View Full Version : Will defending champs make trip to playoffs or lottery?

11-22-2006, 12:34 AM
By John Hollinger
ESPN Insider

Yes, Miami is in trouble.

That in itself doesn't really qualify as news. With Shaquille O'Neal out several weeks and the Heat off to a 4-5 start, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the first half of the season could be bumpy.

What might be newsworthy, however, is the extent of the trouble. I get the impression most view the Heat's troubles as a temporary thing -- they'll have a rocky first half, get better in the second half and still easily win the SouthLeast Division. To these folks, the trouble is that Miami might get a poor playoff seed that will prove costly in the postseason.

But the trouble is much more severe than that. Although Miami's 4-5 record appears quasi-respectable, it disguises a much uglier reality.

This was a team that lost its first game by 44 points, at home, to a team that is 3-7 and still looking for its second road win. The Heat have lost three home games by 20 or more points, including a 24-point pounding by the Knicks that will provide about 75 percent of the material for New York's postseason highlight video.

Wait, it gets worse. The Heat have the league's worst scoring margin, even though they've played only three road games and only one of their first nine opponents has a winning record. According to USA Today computer guru Jeff Sagarin's "predictor" rating, they've been the league's worst team through Monday's games.

I know what you're thinking: That awful scoring margin looks better if you throw out the Bulls game. It does, a bit -- they move up from 30th in the league all the way to 28th. Besides, why would you throw that game out? Was it really that unusual, considering Miami has been stampeded off the floor in three of its six home games? One could argue the real outlier is that they managed to beat New Jersey on the road.

In short, they've been horrible, and I'm not sure they're going to get much better. Thus, the issue isn't whether they're going to get a good seed for the playoffs or win the division. The real question is whether the defending champions are going to end up in the lottery, which would be an unprecedented development in the non-Jerry Krause portion of the universe.

Life without Shaq

Even in an Eastern Conference that's somehow managed to get worse, the Heat aren't going to crack the top eight without significant improvement. Losing Shaq doesn't help, but it's just the tip of the iceberg. The Heat struggled when he played, suffering two home blowouts in O'Neal's four games, and it's not like he was doing much anyway. Shaq's PER is in single digits (15 is average, 10 is pretty dismal) and Yao Ming abused him in his one matchup against an elite scoring center.

Besides, Shaq might look like the pre-Subway Jared by the time he returns. He's not exactly renowned for his commitment to conditioning, and he's not going to be able to move around for the next few weeks while his knee recovers.

In addition, his recovery is likely to be longer and more arduous than the standard "four to six weeks" for his knee surgery, given how much weight his knee has to support and how many bonbons Shaq may eat in the next six weeks. (By the way, his contract has four years left at $20 million a pop and you thought Chris Webber was untradable.)

Offensive woes

In the meantime, Miami's offense will continue to struggle. I know this is hard to believe about a team with Dwyane Wade on it, but the Heat have been absolutely horrid when they have the ball. They're last in scoring at 89.3 points per game, the league's only team averaging fewer than 90 points. They're 29th in shooting percentage, 28th in offensive rebound rate, 30th in true shooting percentage, and 29th in offensive efficiency.

Even their once-prodigious rate of free throws has fallen to new depths, with Miami's rate of .348 free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt falling below the league average. That's a shocking drop for a club that led the league in this category two years ago and ranked fifth last season, but it's to be expected when only one player on the team can get to the basket. Looking at those putrid offensive numbers explains how Miami could have the ball for the final 1:12 of regulation in Atlanta on Saturday and manage not to score.

Riley his own worst enemy

Much of this gets back to Pat Riley's decision to "Stand Pat" in the offseason with a group that (a) was already old, (b) is now a year older, and (c) didn't exactly run roughshod over the league the year before. Riley should have known that his 2005-06 club maxed out and would need an external boost to get back in the hunt this year, especially with Shaq spending the offseason training in front of his plasma screen. Instead, he's watching his team age in dog years.

This is interesting because nobody has better embodied the difficulty of wearing both the coach and GM hats simultaneously than Riley. During his previous tenure as Miami's coach, he made a series of disastrous moves that traded short-term gain for long-term pain -- staying too loyal to veterans, trading his best young players for fading vets, and doling out big contracts to marginal role players -- that ultimately left the Heat with as bad a roster as any team in the league.

To his credit, he rebuilt the team once he gave up coaching and focused on his team president duties. That's when he plucked Shaq from L.A. and made the brilliant swap for Antoine Walker, James Posey and Jason Williams that put the Heat over the top. But based on last summer, Riley the coach might be getting in the way of Riley the president again, with his unwillingness to replace Gary Payton being the most obvious example.

As a result, Miami finds itself in the incredible position of being defending world champion but having an absolute dog of a roster. Besides Wade, Udonis Haslem has been the only reasonably solid player. Everyone else has been terrible. Check out the chart -- those are the only two Heat players with a player efficiency rating above the league average. Jason Williams is the only other player to come close, and he's played only two games.

Heat players by PER (Min. 50 minutes)
Player PER
Dwyane Wade 25.12
Udonis Haslem 17.05
League average 15.00
Jason Williams 14.35
Shaquille O'Neal 9.90
Antoine Walker 9.85
Dorell Wright 9.57
Alonzo Mourning 9.17
Gary Payton 8.16
James Posey 6.82
Jason Kapono 5.13

This makes perfect sense if you look at the roster. Mourning is 36 and Gary Payton is 38; both are shadows of their former selves. "Zo, like Payton, has been asked to do more than we hired him to do," said Riley of his new starting center and starting point guard.

He might have added Antoine Walker to that list too. He's 30 and creaking under the load of having to be the No. 2 scorer, shooting 25 percent on 3-pointers but hoisting more than six a game.

The other guys are struggling too. Playoff hero James Posey has a calf problem, and has been bad enough that Jason Kapono and Dorell Wright are cutting into his playing time. Of course, with all three shooting under 35 percent, it hardly matters who Riley sends out. And Jason Williams is still getting back into shape after offseason knee surgery -- he seemed to be favoring the leg at times in Saturday's game in Atlanta.

When in doubt, go ugly

Riley seems to understand that he doesn't have much offensive talent these days. This past weekend, even as his team was puttering along at the bottom of the league in all the key offensive metrics, he was complaining loudly about the team's defense.

''We're one of the worst defensive teams right now that I've ever coached,'' Riley said Thursday. It's true that Miami's defense also has been down a bit this year -- the Heat rank 18th in defensive efficiency, which is indeed about as bad as you'll ever see from a Riley team. But to me it signaled that he knows they can't score, and thus have to defend like crazy to have any chance.

His solution to the problem won't be good news for ESPN, TNT and ABC, who signed up to broadcast 24 Heat games among them: He's gonna ugly it up.

"I might just have to slow the game down just to make sure we get the ball to the right people," he said.

Hey, I think I've seen this movie before. You remember the team Riley had in 2001-02 and 2002-03? Like the current edition of the Heat, those were plodding, veteran-laden team with guys such as Rod Strickland, Bimbo Coles, LaPhonso Ellis, Anthony Carter and Kendall Gill. Riley brought them in as he tried to squeeze one more playoff year out of his Alonzo Mourning-Eddie Jones nucleus, but found himself glaringly short in the talent department.

His solution was to slow the game down to a crawl, bore the opponent to tears and hope to squeeze out a win at the end. Both seasons, the Heat were last in the NBA in pace factor and in the bottom three in offensive efficiency, and they were as unwatchable as any team of the past decade.

At least that ugliness was confined to League Pass subscribers. This time it will be laid bare for the whole nation to see. We got a good preview of the plan Saturday in Atlanta. The Heat slowed the pace, gummed up the middle and dared the Hawks to beat them from outside.

It worked for a night, as Atlanta went 3-for-24 on 3-pointers that were mostly wide-open looks and Miami was able to steal a win in overtime. The Heat played the game at a pace factor of 91.6 -- slower than any team is playing this year -- and only a foul-and-scramble sequence by the trailing Hawks in the final minute of OT drove the number that high.

Overall, 25.9 percent of Miami opponents' shots have come from 3-point range -- the second-highest mark in the league. The strategy is clear. Since they don't have the foot speed to play the perimeter, they're collapsing everybody into the paint and gambling that the jumpers won't fall.

Lottery bound?

I haven't painted a pretty picture here, but Heat fans will argue that it's still early. Miami's 4-5 record isn't that bad, and that this team has shown it can flip a switch and is waiting to do it again.

My counterpoint is that blowouts are an incredibly strong indicator of quality or lack thereof, especially when the home team is the one getting blown out. Basically, really good teams don't get blown out at home. Ever.

Last season, for instance, Miami lost one home game by more than 14, and it came in a mail-in game on April 16 against Chicago after the Heat's playoff spot was clinched. Prior to this season, they hadn't lost a meaningful home game by more than 20 points since Jan. 5, 2004, against Indiana. Even when the Heat went 25-57 in 2002-03, their worst home loss was by 22. Miami has matched or exceeded that three times already.

As for the switch-flipping theory, who exactly are we expecting to pull the lever? Wade is already going full bore even though he's exhausted from playing until late June and then suiting up for the U.S. over the summer. Payton's on his last legs, Mourning doesn't seem far behind, and Shaq's MDE days are long gone. The Heat might get a little better now that Williams is back, but it's hard for me to imagine wholesale improvement.

Basically, Miami looks to me like Minnesota East, with one great player surrounded by vast fields of mediocrity. I know a lot of readers don't think it's possible for a defending champion to miss the playoffs, especially one with a superstar such as Wade.

But apparently, it is. Because based on what they've shown to date, there's very little chance the Heat will be playing past April 18.

11-22-2006, 12:39 AM
Im hoping it's the lottery theyre headed for. But the way it looks like right now, could be possible. Worst case scenario is that the Heat becomes a lottery team and bags Greg Oden in next years draft, or someone really talented. God Nooooo!

11-22-2006, 12:54 AM
Stern is being lazy this year...

11-22-2006, 01:00 AM
Stern has become more sucky this year.

11-22-2006, 01:14 AM
January 21 can't come soon enough.