The Miami HEAT's Defensive Question

by Couper Moorhead

It may seem a bit harsh to focus on the first couple months of a championship season that saw the Miami HEAT blow away the Eastern Conference with 66 wins and a 27-game winning streak, but past results don’t guarantee future success so here we are in October digging back into the process. And as historically good as the HEAT were last season – setting the single-season records for corner-threes made and effective field-goal percentage – their process was not exactly ideal.

The issue, and it was a foreign one for Erik Spoelstra’s teams, was the defense. For most of the first two months of the season, it simply wasn’t there. Or at least not in any recognizable form for a team that had a Top-5 defense in every season since 2008. Through December 1st, the HEAT were ranked 19th in defensive efficiency. Through January 1st, they were 16th. The problems, poor rotations deeps into the shot clock and a general lack of consistent intensity, were the same as they had been in any of the previous defensive slumps that you expect during the regular-season grind – but those problems had never persisted for so long.

Record-wise, the HEAT were doing just fine at 21-8 on the strength of their spread-out, efficient offense and some of the best clutch-play in the past 15 years. But they weren’t who they wanted or needed to be. Eventually everything that appeared to be self-correctable was corrected with the team playing Top-5 defense after the New Year, but the same early malaise could hurt more a year later with a strengthened Eastern Conference and the statistical chances of another historic winning streak quite slim.

So what caused the defensive dip last year? There are a few perfectly rational explanations, the most fitting of which is that with an offensive reformation on his mind, Spoelstra didn’t focus on defense during training camp last season nearly as much as usual.

“I looked at the notes [from last year]. I thought we had an emphasis on it,” Spoelstra said, laughing. “But we’re putting a stronger emphasis on it now. We haven’t gone over too much offense in the last sessions. The only time we’ve spent on any offense is in the evenings.”

Now, at least 70 percent of the first five practices in The Bahamas have been spent on defense, reminiscent of camp three seasons ago at Eglin Air Force base in Pensacola – when the word offense was barely mentioned all week.

“It’s not that we’re taking for granted our offense, because we always have to work on that especially with this group,” Spoelstra said. “It’s unique how we play. But we think we can make up for that a little bit in the coming weeks in October before we get to the first game. We really want to make this training camp defensive oriented. Specifically we know where we want to build it. But a big part of that is finishing much better than we did last year.”

It’s also very possible that the proverbial championship hangover after a short summer, as tired a narrative device as it can be at times, is a real thing.

“Everybody last year wasn’t ready for the season to start,” Chris Bosh said. “I know I wasn’t. Especially coming off that first championship, you have that hangover. It’s tough. This year, I was like, ‘OK, I know what to expect, I’m going to be ready and it’s not going to sneak up on me this time.”

“Defense is always the last thing to come,” Dwyane Wade said. “It takes a big commitment. It takes your body getting into a certain kind of form and shape to play the defense that we play, to be on a string like we are. Unfortunately the last couple of years we have started off slow. I know [Spoelstra’s] focus is to come off at the start as a very good defensive team. We’re going to try to do our best, but also know that we’re always trying to do better throughout the year.”

In some ways, the HEAT don’t have much of a choice when it comes to their defensive effort. Unlike other elite Eastern Conference defenses that employ systems predicated largely on positioning and even conceding certain inefficient shots, the HEAT concede nothing. There’s no reason for them to burn themselves out going full bore within an incredibly taxing system of sprints on top of sprints on top of sprints.

With that in mind, a defensive slump is as expected in a HEAT season as a shooting slump is for a regular three-point shooter. But another slump that last two months could seriously affect Miami’s chances of getting home-court advantage throughout the playoffs by securing the top seed, especially if they win less than the 80 percent of close games they won last season – better than any team in the new millennium other than the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks.

“We don’t want to use that as sort of our crutch,” Battier said of the team’s clutch play. “We would like to have a better sustained effort throughout the game. But we want to hit the ground running. We don’t want to work into the season. We want to win games and win them early.”

This isn’t a team that will suddenly become unable to execute down the stretch, but the simplest remedy for a little regression in the HEAT’s clutch rating of +33 – topped recently only by LeBron James’ 2007-08 Cleveland Cavaliers – is to limit the number of close games you play by playing better defense in the first three quarters.

“We know what our staple is,” James said. “We know in order for us to win a championship and to win games we have to defend. It’s not in the back of our minds; it’s in the front of our minds.

“We knew we didn’t start off too well defensively last season.”

In a preseason otherwise devoid of much mystery and intrigue – the addition of a certain center notwithstanding – the defensive tone the HEAT set in the early going is one of the few lingering questions headed into the season. So far, with the usual caveats about preseason talk, nothing seems more important to both players and coaches than getting the defense right.