Tuesday, February 18, 2014

LeBron James: How Much Help Does He Need for Miami HEAT to 3-Peat?

LeBron James carried the Miami HEAT into the all-star break, but the Indiana Pacers and Oklahoma City Thunder played like the teams to beat for the NBA championship. The HEAT will need better defense at the shooting guard and center positions - and either some Mike Miller-style cameo appearances from James Jones or a Ray Allen rejuvenation - in order to three-peat in June.

This article uses the Estimated Wins Produced statistic created by sports economist David Berri. Average players increase a team's chance of winning 10% by producing 0.100 Estimated Wins per 48 minutes (Est.WP48) because an average NBA team produces a 0.500 winning percentage. See the HEAT Produced Page for more information.

The spreadsheet below lists the estimated wins produced by HEAT players before the all-star break.

What gives the HEAT their best chances of a three-peat based on their performance before the all-star break?

Based on the basketball-reference.com playoff probabilities report, the path to a HEAT three-peat would go through the Nets, Raptors, Pacers and Thunder (assuming higher seeds won their series).

Based on their performance before the all-star break, the numbers say the HEAT would most likely beat the Nets and Raptors in 5 games and lose to the Pacers or Thunder in 5 or 7 games (see this post for probabilities of winning seven-game series).

The basketball-reference.com forecast says the best case scenario for the HEAT is winning 63 games. It predicts the Pacers winning 61 games (their best case scenario is 69 wins) and the Thunder winning 62 games (their best case scenario is 68 wins).

Basically, those forecasts say the HEAT need to escalate their play a whole letter grade, from a B to an A or A+, just to get home-court advantage and beat the Pacers and Thunder in 7 games. And that's based on the assumption those two teams don't have another level they can take their games to. That assumption may be true for the Pacers, but the Thunder can definitely take their game to another level with a healthy Russell Westbrook.

The difference between Westbrook and Reggie Jackson is potentially worth 2 extra wins to the Thunder, which would swing home-court advantage in the Finals back to OKC. That leaves the HEAT with one question after the all-star break: What needs to change in order for them to three-peat?

The biggest difference between the HEAT this season compared to last season is defense. The top 10 defense from last season was replaced with a below average defense before this season's all-star break. Yes, last season's team went on the longest winning streak in modern NBA basketball, but this season's team still allowed more points per play than last season's team did before the all-star break and they rank 28th in opponent shooting efficiency.

Now that we've established the defense is a problem, WHERE is the problem?

The biggest problem is shooting guard. No team allowed less production at shooting guard last season than the HEAT. This season, opponents have tripled their production against the HEAT at shooting guard.

Last season, opposing shooting guards shot 39% from the floor (2nd in NBA) and 33% from three (6th) against the HEAT. This season, opposing shooting guards are shooting 47% from the floor (29th) and 40% from three (27th) against the HEAT.

Last season, Wade allowed opponents to shoot 37% from the floor and 35% from three while Ray Allen allowed them to shoot 39% from the floor and 36% from three, according to mysynergysports.com.

This season, Wade's allowing opponents to shoot 39% from the floor and 36% from three while Ray Allen is allowing them to shoot 43% from the floor and 45% from three, according to mysynergysports.com. Ray Allen dropped from being ranked 154th in points allowed per play last season to 326th this season.

In terms of Wade, the only change the HEAT really need to make is get him on the floor more often after the all-star break. Ray Allen, however, has clearly become a liability on defense and he can't shoot well enough to compensate for it. His three-point shooting has dropped from 42% last season to 36% this season.

The nosedive in Ray Allen's defense and drop in his offense combined to reduce his production to the level of a below average player before the all-star break. He only increased the HEAT's chances of winning by 6.6% per 48 minutes this season compared to 13% last season. That's what happens to older players trying to make a run at multiple NBA championships.

Roger Mason (decreased HEAT's chance of winning by 4.5%) and Toney Douglas (decreased HEAT's chance of winning by 2.9%) were not the answer before the all-star break, either. James Jones got lit up on defense in limited minutes before the all-star break, but he gave better than he got by shooting 55% from three. It may be time for Erik Spoelstra to give him some of Ray Allen's minutes if Ray can't turn it around or the team can't find a better option via trade or free agency.

1st change: More minutes for Wade and James Jones

The second biggest problem for the HEAT is in the middle. This season, the HEAT are allowing opponents 22% more production at center than they allowed last season.

Last season, the HEAT allowed opposing centers to shoot 50% from the floor with 4.6 trips to the free throw line. This season, the HEAT allowed opposing centers to shoot 53% from the floor with 5.2 trips to the free throw line.

According to mysynergysports.com, Chris Bosh allowed opponents to shoot 39% from the floor last season and that's increased to 42% this season. Additionally, 3.3% more of Chris Andersen's defensive plays led to shooting fouls this season than last season.

I don't think those changes in Bosh and Birdman's defense are solely the cause of increased production of opposing centers. I think it's more a sign of lapses in the team defense and rotations. Without looking at the video, I'd guess Birdman's committing recovery fouls to stop a big man from getting an easy layup after a missed rotation.

2nd change: Better team defense protecting the paint

If the HEAT can make those changes, they should be able to give fans an exciting ride to another three-peat. If they don't, it could be another disappointing post-season like 2011... and then the free agency talk will begin.

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