By Rob Mahoney
The NBA's regular season is an uphill struggle against inevitability. No team has the wherewithal to execute soundly and compete at peak levels for a full 82 games, and thus teams both good and bad are due for in-season encounters with the worst of their potential performance.
Highly effective offenses sink into the muck. Elite defenses fall into disarray. Veteran teams take too much for granted, and up-and-coming squads get a little ahead of themselves. It happens to every team, and right now it's happening to the Miami Heat -- the reigning champions and repeat favorites who on Tuesday night were bested by the wretched Wizards.
The loss wasn't even the Heat's most discouraging performance of the season, but the statement implicit in the game's result was humbling to say the least. Miami has developed a bad habit of playing to the level of its competition, and, on this occasion, its lacking efforts bought it a loss against the worst possible opponent. The Heat's talent doesn't give the team an exemption from execution or discipline, but merely a buffer -- one that Miami is already testing with its persistent listlessness on defense.
That's where the Heat are at even greater risk of self-destruction than most. Though all team defenses heavily rely on effort and focus, Miami's pressure-heavy system is a high-wire act that can't be balanced without quick, athletic players making all the right plays. When all goes well, Miami has the most unsolvable defensive front in the league. But when even one individual is out of sync, the entire scheme runs a risk of collapsing on itself and working against its intended goals.
All of the Heat's regular rotation players (and even a few deep bench types who have dropped out of the rotation entirely) have the defensive fundamentals to read and react within the scheme, but that potential hasn't translated to a consistently actualized concept. They theoretically have the ability to stymie their opponents' primary offense, but the Heat's unorthodox defense has earned the 11th-worst mark in the league in points allowed per possession, ahead of only the Cavaliers and Raptors among Eastern Conference teams. That low standing isn't a product of a tough schedule or a single horrible performance weighing it down; Miami has actually allowed opponents to score 1.3 points per 100 possessions better than their respective season averages, putting coach Erik Spoelstra's team well on the wrong side of the defensive mean.
The breakdowns are most glaring against the likes of a Washington or Cleveland, but the defensive problems this season are consistent across the board of opponents and largely self-sustained. There is no crippling weakness in the Heat's personnel or a glaring flaw in the theory that defines their system -- Miami simply spends a shocking number of its defensive possessions piddling about, thereby allowing inferior players to make good, efficient plays. Washington took advantage of Miami's vegetative state in transition on Tuesday, when the intersection of the Heat's disinterest and generally poor execution made for a miserable defensive product:
Dwyane Wade has been especially culpable in transition, where he can rarely be bothered to come to a trot in his defensive recovery. LeBron James has largely been better in his efforts to get back on defense this season, though on many occasions Tuesday he maxed out at a canter, a token jog for the sake of collecting a long rebound or simply providing an inbound target after conceding a bucket. The two stars were most visibly absent, but the transition D was an absolute mess by way of all involved, be it for lack of trying or head-scratching misreads.
Things weren't much better when the Heat attempted to defend the half-court, where laziness was an epidemic and miscommunication a common theme. There were a handful of situations in which Miami newcomers Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen simply botched their rotations (an expected occurrence at this point in the season), but the Heat's more general disregard for their opponent was so deep as to be impressive. Even as the Wizards opened a double-digit lead, James, Wade, Allen, Lewis and Chris Bosh could be seen trailing half-heartedly behind their marks or completely losing focus mid-play, seemingly in denial of what was transpiring:
***The Heat still stand as the clear favorite to win the 2013 title, but their lethargic defense through 16 games is discouraging for an organization so focused on the importance of process. A single loss isn't at all worth some wild overreaction, and even dull defensive execution hasn't displaced the Heat from their throne atop the Eastern Conference. But that talent is proving to be both their overwhelming advantage and their frequent undoing. In knowing that they can get by on a regular basis with middling effort, the Heat's natural tendency is to drift further away from the mindset necessary to carry out their defensive ideals. If these early issues of motivation linger into midseason concerns, some hand-wringing may be in order. Miami can well afford to dawdle a bit and still win games, but the particular mechanics of their defensive system may make flipping the switch a more complicated process than it has been for previous top-tier teams.