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Outlining the damning problems of the Heat’s offense

Nov 30, 2010, 6:34 PM EDT

Miami Heat v Orlando Magic

This season has gone pretty well for the Miami Heat, don’tcha think? They’re ranked seventh in the league in offensive efficiency, and sixth in the league in defensive efficiency. Aside from offensive rebounding rate, they rank in the top 13 teams in each of the offensive and defensive “four factors” (effective field goal percentage, effective field goal percentage allowed, turnover rate, opponent’s turnover rate, free throw rate, opponent’s free throw rate, defensive rebounding rate). They have a winning record despite having an entirely new team, and when all else fails, they still have two of the most talented basketball players on the planet.

Things are sunny in Miami, I’d say, with the only exceptions being the team’s disturbing lack of interest and effort, the bizarre chemistry, Erik Spoelstra’s oddly hot seat, and the dreaded offensive inefficiency. That’s an odd thing to attribute to a top-ten offense, but it’s certainly fitting; LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, two of the most efficient high-usage players in the league a season ago, have seen their shooting and turnover numbers plummet.

Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus took a stab at explaining why:

Watching the Heat’s offense, something jumps out immediately. When both James and Wade are both in the game, they are almost never on the same side of the floor. Sometimes, that means both are waiting as Carlos Arroyo or another perimeter player handles the ball. More often, it translates into either James or Wade initiating the offense (typically out of a pick-and-roll) while the other spots up on the opposite wing.

For opposing defenses, this is essentially an ideal situation. Though James and Wade can still create problems by driving off a cross-court pass, their presence on the weak side usually limits them to serving as stand-still shooters at best and decoys at worst. Scouting reports around the league encourage defenders to force James and Wade to become outside shooters, neutralizing the danger they pose off the dribble, in the paint and at the rim. For a variety of reasons, Miami has managed to do exactly that to its own stars…

The other interesting culprit that Hoopdata.com points out is how much less effective James and Wade have been when they do reach the paint. Here, there does seem to be some evidence that the Heat’s poor bench is hurting the performance of its stars. James is making 68.9 percent of his attempts at the rim thus far. Previously, the worst mark Hoopdata.com has recorded for James (going back to 2006-07) is 71.0 percent. Wade has taken an even more significant tumble. He’s making 55.7 percent of his at-rim attempts, having previously shot no worse than 66.0 percent on these shots. That is a possible indicator that Wade is not right physically.

More striking than James’ and Wade’s shooting at the rim is their lack of assists to other players who finish at the rim. Last year, they combined 6.2 at-rim assists per game (essentially, passes leading to dunks or layups). This season, that mark has declined to 2.5 per game. Even granting that Wade is handing out far fewer assists (4.1 vs. 6.5) and that fewer shots have been marked as at the rim by Hoopdata.com this season, the two players are setting up their teammates for close finishes less frequently.

The first point Pelton hits is hopefully something that will be rectified in the coming games. Utilizing LeBron and Wade at the same time is partly why the Miami offense has such explosive potential, and yet instead Erik Spoelstra and his staff (or perhaps LeBron and Wade themselves) have elected to take turns running pick-and-rolls opposite one another on the floor. Running more 2-3 pick-and-rolls is a surefire way to involve Miami’s most versatile players in more plays together, and as such force opposing defenses to concede certain opportunities to either LeBron or Wade.

Pelton’s second contention is even more interesting, as there isn’t an obvious explanation as to why James and Wade are suddenly lesser finishers around the basket. I’m sure offensive stagnation is at least somewhat to blame, as the forays that both players take deep into the paint are a bit more wild than they’re used to. Still, both players are missing very reasonable attempts from around the basket that they’re accustomed to making, and much of that relies on James and Wade’s specific execution of the plays at hand. Something’s a bit off, and it’s not just the spacing.

Either way, Wade’s finishing ability is statistically akin to that of Yi Jianlian, Spencer Hawes, Channing Frye, and Joel Anthony this season, and that hurts. A lot.

Each star’s lack of assists leading to baskets at the rim can be chalked up to the same logic touched upon earlier. By separating James and Wade within the offense, the Heat are essentially taking away each distributor’s best finishing option. Chris Bosh is a decent alternative, but the rest of the Heat bigs (Udonis Haslem included) are relatively poor finishers around the cup, sandbagging both Miami’s offensive efficiency and the assist productivity of James and Wade.

These points don’t address all of Miami’s offensive problems, but they do cover the most glaring. Sure, it would be nice if the Heat had a more capable offensive center, or a more prolific scoring point guard. But most of the Heat’s struggles can be remedied given the proper utilization of the immense talent already on the roster.

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