The Ice-Cold Heat

There’s a rattlesnake in the Miami Heat bandwagon, and fans and media alike are jumping off before they get bit.

The Heat are already on their second four-game losing streak of the season. This one features a blown 24-point lead against the Orlando Magic, a 30-point thrashing by the San Antonio Spurs, and a one-point loss to the Chicago Bulls that cost them second place in the Eastern Conference and left them, literally, in tears.

The Heat have enough talent to manhandle crap teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves and Cleveland Cavaliers, but against good teams they’ve struggled all season. They’re 0-6 against the Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls, the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, and have already lost both season series, costing them the tie-breaker if they finish with identical records. Against the five best teams in the NBA (Spurs, Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers), they’re 1-9. They have a sub-.500 record against teams with winning records.

So what’s to blame for this Heat team that has fallen far short of (possibly unfair) preseason expectations? Certainly, talent cannot be blamed. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are the #3 and #4 scorers in the NBA, averaging 26.2 and 25.4 points per game, respectively.The Heat offense is ranked ninth overall with 101.5 points per game, and eighth overall with 42.5 rebounds per game. Not bad numbers.

And it’s not as if this is just a run-and-gun Heat squad. They play decent defense, holding teams to 94.8 points per game (sixth overall) on .430 shooting (second overall). They don’t force a lot of turnovers (13.4 per game, 26th overall), but they play so physically in the paint that they limit opposing teams to difficult shots, then they collect the rebounds. Teams average 1.17 points per shot against the Heat, fourth best in the NBA.

Passing is the Heat’s worst attribute, and it’s here we find the possible cause of their struggles. Averaging 19.5 assists per game, the Heat rank 29th in the NBA. They are an awful passing team, preferring to score as individuals, not as a team. Since their current starting point guard, Mario Chalmers (although recently signed Mike Bibby might take his spot), can’t run an offense (6.7 points per game, .360 three-point shooting, 2.2 rebounds per game, 2.3 assists per game), they pretty much have to.

Passing and assists are a good indicator of team chemistry, the reason why the Heat struggle. Some of this is simple inexperience: Wade and James (and Chris Bosh, the black sheep of the trio) are playing in their first season together. The other elite teams in the NBA have had years to settle into a rhythm. The Celtics have had the same four players in their starting five since 2007 (except for time missed due to injury).  The Bulls’ Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose have had two years together. The Spurs have had basically the same lineup for over a decade. The Heat are still learning how to play together, how best to take advantage of their many talented players.

But experience alone doesn’t explain why the Heat are struggling so. The 2007 Boston Celtics had never played together before either (not just the Big Three, but also Rajon Rondo, who took over as starting point guard in 2007), but they never lost four games in a row that season, let alone twice.

Chemistry isn’t just a factor of experience, but also compatibility. Can James, Wade and Bosh actually play with each other? Can their playing styles and personalities be meshed?

The Celtics’ Big Three have three very different personalities: Paul Pierce, the joker with the troubled past; Kevin Garnett, the crazy loner, just as likely to go live in a shack as drain an 18-foot jumper; and Ray Allen, the consummate professional, always meticulously (perhaps compulsively) groomed. But no matter how different they may be as people, they understand how much they need each other on the court.

From the start of preseason through Game Six of the 2008 NBA Finals, The Big Three talked about nothing but support, teamwork, sacrifice. Garnett wouldn’t do a post-game press conference without Pierce and/or Allen side-by-side. They even did a SportCenter ad essentially making fun of themselves for being so team-oriented. But the end result of all of this was that fans and the media really believed that these three players, all of whom had been the only stars on their previous teams (Allen in Seattle, Garnett in Minnesota, Pierce in Boston), were willing to give up points and celebrity if it meant a championship. And that’s exactly what happened.

Have we seen the same selfless talk coming out of the Heat camp? Doesn’t seem like it. What little there has been has sounded false. Every James statement about teamwork has been countered by something like his self-centered, self-inflated Nike commercial. Neither Bosh nor Wade have said much at all to suggest that they like playing with each other.

Wade is the most interesting player in all of this. The Celtics’ Big Three knew that their “selfish” style of play hadn’t worked, hadn’t brought them a ring. But for Wade, that’s not the case. He has won an NBA Finals (after the ’06-’07 season). He has been named Finals MVP. And he did it on his own, without needing anyone’s help (other than an aging Shaquille O’Neal). Now, James comes to Miami and, by doing nothing other than being LeBron James, takes Wade’s crown as the king of Florida sports celebrities. If you were Wade, what would you do? Would you see James as your best chance to win another ring? Or would you see resent him as a hired gun, a carpetbagger, here to benefit himself and no one else?

The Heat have 19 games left in the regular season. Eleven are against teams with winning records, including the next seven. If the Heat can’t figure out how to play with each other, and fast, they may find their path to the NBA Finals too difficult to cross. And with the talent level, fanfare and money connected with this team, anything short of the Finals would be a colossal disappointment.

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