Things are well and good for the Miami Heat, but they’re far, far from perfect. The cracks in the armor were on full display Sunday night against the Charlotte Bobcats, who threatened to add another blemish to Miami’s record before Chris Bosh unleashed a barrage of three-pointers to lift the Heat to victory. Yet for whatever shortcomings might exist, the Heat are in as prime a position as perhaps any other team in the league, and certainly in the Eastern Conference, roughly one-fifth of the way through the regular season. They have the best offense in the NBA, edging out the Houston Rockets by a tenth of a point per 100 possessions. They’re shooting the ball at a historic rate; their 57.1% effective field goal percentage as a team would be the best shooting season in the 3-point era, beating Miami’s record-setting performance last year by nearly 2%. On top of their offensive onslaught, the Heat have the sixth-best defense in the league, allowing just 99.1 points per 100 possessions.* Add it all up, and Miami sports the third best net rating in the league, comfortably outscoring opponents by over 10 points per 100 possessions.
*Having a top 10 defense is almost a prerequisite to being a championship contender, and the Heat have to be happy with their performance on that end. But their Eastern Conference rivals, the Indiana Pacers, are so far beyond Miami on that end that it borders on the ludicrous. The Pacers are 9.4 points per 100 possessions better on defense than the Heat; put another way, the gap between Indiana and Miami is wider than the gap between the Heat and the worst defensive team, the Utah Jazz, who are surrendering 106.8 points per 100 possessions and are 7.7 points worse than Miami.
Yet third-best is nothing for a team with aspirations like the Heat, seeking their third straight title and, whether they care to admit it or not, hoping to cement their collective legacy. We’ve come to expect another gear from Miami, and this year is little different. Even with LeBron James operating on another level of existence, the Heat are looking to get better, and Dwyane Wade knows exactly how they’ll get there.
How do Heat find another level? “The numbers. You look at the numbers.” – Dwyane “Analytics” Wade
— Eric Koreen (@ekoreen) November 29, 2013
It’s an answer that comes of little surprise when it pertains to the Miami Heat; after all, we’re closing in on three years since Chris Bosh told ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh that advanced statistics changed his game when he arrived in Miami. The Heat are some of the foremost practitioners of the numbers in the modern NBA. For all of their talent and schemes, the bow that so nicely ties the package together is a respect for and proper application of the numbers.
Analytics are nowhere near a catch-all, cure-all tonic to avail a team of all that might ail them. The math can be messy, the numbers nuanced, the approach anathema to the instincts of an athlete. San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich recently mentioned the pros and cons of quantitative analysis, saying:
“We don’t beat anybody over the head with it,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “But it’s a factor in what we do, how we evaluate and come to conclusions about different facets of the game. It’s definitely in the mix.” [...]
“In a lot of cases, it confirms (what you’re doing), so you know you’re on the right track,” Popovich said. “Once in a while, you’re surprised by something, and you can make that adjustment.”
And not every player is as eager to jump into the numbers as Bosh was; even a future Hall of Famer like Manu Ginobili expressed his doubts, stating in that same piece that, “There’s nothing I’m going to learn from SportVU that is going to change the way I play.” Even the most analytically-inclined coach or staff must find the right way to convey the information they find helpful to a group of players who may or may not be inclined to listen to an out-loud reading of a spreadsheet.
But where there are questions, and where a need for information arises, analytics and numbers can point the way toward an answer. It may not be the answer, but it’s a start. And for a team like the Miami Heat, a team that’s looking for improvement in the margins that might add up to a bigger payoff down the road, often all that’s necessary is an idea of where the pavement might meet the road. If and when the Heat fire on all cylinders, it will likely have at least something to do with the numbers. And Dwyane Wade — and the rest of his team — knows it.
Statistical support courtesy of NBA.com/stats