The strangest thing about the Miami Heat's start to the post-LeBron James era is the team's inability to stop.
Get stops, that is, on defense.
Losing James was bound to hurt the Heat on offense. But few expected his departure to hobble Miami on the other end, where his inconsistent effort level in 2013-14 made him a great defender in reputation, but not in practice.
Replacing LeBron in the lineup with Luol Deng—a defender who, despite high mileage, is probably a more consistent performer—should have helped the Heat maintain their solid defensive rating of 102.9, which ranked 11th in the league last year, per NBA.com.
So, what gives?
Hot Shooting Scorching Heat
The Heat have allowed opponents to shoot 48 percent from the field this season, the third-highest accuracy rate in the league. Obviously, when the other team is making its shots, it's hard to avoid bad defensive numbers.
But at the quarter pole of the season, raw field-goal percentage can still be misleading. We have to look deeper to figure out the source of Miami's issues.
Permitting opponents to hit 62.5 percent of their shots from inside five feet is a a problem, but the Heat permit just 27 attempts per game from that range, per NBA.com, the fifth fewest in the league. So it's not as though Miami is getting killed by layups and dunks.
Using Basketball-Reference.com's sorting system to parse the data more finely, we get an interesting revelation: Miami's field-goal percentage allowed within three feet is 64.4 percent, which ranks in the middle of the NBA pack overall—not great, but not crippling.
The Heat are unusually generous from three to 10 feet, though, where they allow a field-goal percentage of 41.8 percent that ranks fifth worst in the league. Most teams would love to see opponents take all the shots they want from that awkward distance, and you'd have to expect the Heat's overall numbers to improve as teams' accuracy from that low-percentage area regresses.
To put it simply, Miami has been a bit unlucky.
More evidence of bad fortune fueling bad defensive stats: Opponents are shooting 46.6 percent from 10-16 feet this season, a figure that ranks a fraction of a percentage point behind the Toronto Raptors for worst in the league, per Basketball-Reference.com.
When you're getting killed by floaters and mid-range jumpers, there's not a lot you can do besides wait for the law of averages to even things out.
Something Besides Bad Luck
Then again, perhaps those high accuracy rates are signs of a bigger issue. After all, Miami is allowing an accuracy rate of 37.3 percent from beyond the arc as well, seventh worst in the league and an indicator that it is simply not staying close enough to shooters anywhere on the floor.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra has a theory on how Miami's failure to handle the defensive basics is hurting his team more than anything else, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel:
It's the other possessions, where they end up getting an easy one on a cut, on a drive, where we don't really contain the ball mano a mano. An open three in the corner where it's not really any kind of action, just hitting somebody and not really getting him off the line. Those are the ones during the course of the game that really hurt you more than playing a great defensive possession and they hit a bomb at the end of the clock.
The eye test confirms Spoelstra's theory; the Heat don't keep the ball out of the middle of the lane, which leads to open shots on kickouts and missed assignments everywhere as scrambling help defenders arrive a step late.
New personnel throughout the roster explains some of this. It takes time for players unfamiliar with a system and each other to develop the kind of trust and consistency necessary to play good team defense.
In addition, losing James may be hurting the Heat in a very specific way. Deng is a tireless worker who can guard multiple positions, but he's not a superhuman athlete who shuts off passing lanes from impossible angles, closes distances like a jaguar and generally causes havoc with sheer speed.
The Heat still gamble and trap often, a strategy that made sense with a roster that could take advantage of the James-era Heat's length and quickness.
With James gone, Dwyane Wade a constant injury concern and new players failing to replace the missing explosiveness, perhaps a more conservative strategy is in order.
Blame and Change
In one sense, personnel is part of the problem. But we need to be careful about assigning blame to specific players.
ESPN.com's Chris Broussard recently said the following on WQAM's Mark Hochman Show (via CBSSports.com): "I’m a bit baffled. I don’t think (Josh) McRoberts has worked out for them. What I’ve heard is he’s a real strong-minded guy. He kind of does his own thing and that doesn’t really work in Miami.”
Josh McRoberts' injury issues have contributed to the Heat's lack of lineup continuity, but we can't pin their defensive troubles on him. Though he's played just 296 minutes this year, Miami has defended better with him on the floor, and its offense has been almost exactly as effective with him as it has without, per NBA.com.
Responsibility belongs to everyone—from Bosh and Wade, to Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, to Spoelstra himself.
Finding fixes won't be simple. But toning down its gambling tendencies will help Miami prevent middle penetration and all the easy shots that follow. That will be a fairly big change for a Heat team that has long defined itself on defense with steals and chaos creation, but perhaps not as big as some might think.
Last year, Spoelstra toned down the hard hedges and aggressive traps a bit. So scaling back even more in those areas might just be part of a natural progression toward a more conservative norm.
Of course, if the Heat are persuaded that their poor defense stems from anomalously high opponent field-goal percentages, they could simply stand pat and wait for shots to stop falling.
Don't count on that, though. We already know Spoelstra isn't thrilled, and it sounds like the Heat's best player is also fed up with the status quo.
"We've had speeches," Bosh told Winderman. "We've had demonstrations. We've had walkthroughs. We've had practices. And, still, nothing happens."
As Spoelstra has said so many times over the years, it's all about the process. There's an inherent patience attached to that sentiment—one that keeps the Heat head coach from overreacting to bad short-term results.
At the same time, when Spoelstra does make changes, he makes big ones, with the Heat's now famous switch to small ball three years ago being the most transformative. If the defense stays broken through the All-Star break, we should expect drastic changes.
Realistically, though, Miami won't be a poor defensive team all year. There's enough talent and coaching skill to prevent that. Keeping the ball out of the middle will be key, but the Heat should also expect their opponents to cool off from low-percentage areas on the floor.
And as all the new pieces come together, the trust and connectivity needed for decent D will improve.
When all that happens, they'll start getting stops.