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Debugging the HEAT's Perimeter Defense

by Couper Moorhead

Meet the new three-point defense, same as the old three-point defense.

Though the Miami HEAT purchased plenty of leeway in winning an NBA Championship, there have still been a number of criticisms about their defensive play early in the season. Fair criticisms, mind you, as the team has struggled with bouts of malaise and stone-footedness through their first 13 games, but strange as it is to see this team ranked 25th in defensive efficiency it is important to keep critiques focused on the present – not allowing ourselves to manufacture flaws that might not even exist.

Here’s what we know: Erik Spoelstra’s squad is giving up the eighth-worst three-point percentage (.366) in the league, and according to Synergy Sports no team has had to defend more spot-up attempts per game – a sign that opponents are routinely finding space on the perimeter to get shots up. There have been enough shoddy help rotations, slow closeouts and clear defensive lapses to warrant concern, but those instances have also been fewer and farther between than we might imagine. As confirmation bias goes, if we see one bad closeout or open shooter and the shot goes in, the tendency is to believe there was a similar issue if the next shot also falls.

In reality, the HEAT have been closing out fine, for the most part. But it’s that “for the most part” they have to get sorted out. The half-step here that allows a shooter to get a shot off, the poor communication there that leaves the ballhandler open on the perimeter in transition – not only are these things to fix, but they are the same issues the team fixed at the beginning of last season.

But the fixes won’t come in the form of changing rotations and personnel. They’ll come from what might be the most boring place to find an answer in sports – from within.

“We just have to do it better,” Spoelstra said.

Simply doing something better is about as exciting as snowfall in Canada. There’s little credit that comes with gradual self-improvement because there is usually someone already expecting it of you. When your boss gets on your case about being 20 minutes late to work every day, he’s not going to pat you on the back when you start showing up on time again. Just as you’re expected to meet a certain baseline set of expectations, we expect NBA players to live up to the standards they set with their own past performance. Things only get interesting when it becomes clear that someone else can do it better in your place.

As the Mark Strong voiceover in the trailer for Zero Dark Thirty – disparate subject matter aside – says:

“I want to make something absolutely clear. If you thought there was some working group coming to the rescue, I want you to know that you’re wrong. This is it. There’s nobody else hidden away on some other floor. There is just us. And we are failing.”

Only the last sentence doesn’t particularly apply. The HEAT aren't failing, but nobody else is going to defend threes for them. And even though things came to a bit of a head last Saturday night when the Cleveland Cavaliers took the HEAT down to the wire, hitting 14-of-31 threes in the process, this team doesn’t need to do much to rescue itself.

“We’re not doing anything different, we’re just not covering ground the way we’re capable of,” Spoelstra said.

To illustrate this point properly, let’s try something a little different. Instead of showing you a few select clips of Cleveland’s spot-up attempts in that game, let’s look at every single three the Cavaliers took last Saturday, keeping an eye on how close the expected defender is to the offensive player as he goes into his shooting motion (with a corresponding symbol for a made or missed shot).

*Note: If you’re having trouble locating the shooter in a few of the images, check the floor for their feet.

Synergy has the Cavaliers down for taking nine unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts in this game, which, while subjective, is reflected in the images above. Unguarded doesn’t mean completely wide open, however – the difference between a well-contested shot and a poor one can be a matter of inches – and there isn’t a ton of correlation between how open the shot is and whether it went in or not. The Cavaliers made threes off the dribble in transition just as they they missed open looks in the half-court.

“Guys are hitting threes against us,” LeBron James said. “It’s threes that they’re making that we’re right up on them. There aren’t many wide open threes that we’re giving up. We’re contesting a lot of shots but guys are hitting threes against us, spreading out our defense some and they’re making them.”

“I’ve played 12 years, I don’t think I’ve seen the amount of shotmaking we’ve seen thus far from teams,” Shane Battier added. “Some of it is our lack of rotations, some of it is teams just making shots.”

While James went on to say that the HEAT definitely have to improve their perimeter defense – we won’t know exactly how much closer the defenders need to be to shotoers until we have a few years of data from the fancy SportVU cameras, but common sense would be that the gap can be shrunk – Battier’s last point is something we all struggle with at time: there doesn’t always have to be someone or something to blame.

There is a random quality to every shot taken in basketball, for example: the HEAT have given up 205 unguarded catch-and-shoots and the Orlando Magic have given up 192, yet HEAT opponents have an effective field-goal percentage almost ten points higher on those shots than Magic opponents. How else do we explain this other than by saying HEAT opponents have simply been better than Magic opponents in very similar moments?

You might find this notion rubbish, but it’s worth lending at least partial credence to the idea that teams get up to play the defending champions (or any team with multiple All-Stars that tends to be on national television more often than not). We’ll never be able to quantify the effect, but part of the explanation for teams shooting well against Miami might just be better preparation.

“Teams are motivated,” Spoelstra said. “They’re sharp. They’re focused. They get their sleep the night before and they make sure they’re on top of their game mentally and physically.”

Whether or not you buy into that notion or not, the HEAT do need to cut down on their defensive lapses. The defensive system the team employs is one that forces teams to make snappy passes and beat the help, but one slow rotation will always mean one fewer pass that needs to be made. There are fixes to be made and they can only be made by the players making the mistakes in the first place.

In the meantime, the HEAT will in all likelihood keep chugging along winning games at a high rate. Miami gave up the third-worst three-point percentage in the league last regular season but still finished with a Top-5 defense because their at-rim defense was so incredibly strong – and opponents so far are only converting in the restricted area 1.7 percent better than last season.

Statistical support for this story provided by and Synergy Sports