Horrible in the Half Court
The Miami Heat is averaging 101.3 points per game thus far this season, while shooting 47.0% from the field.
That’s the best ever scoring output in the Pat Riley era and the second best efficiency mark in the NBA. Mighty impressive stuff for a team still very much a work-in-progress.
Yet hidden behind these statistics is a highly disturbing reality. The team simply cannot score in the half court. And Erik Spoelstra’s offensive system is to blame.
The expectation heading into the season was that the Heat would torment teams in transition, that Dwyane Wade and LeBron James would captivate us regularly with electrifying fastbreak dunks.
And, for the most part, they have. The Heat is shooting 61.3% en route to an average of 1.22 points on each transition possession, best in the league.
But the team only gets about 14 transition opportunities per game. While that’s actually quite a high total, it still leaves around 85 half court sets to deal with.
The problem, quite simply, is a fundamental lack of team basketball.
NBA basketball is entirely about floor spacing. The teams that have it score. Those that don’t fail. It’s simple logic. A basketball can move much faster through the air between teammates than can a rotating defender.
The best half-court offenses embrace this concept.
Instead, Spoelstra utilizes an isolation-intensive half court system.
There’s good logic for it. Size mismatches, speed mismatches, and strength mismatches give both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade an almost nightly advantage over their defenders.
But isolation basketball promotes the individual over the team. It, by definition, creates far from ideal floor spacing. Four players standing around bunched together — often confused and bumping into each other, often simply watching the individual greatness of a Heat superstar — can rather easily be guarded by a relatively small number of defenders, leaving the rest to double, triple or sometimes quadruple-team the ball handler. As a result, Wade and James are shooting a combined 39.4% on isolation plays on the season.
Spoelstra also likes to utilize the pick-and-roll with his centers at the high post.
There’s good logic for this as well. Picks are one of the most utilized and effective tools in freeing up a teammate against a man-to-man defense in the game today.
But a pick-and-roll only works if the man setting that pick is a threat to the defense on a roll to the basket. None of the Heat’s quad of centers matches that description, as do the best pick-and-roll finishers in the game (e.g., Amare Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Dwight Howard, Tyson Chandler). For the Heat center contingent, the screen has very much the opposite of the desired effect – it effectively brings a double-team to the ball handler at no cost to the integrity of the defense. The last thing the Heat wants to do is pass the ball to a moving Joel Anthony. And defenses across the league know it.
Finally, Spoelstra likes to initiate the offense with his center receiving the ball in the high post.
There’s even good logic for this approach. Doing so enables the playmakers to rotate off of screens set down low and catch the ball on the wings while still in motion ahead of a scrambling defender.
But should a team that features the Big Three really have Joel Anthony as the initiator of the offense, handling the basketball near the three-point line for the better part of twenty-four seconds? Needless to say, it oftentimes results in a turnover. And when it doesn’t, it still drains a great deal of the shot clock.
Toss the playbook. Scrap it. Start over. Rebuild the half-court offensive from scratch.
Create a scheme tailored to the talent the Heat currently has in place – one that has each of the five players always in a position on the court where he is a credible threat to the defense.
The Heat has the two best penetrators in the game, and a bunch of knock-down spot-up shooters.
There is no defensive tandem in the league that can consistently stop both LeBron James and Dwyane Wade over the course of a full 48 minutes. They don’t need a Joel screen to get to the basket; they need open space.
How do you create open space?
Instead, place two knock-down three-point shooters on opposite corners of the court, two playmakers on opposite sides of the top of the key, and a low post threat around the basket. Each player would then rotate as necessary to maximize floor spacing, depending upon the position of the basketball. This creates perfect floor spacing, both vertically and horizontally.
Applying the philosophy to the starting rotation Spoelstra should employ would yield Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller in opposite corners of the court, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James on opposite sides of the top of the key, and Chris Bosh on the block down low.
The rest is exceedingly simple: penetrate and kick.
Simply by having two deadly three-point shooters camping out in the corners, defenders are presented with the following dilemma: Should they sag into the paint and prevent LeBron James or Dwyane Wade from penetrating and risk a kick-out, or should they stick to the shooters and leave the driving player unattended? That’s a tricky proposition made nearly impossible by the quality of the Heat’s three-point shooters and the lethality of a James or Wade barreling down the lane.
Let’s break it down.
When either James or Wade is guarded by a lone defender, he is always going to attack the basket. It’s in their DNA. And so when they do, only one of two things can happen:
Defenses can collapse to stop the penetration, leaving the shooters wide open for a jump shot on a kick-out. And if by chance the shooter to whom the ball is kicked out does not find himself wide open against a now scrambling defense, he would need only to rotate the ball along the perimeter until it lands in the hands of someone who is. This season, the Heat is shooting 46% on unguarded three-point jump shots (according to Synergy Sports Technology), second best in the league. Remember, if you’re willing to leave a 46% 3-point shooter open, it’s equivalent to leaving a 69% two-point shooter open. Statistically speaking, the payoff is exactly the same. It’s why 3-point shooters are so deadly when handcuffed to elite dribble-penetrators.
Defenses can stay out on the shooters, leaving the driving lanes wide open for a finish at the rim. James and Wade are shooting a combined 66% at the rim thus far this season. They are, quite simply, the two best penetrators in the game today. On the rare occasions when they should miss or draw a double team at the rim, Bosh would be right there on the opposite block for the clean-up. And the offense rebounds.
Such a system allows the playmakers to make plays while keeping the rest of the team actively involved. It promotes proper floor spacing and quick ball movement, which leads to a balanced scoring attack.
Within the confines of this exceedingly simplistic offensive scheme, complexities can be added.
First, the slash to the basket.
Defenders are often so keen on stopping Wade and James when either has the ball in his hands, they very often lose sight of their own defensive assignments. They cheat. Expose it. If they lose sight of you, move. The easiest way to score the basketball is on a slash to the basket – with sharp, well-timed cuts through the lane. The Big Three are shooting a whopping 68% from the floor when they receive the ball on a slash to the rim, on more than 200 attempts.
Second, the Bosh post-up.
Of Miami’s three stars, Bosh has been forced to concede the most. James and Wade still function as initiators of the offense, while Bosh has been used primarily as a spot-up shooter on the weak side. That’s a significant concession for a star like Bosh, who’s accustomed to not only more offensive involvement, but also to having a system tailor-made to his strengths.
In the 2009-10 season, Bosh scored at a rate of 1.11 points per possession on the block for the Raptors, which put him in the 91st percentile of post scorers. This year has been drastically different, as Bosh is scoring just 0.88 points per possession in his more limited opportunities for the Heat. To stay engaged, Bosh needs the ball in his hands more consistently.
Third, the pick-and-roll.
Dwyane Wade. LeBron James. Chris Bosh.
Pick any two of these three and toss them into the pick-and-roll. It doesn’t matter which two. Any which way, it’s going to be fun to watch and enormously successful.
The most intriguing combination is Wade-James. Imagine this play unfolding with James Jones and Chris Bosh spotting up on opposite sides of the court. How the heck is a defense going to guard that?
The other combinations are just as intriguing, particularly a James-Bosh pairing. Only six players in the league produced more points per possession last season as the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls than LeBron, and he now has one of the game’s great roll men to pair with in Bosh. Imagine this play unfolding with Wade working as a weak-side cutter and Miller spotting up for three.
In short, as long as the shooters maintain their spacing at all times, it will provide the Big Three the necessary room to capitalize on whatever the defense allows — whether it be a slash to the basket, post-up opportunity, pick-and-roll, or otherwise. That, in turn, creates an efficient half court offense.
If the Heat can combine such an efficient half-court offensive attack with the type of defense it is capable of playing when motivated, there’s no reason to think they can’t blow out its opponents nightly… and, hopefully, well into the playoffs.
Wouldn’t it be fun to watch the Heat score 110 points per game, and give up 95?
The Miami Heat has the talent. Now let’s add the system.