What’s going on with the Heat offense?

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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.

NBA owners, players union reportedly agree to push back CBA opt-out date

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NBA owners and players are both making too much money to risk screwing things up with a labor stoppage, right? RIGHT?

Don’t be so sure.

In a sign the two sides have a lot of work to do to reach terms on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement — primarily because of an internal dispute among the owners — the NBA (representing the owners) and the players union have agreed to push back the opt-out date for the CBA from Dec. 15 (this would end the current CBA on July 1, 2023). Marc Stein reported this earlier in the week (covered here) and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski added details today.

Talks on a new CBA are ongoing, and a formal ratification of an extension — likely into February — is expected to come at a virtual board of governors meeting Wednesday, sources said.

What’s the stumbling block? A group of owners — bothered by the massive spending into the luxury tax of the Warriors, Clippers, and Nets  — is pushing for an “Upper Spending Limit” for teams. Call it whatever they want, that’s a hard cap and there is no chance the players will sign off on any form of a hard cap. 

The NBA has used a punitive and progressively intense luxury tax to rein in the spending of some owners. However, some owners — how many is unclear, but enough that the NBA has put the issue on the table — feel the tax isn’t doing its job in the wake of new, even wealthier owners. 

Unquestionably some owners are unbothered by the tax. To use the example I have used before, Steve Ballmer’s Clippers are on track to pay $191.9 million in payroll this season, which will result in a $144.7 million luxury tax bill (leading to a payroll and tax total of $336.6 million). The Warriors and Nets will be in the same ballpark. The Clippers will pay more in tax alone than 11 teams will spend on total payroll. Two-thirds of NBA teams will pay around $150 million in payroll or less, not much more than the Clippers’ tax bill.

Recently, the same NBA owners approved a rule change that would allow a sovereign wealth fund — the financial arms of generally oil-rich countries such as Qatar or Saudi Arabia — to buy up to 20% of an NBA team as a silent partner. That has not happened yet, but the door is open. It’s part of a pattern of wealthier owners — including hedge fund managers and the like — entering the playing field for the NBA.

All that has some of the more established, older owners feeling squeezed by this new group’s willingness to spend. That has the older owners pushing for a hard cap to stop what they see as an increased willingness to spend.

Again, there is no chance the players approve a hard cap. The owners know this, but some seem willing to play brinksmanship with a lucrative, growing business (particularly internationally) to protect their bottom lines.

If you read all that and thought, “this isn’t about the players really, it’s an owner vs. owner issue,” you’re spot on. The league and players are giving the owners more time to work out their internal issues.

Are struggling Mavericks on the clock with Luka Doncic?

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Luka Doncic is in the first year of a five-year, $215.2 million contract. More than that, when asked recently if Mavericks fans should be worried about him wanting out as the team has stumbled at points to start this season, Doncic didn’t sound like a guy looking to bolt:

“I don’t think they’re worried about it right now. I got what, five years left here, so I don’t think they should be worried about it.”

The Mavericks’ front office should be worried about it — teams are always on the clock with a superstar.

The Mavericks let Jalen Brunson get away in the offseason, then brought in Christian Wood (whose defense is an issue and he is coming off the bench). This remains a team a player or two away from contending despite having a potential MVP in Doncic carrying a historic offensive load.

That doesn’t mean Doncic will ask out at the deadline or this summer (he won’t), but if his frustration grows over the next couple of years… who knows. Tim MacMahon of ESPN put it well on the Hoop Collective podcast (hat tip Real GM):

“I think they have a two-year window. This season and next season going into that summer [2024]. I think they have a two-year window where, you know, like Milwaukee did with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], I think in that window they really need to convince Luka that he has a chance to contend year in and year out right here in Dallas. If they can’t get it done in that two-year window, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that he’s going to force a trade or ask for a trade. I’m just saying at that point if he’s not happy, he has all the leverage in the world if he would be looking to leave..

“I don’t think Luka will look for reasons to leave. I think he’d be perfectly happy spending his entire career in Dallas. But if he doesn’t have to look for reasons and they’re slamming him in the face, then that’s a problem. He’s also a guy who is a ruthless competitor, which means he loves winning. He’s used to winning. He won championships with Real Madrid. He won a EuroBasket championship with the Slovenian national team. He also detests losing. Like can’t handle it.”

The Mavericks made the Western Conference Finals last season, knocking off the 64-win Suns in the process — this team is not that far away. Not with Doncic handling the ball. But it feels like a team that has taken a step back from those lofty levels this season. There are many more questions than answers, and it’s impossible to guess how Doncic will feel after this season’s playoffs, let alone the ones ending in the summer of 2024.

But the Mavericks stumbles this season have to put the Dallas front office on notice — this team is not good enough. And if we know it, you can be sure Doncic knows it.

Curry thinking retirement? ‘I don’t see myself slowing down any time soon’

2022 Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year Awards Presented by Chase
Kimberly White/Getty Images for Sports Illustrated
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Stephen Curry is playing at an MVP level this season: 30 points a game, hitting 43.2% from 3 with a 66.4 true shooting percentage, plus pitching in seven assists and 6.6 rebounds a game. He remains one of the best-conditioned athletes in the sport.

In the face of that, even though he is 34, asking him a retirement question seemed an odd choice, yet a reporter at the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year award ceremony — Curry won the award, if you didn’t know — asked Curry about it seems he’s not interested.

Curry should not be thinking of retirement, but there is a sense around these Warriors that this era, this run is coming to an end in the next few years. Curry may be defying father time, but Draymond Green and Klay Thompson (especially post injuries) are not. There is a decline in their games (and this season, the role players have not stepped up around them the same way). With that comes a certain pressure to take advantage of the opportunities, there aren’t going to be as many.

Which is why the Warriors are a team to watch at the trade deadline (and will they sell low on James Wiseman to a team that still sees the potential in him?).

As for Curry, he will still be around and producing for a few more years. Nobody is ready to think about his retirement. Including Curry himself.

Block or charge: Alperen Sengun dunks on Zach Collins

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To borrow the catchphrase of the great Rex Chapman:

Block or charge?

The Rockets’ Alperen Sengun caught a body and threw one down on the Spurs’ Zach Collins but was called for the offensive foul.

NBA Twitter went nuts.

Rockets coach Stephen Silas challenged the call, but it was upheld (from my perspective, the replay officials are always looking to back the in-game officials if they at all can).

By the time Collins slid over and jumped, Sengun was already in the air — if anything that was a block. What the officials called was Sengun using his off-arm to create space.

I hate the call — that’s a dunk and an and-one. Not because it’s a great dunk — although it is that, too — but because Collins literally jumped into the path of an already airborne Sengun, Collins created all the contact. It’s on him. Under the spirit of the rules, Sengun’s off-arm is moot at that point — Collins illegally jumped in Sengun’s way and caused the collision.

Terrible call by the officials.

It was a good night for the Spurs, overall. San Antonio played its best defense in a while and Keldon Johnson — one of the few bright spots in a dark Spurs season — hit his first nine shots on his way to a 32-point night that sparked a 118-109 San Antonio win over Houston, snapping the Spurs 11-game losing streak.