There's been an extreme, almost doomsday negativity aimed at the Miami Heat lately about their losses against the elite teams of the NBA, in particular their squandering of a 24-point lead to the Orlando Magic and their 30-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs. If people aren't pointing and laughing at them, people are certainly casting condescending frowns and wagging that disapproving finger. Even the Heat themselves appear to be greatly dismayed and flustered in the post-game interviews.
But while the rest of the world clamors on, I look back at my experience watching hundreds and hundreds of amateur, competitive, and below-the-rim adult rec league games in my Dream League -- we're almost in our tenth year and we run three seasons per year, ten divisions per season, perhaps three or four ultra-competitive divisions with legacy teams returning each season, so that's like 40 seasons not including the ones I played in other leagues prior -- and I've gotta say, I've seen this all before.
Sure, I'm just as surprised as the next guy that things aren't going so smoothly for talents as Hall-of-Fame-bound as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but then I remind myself: this is still the same old team game of basketball.
However, I'm not just satisfied to sit back and accept it, either. I definitely think LeBron and Wade can do better (as could Erik Spoelstra). They're just not quite experienced enough yet, but if I were their coach or GM, here's what I would advise...
Look, the Heat are simply inexperienced
First of all, accept that you are an inexperienced team. And by inexperienced, I not only mean that this team was only assembled less than a year ago, but I also mean the ages of the players. Let's take a look at all the "elite" teams that are over .600, which the Heat are 4-10 against...
- Spurs: Tony Parker 28, Manu Ginobili 33, Tim Duncan 34, Richard Jefferson 30. Jefferson in 2nd year with Parker/Manu/Timmy. Parker/Manu/Timmy together since 2002 (9 years).
- Celtics: Paul Pierce 33, Kevin Garnett 34, Ray Allen 35, Rajon Rondo 25. Pierce 13th year with Celtics. Rondo 5th year with Celtics/Pierce. KG and Ray-Ray formed Big Three in 2007 (4th year together).
Mavericks: Dirk Nowitzki 32, Jason Kidd 37, Jason Terry 33, Tyson Chandler 28. Dirk in 13th year with Mavs. Jet in 7th year with Mavs. Kidd in 3rd year with Mark Cuban-era Mavs. Chandler in 1st year with Mavs.
Lakers: Kobe Bryant 32, Pau Gasol 30, Lamar Odom 31, Derek Fisher 36, Ron Artest 31. Kobe and Fish have played together for 12 years. Odom in 7th year with Lakers. Gasol in 3rd year with Lakers. Artest in 2nd year with Lakers.
- Magic: Dwight Howard 25, Jameer Nelson 29, Hedo Turkoglu 31, J.J. Redick 26, Gilbert Arenas 29, Jason Richardson 30. Dwight and Jameer 7th year together, all with Magic. Hedo 6th year in two stints with Dwight/Jameer. Redick 5th year with Magic/Dwight/Jameer, 4th year with Hedo. Gil and J-Rich 1st year with Magic.
- Bulls: Derrick Rose 22, Luol Deng 25, Joakim Noah 26, Carlos Boozer 29. Deng 6th year with Bulls. Noah 4th year with Bulls and Deng. D-Rose 3rd year with Bulls/Deng/Noah. Boozer 1st year with Bulls.
- Thunder: Kevin Durant 22, Russell Westbrook 22, Thabo Sefolosha 26, Serge Ibaka 21, Nick Collison 30, James Harden 21. Collison 7th year with Thunder. KD 4th year with Collison/Thunder. Westbrook 3rd year with KD and Collison. Ibaka, Harden, and Thabo 2nd year with Thunder.
- Heat: Dwyane Wade 29, LeBron James 26, Chris Bosh 26. Wade 8th year with Heat. LeBron/Bosh 1st year with Wade/Heat. Note: Udonis Haslem (30) has played with Wade/Heat for 8 years, but only played in the first 13 games this season before his injury.
Even this duo has played together for three years already.
Most comparable to the Heat are the Thunder. But guess what, the Thunder are 4-11 against the elite teams listed above, including the 108-103 loss at home to the Heat. And even still, at least Durant and Westbrook have played together for 3 years. I'm sure we'd all agree that LeBron and Wade's first year together far surpasses the first year that Durant and Westbrook were together.
Next on the list of least-experienced teams are the Bulls. Believe it or not, they're 10-6 against the elite teams above. We can probably attribute that to Rose's MVP-caliber play this year, plus a clearly obvious pecking order in their system. Yet, the Bulls may have their own internal issues, with not one but two losses each (!) to the Clippers, Bobcats, and Knicks. Then there are the losses to the Nets, Raptors, and Warriors. It almost appears that they are the anti-thesis of the Heat, yet still exhibit their own youthful flaws as well, such as perhaps mentally checking out of games against losing opponents that they should beat. In any case, the Heat have already lost to the Bulls twice, one by 3 points and one by 4 points, and both games were in Chicago. It's not like the Bulls have dominated the Heat, though.
The other team you might say that has youth is the Magic, but then again Dwight, Jameer, Hedo, and Redick have spent a lot of years together. Still, the Heat are 2-2 vs the Magic.
The remaining elite teams obviously have the expected chemistry and longevity between their glue players (Spurs, Celtics, Mavs, Lakers).
OK, so you're not as smart and savvy as the others. So what? Well, start using your noggin! It's time to match your opponent's level of mental intensity.
What I've seen first hand
In my leagues, there's always the new up-and-coming young squad that has plenty of talent and potential, that joins the incumbents who have been fighting each other for years, who are often times trading championship runs. That's why I never had a problem with the Heat forming. To me, it was just like that new team that brought an added flavor to the league, that would increment the excitement and challenge of winning the next title, although they probably wouldn't win the first couple times around.
I will say that I was spellbound by the amazing superstar status of the Heat's Big Three, and incorrectly predicted that they would usurp the basic tenets of team basketball. Let's face it, the rest of NBA fandom which has not had the privilege (or some might say suffering?) of watching so many adult rec leagues unfold before their eyes, is probably still somewhat hypnotized under the same superstardom spell.
Lest we forget, the Chicago Bulls' 1995-96 72-win record was achieved in Michael Jordan's 11th year in the NBA, Scottie Pippen's 9th, and Dennis Rodman's 10th.
Let me assure you, in any league where athleticism does not overcome teamwork, skill, and execution, that young team almost never beats the savvy old vets (barring injuries). I recall as clear as day that these young teams would occasionally squander big leads or lose close games. As the sayings go, "You gotta pay your dues. You gotta earn your stripes. You gotta take your lumps." That has happened in basketball 99.9% of the time without fail, ever since I can remember.
But that doesn't mean I think the Heat have no chance to win the title this year. Sure, all signs are pointing towards "no way" and I've seen the script of the veteran team eliminating the up-and-coming team countless times, but I've always maintained that success on the basketball court is to hit your prime before it's time.
In my experience, ballers hit their prime at about age 26. At that point, if you're a star, the basketball IQ starts to catch up with the athleticism. By 30, they're about equal. After 30, it's up to the basketball gods as far as the athleticism goes, but the mind sharpens and sharpens at a rapid rate (unless, of course, you're mired on a bad team where the mental aspects can't really be exercised -- think Rip Hamilton).
The key is to train the mind far ahead of time so that the IQ catches up with the athleticism sooner rather than later. If you can do that, as perhaps the likes of Jordan did, then you'll enjoy a much longer stay amongst the elite, championship-caliber group.
The same goes for teams. The sooner you can gel, the sooner you can pick up on your teammates tendencies, where they are going to defensively funnel opposing players, how they come off screens, when in the game they start to fatigue, where on the court they like to go on the weakside, how they cut to the hole, and so on and so forth,. And that's raised exponentially by the IQ and age of the teammates.
Who knows, maybe the Heat can make that jump. Perhaps the recent downturns will help them gel. Perhaps the intensive nature of the playoffs can affect that too. No one can really know except themselves.
What's uniquely difficult for LeBron/Wade, and what could help them right now
The #1 flaw I notice about Wade and LeBron is their approach. First of all, let's break it down individually. Let's take MJ or Kobe as an example. If you were around during MJ's first three-peat, every playoff game was all about how he would come out: establishing scoring dominance or setting his teammates up. Perhaps he didn't even know until the game started, but he was definitely cognizant of the strategy of at least looking out for what would present itself. This now also happens on a game-by-game basis with Kobe, I'm sure. In other words, Kobe has actually taken the time to think through how he will come out in the beginning of the game. He has a personal plan, because he's good enough to have one.
Before every game, this man has a plan, an approach. Trust me on that.
Now you look at LeBron and Wade each individually. It seems that they start a game with no real strategy. For LeBron, it should be that he wants to setup his teammates (all of his teammates, including Wade). Maybe a personal goal would be 3 assists in the first quarter. For Wade it might also be to setup some guys, but more specifically, certain guys like Mario Chalmers, Chris Bosh, or even Erick Dampier. Some specific, easily targeted goal (let's say it's to get Dampier 3-4 touches near the hoop, via either straight post-ups or drive-and-dish). Right now, LeBron and Wade are just playing. They're making it up as they go. At high levels of skillful basketball, just playing on instinct is not going to get it done.
For example, against the Spurs, you could see that Wade was trying to create the sledge-hammer play on many a possession. Instead, he ended up forcing it. Ramming the ball down your opponents' throats is not really a strategy. You have to start counter-strategizing. You have to know that the defender has already concluded your greatest weapon is attacking the rim. It's Sun Tzu Art Of War time. Do what he least expects. Drive like you're attacking and stop. Pop the shot or dish out to a cutter. You've got to start playing the Thinking Man's game.
By the same token, LeBron would occasionally find himself up top with the ball and the Spurs defender deeply collapsed. Those are moments like on American Idol when a singer forgets the lyrics. You're in the spotlight, you have the mic, everyone's looking at you (in this case, your teammates), and you just kind of freeze for a half-second. LeBron's got to know that's coming. He's got to be more prepared. And my suggested solution to that would be to pass off to the wing and either cut through, or post up. I mean, basic basketball. Basic ball movement, some semblance of give-and-go. Of course, it's also the coach's duty to suggest these things.
Strategize, execute, react, adjust, re-strategize.
Now, some of you Thinking Men and Women out there are going to say, it's their defense. Well, I do agree with that, but for younger players, if there's no "fun" in the offense, they're not going to play defense. That's just how it is with younger teams. They are enamored by the made basket more-so than when they get older and appreciate the value of a stopped basket. Sometime in the near future, hopefully this innate basketball pendulum will start to shift, but I don't see that happening this year. I haven't bothered to research this, but when did the Jordan-era Bulls shift their focus to defense? Surely it didn't happen overnight.
Often times, because they are so talented, LeBron and Wade will go on a fastbreak tear, or simply get hot, and lead Miami to a double-digit lead early on. But by "just playing", they've essentially spit their wad. Elite teams are not going to let a run like that happen more than once per game, twice max. LeBron and Wade need to steady or stabilize their approach. I'm not saying they should stop running fast breaks, I'm just saying they need to be cognizant of what is happening. They need to know that elite teams will make adjustments. They need to settle back into their plan.
Further exacerbating the Heat's issue is that LeBron and Wade are so good, that even having individual plans could conflict with each other, as I'm sure you considered a few paragraphs ago.
Here's where the interesting part happens: LeBron and Wade need to consult each other about their beginning-of-the-game individual plans. For example...
- LeBron: "Dwyane, they got a slow big man at the 4 tonight, so I think we need to get Bosh going. Let me worry about that. I'll be the one setting him up. I'll set you up too, so be ready for that. But I'm going to focus on getting Bosh some touches early. You should focus on somebody else."
- Wade: "Right. I think I'm going to try taking my man off the dribble, but then trying to dish out to Chalmers or down low to Dampier. I'm going to make the defense think I'm attacking the rim, but really I'm just going to try to force them to start helping, then dishing off."
LeBron and Wade not only need to have their own personal plans, but because they are so good and almost equal in talent, almost equal in their alpha-dog status, they need to communicate their plans with each other.
Granted, these plans need to work within the context of the team offense, so if Spoelstra doesn't have the right plays designed, there's a good chance these "individual" (again, for LeBron and Wade, it's better said to be "collaborative") plans could get derailed by improper sets.
We've already seen Spoelstra stubbornly peck away with near-stand-around offense with either on-ball screens or high pinch-post sets. Those can get old in a hurry. If the offense gets stagnant, they might as well clear one side for LeBron or Wade (take turns), and get the opposition to adjust to that. Then recalibrate after that.
Whenever there is offensive stagnation, Spoelstra also ought to employ a zone just to shake things up for the transition game (defensive rebound, outlet, and attack with the early offense).
In short, there's a fair bit of responsibility held by the coach here, too. But nothing starts without a plan, and for these two, a customized collaborative plan is required.
As the game goes along, Wade and LeBron should continue to talk to each other about their in-game-evolving plans. For example, if it's late in the game and Wade is getting hungry like the wolf, let LeBron know and tell him to crash the boards, and let the 1 (Mike Bibby or Chalmers) know to be ready to play the safety valve when you crash.
It's like having two MJs or Kobes on the court. They need to know what each other is planning to do, what role they will each play. I'm sure you see the problems with having this duality. However, let me invite you to think about the advantages of having this duality, if it could ever work cohesively. That would be pretty special, pretty unprecedented, wouldn't it?
Natural evolution also works
Bear in mind, all of this points back to a process of maturity, both at the individual, Big Three, and overall team level. That maturity will happen, regardless. Even if you have a run-and-gun team.
For example, there's a team called the Daly City Wizards that has played in my league and various tournaments throughout the years. They had a ton of talent, speed, and shooting. They had a point guard named Jeremy DelaCruz who liked to take the hero shots and make the big gambles on defense. His M.O. was the steal at halfcourt and pull-up from beyond the arc on the ensuing fastbreak. He could therefore spark a 9-0 run all by himself with back-to-back spectacular anticipation on D, basically wreaking havoc. (Typical Filipino-American style, by the way!)
Well, the Wizards didn't win all that much in league play, at least not in Dream League where we had some really veteran squads. Sometimes they would win a tournament or two. But as they grew older and slower, DelaCruz didn't gamble as much. Guess what, they started playing smarter basketball. All of a sudden, they were a veteran team and while their pace slowed down, their IQ improved and merely because of Father Time, they passed the ball around much more as a team. Instead of the dynamic, havoc-wreaking young team, they are now the steady, consistent veteran team, albeit fraught with veteran issues such as more injuries.
So this will happen with the Heat, so long as their Big Three are bought into the long-term. Unless players on a team are simply uncoachable or otherwise dumb, the natural evolution of a team will just eventually happen. While I may offend some Orlando Magic fans, I would even say that this is happening with Dwight Howard and the historically unpredictable chemistry of Orlando. It's started to level out and veteran experience is just seeping out for them, because eventually it had to. You could see it transpire in the 24-point turnaround against the Heat, veterans knowing where to spot themselves on the court, and playing good help team defense.
The more interesting question is, do the Heat have the understanding and smarts to proactively take a marginal leap in maturity this year? I might even say that the only way it could have happened (or will happen) is after feeling the pain of blowing a 24-point lead and losing by 30 to the best team in the league.
Hitting your prime before it's time, however, continues to be a very rare accomplishment at all levels of basketball.