Truth about the Miami Heat's struggles

Originally Published: March 7, 2011
ESPN.com

Miami HeatDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireLosers of five of their past six games, the Miami Heat are looking for answers. We've got some below.

Is it time to be concerned about the Miami Heat? Our experts weigh in.

1. Fact or fiction: The Heat have serious problems.

Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Fiction.

I never liked the supporting cast the Heat put around the Big Three. They got all veterans and entered the season virtually assured that no player would improve as the season progressed, putting the pressure on the Big Three to inject energy every night. They still have that problem.

But they're also a 43-20 team that's a few bounces of the ball from several more wins. Not too long ago, Los Angeles was all hangdog and upset, but today I'd guess the Lakers are feeling pretty good. Things can change quickly.

J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Fact.

There are structural issues such as the lack of a low-post presence or true point guard. Those were always going to be there in Season 1 with this hastily assembled roster. Then they lost Udonis Haslem. Mike Miller is having the worst shooting season of his career. And they don't have any idea of what to do in crunch time.

Kevin Arnovitz, Heat Index: Fact.

The Heat have serious problems, but they aren't insurmountable. They still haven't figured out how to maximize each guy's talent and skill set in crucial possessions. Some of that is stubbornness. Some of that is redundancy. Some of that is fighting over the check. And, truthfully, some of that is squandering possessions before the fourth quarter, when they should be burying teams and avoiding crucial possessions altogether.

Chris Broussard, ESPN The Magazine: Fact.

I cannot fully count the Heat out just because having two of the top five players in the game gives them at least a puncher's chance. But they definitely have major issues.

Mentally, they are clearly cracking under the pressure of the intense and unprecedented daily scrutiny. We've never seen a group of players hated and scrutinized like this. Much of their inability to hold leads against top teams appears to be a mental block to me. Aware of their poor record against great teams, aware of their trouble closing games, they are freezing, stressing out, "playing not to lose" instead of "playing to win" and just hoping they can hold on down the stretch.

Tom Haberstroh, Heat Index: Fiction.

Of course it looks like they're doomed now. But it's still March 7 and the Big Three won't continue shooting 8 percent on game-tying shots -- or whatever the statistic is -- all season long.

Yes, the Heat have problems. But just because they are dramatic problems does not make them any more meaningful. Although, I will say that the 30-point drubbing by the Spurs means more than the late-game struggles.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Fiction.

The Pistons and Timberwolves have serious problems. The Heat have a few issues that may prevent them from winning a championship. Big, big difference.

Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Fact …

… if the parameters for judging this season are championship or failure. The Heat forfeited the right to any slack after they decided to have a parade in July before winning an actual championship, but it was always going to be a serious long shot to win a championship as presently constituted once they lost Haslem. Miami had to have Haslem to get out of the East even if LeBron James and Dwyane Wade clicked instantly.

Don't get me wrong: The Heat are seriously, seriously underachieving as presently constituted -- there's no way they should be under .500 against teams with winning records and losing every game against the elite -- but fairness demands that we acknowledge that Haslem's unavailability is too often overlooked.


2. Fact or fiction: The Big Three are a bigger problem than the supporting cast or the coaching.

Abbott: Fiction.

The supporting cast is the way this team needs to improve. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are sometimes ball stoppers in big moments, which sometimes makes the coaching look so-so. But I think the Big Three are tremendous, as is Erik Spoelstra. All that said, this supporting cast may be plenty good. A made shot here or there, and they'd have won all these big games.

Adande: Fact.

The Big Three are the reason the Heat have won 43 games. They've produced the big leads that they wound up blowing in these home losses. But the way the team is set up, all three have to perform every game, and in the recent close losses, either Chris Bosh or Wade has shot poorly. LeBron has played consistently but hasn't delivered in the clutch. They're the story, win or lose.

[+] EnlargeMike Miller, Eddie House and Mike Bibby
AP Photo/Lynne SladkyFact: Miami's bench isn't producing nearly enough.

Arnovitz: Fiction.

The Big Three need to improve, but the Heat need more players who can move the ball and be useful at multiple spots on the court. Everyone on the team apart from the Big Three is an uber-specialist. And Mike Miller, who was supposed to bring the kind of versatility and malleability that would blend with the Big Three, hasn't been effective.

Broussard: Fiction.

There's a lot of blame to go around, but I think the lion's share goes to Spoelstra. Scouts say the Heat are running the same offense they ran last season with Wade (when it was "give the ball to Wade and let him create everything''). Now, though, it's "give the ball to LeBron and let him create it all." How do you not spend all summer devising an offense that will use and maximize the talents of each member of the Big Three?

Scouts also tell me the Heat's offense is among the most basic in the league. They hardly ever post up. I understand they don't have a true post-up player, but Bosh posted fairly often in Toronto, and LeBron and Wade could post their position at times -- just to keep the defense off balance, give it a different look and force mismatches and double-teams. They also have very little player movement in their half-court offense. And their last-second plays are predictable with little action (case in point: LeBron going one-on-four against Chicago on the last play Sunday).

Haberstroh: Fiction.

When one of the Big Three hasn't played well, they've gotten zero help from the supporting cast. The centers are largely black holes on offense and the point guard situation has shown no stability all season. The Heat bench played 65 minutes Sunday and scored all of six points. Basketball is and always will be a team sport.

Hollinger: Fiction.

The Heat have one of the weakest supporting casts in the league. Although I also would argue that the Big Three have underachieved this season, I would only describe them as a problem if we started from the expectation that the other nine players would be replacement-level caliber.

Stein: Fact.

But I say so more because LeBron, D-Wade and Bosh appear to be handling adversity so poorly. Their lives clearly suffer from the anemic bench production Miami gets. And Erik Spoelstra certainly didn't help them -- or himself -- by letting the story slip about players crying instead of finding another way to convey how much his team cares. But the three stars certainly don't give you the impression that they're looking for the nearest foxhole to climb into together and fight their way out of this. Leadership? Unity? Show us some, Heat. You three are supposed to close.


3. Fact or fiction: The Heat's woes in close games will be their downfall.

Abbott: Fiction.

I remember a few years ago, the Blazers had a killer record in close games, and I got all excited with the idea that they just knew what they were doing. John Hollinger basically told me to cool it, these little trends never last long. And sure enough, they fell almost all the way back to the pack.

A dozen crunch times just isn't nearly enough to say we know anything permanent about this team. It's not even clear there is such a thing as a good crunch-time team, as opposed to randomness. The Heat will come around.

Adande: Fact.

Playoff games are like four fourth quarters, and these close-game woes are indicative of a team that isn't ready for the playoffs. The Heat are most successful when they're out in transition. Those opportunities don't come around as often in the postseason.

Arnovitz: Fiction.

I think there's a degree of truth to James' contention that the Heat, by and large, are getting the shots they want. You can't look at a dozen or so possessions and make a wholesale determination of a team's ability to execute. I mean, you can, but you'll eventually be proven wrong.

Broussard: Fiction.

That's a huge problem, but I can't pin everything on that one thing. At this point, several things will be their downfall -- their lack of offensive imagination, their mental struggles, their problems closing games, their inability to find a way for LeBron and Dwyane to excel together rather than by simply taking turns going one-on-one and their failure to use Bosh as anything other than a bail-out midrange jump shooter.

Haberstroh: Fiction.

History tells us that record in close games doesn't matter much. When teams get kicked out of the playoffs, inevitably one or two losses will come down to final possessions but I don't see the Heat's issues as fatal flaws that can't be corrected in the next 20 games. Their supporting cast and lack of anything resembling a 3-point threat are far more concerning.

Hollinger: Fact.

Not because they'll be any more likely to lose close games in the playoffs, but because of what all these close regular-season losses will do for their playoff seeding. Beating Chicago and Boston consecutively without home-court advantage will be extremely difficult, even for a team with this much talent.

Stein: Fiction.

I do believe, no matter what history says about the focus on such stats being overblown, that doubts about crunch-time performance can linger into the playoffs and potentially affect a team's psyche/confidence. But Miami has far bigger issues. Size. Depth. A true floor leader. Those voids will take the Heat down before crunch-time doubt will.


4. Fact or fiction: D-Wade should have the ball at the end of the game.

Abbott: Fiction.

The open guy should have the ball. The whole concept of "the man" is the problem. On Sunday, Mario Chalmers had scored the last five Heat points and was wide open with a good passing lane. All this talk about proving this or that, and machismo … James drove into the double-team, as his detractors insist real men ought to do. The money play was to win the way Derrick Rose and the Bulls won their previous game -- dishing to the open non-superstar for the easy, unguarded shot he has practiced his whole life.

[+] EnlargeWade
Mike Ehrmann/Getty ImagesD-Wade watching LeBron in crunch time hasn't been all that effective.

Adande: Fact.

He doesn't need it every time, but how about once in a while, at least? Let him go at the defense from the top, as he's done most of his career. He can drive, he can find the open man or he can pull up for the jumper. It's worked in the past. Here's what isn't working now: having Wade watch LeBron go iso.

Arnovitz: Fact.

And so should LeBron James and Chris Bosh and James Jones. In fact, if the Heat run "1-4 flat" when the game is on the line, they've defeated the purpose of constructing this team in the first place. Everyone should be involved.

Broussard: Fact and fiction.

This question implies that the final play is always an iso or one guy doing it all. How about running an actual play rather than just throwing it to LeBron or Wade and saying "Go win it"? Wade should have the ball sometimes, LeBron should have it sometimes and even Bosh could have it sometimes. And if one of those guys starts the play, he could end up passing it to one of the role players (Eddie House or Mike Miller) for the shot.

That the Heat have three go-to guys should be a plus, not the minus it has become. When Boston comes out of a timeout for a last-second play, the ball could be going to Paul Pierce, Ray Allen or even Kevin Garnett. The fact that we don't know who it's going to is one of the Celtics' strengths. It should be the same way with the Heat. And in Boston, there often is an actual play with cutting and screening, not just an iso.

Haberstroh: Fact.

If Wade has the better matchup, he should get the ball. If LeBron James has the better matchup, he should get the ball. If Chris Bosh has the better matchup, he should get the ball. If Mike Miller or Eddie House are wide open, they should get the ball. Both Wade and James have faltered in the clutch this season, showing that they are mere mortals.

Hollinger: Half-fact.

The problem in Miami is a familiar one around the league. If you run a predictable isolation play, your odds of scoring are less, regardless of whether it's LeBron or Wade running it. The Heat, like many NBA teams, need more mystery in their late-game playbook.

Stein: Fact.

Wade hasn't been getting the ball enough in crunch time. He also feels as though he's never getting it in crunch time, which can lead to some of those bigger problems. But let's be clear here: It wouldn't make sense to have an absolute policy about whether LeBron or Wade gets the last shot with two scorers of their quality on the same team. The Heat need to clean up their end-of-game execution, but it was never going to be a strict either/or deal.


5. Fact or fiction: The Heat can make it to the NBA Finals.

Abbott: Fact.

There is no heavy favorite, and the Bulls and Celtics are real obstacles. But of course they can.

One of the criticisms of "James as leader" has been that he has had it easy. I don't get the feeling that's so, based on his childhood, but even if we accept that criticism in a basketball sense … we can't say that anymore. If they're still standing tall in the playoffs, the Heat will stand there having endured some serious trials both from the outside and inside.

Adande: Fiction.

They can't beat the Celtics, and they know it. The Bulls have moved ahead of them, and Orlando has an even shot to beat them. Too rough a road is ahead for Miami.

Arnovitz: Fact.

Are they the favorites? Probably not. But we've seen that all bets are off in the NBA playoffs. Had you asked Celtics fans on March 7, 2010, whether their team could make the Finals, the response would've been negative. Lakers fans were writing obituaries last spring just 10 days before the postseason.

Broussard: Fact.

The key word is can. If you had said will, it would be a different matter. The Heat have enough to win the East, especially since Boston traded Kendrick Perkins. If they can find a way to improve their half-court offense, they definitely could reach the Finals. Their defense is terrific; their transition game is awesome. They need to incorporate more movement off the ball in their offense, and they need to post up more. Those two adjustments alone would go a long way toward making them a better team. It would get them some wins against tough teams and make them less predictable down the stretch, and those two accomplishments would alleviate the significant mental block they now have to overcome.

Haberstroh: Fact.

Will they? Maybe not. Can they? Yes. This is the NBA. Did everyone foresee the Celtics running through the East and taking the Lakers to seven games last season? No. Did the consensus pick Orlando to get to the Finals in 2008-09? No. In short series, even the unlikely can happen. Everything is going wrong for the Heat right now, but if everything goes right they can make it to the Finals.

Hollinger: Fact.

Of course they can -- nobody doubts their talent. They're just making it a whole lot harder than we expected.

Stein: Fiction.

I mentioned in last week's Power Rankings that the 2006 team that won it all went through a lot of these same issues during the regular season. The difference? That team also had Shaq and Zo and a real second unit. This team just isn't big or deep enough to get out of the East.