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Is Miami’s Defense Struggling Because of Small Ball?

January 2, 2013

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Last year the Heat were a +4 on defense. This means per 100 possessions Miami held its opponent to four points less than the average NBA team. This year they’re a -1. That’s a five point per 100 possession relative to league average swing. Now I know that may not sound like a lot, but it really is. Consider this: the best teams in the league right now (the Spurs, Clippers, and Thunder) beat their opponents by about 9 points per game. The Heat beat their opponents by about 5. That means if Miami’s defense was as good as last year, the Heat would be the best team in the league (by point margin at least). If Miami’s defensive efficiency dropped by 5 more, you’d expect the team to have a losing record. This all isn’t to say that the Heat won’t win the championship or isn’t the team to beat in the NBA, but it certainly explains the team’s early season struggles.

But why is the defense so much worse? The easy answer is because the Heat, like many great teams that won the previous season’s title, are coasting – merely waiting for the playoffs to strike. The most salient example of this kind of team is the ’01 Lakers. The 2000 Lakers had the best defense in the NBA (+5), and with a pretty good offense, they were a +9. By contrast, the 2001 squad, while remaining one of the league’s elite offenses, dropped to nearly a -2 on D! Glen Rice wasn’t an elite defender. No, in the playoffs, the Lakers turned it on and went back to being the league’s best defensive team, this time a +6 (in the playoffs!!), and went on to win the title. But is this the case with the Heat? If it is, who do we blame? It was easy with the Lakers, while it was probably a bit of a team lack of effort, most of the blame can be pinned on Shaq, who admitted to coasting, and it reflected in his numbers. But the Heat’s superstar, LeBron James isn’t lacking effort – whether you watch him or observe his numbers, you can see LeBron is playing as hard as ever. D-Wade has been struggling, but he’s not a defensive anchor, so it’s hard to pin this kind of a swing on him.

The better answer is small ball. The Heat have canned traditional 2-big lineups in favor of a lineup where Chris Bosh plays center. And this has worked – they won the championship last year doing this (as a side note, one of the big reasons the small lineup worked in the finals was because of its strategic advantage – having a 4 who could play outside drew OKC’s defensive anchor to the perimeter and minimized his impact). But it might be taking its toll this regular season, at least on the defensive end of the floor. When we look at Miami’s minute distributions, we can see that most of its key players are playing the same percentage of the team’s minutes as last year. But with the additions of Ray Allen, who plays a big portion of the team’s minutes, and Rashard Lewis, whose minutes are at least substantial, someone had to have taken a hit. Well, two Heats took notable cuts in minutes compared to last year: Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony. When we look at their long term RAPM, we see that both Haslem and Anthony are negatives overall because of poor offense. But both players are positives on defense. Now while RAPM certainly helps, basketball isn’t plug and play (as much as we’d like it to be). Lineups are important, and mixing in a couple of defensive minded guys with an already stacked offensive squad could go a long way, especially considering neither player uses many possessions on offense. When we look at this year’s lineups, we see that replacing Bosh with Haslem or Anthony (even if the sample size is small) has made a considerable difference on defense. But Haslem is smaller than Bosh you say? Well, maybe it’s not small ball, maybe its more having-no-bigs-who-focus-mainly-on-defense ball. This year, lineups featuring Haslem or Anthony as center have performed better on defense than lineups featuring Bosh at the 5. But even this is far from conclusive: Anthony barely plays at all and Haslem usually is on the floor with Norris Cole, who is a whole other story altogether. Hell, if the Heat didn’t play Cole at all, we probably wouldn’t have to worry about any of this. Regardless, it would be interesting to see if Miami’s defense would improve by playing either Haslem or Anthony (not both, we don’t want the offense to suffer too much) more alongside Bosh/Battier/James in the frontcourt.

-James

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One Comment leave one →
  1. zebano permalink
    March 13, 2013 8:12 am

    This is a really old post so I hate to reply to it but it looks like Birdman is eating into Anthony’s minutes rather than any of the wing players’. However he continues to put up solid on/off splits and I expect to see him play more minutes in the playoffs which should certainly improve their defense.

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