Miami Heat: Strong on D, But Is That Enough?

The Miami Heat boast the league’s second best defense in terms of points allowed per game.  San Antonio leads by far, but giving up 95.6 per contest is an admirable achievement.  Even their 43.7% on field goals allowed is good for sixth in the NBA and 32.9% on opposition three-pointers is fourth.  In terms of blocked shots, the Heat are tied for first.  So, why isn’t the team from South Beach a bigger contender?

Best Defenses Opponent Points Opponent Field Goal % Opponent 3-Point Percentage Defensive Efficiency
Spurs 91.2 (1st) 43.0% (3rd) 32.0% (2nd) 96.9 (1st)
Heat 95.6 (2nd) 43.7% (6th) 32.9% (4th) 102.9 (5th)
Cavaliers 96.3 (3rd) 44.5% (13th) 34.0% (9th) 103.0 (6th)

It’s true that Miami generates the third fewest steals, which is an important aspect of team defense.  There’s also the little matter of being the worst point producing team outside of the disasters in Philadelphia and Brooklyn.

It’s likely that the Heat will reach the playoffs.  They sport a record of 27-21 that’s good for fourth in the East.  Center Hassan Whiteside is a terror on the inside, blocking 3.9 shots per game which helps give him the highest Player Efficiency Rating on the team.

Despite the relative paucity of turnovers created, guards Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic usually combine for two steals on any given night.  Dragic is also an excellent perimeter defender, holding opponents to a 7% lower three-point percentage.  Even long range shooter Gerald Green can guard his man effectively.  All in all, it’s a squad with few defensive liabilities.

The Heat average 95.9 points on offense, which is as negative as allowing 95.6 on defense, is positive.  Interestingly, Miami is fifth in field goal efficiency as they make 46.1% of their shots.  On the flip side, only 32.7% of their three-pointers make it into the hoop, which ranks 27th.  They are also in the lower third of the league at the charity stripe both in terms of free throws taken and percentage converted.  That’s partially because free-throw shooting is one of Whiteside’s weak points.  Another unavoidable fact is that Heat play at a slow pace and thus attempt the fewest field goals per contest.

Heat Shooting Woes Points Scored FG% 3-Point% Offensive Efficiency Pace
2015-16 95.9 (27th) 46.1% (5th) 32.7% (27th) 103.2 (26th) 92.3 (29th)

Miami’s January 6 game against the Knicks illustrates what has gone wrong at times this season.  It’s true that they allowed Robin Lopez to have his way inside as he finished the night 9-12 from the field.  Carmelo Anthony also had an efficient game scoring 25 points despite just 12 field goal attempts of his own.  The Heat also stole the ball just twice.

However, one of their primary issues was ineptitude from downtown: Miami shot 2-17 from three-point range.  Despite an advantage on the offensive glass, the Heat were unable to capitalize since they shot 45% overall compared to New York’s 56%.  Miami managed only 17 bench points, which put heavy pressure on the starters.  Unfortunately, only Bosh exceeded the 20 point threshold.

Miami’s lack of scoring efficiency would seem to limit how deep they can go in the playoffs.  Still, it is interesting how a team can succeed during the regular season when it features a stifling defense.  The Heat have adjusted to life without LeBron James by taking on a strong defensive identity, and it’s the only thing keeping them out of the lottery.

As coach Erik Spoelstra said after a victory over Minnesota:

“While we didn’t have an absolutely smooth offensive game, our guys showed the commitment on the defensive side to at least carry us over.”

The Heat can use their strengths to beat teams like the Timberwolves, but what about when they face true contenders?  Cleveland, Toronto, and even Boston have outscored opponents by over 4 points per game.

East Points Differential
Cleveland +5.9 (4th)
Toronto +4.9 (5th)
Boston +4.1(6th)
Miami +0.3 (13th)


West Points Differential
San Antonio +13.3 (1st)
Golden State +12.7 (2nd)
Oklahoma City +7.9 (3rd)
Los Angeles Clippers +4.0 (7th)

In the West, the Thunder, Spurs and Warriors all have differentials of 7.9 or more.  The truth is, Miami’s point differential is dead even right now for several reasons.  Dwyane Wade is still a quality player, but his prime is behind him.  Deng is more of a role player than an All-Star candidate.  Dragic leads the entire roster with 5 assists per game.  There’s also limited depth behind mainstays like Bosh and Whiteside.  Tyler Johnson can fill in at guard and Amar’e Stoudemire plays forward at times, but they are best used in limited roles.

One key to improving this roster may well be getting more out of rookie Justise Winslow, who has improved of late.  Regardless, this team isn’t expected to make the Finals anymore.  It’s a fact that Heat fans will face most directly on March 19, when the Cavaliers visit the American Airlines Arena for the final time this regular season.

photo via llananba