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What’s going on with the Heat offense?

Nov 9, 2010, 10:15 AM EST

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics Getty Images

The 5-2 Miami Heat are certainly not a bad offensive team. In fact, they are a very good offensive team — as of today, they are 5th in the NBA in offensive efficiency. Considering how good the Heat have been defensively (they’re #1 in defensive efficiency), Miami could certainly make a championship run without significantly improving their offense, which is sort of frightening.

Still, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the Heat aren’t nearly as good as they could be on offense — after all, both the 09-10 Raptors and the 09-10 Cavaliers had a higher offensive efficiency rating than the Heat do so far this season. Clearly, this Heat squad has the talent to be absolutely dominant offensively, so why haven’t they been as good as the sum of their talents? Here are some possible explanations, starting with the “Big Three.”

What makes Miami’s trio so interesting is its versatility — James and Wade are both great scorers with incredible playmaking ability, James and Bosh are both too accurate from the perimeter to be left all alone, all three players can create off the dribble, and all three are explosive athletes who can get in the paint and convert in the blink of an eye.

However, instead of bracing their versatility, Miami’s trio seem to be fixated on settling into specific “roles”: LeBron the playmaker, Wade the slasher, and Bosh the polite third option. It all sounds nice, but it’s limited all three players in one way or another. Right now, the Heat look like they’re playing to a script; the more settled in they get, the less predictable they’ll be and the more difficult they will be to defend. Here’s what the “Big Three” have and haven’t been doing so far:

1. LeBron James: Not enough action off the ball

Sometimes I get the feeling that LeBron feels the need to answer his critics on the court rather than simply do what would give his team the best chance of scoring baskets. For the first seven years of his career, the main criticism of LeBron was that he was a superlative athlete who lacked skill, specifically the ability to make jump shots.

He worked tirelessly on his jumper and turned himself into a pretty good jump shooter, but his shooting percentages stayed lower than they should have been because he felt the need to show off his jumper all the time, firing deep, contested jumpers with time on the shot clock just to prove to everybody that he could make them. It was unstoppable when it did work, but it didn’t really keep the defense off-balance, and LeBron would have been much better served spending time on the block and figuring out how to create more easy shots instead of working so diligently to convert difficult ones.

After spending a few months getting his character criticized, LeBron seems to be trying to prove how unselfish he is by using his superlative playmaking ability to run the Miami offense and rack up assists, which would supposedly prove how he’s willing to sacrifice his statistics to fit into a team concept and be part of a winning operation.

The problem with that philosophy is that as good as LeBron James can be when he’s making plays, he’s much better when he’s able to come from the weak side and finish them. LeBron driving and kicking to an open three-point shooter or finding a slashing big man from the perimeter is effective — LeBron catching a pass at full speed and going to the basket against a defense trying to recover is all but unstoppable. We saw that in international play, when LeBron shot nearly 70% from the floor by converting easy dunks and open threes.

With all apologies to Mo Williams and Anderson Varejao, LeBron’s never played on an NBA team with players like Wade and Bosh, players capable of drawing enough defensive attention to free up James on the weak side and allow LeBron to punish teams the moment they forget about him.

Unselfish isn’t always about trying to make your teammates better; sometimes, it’s about letting your teammates make you better, and LeBron hasn’t been doing that. Last season, 47.2% of LeBron’s shots at the rim were assisted; this season, only 35% of LeBron’s attempts from that area have come from assists, which would be a career-low for him. LeBron still converts an absurdly high percentage of his shots at the rim (77%!), but his attempts from point-blank range have gone down — of all the weapons Miami has, LeBron going to the basket when the defense isn’t ready for him is the most dangerous one, and neither LeBron or Miami seems to have that in mind when they run their offense.

2. Wade — more playmaking

Wade’s had the easiest time adjusting to the new Miami offense — he’s slashing with abandon, his floaters have been absolutely deadly, he rarely takes bad shots, and his True Shooting percentage is currently a career-high 59.2% despite the fact he’s making only 12% of his deep twos.

However, Wade is also a great playmaker, and he seems to have forgotten that part of his game despite the fact he has better teammates to pass to than he ever has before. Wade is averaging only 3.7 assists per game, which is barely better than half of his previous career-low, and his assist:turnover ratio is also far worse than it ever has been before.

Wade has hardly set anybody up with easy finishes. Last year, Wade averaged 2.2 assists that led to layups or dunks a game, which was a career-low at the time; this year, he’s averaged only 0.6 assists that lead to layups or dunks each game. I don’t know if the main issue is that Wade’s teammates aren’t putting themselves in position to catch passes near the basket when Wade looks to drive or that Wade isn’t looking to pass when he goes to the hoop, but either way Wade should be using his passing more than he has been.

LeBron is a great passer, and Wade is a great slasher, but what makes them two of the best players in basketball is how well they use their passing and their scoring abilities in tandem, and that shouldn’t change now that they’re sharing the floor with one another.

Chris Bosh: Be more aggressive

Tom Haberstroh already touched on this about an hour ago over at the Heat Index, so I won’t linger on it too long here. Basically, Chris Bosh is a very good mid-range shooter, especially for a big man, and that’s the only skill he’s really been utilizing in Miami’s offense. However, what Bosh really excels at is finishing when he sets a pick and rolls to the basket or attacking the basket off the dribble from the high-post, and he hasn’t really been doing either of those things.

Bosh has been polite about waiting for his shot opportunities. Two-thirds of Bosh’s shot opportunities this season have been assisted, which would represent a career-high for him. However, there’s a fine line between being patient and being passive, and Bosh is on the wrong side of it this season.

Unlike, say, Pau Gasol, who dominates on offense with his size, skill, and court vision and can flourish playing off Kobe in the triangle, Bosh’s best attributes are his athleticism and explosiveness when he goes to the rim. As a result, Bosh is at his most effective when he can be aggressive and attack, which he’s been to hesitant to do.  When the Heat have made an effort to feature Bosh, they’ve often dumped it to him in the low post and watched him try and make a play, which is the wrong way to use him — Bosh should be attacking the basket hard, with his teammates moving around him to give him options if the defense collapses on him or opening up seams to the rim for him by attacking the basket themselves. Bosh is trying to give James and Wade space to work, but a player with his talents isn’t doing his team any favors by sitting back and playing Antonio McDyess.

The Heat have become a very good offensive team because their superstars have been willing to accommodate each other’s strengths. When the “Big Three” actually start to play off of each other’s strengths, improvise, and use each other to open up lanes to the basket, they’ll be downright scary on offense.

  1. thestudiokida - Nov 9, 2010 at 11:00 AM

    Here’s 2 reasons why their offense isn’t exploding.

    1) Joel Anthony is a starter and he’s just clogging the lane up. Last year Cleveland was 20-3 without Shaq to finish the season because LeBron had a lot more space to work with. The same thing is happening when LeBron and Ilgauskas are on the court together for Miami. They need a starting center than can play outside the paint.

    2) They absolutely shouldn’t be starting a true point guard like Arroyo. If Mike Miller was healthy I’d say he should start because teams aren’t even bothering to cover Arroyo. It isn’t so much that he can’t knock down jumpers (he can) but that he isn’t looking to score. He’s trying to get the ball to the playmakers rather than being a guy the playmakers can get the ball to, like Miller or James Jones. The Heat keep going on runs after Arroyo is substituted for.

  2. thestudiokida - Nov 9, 2010 at 11:03 AM

    That first comment is worded funny, I meant to say that Ilgauskas is staying out of the paint and the Heat are playing better when he’s in the lineup. Joel Anthony shouldn’t be a starter but the problem is they don’t have any depth at center.

  3. zblott - Nov 9, 2010 at 12:24 PM

    How does their not-where-it-should-be offense affect their Power Rankings? Check it out:

    http://www.hoopskarma.com/hk/2010/11/8/hoops-karma-power-rankings-11.html

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