Forward LeBron James has won the MVP award in three of the last four seasons. (John W. McDonough/SI)
AN OPPOSING TEAM'S SCOUT ANALYZES THE HEAT
Great teams are not usually formed overnight. The Celtics had immediate success [in winning a title their first year after Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce], but those guys were veterans in the latter stages of their careers. The process of melding great pieces can't be hurried. For the people who thought the Heat's first year was a failed experiment, I wondered, What are you talking about? Twenty-eight other teams would tell you otherwise -- they were all watching them play in the Finals [where Miami lost to Dallas].
Now that they've won a title in the second year of their new era, it's clear the natural progression is occurring and the longer they're together they'll only get better. You have the best player on the planet in LeBron James and two All-Stars in Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. No one has a threesome that quite approaches that one.
The hierarchy has changed. The baton got passed in that it wasn't just Wade's team with LeBron and Bosh in tow. It's LeBron's team now. That had to happen for them to get where they wanted to go. LeBron stepped up, and not just with his play, but also with how he acted and led. The disappointment of the previous Finals, where LeBron was essentially a no-show, The Decision fallout -- all of that stuff had a lot to do with their success last season.
LeBron's growth and maturity both on and off the court were what really transformed the team. He was a more aggressive player, but he didn't change his greatest strength, which is making his teammates better, finding the open man. He initiated the offense, but that did not mean he came down and took 30 shots every night; that just meant he was going to make the right play. He and Wade stopped taking turns. It seemed like they did that their first year together, and there wasn't really a rhyme or reason to it. Last season the ball was in LeBron's hands more and Wade seemed to adjust to playing more away from the ball and that really helped their team.
A lot was made of LeBron's playing in the low post early last season, but I didn't see a lot of it. That changed in the playoffs, when he went to the post more. That's not a bread-and-butter part of his game, but it's something that has expanded and gives him another weapon. In the past it was not something that you had to worry about because it's not something that he did. Now you have to figure out what you're going to do when LeBron posts a smaller guy. Are you going to double-team him? From a scout's perspective, those are the things you worry about: which guys you have to double, which guys you have to trap, which guys you want to get the ball out of their hands. And LeBron's a lot easier to guard when he's way out on the floor, 30 feet from the basket, than when he's catching it 7 or 8 feet away.
When Wade takes the lead role, it's not like there's an incredible drop-off. He is no longer as explosive as he was, but obviously he's an All-Star. His style of play -- all-out, diving on the floor, always trying to finish at the rim -- is what makes him great but that will take a toll on the length of his career and the number of games that he plays. He always seemed like a guy who would miss 10 or 20 games every year due to injuries, and for the most part that's held up. Most great players figure out the adjustments in terms of prolonging their career and staying healthy as they get older. Wade has gradually done that but it's still a process for him.
When Bosh was injured last season, the Heat saw how important he was. He's a guy they could run offense through, whether it be in the low post, in pick-and-rolls or in him catching the ball at the elbows. When Wade or LeBron drives and kicks, Bosh is another weapon that they can throw the ball to because of his mid-range shooting. If you help off him, you have to be concerned about getting back to him and recovering. That puts a lot of stress on a defense.
The Heat tried to play traditionally last season, but the Bosh injury [in the playoffs] almost forced them to use LeBron at power forward and play small. And they learned they were a lot more effective putting shooters at every position except for maybe one. What they give up in rebounding and size is more than made up for in their ability to space the floor. And it allows the Heat to have their best five players on the floor. The NBA is not as big as it used to be, so having a traditional center is not nearly as essential as it was 10 or 15 years ago. Once you get past Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum, find a center who is a big scoring threat in addition to having the kind of size that will cause problems for Bosh or any other power forward playing center.
Mario Chalmers is a great fit. He can play the traditional point guard role of handling the ball and initiating the offense, but what he really does well is shoot. Most point guards naturally need the ball to be effective, but LeBron and Dwyane really handle the role. Chalmers can be just as effective off the ball as he is with the ball. And though he's young, he's been deep into the playoffs multiple years, so he's been through the wars.
I hate to say Allen is there purely to shoot, but let's face it, that's what Ray does. Allen is a poor defender at this stage of his career, so you try to go at him. But they didn't sign him to be a ball-hawking defender or to use in other ways. He's there to be a guy whom other teams are afraid to leave because of his shooting. He forces defenses to make a choice: help off him or stay at home on him, and either way you're giving up something. Same goes for Rashard Lewis.
Mike Miller was supposed to fill that role, but he is a very inconsistent shooter. He can make threes and he can get hot, like he did in the Finals [when he made 7-of-8 in the Heat's series-clinching Game 5 victory against the Thunder], but if you take that game out he was miserable in the rest of the playoffs.
Shane Battier is never going to be a stats guy, but he can make a three-pointer. During last season, Miami couldn't figure out to fit him in. But he showed his versatility in the playoffs. He showed he can guard power forwards, small forwards, shooting guards. If you really wanted to, you could put him on the other team's point guard. And he did an amazing job in being able to go from one to the other to the other with no drop-off. In fact, they don't go to the Finals unless Battier does what he did. This season with the Heat playing non-traditionally, they can play LeBron and Battier together and put Shane on the better scorer or vice versa.
Coach Erik Spoelstra doesn't get enough credit. They're not a team that makes big adjustments on defense, but they are really good at what they do. The basic scheme is to be aggressive defending pick-and-rolls with a hard "show" or a trap. And they really like to impact the ball handler. They like their bigs to get out and be physical and not just let the ball handler go where he wants to go. They generally want to be aggressive fighting post players. They'll front the post and will attack and double-team if necessary. Above all, they are very precise in their rotations -- they are well-drilled.
With such great players and great athletes, they are able to do things you wouldn't be able to do with a lesser-talented team. Their ability to attack, get in the passing lanes, force turnovers and be aggressive defensively is what they do best. That's how they get a lot of their offense in transition. If you force them into a half-court game where you're slugging it out with them, you've got a much better chance than if you're playing at a fast pace. You want to play a very physical, deliberate game against them. Some teams last year tried to gimmick it up and play some zone against them and found that if the Heat missed a couple shots in a row, then all of a sudden their offense got a little stagnant.
Barring injury, they should be even better than last season. And I don't think a letdown will be a concern with this group. There's no question they're the odds-on favorite. Everyone else is chasing them.
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