Time after time, they go through droughts of uninspired play. Every year questions about whether they're too old, small, injured or bored to make it through another playoff run spring up. Why is this? Since LeBron James and Chris Bosh signed with Miami, the team has only lost one playoff series: the 2011 NBA Finals.
This season, their defense has dropped off and Dwyane Wade has missed a disturbing number of games. But at 40-14, the Heat remain at the peak of their powers, owners of the best offense in basketball, with the world's most unstoppable player (that'd be James) chugging through his prime.
So, why do we still doubt this basketball team?
On March 1, 2013, the Miami Heat were 42-14, 26 days into their historic 27-game win streak. James was a nightly wrecking ball, Wade wasn’t far behind and the team was comfortable playing the role of sleeping giant through three quarters before setting the arena on fire in the fourth.
This year things are all but the same. Miami is 11-2 over their past 13 games, with big recent wins over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Golden State Warriors, San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls (the same team that ended last year's win streak).
Here's why their basketball apex remains so much higher than every other team in the league, and why they should be viewed as favorites to win the title yet again.
Dwyane Wade Is the X-factor
Over the past couple years, betting against Wade has not been a smart decision. At 32 years old, he's now 10 years and over 30,000 minutes into a Hall of Fame career. Aside from a nagging knee ailment that isn't healing anytime soon, there are still a few things to be concerned about.
Wade never developed a three-point shot. Normally that spells "D-E-A-T-H" for a starting shooting guard functioning in a modern, elite NBA offense, but instead Wade's slithered by with frequent trips to the free-throw line.
Well, he isn't getting to the free-throw line as much anymore. Wade's free-throw rate is at an all-time low (.304). His usage rate is the lowest it's been since his rookie season, and his turnover rate is the highest since 2008. The Heat are a half a point per 100 possessions better on offense with Wade on the sidelines according to NBA.com's media stats (subscription required).
His PER was 26.3 two seasons ago. Right now it's 22.0. On defense, he's still stealing the ball at a rate comparable to what he's done throughout his career, but he isn't blocking shots as often. He's averaging less than 20 points per game for the first time since he was a rookie, despite averaging 0.2 more minutes this season than in 2011-12.
But wait! Don't leave! Remember, the Heat play to win championships, and scrutinizing regular-season numbers for a guy who couldn't care less until the playoffs start may be missing the point.
Sometimes, what gets lost in the conversation is how Wade performs compared to his peers as opposed to a younger version of himself. The former seems more pertinent to a title run, no? Wade has the seventh-highest field-goal percentage in the league, and both his effective field-goal percentage and PER are in the top 20.
Look at his shot performance and distribution chart this season. He's still super efficient and consistently finishes at the rim in a barrel full of attempts.
Even though he isn't getting to the free-throw line as often, that doesn't mean it won't happen in games that are even more important. For lack of a better term, Wade is an X-factor at this point in his career. The Heat transform into an unbeatable powerhouse whenever he plays to the best of his ability.
The Heat have the league's third-highest winning percentage, which is amazing when you consider that they're treading water with a defense barely above league average. The Heat allow 102.7 points per 100 possessions (13th in the league) according to stats.NBA.com, but that's fine.
Their intimidating scheme calls for aggressive double-teams and traps on most pick-and-rolls, and furious back-line rotations by James and Wade—two ultra-athletes for which the rules of space and gravity do not apply.
This strategy is risky and is always one pass away from giving up a layup at the rim. But when the rotations are tight—and they almost always are when they need to be—the offense is helpless. If there's one area of the game where Miami definitely turns their intensity on and off, this is it.
Here's an example from Miami's most recent game against the Thunder. It's a play early in the first quarter, with Bosh and Shane Battier set to trap Kevin Durant on a high pick-and-roll.
They get the ball out of a dangerous player's hands and force it to be whipped around the court. The more passes an offense makes, the greater chance they cough it up.
The Heat wound up forcing 20 turnovers in this game, turning Oklahoma City's deadly offense into a weeping willow (0.86 points per possession is super sad, even for the league's worst offense).
Newfound Size and Versatility
Erik Spoelstra’s combinations have never been so dangerous. The Bosh/Chris Andersen duo, a dual point guard unit, the default Big Three, Mario Chalmers and Shane Battier lineup featuring James at power forward (and that same group with Ray Allen instead of Wade), are all so devastating.
Meanwhile, an effective Oden for 15 to 20 minutes each game in the playoffs will allow a more traditional style on both ends when necessary. This means Wade and James won't have to wear capes on defense or crash the boards whenever an opponent's shot goes up; their energy can be used elsewhere.
Andersen and Bosh have already logged 233 minutes together this season, holding opponents to 91.6 points per 100 possessions—a league-best defense—according to NBA media stats (subscription required). Last year, Spoelstra barely gave this duo a chance. They shared the court for a measly 60 minutes in 12 games, and their defense was horrendous.
Earlier we mentioned Wade as the league's ultimate X-factor, but second to him, Oden stands to have a serious impact this postseason. Miami is holding opponents to just 97.9 points per 100 possessions when he plays according to stats.NBA.com (91 total minutes so far, but he was signed for usage in the playoffs, not February).
This is obviously a hopeful sign for a team that's struggled rebounding the ball at times and will eventually need to climb Mt. Hibbert and the Indiana Pacers at some point this spring.
All this, and James—one of the best basketball players who ever lived—or Bosh have hardly been talked about. Miami is a very dangerous basketball team because of their versatile nature and incredibly high ceiling.
They've also been through tough times as a group and "know what it takes" to win through adversity. Believing they won't tackle a third-straight championship is fine, just know they have all the elements, and then some, to get it done.
Advanced stats courtesy of Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.
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