After racing out to a 3-0 start, the Miami Heat’s transition into the post-LeBron James era seemed to be going quite smoothly. With a reinvigorated Dwyane Wade and highly efficient Chris Bosh leading the team, the Heat appeared more than capable of competing for their fifth consecutive Eastern Conference title.
But following Thursday night’s 110-93 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, it has become clear that the 6-6 Heat have yet to find their identity. With no playmaker on the roster close to the caliber of LeBron, Miami is struggling to create offense. After averaging a respectable 102.2 points per game with LeBron at the helm last year, the Heat currently rank 21st in the league with 97.1 points per game.
Having grown accustomed to being facilitators in the LeBron-led offense of the past four seasons, it will take some time for Bosh and Wade to readjust to being the focal points of the offense.
After looking spry and rejuvenated in the first eight games of the season, Wade’s injury-riddled ways quickly resurfaced when he strained his left hamstring against the Indiana Pacers. While he sat out the last four games, the Heat limped to a 1-3 record and have sorely missed Wade’s 19.8 points and team-leading 6.4 assists per game.
Bosh, the team's scoring leader, raced out to 25.7 points per game on 47.9 percent shooting through the first three games and seemed to be worth every penny of his max contract. But since the initial three-game win streak, Bosh’s average has dropped to 20.6 points per game while shooting a career-worst 42.6 percent from the field.
Despite the early struggles of the Heat’s “Big Two,” there is still plenty for Miami to be excited about.
Norris Cole, the fourth-year point guard who has backed up Mario Chalmers the past three years, is a new member to the starting lineup. While Cole continues to struggle shooting at an efficient clip (41.7 percent), his energy and defensive pressure have been welcome additions to the starting unit. Equally important, Chalmers has thrived as a role player, averaging career highs in points (13.4) and field-goal percentage (45.9).
Losing the best player in the world to free agency creates an impossible void to fill, but free-agent acquisition Luol Deng has played as well as Miami could have hoped for. Known as one of the most consistent veterans in the league, Deng plays lockdown defense on the opponents’ best wing every night and is averaging 14.2 points on 48.4 percent shooting.
Free agent Shawne Williams has been a big surprise, averaging career highs in points (11.0), minutes (28.5), rebounds (5.1) and field-goal percentage (49.4). And most importantly, Williams has been able to stretch the floor for an Erik Spoelstra offense that relies heavily on spacing. Shooting 50.9 percent from the three-point line, Williams needs to continue to hit shots for the Heat to be successful.
With Shabazz Napier slowly gaining his footing and veterans Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts settling into Spoelstra’s system, the Heat have a higher ceiling than most people realize. Combine that with playing in the Eastern Conference, where sub-.500 basketball is good enough to make the playoffs, and Miami should have no problem getting in.
However, if the Heat actually want to make a deep playoff run, significant adjustments need to be made.
Currently ranked last in rebounding with 36.8 per game, the Heat must improve at boxing out to prevent second-chance opportunities. Even though the Heat were also ranked last in rebounding the past two seasons, Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald (subscription required) points out that “James' long list of skills allowed the Heat to mask a lot of its weaknesses.”
The low rebounding totals are clearly a consequence of Spoelstra’s frequent small-ball lineups. But even with a height disadvantage, the Heat can’t continue to allow their opponents to rebound 24.7 percent of their own misses.
“I don't think we're as talented as years past, and we're going to have to make up for it in toughness,” Bosh said in September, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel.
Rebounding, a statistic that's purely effort-based, will need to become an area of strength for the Heat to be successful.
Now playing without LeBron, the lack of a go-to playmaker or scorer places an even greater importance on ball movement. Ranked 12th in the league with 21.8 assists per game, the Heat need to space the floor, drive to the basket and kick the ball out to shooters. Lacking a dominant low-post threat, the Heat will need to rely on excellent perimeter shooting and San Antonio Spurs-like ball movement.
With a healthy Wade, an efficient Bosh, improved rebounding and consistent play from the supporting cast, there’s no reason to think that the LeBron-less Heat can’t finish in the top four of the Eastern Conference. A fifth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals seems unlikely. But with the Cleveland Cavaliers struggling and the Chicago Bulls being without Derrick Rose, anything is possible.