of Eddie House, Wade, James Jones, James and Bosh has loads of shooting ability and athleticism, and would provide mismatches all over the floor.
While this group could be exploited defensively by a strong interior presence, they'd make up for it by playing passing lanes and lighting up the scoreboard. This certainly isn't a group Miami could rely on for extended periods, but when they need to score, there may not be a better group in the NBA.
As James opined after Miami season-opening loss at Boston, Rome wasn't built in a day. The Heat will get more and more comfortable and better and better as the season progresses.
Individual forces like James and Wade will take time to mesh and figure out how to play with one another. Fortunately for Miami, both of them are unselfish players who've repeatedly put team success before their own.
Bosh must adjust his mindset and play on both ends of the floor, the role players need to figure out the nuances of playing with James and Wade and it will take coach Erik Spoelstra time to figure out rotations and in-game strategy.
While it's early to crown the Heat just yet, if their first four games are any indication, they will pose an evolutionary and daunting challenge to the rest of the league as the 2010-2011 NBA season progresses.