A Need for Speed?

Photo Credit: Issac Balidzon

There’s a clear line of thinking when you read a quote like the following from Ian Thomsen’s July 19 Sports Illustrated article on the new Miami HEAT:

Riley knew exactly how to sell Miami to James. "LeBron would be Magic and Dwyane [Wade] would be Kobe and Chris [Bosh] would be Kevin Garnett," said Riley, reciting the pitch he made during the Heat's July 2 presentation to James. "He actually liked that conversation. He lit up and he said that would be great if 'I didn't have to score,' that he could be maybe the first guy since Oscar Robertson to be a triple double guy."

LeBron James. Magic Johnson. Pat Riley. Los Angeles Lakers. Showtime. Or so the thought process goes.

That’s seems to be popular opinion these days, that with James, Wade and Bosh, the HEAT could morph into a Showtime for the new millennium, running teams off the floor with an up-tempo attack and aggressive defense, racking up possessions as they go.

It’s a natural reaction to seeing such high-caliber athletes in the same threads, but that doesn’t mean, with a single game yet to be played, it’s guaranteed to be correct. Sure, this team is going to have a ton of highlights in the open floor, but to be a true running team, that has to be a philosophy ingrained in the roster from Day One. And the HEAT might care too much about defense.

Everyone knows Erik Spoelstra is a defensive-minded coach. That’s no revelation. Just as this team has the capabilities to run as much as they want, they could also be a brutally-tough defensive machine. It’s just difficult to do both at the same time, every time, all the time.

First, consider that of the Top-10 teams in pace (possessions per 48 minutes) during the 2009-10 season, only the Utah Jazz were also among the top third in points allowed per 100 possessions (ninth and tenth, respectively). And just three of the ten fastest teams made the playoffs.

Remember, both the HEAT and the Cleveland Cavaliers were Top-10 defensive teams last year. You know a quick recipe to reducing possessions? Try making teams work deep into the shot clock to get a shot off. Conversely, by merely adding James’ length and speed, the HEAT will likely force turnovers on more than their already-eighth best 13.9 percent of possessions. Turnovers leave teams scrambling on defense, and you can run on a scrambled defense all day long.

Those turnovers – the same sort the Boston Celtics used last year for of the more secretly destructive fast breaks in the league -- will likely invoke Showtime, especially if Spoelstra again lets his guard gamble on the perimeter; but running off your defense is not the same as playing defense when you can’t run.

Take into account that only Bosh has ever, in seven years, played on a team that topped 93 possessions per game, a number just above league average last season. For his career, Bosh’s teams used 91.21 possessions a game, while Wade (90) and James’ squads (90.2) came out significantly lower.

It’s a slower game these days, as the average possession count in 09-10 was 92.7. From 1980 to 1988, NBA teams used 101.5 possessions a game, with the Lakers averaging 102.5 during that same stretch. Only one team topped 100 last year -- the Golden State Warriors (100.4).

Wade, James and Bosh were also all in the Top-12 in free-throws attempted per field-goal attempted. The HEAT are going to shoot a massive amount of free-throws, which means more dead-ball situations, offering fewer opportunities for teams to run out, effectively slowing down the game.

Of course none of this is to say that Miami isn’t going to run at all. In fact, the HEAT might have the deadliest fast-break in the league when all is said and done. With the athletes to beat defenders down the floor, the passers to get them the ball, the shooters to hit the transition threes that become crucial in the playoffs and two perimeter finishers to wreak havoc on the secondary break, it will be a sight to see.

But instead of that break being the constant goal, it’s merely another weapon to utilize. Something that could spark big third-quarter runs, or deliver the finishing blow in the fourth, but as much as this team might wind up looking like Showtime in the highlights, the HEAT will likely carve out a slower, but still sexy, style of their own.