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.

Lakers’ Rajon Rondo has fluid drained from hand slowing his recovery from surgery

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Rajon Rondo has been out more than three weeks following surgery to repair the third metacarpal bone in his shooting hand (his right hand), and while there has been no official timeline he was expected back in the next week or two. He’s been out on the court before recent Lakers’ games getting in some work.

But he has now hit a bit of a setback, Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said on Wednesday. Here is what Walton said, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“There’s a little bit of swelling,” Walton said at Lakers shootaround on Monday in advance of his team’s game against the Miami Heat. “We’re going to shut him down for a few days then get back out after it again.”

It’s not clear when Rondo will return. He was averaging 8.5 points, 6.5 assists, and 4.5 rebounds a game before the injury.

The Lakers have gone 8-4 since Rondo went to the bench with his fractured hand. Without the veteran point guard, LeBron James has had the ball in his hands more as a playmaker (to Magic Johnson’s frustration at times), paired with Lonzo Ball (who has started to show some real chemistry with LeBron). The Lakers offense hasn’t been particularly good in these past dozen games, bottom 10 in the league, but they have balanced that with a top 7 defense. The Lakers are getting wins thanks to that defense and enough LeBron shot creation to get it done.

The Lakers are going to have to keep getting it done and now without Brandon Ingram, too, who is expected to miss a few more games with a sprained ankle.

Report: Bulls execs John Paxson and Gar Forman backing Jim Boylen

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Bulls players have made clear their thoughts on new coach Jim Boylen’s abnormally frequent and lengthy practices, his harsh public critiques, his five-man substitutions:

They don’t like it.

Not every player feels the exact same way, but enough were fed up to refuse to practice yesterday – the day after a back-to-back, a time teams almost never practice. Everyone compromised on a team meeting, though players reportedly also complained to their union.

But Boylen says he isn’t backing down – and it sounds as if his superiors support him.

Boylen, via Mark Strotman of NBC Sports Chicago:

“My job…is to try to push our guys to a place they can’t take themselves,” he said. “That’s pushing them outside their comfort zone. That’s what my job is. That’s what the Reinsdorfs are paying me for.

“I explained that to them – ‘Hey guys, everybody wants it comfortable, everybody wants it safe. Well, I don’t think you become great in that.’ So it’s going to be a little raw for a while, it’s going to be a little rough for a while. And maybe there’s a point where it gets not as rough but all of a sudden it’s got to be rough again.”

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

The fact Boylen cited ownership is telling. Phil Jackson praised Boylen to Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf after Boylen met with the Hall of Fame coach last summer. And according to team and league sources, executive vice president John Paxson and general manager Gar Forman raved to ownership about Boylen’s message during Sunday’s meeting, which Paxson and Forman attended.

I wonder whether Paxson and Forman actually believe in Boylen or just feel as if they have no choice but to support him. Their last coaching hire, Fred Hoiberg, flopped to the point questions emerged about Forman’s job security. Paxson already declared a plan to keep Boylen for next season. Maybe Paxson and Forman can’t dump Boylen without bringing too much scrutiny upon themselves.

But the status quo isn’t sustainable. Boylen can’t keep belittling his players and running them into the ground without inciting a rebellion. He must ease up at least a little.

A theory that gives the Bulls the benefit of the doubt (that they don’t necessarily deserve): They already know this is a lost season, and playing for a higher draft pick is their best strategy. Boylen’s harsh practices will both help them lose and instill good long-term habits. Plus, his presence ensures players will welcome Chicago’s next coach. Even someone more demanding than Hoiberg would now suddenly be a reprieve.

Bulls coach Jim Boylen: ‘It’s going to be rough for a while’

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For the past few years, as the lead assistant to Fred Hoiberg with the Bulls, Jim Boylen got to be the “bad cop” to Hoiberg’s more mild personality. When Hoiberg was fired and Boylen moved into the big chair, he ramped up that old-school style — he called out the team’s conditioning and had them running suicides and doing pushups in practice (things rarely seen at the NBA level). Boylen was running long, grueling practices — including one the day after the team got back from a four-game road trip. He had film sessions right after games when guys were still emotional. Boylen did hockey substitutions a couple of times, taking out all five starters at once.

When he called for a practice the day after a back-to-back that ended with a 56-point loss to the Celtics, players pushed back. There were team meetings called by the players (and coaches, there’s a lot of people trying to spin this). Boylen said this is how he coached and he learned from Greg Popovich, the players had to trust him, and the players said you’re no Gregg Popovich and that trust is not there yet. It’s earned, not given.

The day after a series of meetings, the tone was a little softer, although Boylen was not about to back down. He said that it was only a couple of players who pushed back against the practice, not all of them, and he is clearly frustrated in this NBC Sports Chicago video.

Boylen also admitted things would not be easy, but he wants the players to trust him, as several Bulls writers Tweeted.

Boylen feels he’s in the right place. Will the players learn to trust him? One day after the meetings, things appeared better.

That’s easy to say at practice, we’ll see what it’s like when adversity hits.

Warriors named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of Year

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The three-time NBA champion Golden State Warriors are the fourth team to be honored as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year .

The Warriors join the 1980 U.S. hockey team, the 1999 U.S. Women’s World Cup soccer squad and the 2004 Boston Red Sox as the other team honorees.

Sports Illustrated announced the winner Monday, and editor-in-chief Chris Stone said they have been thinking of some way to honor the Warriors during their run of three titles in four years. He also acknowledged that there were a couple years where Steph Curry has been in the conversation.

“There is something transcendent about the team where the sum of their parts was apparent from the beginning,” Stone said. “What they have built into a dynasty is a function of empirical success. They’re really a generational team. I don’t know if, in my lifetime, there has been a team where the pieces have blended so beautifully together.”

Stone also said that the Warriors’ honor is more about the celebration of the organization doing something unique over an extended period while the other teams were honored for what they did in a certain year.

Alexander Ovechkin, who led the Washington Capitals to their first Stanley Cup title, Tiger Woods and LeBron James also received consideration, but Stone said the Warriors felt like the favorite when they repeated as NBA champions.

“In the same way they play, they seem to speak in a single voice,” Stone said. “The unity of message with the Warriors is the same way we refer to LeBron and his answering some of the hard questions. They did it forcefully, but also civilly, in a way that helps advance conversations.”

The Warriors will receive the award during a ceremony in Los Angeles on Tuesday that will air on NBCSN on Thursday.

“This is an incredible honor and one that certainly signifies our Strength in Numbers philosophy as a team and organization,” Warriors President of Basketball Operations/General Manager Bob Myers said. “Our success is due to the contributions of every single player, coach and staff member in our organization; for Sports Illustrated to recognize this unique dynamic is truly special.”