The Miami Heat are currently 5-3. Some media outlets are already calling the experiment a failure. I can hear the cries of "overrated" in Cleveland as I write. Let's examine Miami's start to the season and see if we can't find an explanation.
It's no secret that I'm a fan of statistics. I work in a business where they're used heavily, so it's only natural that I would find some measure of explanatory power in numbers. That said, it's important to approach statistics the right way. No statistical model can predict with absolute certainty a future outcome. There are simply too many variables.
Instead, the best way to use statistical models is as a way of better understanding something you want to describe. Stats, then, are best thought of in broad terms. You'll see my meaning as we proceed.
First, a primer. Stat geeks use a variety of statistics to explain performance in the NBA. Two measures worth looking at at the outset are offensive and defensive efficiency. Simply put, offensive efficiency is the number of points a team scores per 100 possessions, and defensive efficiency is the number of points a team gives up per 100 possessions. The Miami Heat are currently first in the NBA in defensive efficiency at 93.9. That means they're only giving up 93.9 points per 100 possessions against the competition. On the offensive end they rank fourth, scoring 107.7 per 100 possessions. In short, they're in the top five in the NBA on both the offensive and defensive ends.
Let's look at four additional measures: turnover rate, rebound rate, assist rate and effective field goal percentage.
• Turnover rate is the percentage of a team's possessions that end in turnovers. Miami is currently tied for sixth with Oklahoma City with 23.1 percent of their possessions ending in a turnover.
• Rebound rate is the percentage of missed shots that a team rebounds. Miami is 11th, rebounding 50.7 percent of missed shots. They do a nice job on the defensive boards pulling, in 75.4 percent of their opponents' misses (good for seventh in the NBA).
Where they really struggle is on the offensive glass. They're currently 29th out of 30 teams, rebounding only 21.8 percent of their own misses. Thus, they're not getting a lot of second chance opportunities. Therefore, the fact that they're such a good defensive rebounding team improves their total rebound ranking even though they're woefully inadequate on the offensive glass.
• Assist ratio is the percentage of a team's possessions that end in an assist. Here too Miami is pretty good, ranking 10th in the NBA at 15.2 percent.
• Effective field goal percentage is calculated as (2PM plus 0.5 times 3PM) / FGA. This percentage basically tells us the quality of a team' (or player's) shot selection. The formula adjusts for the fact that three-pointers are worth one more point than regular field goals.
It gives both players and teams credit for making three-pointers as part of their total field goal attempts. Miami is eighth in the league at 51.2 percent from the field. Dallas is the league leader at 53.2 percent, so Miami is right there with the league leader.
So What Happened?
Opening Night (at Boston)
How then can we explain Miami's performance thus far. Let's examine the three games they've lost. They lost to the Boston Celtics on opening night 88-80. Playing on the road against a team that, if healthy, will challenge for the NBA Championship is a tall order on opening night. While the Celtics were certainly rusty as well, and without Kendrick Perkins, the Heat could have won this game.
Let's not forget that Dwyane Wade played only three minutes in the preseason. He tweaked his hamstring in the first preseason game and missed the rest of the preseason as he testified in a custody case involving his two sons. Thus, opening night was his first real game since last season. He was rusty, and it showed. Since then he's been fantastic. Had the Dwyane Wade of today played that game the Heat might have won. Still, there's no shame in losing to Boston on the road.
Point Made: CP3 Still the Best PG in the NBA (at New Orleans)
In this game, Chris Paul proved why he's the best point guard in the NBA. No disrespect to Deron Williams, who is terrific, but talk that he had supplanted Paul was unjustified. Let's not forget that Paul was hurt most of last season and fell off the radar a bit. That, combined with the emergence of Deron Williams and Rajon Rondo, had pundits fawning over everyone but Paul.
Paul had 13 points and 19 assists in this game, including a crucial dribble drive in the lane that got Trevor Ariza wide open for a late three. Emeka Okafor had the game of his life, going off for 26 points and 13 rebounds. Second year PF Jason Smith showed a solid midrange jump shot which he hit time and again on the Miami defense.
Of note on the Miami side of the equation: Chris Bosh only contributed one rebound for the entire game.
New Orleans won this game 96-93, improving to 5-0 on the season and 3-0 at home. Had Bosh played a bit better, the Heat might have pulled out a tough road victory. As it stood, they'd suffered their second loss of the season. It was after this game that reports started to surface that the Heat might be "overrated."
Point Made Part 2: Deron Williams Is Really Good; So Is Paul Millsap
While I still feel that Paul is the best PG in the NBA, I'm firmly convinced that Deron Williams is number two and pushing for number one. He's just terrific. He's faster and more athletic than people think. He posted 21 points and 14 assists before fouling out late in the fourth quarter. But the story of the night was Paul Millsap. The fourth-year player out of Louisiana Tech went off for 46 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
He shot 67 percent from the field and was three-for-three on three-pointers, including one late in the game with a defender draped all over him. To put this in context, he took only nine threes last season, connecting on only one. Clearly he's not going to have a shooting game like that every night. Besides Williams, no one else on the Jazz had more than 16 points.
The scoring for Miami was much more balanced. Bosh was better with 17 points and nine rebounds. LeBron James had 20 points, 14 assists and 11 rebounds for his first triple-double as a member of the Heat. And Dwyane Wade had 39 points and six boards. In the end it wasn't enough as Utah won the game in overtime. This was particularly impressive considering that Deron Williams fouled out in the fourth and was unavailable for overtime.
They did it with the likes of C.J. Miles, Millsap and Ronnie Price. Another interesting figure in this game was Francisco Elson. He played only six minutes but hit two crucial free throws to help win the game. He's a 69 percent career free throw shooter. Everything just went Utah's way on this night. Still, you have to be impressed with the way Jerry Sloan coaches this team. They were down 22 in the second quarter and came roaring back to win the game in OT. There is no quit in that team.
I am not a Miami Heat fan. I support the Chicago Bulls (yes, I idolized Jordan). And while I think LeBron handled "The Decision" poorly, I support his decision to move to Miami. I've tried to illustrate the reasons why Miami is taking, sorry for the pun, "heat" so far this season.
I've tried to present a balanced account of their record so far and what we can infer statistically from their performance. This article was not meant to make excuses for the Miami Heat. My objective was to simply point out that in the games they've lost, they've lost by very few points to very strong teams. In fairness, their blowout wins have come against very weak competition: Philadelphia (by 10), Minnesota (by 32) and New Jersey twice (by 23 and 12). Their blowout win at home against Orlando (by 26) was certainly impressive.
Their next 5 games are: rematch against Boston at home (tonight, November 11), Toronto (November 13), Phoenix (November 17), Charlotte (November 19) and Memphis (November 20). Only the Memphis game is on the road. In theory, they should be able to win at least three of these games, with Boston and Memphis representing the biggest challenges. Memphis could be interesting because they have a very productive post game with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Plus, they've got legitimate wing players in Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo to make LeBron and Wade work. The emergence of Mike Conley is sure to have Memphis playing better as well.
The Race for 72
Before the season began I told a colleague that I thought Miami had the potential to go 73-9. That seems overly ambitious at this point with three losses in the books already. I looked it up, and that Bulls team that went 72-10 could have actually gone 75-7. The last three games they lost by one point each!
Whether or not Miami gets to 72 doesn't really matter. More important for both the Heat and the NBA is how they fare in the playoffs. If they make it to the Finals and lose to the Lakers, there will be some chatter but it will have been a pretty successful season. If, however, they lose in the Conference Finals to Boston or Orlando, we'll all be wondering if this is really going to work out.
Point Forward: LeBron Should Move Back to SF
I can find several clips of LeBron dropping dimes on YouTube and attempt to use this as evidence that his point guard skills are "on point." There's no question LeBron has the talent, vision and passing ability to run the point. At times he looks great doing it. But he's turning the ball over on 13.9 percent of his possessions. That's more than Raymond Felton and Sebastian Telfair. It's more than Tyreke Evans, who everyone recognizes needs to take better care of the ball. In my opinion, he'd be more effective, and Miami would be even better, if he moved back to SF.
The problem is that they don't have a legit point guard and can't rely on Carlos Arroyo for 40 minutes per night. LeBron is most effective operating off the ball, sizing up his man, then bullying his way to the basket. Right now, he's forced to create off the dribble, and I've seen him lose his handle several times, in some cases leading to a turnover. All the motion on the offense stops, as everyone stands around waiting for him to make a play. I don't think it's the most effective way to use Dwyane Wade either. With both of them out on the wing (and Bosh at PF), they would be so solid at the SG, SF and PF that it would mask some of the deficiencies elsewhere. In fact, they'd probably be better off starting Mario Chalmers and moving LeBron back to SF. It's no knock on his greatness to make this move. He can still drop dimes and make plays from the wing. The difference will be in the flow of the offense, which sometimes grinds to a halt as we all bear witness to the king.