How good will the Heat be on defense?

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If the uber-talented 2010-11 Miami Heat want to win an NBA Championship next season, let alone break the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record of 72 regular-season wins, it would serve them well to remember that those Bulls were nearly as dominant on defense as they were on offense.

The 95-96 Bulls were certainly a historically effective offensive team — they led the league in both offensive efficiency and points per game, despite the fact they played at a relatively slow pace. But again, their defense was nearly as good. The Bulls led the league in defensive efficiency and only gave up 92.9 points per game during the 95-96 season, which is fewer points than any NBA team gave up last season. (The Suns, Warriors, and Nuggets all averaged more PPG last season than the 95-96 Bulls, with the obvious caveat being that they played at a much faster pace.)

The Bulls didn’t just outclass teams on a nightly basis — with Jordan and Pippen on the perimeter, Ron Harper’s length on opposing points, and Rodman in the paint and glass, they bullied teams, took their strengths away from them, and ultimately broke their wills. If the Heat want to be nearly as dominant as they are talented, they’ll need to do many of the same things.

Over an 82-game season and a full playoff run, every team is going to have off nights offensively, even the Heat. Passes get sloppy, shots miss their mark, flow goes away, the ball stops, and the team just has an off night offensively. It happens to everyone. Whether or not the Heat’s defense, a function of system, ability, and effort, will pick up the slack on those off nights is what’s going to make the difference between the Heat being a title contender or a historically great team next season.

The Heat certainly have the ability to be an elite defensive team, at least on paper. And the Heat did finish 6th in the NBA in defensive rating last season, when James and Bosh’s roster spots were held by Quentin Richardson and Michael Beasley.

The key to the Heat’s defense will be whether or not James and Wade can suffocate teams on defense the way Pippen and Jordan did when they played for the Bulls. Both Wade and James have evolved into elite perimeter defenders over the last two or three seasons, but Pippen was a once-in-a-generation defender, Jordan was Jordan, and, most importantly, both players brought it defensively every single night.

Furthermore, when you consider how hand-check rules have changed perimeter defense since Jordan and Pippen’s time, it seems increasingly unlikely that James/Wade or any other duo will be able to replicate the defensive dominance of Jordan and Pippen on the perimeter. Jordan and Pippen’s suffocation of enemy guards and wings allowed them to be an elite defensive unit despite the fact that Luc Longley started at center and Toni Kukoc was Dennis Rodman’s backup at the four. Without the ability to bump and jostle opponents on the perimeter and keep them from getting into the paint, it’s much harder to field and elite defensive team without some great defenders on the frontline. Still, if any two perimeter defenders are up to the task, it may well be Wade and James. (It’s worth Kobe and Artest did do a pretty darn good job as a tandem for the Lakers last year as well, although age and injuries kept them from being a full-time lockdown force during the regular season — it boggles the mind to think about what those two could’ve done together with legal hand-checks and healthy knees.)

Defense was something of a weakness for James during his first few years in the NBA, but he improved on that side of the floor every year before emerging as one of the best defensive players in the NBA during the 2008-09 season. James was a complete defensive monster that season, both on the ball and on the weak side, and he earned a 2nd-place finish in Defensive Player of the Year voting as the Cavs finished 3rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency.

James, along with the rest of the Cavaliers, regressed a bit defensively during the 2009-10 season. He was still nearly impossible to score on in isolation or post-up situations and made some spectacular weak-side plays, most notably his signature chase-down blocks, but wasn’t as consistent of a defender overall, and his all-defense spot could easily have gone to another player.

Casual observation of James’ game would suggest that James is a weak-side dynamo who still has to work on being a lock-down defender in one-on-one situations. However, a closer look reveals that that wasn’t the case last season. As an individual defender, James has an awkward, duck-footed stance, and often appears slightly off-balance when trying to play one-on-one defense. Like most superstars, he also usually spent the first 7/8ths of the game guarding the lesser of the opposition’s two perimeter players, and also doesn’t engage in the pull up the shorts, chest-to-chest, chase-his-man all the way around the perimeter antics that make most elite perimeter defenders stand out in fans’ minds.

However, in order to score on James in a one-on-one situation, an opponent must shoot over him, go through him, or get around him, and that’s nearly impossible to do against a player as big, strong, and fast as James.

The numbers back this up — according to SynergySports.com, opponents went 48-138 against James in isolation or post-up situations last season. That’s barely one basket every two games, and a 34.8% field goal percentage, which becomes even more impressive when you consider that James almost never commits fouls. Granted, LeBron is usually facing weaker offensive players, but he’s also very successful at locking down the other team’s best scorer when’s he’s asked to late in games; in what 82games.com defines as “clutch” situations, the Cavaliers gave up an off-the-charts 84.9 points per 48 minutes last season.

Off the ball, James’ defensive prowess is a just a touch overstated. With his size, speed, length, leaping ability, and instincts (he almost never bites on a pump-fake when closing out), he has all the tools to be the best help-side perimeter defender since Scottie Pippen, a healthy Andrei Kirilenko, or anyone else you want to name, and he often can be — after all, just look at those chase-down blocks. But LeBron would often get overconfident in his ability to recover on defense and/or take defensive plays off last season and get caught overhelping/ball-watching, which would lead to his man getting weak-side baskets in the half-court. According to Synergy, opponents went 131-315 (41.6%) against James when they spotted up or got the ball coming off a screen. That’s not bad, but it’s certainly not as good as it could be.

Like James, Wade has experienced something of a defensive breakthrough over the past two seasons. Since the Heat were so much worse than the Cavaliers, it didn’t get the same kind of attention, but it was no less impressive. Wade reigned in his gambling in 08-09, going from reckless on defense to “effectively wild,” and the impact on the Heat’s defense was profound and immediate.

Wade is still a threat to steal any pass thrown with a hint of laziness on the perimeter and perhaps the best pound-for-pound shotblocker in the NBA, having accounted for 224 combined steals and blocks last season. That’s good. What’s better is that Wade no longer ignores his basic assignments in order to chase the big play on defense. Opponents went 47-148 (31.8%) against Wade in isolation/post-up situations last season. When you consider that opponents had much more success pos
ting Wade than they did against him in isolation and James will likely handle the big players that Quentin Richardson couldn’t next season, those numbers get even more daunting for potential Heat opponents.

As a help defender, Wade was slightly more conscientious than James was — opponents went 145-383 (37.9%) in spot-up/off-screen situations against Wade last season. Interestingly, there is evidence to suggest that Wade isn’t the kind of late-game lockdown defender that James is. The Heat had a slightly better overall defensive rating than the Cavaliers last season, but gave up 109.8 points per 48 minutes in what 82games.com describes as “clutch” situations, as compared to 84.9 points per 48 minutes for Cavaliers opponents in the same situations. There are obviously a number of non-Wade/James reasons why that could have happened, but LeBron guarding the other teams’ best player worked very well during the 09-10 regular season while Wade doing the same did not, and that’s not data that should be entirely ignored.

Any way you slice it, the Heat’s perimeter defense is going to be scary. If Wade’s guarding the other team’s best player, he’s doing a good job and LeBron is lurking for blocks and steals. If James is on the other team’s best scorer, Wade gets to gamble to his heart’s content while the ball-handler has to figure out how to get around James. It’s not that one of them is a great man defender and the other is great on the weak side — they’re both among the best at both, and that’s a scary proposition for opposing offenses. (And don’t forget Mario Chalmers, a physical defensive point who doesn’t back down from anyone and has averaged 1.63 steals per game in only 28.6 minutes over the course of his career.)

That’s the good news. The bad news is that while the Heat’s perimeter defense should be a more or less dominant unit, there are some serious questions about the Heat’s interior defense, which many see as more important in the post hand-check era.

First, there’s the matter of Chris Bosh. Bosh was the starting power forward on the worst defensive team in basketball last season, and that’s not a thrilling bullet point to have on one’s resume. Bosh hasn’t definitively proven that he’s a bad defender, but he sure hasn’t proven that he’s a good one.

The best precedent for those hoping Bosh will become an effective defender in Miami is the career of Orlando Magic power forward Rashard Lewis. Like Lewis, Bosh isn’t particularly strong or physical, and doesn’t do much to shut off the paint. And remember that Lewis played for some of the worst defensive teams in the history of basketball during his time with Seattle.

But just like the old adage that every quarterback is a system quarterback, to some extent every NBA defender is a system defender. A player can do all the right things and force his man towards where the help is supposed to be and look like he got torched when the helper blows his assignment. Likewise, good help can make anyone with good feet look like a defensive mastermind most of the time. With the Sonics’ interior defense being as horrible as it was, Lewis’ inability to defend the paint made him a liability. When he got traded to Orlando, his ability to get out on the perimeter and force players towards Dwight Howard made him a major asset on the defensive end.

Like Lewis, Bosh is at his best when he can use his athleticism out on the perimeter and force defenders into the paint, and actually did well against opponents in isolation last year. The problem was that when Bosh “forced” his man into the paint, the Raptors’ last line of defense was Andrea Bargnani. Forcing people into Bargnani isn’t a winning strategy, and the Heat hope that Bosh will go from a liability to an asset on defense with Joel Anthony and Zydrunas Ilgauskas behind him. Going to a team that values defense, as the Raptors clearly didn’t, could help Bosh to be a better defender as well.

Still, even the most optimistic of Bosh supporters would have to admit that his defense is a question mark, and that puts a lot of pressure on the aforementioned Anthony and Ilgauskas. If you could combine Ilgauskas’ height with Anthony’s athleticism, you’d have perhaps the best defensive center in the league. Alas, Anthony is undersized and Ilgauskas’ movements are glacial.

Anthony will likely be the starting center for the Heat, given his ability as a shot-blocker and the fact his athleticism will allow the Heat to get out and run more. Anthony’s complete lack of an offensive game has kept him from getting big minutes up to this point in his career, but he’ll be counted on to play a bigger role in 2010-11.

Anthony’s greatest asset is his shot-blocking, and he’s really good at it. Anthony averaged 4.1 blocks per 48 minutes last season — for the sake of comparison, Dwight Howard averaged 3.9 blocks per 48. Obviously, Anthony isn’t nearly the all-around defender or rebounder that Howard is, but those block totals are impressive. Anthony has also shown the ability to play excellent fundamental defense — he held opponents to sub-42% shooting in post-up, pick-and-roll, and spot-up situations last season, which shows both a prodigious ability to recover on the weak side and a surprising tenacity in the post for a man his size.

The catch here is that just like it hasn’t been proven that Bosh is a bad defender, it hasn’t been proven that Anthony is a good one. Anthony has been a great defender during his short NBA thus far, but he’s been a 17 minute per game player. Now he’s going to be the starting center of a team with a championship(s)-or-bust mandate both from within and from the general public, and will almost certainly face the likes of Dwight Howard, Shaquille O’Neal, Andrew Bynum, and Pau Gasol at some point during the playoffs.

The two main knocks on Anthony as a defender are his low rebounding total and high foul rate — he averaged 3.1 rebounds per game and 5.82 fouls per 48 minutes last season. Like a lot of great shot-blockers, Anthony tends to miss caroms and find wrists on his way to getting block after block, and he’ll have to curb both tendencies next season.

It will be interesting to see how the Heat use Ilgauskas next season. “Big Z” was largely a forgotten man on the 09-10 Cavaliers because of the team’s crowded frontcourt of O’Neal, Varejao, and Jamison, and most think that Ilgauskas was brought on to help the team’s chemistry as much as anything else. However, Ilgauskas was the starting center on some very, very good defensive teams from 2006-09, and he wasn’t exactly moving fast during those years.

Ilgauskas may be the slowest player in the NBA, and his complete inability to guard Dwight Howard one-on-one in the post was a major reason the Cavaliers brought in Shaq. But Ilgauskas is still 7-3, smart, lanky, and knows how to grab rebounds and defend the rim without taking bad gambles or fouling. If Ilgauskas’ teammates can use their athleticism to funnel opponents into Ilgauskas the way LeBron James and Anderson Varejao did in Cleveland, he can still be a very effective defender. Then again, Ilgauskas is 35 years old, the veteran of many major surgeries, and could keep the Heat from running, so there’s a real chance he won’t play a major role for the Heat.

So how will the Heat be on defense? Wade, James, and Chalmers will be a defensive wrecking crew, provided the former two give enough effort on that end. Erik Spoelstra showed that he knows how to coach a defense when he spun Dwyane Wade, Jermaine O’Neal, and the NBA equivalent of straw into defensive gold last season.

Based on those factors alone, the Heat should be at least a top-eight defensive team next season. If Chris Bosh can turn his defensive weaknesses into strengths a la Rashard Lewis, Joel Anthony can turn his per-minute production into 20-30 minutes of Ben Wallace lite every night, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas can still use his massive frame to defend the rim, the Heat could easily play the kind of
shut-down defense that would allow them to achieve the success everyone expects — and maybe fears — that they could attain with the roster Pat Riley has assembled.

Khris Middleton drops career-best 51 on Wizards, Bucks win without Antetokounmpo

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Khris Middleton scored a career-high 51 points in the absence of injured teammate Giannis Antetokounmpo, leading the Milwaukee Bucks to a 151-131 victory over the Washington Wizards on Tuesday night.

Middleton, hoping to be chosen an All-Star reserve for the second straight year on Thursday, helped the Bucks hold off a second-half Wizards rally. Middleton also had 10 rebounds and six assists while hitting 16 of 26 shots and 7 of 10 3-pointers.

Milwaukee (41-6) scored a franchise-record 88 points in the first half, finished with its highest total of the season and won its ninth straight game despite the absence of Antetokounmpo, who sat out with a right shoulder injury.

Bradley Beal led the Wizards (15-31) with 47 points, his second straight 40-point game and sixth of the season.

Milwaukee led by as many as 32 points but the Wizards rallied in the third quarter, putting up 41 points to cut their deficit to 117-104 entering the fourth. Washington got within seven points in the final period but could not get closer.

Eric Bledsoe had 34 points, 10 assists and six rebounds for the Bucks. Donte DiVincenzo added 16 points.

Middleton responded with 13 points in the fourth quarter as he scored the most points by a Bucks player this season. He pounded home a dunk to go over 50 points and give the Bucks a 13-point lead late in the final quarter.

Antetokounmpo had 50 points on Nov. 25 against Utah.

The Bucks came out firing from deep, hitting eight of their first nine attempts from 3-point range. Milwaukee converted 14 of 22 shots in the first quarter on the way to a 42-28 lead.

And they kept going in the second quarter. Middleton hit his fourth 3-pointer of the half to give the Bucks a 69-43 lead with 5:46 left. Middleton nailed two more 3s to finish the half 6 for 6 from 3-point range and with 28 points.

The Bucks sank 14 of 24 3-pointers in the half and established a franchise best for points in a half as they grabbed an 88-63 lead at intermission.

The previous mark for points in a half was 87 set against New Orleans on March 14, 1979.

Joel Embiid’s Kobe tribute: 24 points while wearing uniform No. 24; 76ers’ win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Wearing No. 24 in honor of Kobe Bryant, Joel Embiid scored 24 points in his first game in three weeks, leading the Philadelphia 76ers to a 115-104 win over the Golden State Warriors on Tuesday night.

Embiid and the rest of the Sixers wore No. 24 and No. 8 Bryant jerseys in warmups in honor of the Los Angeles Lakers star, who was killed Sunday in a helicopter crash. Embiid was granted permission from Hall of Famer Bobby Jones to wear the retired No. 24 instead of his usual 21 for his first game since he tore a ligament in a finger in his left hand.

The Sixers went 6-3 without Embiid, the first Sixer to be voted to three straight All-Star Games since Allen Iverson.

Embiid had averaged 23.4 points and 12.3 rebounds in 31 games this season. Against the Warriors, Embiid played with a splint on his hand that didn’t affect him when he buried a 3 that sent the Sixers into halftime with a 59-54 lead.

Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons had “Mamba Forever” and “RIP Gigi” (for Bryant’s daughter, among the nine killed in the crash) on each sneaker and scored 17 points.

The Sixers were the latest team to honor Bryant in a pregame ceremony. Bryant led suburban Lower Merion High School to the Class AAAA state title at Hersheypark Arena in 1996, the school’s first since 1943. His framed No. 33 Aces jersey was displayed at midcourt and the Sixers held a 33-second moment of silence of Bryant and the other eight victims in Sunday’s crash. The Sixers rang a bell nine times and shone nine lights on the court during the solemn remembrance. The Sixers skipped pregame introductions for both teams and instead played a video of Bryant’s last introduction in Philadelphia in a December 2015 game and images of him with Allen Iverson and Julius Erving.

Yes, all teams have been affected by Bryant’s death, but it struck particularly hard in Philly, where the former NBA star had a turbulent relationship with Philadelphia. His high school coach Gregg Downer spoke to the media for the first time earlier in the day, and wore Bryant’s No. 33 Lower Merion warmup jacket.

The mood in the building also was tempered, in part, because the 10-win Warriors gave the Sixers a serious challenge. The Sixers were 12-point favorites but D'Angelo Russell, who scored a team-high 28 points, kept the Warriors within single digits for most of the fourth quarter.

Al Horford buried a 3 and Shake Milton followed with another to push it to a 16-point lead and send the Sixers on their way to a whopping 22-2 record at home.

 

A tearful Shaquille O’Neal talks about his time, relationship with Kobe Bryant

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Shaquille O’Neal told Justin Tasch of New York Post: “I’m not doing well. I’m sick” about the death of his former teammate Kobe Bryant (along with eight others, including his daughter Gianna).

A lot of people can relate to that, but Shaq pulled it together enough to talk about his former championship teammate.

When it came to what he could no longer tell Kobe, Shaq teared up.

Shaq and Kobe had legendary feuds back in the day, but in later years made up and were friends.

Like many people, Shaq is still trying to process all of it. That’s going to take a long time.

Chris Paul posts emotional tribute to Kobe Bryant

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Chris Paul and Kobe Bryant were tight.

The shocking death of Kobe Bryant — along with his daughter Gianna and seven others in a helicopter crash — hit CP3 hard and the point guard missed his first game of the year Monday, sitting out as he tried to come to grips with it all. Kobe and Paul won Gold Medals together, their kids were friends, and they competed fiercely against each other on the court. 

Tuesday night, Paul posted this personal tribute to Kobe.

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I don't know if I'll ever be able to fully process it. My parents have always said everything happens for a reason and its in God’s plan. But this one is different. Broken fingers, torn Achilles, it didn’t matter. You overcame it all!! You were DIFFERENT! Sometimes we competed so hard against each other that you could never tell how I was always watching YOU!! I needed to see how much better I needed to get and how much harder I needed to work! The love you had for the game was nowhere near the love you had for YOUR girls!! All 5 of them!! And Gigi, who we had already prearranged her marriage with lil Chris, is as beautiful and feisty as she could ever be!!! As I’ve watched you in retirement, as happy as you’ve ever been, I’ve sat back and prayed and hoped that my baby girl will look at me the way Gigi looks at you!!! I Love You and will miss you with all my heart my brother!!! All my love to Vanessa and all the families during this time 🙏🏾 #Mamba4Life #Mambacita

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Like Paul, a lot of us are struggling to process it all.