Friday, November 19, 2010

The Curious Comments of the Miami Heat

I normally try not to put too much stock into comments by players and coaches. They are just words, after all, and sometimes intentions may be misconstrued if an off-the-cuff answer is not phrased as precisely as it should be, or taken out of context.

That said, the Miami Heat have unleashed a series of comments over the last couple weeks which have left me scratching my head.

Of course, there was the post-game doozy from Chris Bosh on Wednesday, just as he had seemed to relieve some of the intense pressure building against him, with a 35-point performance:
    "[Coach Erik Spoelstra] knows he has to meet us halfway. He wants to work, we want to chill, but we're going to have to work to get everything down, to get our timing down, and to get our chemistry down."
This was one of those kind of quotes that I think sounds worse than it actually is, but there's no question that it sounds terrible, with Bosh seeming to have a Palin-daughter-esque lack of self-awareness of how public words would be received.


I'm still even more confused by this LeBron James comment following Miami's loss to Boston last Thursday:
    "For myself, 44 minutes is too much. I think Coach Spo knows that. Forty minutes for D-Wade is too much. We have to have as much energy as we can to finish games out."
In 11 games so far this season, LeBron has averaged under 30 minutes played in five of those games which were blowouts. I would expect that trend to largely continue - this team will blow the doors off of so many lesser teams that there will be many nights when LBJ doesn't need to log more than 30 minutes.

But against Boston? A chief rival? The defending Eastern Conference champions? A team which embarrassed LeBron in May? A team which spanked the Heat around just two weeks prior on opening night?

Especially considering all the rest he gets in Miami's many blowouts, how did LeBron not want to play the full 48 in that one? What player wouldn't want to play 48 in that environment?

Again, it's probably worse than it sounds because, yeah, in reality, those guys do need reasonable rest given the load they need to carry for this team. The statement just feels a bit dissonant when the message seems like it should be: "I'll do whatever it takes to beat the Celtics." Especially when that did not necessarily seem to be the case in May.


The comment which I found most surprising was this one by Coach Erik Spoelstra, contained in the dialogue between Kevin Arnovitz and Tom Haberstroh on what pace the Heat should be playing at. Spoelstra was asked about whether he thought the Heat would succeed with a Suns-style Seven Seconds or Less pace:
    "Our team? Yeah, they’d be pretty spectacular offensively. But I wouldn't even know how to coach them. But I'm sure our guys could get up and down in at least seven seconds or less.... See I can't even reinvent myself or the Miami Heat philosophy or fabric. That would be a little bit too much of a stretch for me. We spend so much time on our defense and we feel it's important to be a championship contender and to be a championship defense. That takes a lot of time, a lot of sweat and practice time."
Again, it's important to recognize the context here. I believe that the Heat should play at a faster pace to get James and Wade into the open court, but I don't think they should go as far as "Seven Seconds or Less". I do think it was fair for Spo to say "I wouldn't even know how to coach them" in that instance, even though that comment may not sound great out of context.

It was the rest of the comment that really got me, saying that he can't reinvent the Miami Heat philosophy or fabric.

First of all, I always very strongly believe that a team's philosophy or fabric should reflect the strengths of its personnel first and foremost, not the other way around.

But what exactly is the "Miami Heat philosophy or fabric"? It seems safe to assume there is one and only one man responsible for creating it, and that's Pat Riley. Lest you forget, Pat Riley had some decent success playing up-tempo basketball once upon a time.

In fact, here's how Riley was quoted on transition basketball in the 1986 book Winnin' Times, written about the Lakers by Scott Ostler and Steve Springer:
    That's how I like to play. That's how I was taught. It's the best way to play basketball, the most fun way and most conducive to the kind of talent that comes off college campuses now. They are very agile, versatile, quick athletes whose instincts are to attack. I will always continue to be big on the wide-open running game.

    In this game you have to get easy baskets. You can't always grind it out, grind it out. There's more wear and tear on players in that kind of situation than there is in the freelance running game. You've got to be able to get 20 percent of your offense on easy baskets - layups or opportunity jumpers off the break.
The second paragraph above is the exact explanation of why I believe Miami needs to run more: they have struggled to consistently get easy baskets against good teams, and I think it would actually reduce the grind on James and Wade. I don't think they need to play at the fastest pace in the league, just at an above-average pace... as Riley's Lakers did in the '80s.

Here's how Riley's Lakers ranked in the league in Pace, Offensive Efficiency and Defensive Efficiency through the mid-80s:
    '81-82 4 2 10 Champ
    '82-83 10 1 13 Finals
    '83-84 6 5 9 Finals
    '84-85 9 1 7 Champ
    '85-86 10 1 7 WC Finals
    '86-87 10 1 7 Champ
    '87-88 11 2 9 Champ
The ranking in Pace Factor is probably lower than one would think, especially considering that there were just 23 teams in the league. Without specifically remembering the full picture of the mid-'80s, I'd guess that having one of the greatest half-court options of all-time in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar caused L.A.'s pace factor to be less than complete breakneck in reality.

Of course, Riley changed course drastically once he left L.A. for New York and Miami, becoming much more of a grind-it-out, defensive-oriented coach.

Still, one point is that is it possibly to win championships with a team that plays fast, and is great on offense, and merely very good on defense. Not only did Pat Riley do this, but that's how he made his name! That's where he experienced the most success.

Another point, again, is that I very strongly believe that a coach needs to fit a style of play to his players, and not vice versa. Let's go back to the style-of-play debate between Arnovitz and Haberstroh. I respectfully disagree with Kevin, who believes Miami can overwhelm his opponents in the half-court. In one of his comments, he said this:
    "If I’m a coach with superior talent and skilled players, I want a conventional battle. There’s a reason guerrilla warfare is waged by undermanned armies with inferior weaponry and training. They want to turn order into chaos because they can’t possibly compete on a level battlefield."
I understand what Kevin is saying, and against 20+ teams in the league, it's really not going to matter what style Miami plays - they will steamroll two-thirds of the league no matter what.

But in playoff series against elite teams like Boston, L.A. and even Orlando, I think Miami's peculiar personnel dictates that *they* are the ones who will need to employ asymmetric warfare. I believe they are too undersized, and undertalented up front, to be able to consistently get easy baskets and beat Boston or L.A. in a half-court game. Even against Orlando, whom Miami has already dismantled, I think it's in their interest to get a running game going to reduce the huge advantage that Dwight Howard has against their bigs on both ends of the court.

Am I making too much of a mid-November answer to one of the five million questions Erik Spoelstra has already answered about this team? Perhaps. The Heat are still formidable at 7-4 (with a seriously fluky loss to Utah) and a huge point differential. They'll be fine and crush much of the league.

Still, I get the sense from watching this team, as well as reading their comments, that it's one which is trying to fit its personnel into an existing system and philosophy, instead of vice versa, and I think that that could hurt them come May and June.


Note: Thanks to College Crunch for including us on their list of 20 Best Basketball Blogs for the NBA Fanatic. We appreciate it.


At 4:08 AM, Blogger djbtak said...

The comments about the coaching and management are plausible, but watching the games I see something else: Lebron doesn't want to run. I know he is the most deadly open court weapon in the game, but as he has the default PG role now he is the one most responsible for the pace. If he catches an outlet and has a view at the basket he'll take it, but I haven't seen him really initiate a break for the team - instead he slows it down so he can read what's happening. I saw that happening in Cleveland as well (where likewise, everyone said Brown should have them run more) so I wonder if this is really about the coach ing and the coaching philosophy, or if it's just a star PG who doesn't really know how to run a break.

No disrespect to Lebron, his passing in the halfcourt is awesome, but I just get the feeling he is more comfortable making his own decisions.

At 7:40 AM, Blogger Sports Chump said...

Great piece as always, man.

Here's my 12 tips for Coach Spo.

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