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Don’t throw the baby out with the Miami Heat’s bathwater

Jun 12, 2014; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat team members react during the fourth quarter of game four of the 2014 NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs at American Airlines Arena. San Antonio defeated Miami 86-107. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Let me start by saying two things about the Miami Heat: 1) They have been utterly dominated by the San Antonio Spurs in the last two games of the NBA Finals, and 2) they haven’t looked this vulnerable since 2011. Both of those things are true and I would not argue otherwise.

That said, let’s take a moment to breathe. There’s a lot of chatter about what the Heat need to do this summer to fix their team. Obviously Carmelo Anthony is the big story, but I’ve also seen people talk about their need for a “real” point guard and/or a “real” center.

There’s a larger discussion here about process v. results that I want to get into later, but apparently if the Miami Heat had, say, Al Jefferson, they’d be fine. So let’s journey down that path:

Let’s suppose he takes Greg Oden’s roster spot and his salary isn’t an issue. Let’s also suppose that he starts for Miami alongside Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

OK. First of all, this would end Miami’s dreaded trapping defense. Al Jefferson trying to jump out and trap ballhandlers in the pick and roll is absolutely comical, as is the thought of Al Jefferson racing out to the perimeter to challenge a jump shooter.

“But Caleb,” you say, because you’re feeling smart and also you’re a strawman I’ve invented for this argument, “The Charlotte Bobcats had an elite defense with Jefferson at center this year! Why couldn’t the Heat manage the same thing?”

You make a decent point, strawman. But you’re missing something important. I said this would end Miami’s dreaded trapping defense. This is accomplished just as readily by completely retooling their scheme and installing something like Charlotte’s or Chicago’s as it is by trying to make Jefferson trap people. Absolutely, you could construct a solid defense around the Heat’s remaining core and Jefferson. But it wouldn’t be the same terrorizing defense that leverages their speed and length and athleticism so perfectly. They wouldn’t be able to flip a switch and start generating turnovers and suddenly turn a 3-point game into a 20-point game all but instantaneously. They would be a slightly better version of the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls. Was that team good? Sure! Was that team better than the Heat even before they realized they shouldn’t be playing two traditional big men? Absolutely not!

Offensively, there would be an even bigger problem. Jefferson’s presence eliminates a shooter, cramping the Heat’s spacing. You might rightly point out that putting in Birdman does the same thing, but Birdman’s ability to score in the pick and roll makes up for that, while Jefferson has never been a great pick and roll player. You might also note that Miami could go to a version of the 2009 Orlando Magic’s offense, letting Jefferson serve as the hub of the offense in the post with shooters all around. And that might work, except for three things: 1) Dwight Howard’s pick and roll ability was a big part of that offense, 2) that offense tended to sputter if teams played the post straight up and let the big man get his without doubling, and 3) every single NBA team would rather have Al Jefferson working in the post rather than let LeBron do anything.

Granted, not every team has the post defenders to defend Jefferson without doubling, but here are some teams that do: The San Antonio Spurs, the Oklahoma City Thunder (assuming Kendrick Perkins isn’t amnestied), the Bulls, the Indiana Pacers, the Houston Rockets, whichever team eventually ends up trading for Omer Asik, the Toronto Raptors, the Portland Trailblazers, the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Clippers, the Memphis Grizzlies and the Sacramento Kings. Please note, if you would, that this list includes the top seven teams in the West and the top three non-Heat teams in the East.

So, essentially, the Heat would be a very good team — probably still the best in the East — with Jefferson, but they wouldn’t be the havoc-wreaking force they have been for the last three to four seasons.

Now, getting back to the process v. results thing, it’s important to know that if you’re basing your conclusions off of this Finals series, you’re basing your conclusions on four games against the best team in the NBA playing the best basketball they — and possibly anyone else — have ever played. As the great Zach Lowe noted in his piece on Game Four, the Spurs are scoring 120 points per 100 possessions in the Finals, a number that comes in 10 points ahead of the Clippers’ league-leading mark of just under 110 this season. Those are video game numbers and it doesn’t seem fair to trash the Heat because the Spurs have gone nova.

That being said, it does seem like the Heat are a step slow. Dwyane Wade appears to be dying slowly in front of our eyes. LeBron seems tired. Rashard Lewis and Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem are old. Birdman doesn’t seem right. Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole are Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole. But that doesn’t mean you abandon the very thing that got you where you are! If anything, it means you stick to the process even harder!

The Heat shouldn’t be looking to blow it up. They should go out and get the fastest, longest, most athletic young players they can find. They have two draft picks, so go draft someone ridiculously athletic like Cleanthony Early. Sign guys like Kent Bazemore or James Johnson or Jeff Adrien or Al-Farouq Aminu or Thabo Sefolosha. See if you can convince Avery Bradley to take a massive discount. Find young guys who fit the system and can take the load off of LeBron a little and/or shooters like Anthony Morrow or Jodie Meeks who can at least be trusted to play a few minutes when called on instead of James Jones or Michael Beasley.

But don’t scrap everything you’ve built just because you ran into the juggernaut that is the Spurs. That’s just silly.

Caleb Nordgren

Caleb is a proud Chicagoan still adjusting to life away from the big city. He's a journalism student at Michigan State, the Editor of Pippen Ain't Easy and can be found at any given time on Twitter, talking about basketball and generally being sarcastic.

  • Adrian

    Oh, COME ON! Since when is Big Al anyone’s idea of a rim protector….if they had Tyson Chandler or Omer Asik or Joakim Noah or Gorgui Dieng (yeah, Dieng) they would have been ok – less with Dieng, more with the rest, but ok nevertheless.