The most important and perhaps improbable thing about the 2012-13 Miami Heat, and their monstrous 27-game winning streak, is how easily everything comes on offense now. Miami leads the league in points per possession, and on the surface that’s not so surprising. The Heat have been a very good offensive team for three seasons, and they have the world’s greatest player, two more All-Stars, and an array of role players picked specifically because of how snugly they fit around those stars. And those stars are putting up crazy numbers — 52 percent–plus shooting for each of them, including an insane 55.7 percent from LeBron James, who should be the unanimous choice for MVP.
But all the justified focus on the individual numbers obscures a larger, better story: These Heat look almost nothing like the 2010-11 version that melted away against Dallas in the Finals, and they don’t even look much like the team that took the floor for the bulk of their championship campaign last season. The Heat, more than anything else, are a story of slow and fitful evolution — a reaffirmation that the regular season really does matter, and that true basketball chemistry is a fragile thing that almost always requires patience, time, sacrifice, and deep knowledge of teammates.1
The Heat have almost totally reinvented their offense over those three seasons, and in the process they’ve done something very rare: taken a good offense and transformed it into something almost historically great. The Heat ranked eighth in points per 100 possessions last season, sporting a mark about two points above the league’s overall average, per Basketball-Reference.com.2 They’re no. 1 this season, a full seven points over the league’s overall average — a huge five-point year-over-year jump in comparison to the NBA’s general scoring output.
How rare is that? Only 51 teams since 1953-54 have made such a large jump, relative to league average, from one season to the next, per research Basketball-Reference’s Neil Paine performed for Grantland. Not surprisingly, most of the teams on this list were very bad in Year 1 and made some sort of massive (and positive) offseason change before Year 2.3 Only four teams have ever improved this much on offense in Year 2 after having merely an above-average offense in Year 1; the Heat will be the fifth such team.
The other four:
• 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers: an all-time great team, owner of the 33-game streak Miami is chasing.
• 1995-96 Chicago Bulls (Michael Jordan’s first full season back from retirement).
• 1997-98 Los Angeles Lakers: Shaquille O’Neal plays nine more games than prior season, Kobe Bryant no longer a rookie.
• 2003-04 Sacramento Kings.
And now the Heat, a super-team that for two years was prone to puzzling and inexcusable bouts of stagnancy on offense.4 No more. Miami is a pass-happy team that whips the ball around the floor, shifts bodies all over the place in carefully coordinated motion sets, gobbles up the most efficient shots available, and generally destroys opposing defenses in a way that is both visually pleasing and nothing like how they played in the past. League observers used to talk about Orlando’s four-out/one-in system, with four shooters surrounding Dwight Howard in the post or on the pick-and-roll. Miami and Erik Spoelstra have one-upped that by often playing a five-out system, with all five guys moving around the 3-point arc as the Heat run through a series of rehearsed actions while hunting for gaps in the defense. It’s a system Miami settled upon through organic internal growth, free-agent signings, injury-related improvisation, and the study of everything from college football to NCAA basketball to high-profile international hoops teams.
“It’s gone away from just pounding the ball,” says Dirk Nowitzki, somewhat familiar with the old Heat and a League Pass junkie. “It’s all about spreading the floor with so much shooting. I guess we were lucky to have caught them in the Finals that first year.”5
“They’re just outstanding,” says Larry Drew, Atlanta’s head coach. “But it was a gradual process for them.”
The Heat in 2010-11 were an ultratalented team that took all that talent and played just like everyone else. The Heat in 2012-13 are a team that has developed a deep understanding of its talent and crafted a system around that talent; they no longer play like everyone else, something coaches, scouts, players, and front-office executives confirmed in conversations with Grantland over the last few weeks. Post-2010 free-agency signings explain some of the evolution, especially the acquisitions of Ray Allen and Shane Battier. The latter stands as perhaps the most impactful non-star signing any team has made in that stretch; Battier has both allowed Miami to play small ball more often by taking on power forwards and contributed to the team’s increased emphasis on 3-point shooting. The 2010-11 Heat ranked 10th in both corner-3 attempts and midrange shots; only Houston has taken more corner 3s this season, and Miami ranks toward the bottom of the league in midrange shots, per NBA.com.
And Miami’s transition into a majority small-ball team came by accident, when Chris Bosh’s injury during the playoffs last season eventually forced Spoelstra into shifting James to power forward almost full-time.
The personal and on-court growth of the holdover players, including the stars, also explains a good chunk of Miami’s advancement. James has become an elite high-volume post player, which in turn has allowed Miami to invert its post-up structure. Bosh almost never posts up anymore; he attempted 294 shots via the post in 2010-11, but has attempted just 116 such shots this season, per Synergy Sports. The lion’s share of post attempts now go to Wade and James, a development that has allowed Miami to give the real estate under the basket to its two best passers. Heat games now feature a half-dozen possessions that look a lot like the one below; watch as Battier artfully hunts a passing lane by reading the movements of his teammates and opposing defenders in order to find a sweet spot:
Both James and Wade gradually learned to work as off-ball cutters. They now understand the unique gravitational pull each of their teammates creates, how to exploit the spaces that gravity opens, and when to cut into those spaces. Miami can bend a defense in a dozen different ways now. It could bend a defense two seasons ago, but only in the most conventional of ways — via high Wade/Bosh or James/Bosh pick-and-rolls, with shooters stationed in each corner and another big man lurking around the baseline:
It was boring, slow, and predictable; the lane was sometimes overcrowded, and Miami often went right into that simple pick-and-roll instead of confusing defenses with fast-moving misdirection leading up to that pick-and-roll. Defenses devoted to overloading the strong side by sending an extra body there — Tom Thibodeau’s defenses, for instance — had plenty of time to load up on Miami’s pick-and-rolls as James or Wade pounded the ball up top, confident Miami could not easily transition into some other backup plan. The Heat over their first two seasons together developed some go-to motion sets — cross-screens under the hoop for Wade or James, or those corner sets where one of the stars would come flying off a double screen near the corner — but opponents could see them coming a mile away.
Miami today uses a ton of fast-moving misdirection to get defenses on their heels before the Heat even get into the action they’d really like to use:
There is so much stuff going on here before the Heat get to the meat and potatoes — the Wade/Chris Andersen pick-and-roll that draws help away from Battier in the left corner. The play starts with Andersen6 setting a pin-down screen for Wade in the middle, and then following Wade up toward the perimeter — an action that would normally signal Andersen’s intention to get into a fast-moving pick-and-roll with Wade. But not yet. Andersen instead sets a little fade screen for Allen on the right wing, and Allen is so threatening a player that Andersen’s man (Chris Wilcox) has to dip down to account for him. As a result, when Andersen finally darts up to set a screen for Wade, there is no obstacle preventing Wade from getting deep into the paint and drawing that fatal help off Battier:
The Heat run variations of this action with Allen taking that initial screen in the paint and then faking as if he’s going to set a high screen for the ball handler — a powerful fake, since one pet Miami play indeed features Allen setting a high screen for James and then fading behind a back screen for an open 3.7 There is an intelligence to Miami’s offense now — one that comes only from understanding the capabilities of your teammates, how defenses will respond to those capabilities, and how to play off those enemy tendencies. Even something as simple as getting James free for a post-up might involve two or three decoy actions.
Battier is a key player in a lot of Miami’s best misdirection. A lot of fun possessions will start with Battier setting a high screen that is really a decoy, or simply faking a screen and darting to what will become the weakside corner — the corner that usually produces the best 3-point looks. And Battier’s cut will often come after one threatening action and before another; here, it’s sandwiched between some fast Allen movement and an Andersen high screen, so that the defense has trouble prioritizing:
Even Miami’s run-of-the-mill possessions are artful pieces of constant ball movement and monitoring of how the defense contorts itself to adjust:
“They really, and I underline really, move the ball,” Drew says. “It just whips around the perimeter. You may be able to defend the initial thrust of the play, but then the ball will touch two or three other hands before they take a shot. You can see they are totally in tune with one another. They play so unselfishly.”
That last clip is a useful reminder: The Heat haven’t deemphasized the pick-and-roll at all; they still run a ton of them. They just run them in a different way, after some motion that comes within the flow of the offense, and not as a lone centerpiece that starts the moment the ball crosses half court and involves minimal movement around it. That mirrors the evolution of a league at large that has discovered that hybrid semi-zone defenses, including Thibodeau-style overloads, have teams packing the paint and walling off any play they can dig in and prepare for ahead of time.
Miami might also use a pick-and-roll in semi-transition, before those defenses are set, simply as a way of sucking defenders in an extra step and opening up driving lanes for other Miami players:
Smart offenses keep defenses moving and off-balance. More teams are incorporating little bits of the Princeton offense, the Rick Carlisle/Terry Stotts “flow” offense, those fast-paced dribble hand-offs the Scott Skiles Bucks leaned upon, and other principles from across basketball. Heck, Boston has started to look like a Heat-style five-out team since Rajon Rondo’s injury derailed its traditional pick-and-roll attack.8 Take a look at these two sets:
The Heat have used all the stuff, plus tools only they have, to form an offense that ranks very close to the very best offenses the league has seen over the last 30 years. None of this is to say they are unbeatable in the playoffs. The Thunder have a better point differential for the season (though not over the last 30 games), and an ill-timed injury, minor or major, can cripple any team in May and June. The Heat also have major defensive rebounding issues — they’re just 21st in defensive rebounding percentage — though a large chunk of those issues stem from lineups that include both a point guard (Mario Chalmers or Norris Cole) and Allen, per NBA.com’s lineup data. The Heat know this, and they’ve had the whole defense thing down basically since they came together. Droughts of stagnant offense were their undoing against the best defenses, and though those defenses will still knock Miami’s productivity down a peg, the Heat have gone a long way toward minimizing those droughts.
It’s easy to boil this down to Miami having the world’s greatest player, just as Jeff Van Gundy once chalked up Chicago’s success by writing “23” on a piece of paper in front of a jumble of reporters. And there’s something to that. James is playing at about the highest level the game has ever seen, and a pass-heavy system devoted to hunting 3s and shots at the rim wouldn’t be nearly as effective without James posting up, running the pick-and-roll, and reading defenses so that he can find open teammates precisely when defenses bend away from them. No coach has ever won over a long period of time without great talent.
But all Miami’s great talent topped out with run-of-the-mill very good offenses over the first two seasons of the LeBron era, and the better offense among those two — the 2010-11 version — fell apart in big moments. This offense is something different, in terms of both style and production, and everyone involved deserves credit for Miami making that leap. This is the best of the LeBron-era Heat teams, and they’ve earned that standard mostly through a newly explosive offense. If the extra defensive gear they’ve shown in close games during this streak is the way they plan to play defense during the playoffs, Miami is the heavy championship favorite.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. Dirk Nowitzki’s Beard
Some of the Mavs have abandoned the team’s fun “grow out our beards until we reach .500” thing, or at least engaged in some strategic trimming. But Dirk looks like he has just gotten back from another summer trekking around the Australian Outback. That thing is disgusting and awesome, and I can’t believe his wife is letting him get away with it.
Nowitzki’s game is coming together, too. He’s hit at least 50 percent of his shots in 12 of Dallas’s last 17 games, he has gradually been able to take on more responsibility as a one-on-one creator, and he’s lifted the Mavs’ ho-hum offense up another level. Dallas is just 1.5 games behind the Lakers for the no. 8 spot, and they have one head-to-head game left — in Los Angeles next Tuesday. The odds are still against Dallas, but the Mavs have just kept on trudging along — and reminded us you can still build an elite offense around Nowitzki’s shooting and Rick Carlisle’s scheming.
2. The Lakers’ White Home Alternates
Maybe the worst regularly used alternate jersey in the league. There might be uglier ones, but the Lakers lose extra points for ditching their gorgeous and unique home gold uniforms in order to wear these blah duds.
3. The Recent Behavior of LARRY SANDERS!
It was almost funny last season, when SANDERS! temporarily lost his mind, got ejected, and tried to fight the entire Pacers team on his way out. It was definitely funny two weeks ago, when SANDERS!, sporting a sarcastic and somewhat deranged smirk, gave each referee an individual thumbs-up after an ejection in Washington.
But two more ejections later, SANDERS!’s temper is officially something with which the Bucks must be concerned — even as their odds of jumping up from the no. 8 spot in the Eastern Conference take hit after hit. The Bucks’ perimeter defenders can’t contain anyone, and so their defense collapses when SANDERS! isn’t around to protect the rim. And Milwaukee obviously must avoid making a massive long-term commitment to a guy who could evolve into Rasheed Wallace–level ref-bait without anything close to Sheed’s skill level on offense.
4. Brandon Bass, Driving
Bass is a borderline elite midrange shooter, but he has to do at least one other thing for a Boston offense that has scored at a bottom-10 rate even after a brief post–Rajon Rondo uptick in efficiency. We know that extra thing won’t come in the form of passing or post scoring, and that Bass’s offensive rebounding comes and goes. And so it has been refreshing to see Bass look a hair more comfortable this season catching, pumping, and then driving on those pick-and-pop plays where a driving lane is available:
5. Evan Turner’s First Step on Defense
The development of a corner 3 is officially the only good thing about Turner’s third NBA season. His overall shooting has dropped off, and his numbers are either down or stagnant across the board. That stagnancy extends to the defensive end, where Turner’s slow first step makes him vulnerable to blow-bys and results in close-outs that are often just a beat too late on the perimeter. Turner’s tendency to play guys ultratight on the perimeter doesn’t help on the blow-by front, since they have so little distance to cover in order to drive past him.
There is a helpful and skilled player in here somewhere. We just haven’t seen it yet on a consistent basis.
6. Kenneth Faried Chase-Down Blocks
Faried had two more nasty ones last week, and with apologies to Gordon Hayward, Nicolas Batum, and others, it’s time to officially anoint Faried as LeBron’s successor and official King of the Chase-Down Block. LeBron could probably retain the crown if he cared to, and his presence trailing a fast break still inspires suitable fear in opposing ball handlers. But Faried has reached another level; I almost worry he’s going to fly through the backboard one day.
7. The Nets, Faking Brook Lopez Into an Easy Post-up Chance
Lopez in the paint is a good thing, especially if the Nets can use some misdirection to get him there. One example: Lopez will start a Brooklyn possession by screening for Deron Williams under the basket, a routine cross screen designed — one would assume — to get Williams solid post position on the left block for an entry pass there. Williams is a decent post-up guy, after all. But just as the defense expects Williams to take that entry pass, he’ll spin right back around, dart back toward the basket, and set essentially the same exact cross screen for Lopez.
It’s not complicated, and the initial fakery might only get Lopez’s defender a half-step behind the play. But that half-step can mean everything at this level.
8. O.J. Mayo’s Non-Intuitive Defense
Mayo is a heady, versatile player, but he can get weirdly off-kilter on defense. He bites on pump fakes, his reaction time is inconsistent, and he will occasionally do nonsensical things like this:
Rotating off Kyle Korver in the corner to contest Josh Smith up top is just Bad Defense 101, even if Mayo expected a rotation toward Korver behind him.
9. An Old Steve Nash Screen for Hamed Haddadi?
Nash and Marcin Gortat used to run this action, and like everything else, it’s 5 percent more entertaining if you swap Haddadi into Gortat’s role:
This is just a simple variation on a run-of-the-mill NBA set out of the “Horns” formation; instead of scurrying over to set a screen in the corner, as point guards typically do from this formation, Kendall Marshall just slams into Haddadi’s man near the elbow and creates a decent post look.
10. Gerald Green Back?
With Danny Granger’s health uncertain, it would be great if another bench spark plug could earn Frank Vogel’s trust. Sam Young is basically a nonentity, and though Orlando Johnson has had some solid games off Indy’s bench, he’s a relative unknown. Green has snuck back into Vogel’s rotation despite a miserable season — he’s shooting 35 percent overall — and provided glimpses of what he might bring to an offense that can struggle for points over long stretches. Green showed last season in New Jersey that he can be the fulcrum of an offense for tiny slices of games, working from the post and as the screener in pick-and-rolls. The Pacers don’t quite need him to do that, especially since they’ve scored at a top-10 rate over their last 20 games, but there will come a time against a top playoff defense in which Indy’s bench-heavy units will need someone who can just get buckets.