Previewing the Competition, Part IV: The Miami Heat

USA TODAY Sports

Last, but certainly not least, is Brooklyn's biggest obstacle in reaching the NBA Finals.

Three straight Southeast Division titles. Three straight Eastern Conference Championships. And most importantly, back-to-back NBA Championships. Any way you cut it, the Miami Heat are the best team in basketball right now.

Putting aside Thursday night's preseason game against the Nets, their depth has been underrated by the basketball community. They already have good coaching and management, play excellent defense, and feature the best player going right now. Much more on that last part later.

New faces: Michael Beasley, Greg Oden

Going (Other) Places: Mike Miller

Last year's record: 66-16

The Heat struggled defensively in the early portion of the season as they adjusted to having Shane Battier in the lineup, but they settled in rather quickly. They ended up with a franchise record 66 wins, including a team record 27 consecutive wins.

The playoffs started off easily enough, as they beat up on the Milwaukee Bucks and provided even more evidence as to why you shouldn't make guarantees you can't back up.. The Bulls gave them a fight, but without Rose, Deng, and a weakened Joakim Noah, they were only able to push them to five games. And then, they were given the fight of their lives, twice. Indiana played Miami very physically and pushed all the way to a Game 7. In the Finals, the Heat were five seconds away from losing to San Antonio before Jesus Ray Allen saved their season. Once Game 7 came, the Heat got great performances from LeBron and Shane Battier and survived to win their second title.

1. What significant moves were made in the offseason?

These moves don't necessarily fit the definition of significant, but they were highly, highly intriguing.

Let's play a game. Whose career numbers are these:

True Shooting percentage

61.3

Rebound rate

20.5

Turnover rate

16.7

Usage rate

19.7

Fouls per game

3.9

PER

19.5

Win Shares per 48 minutes

.180

If you haven't figured it out by now, those fine numbers belong to Greg Oden. When he's been on the court, he's been pretty damn good. Of course, the problem is that Oden can't make it onto the court. The former number one pick hasn't appeared in a regular season game since December 5, 2009. Since then, Oden has stayed out of the spotlight and worked to get himself back into the NBA. He suffered a setback a few days ago, but it doesn't seem severe so everything's OK for now. In an interview with former Ohio State teammate and close friend Mark Titus, Oden explained that he signed with the Heat for the chance to play with LeBron. He's happy for the opportunity, but adds:

"But honestly, the thing I’m most excited about is just being able to play basketball again. It’s been a long and challenging road back, so just having the chance to play the game I love again has me more excited than anything else."

If you were looking for a perfect definition of a "low risk, high reward" move, this is it. Miami has enough talent to allow for Oden to get back at the pace he feels is best and would limit the amount of pressure he places on himself. Although not spectacular, Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem, and Joel Anthony are good enough players so Miami can ease Oden in slowly. When/if he gets on the court, he would provide a great counter to all of the size the Heat will encounter from Indiana, Chicago, New York, and Brooklyn. Although the NBA has changed dramatically since Oden was last an active participant, there is still value in a big man who is a rim protector as well as a solid rebounder.

The other signing was Michael Beasley. The former number two pick had an awful, no good, very bad 2012-2013 season in Phoenix. How bad was it? Let's head to the chart:

Metric

Michael Beasley

Small Forwards in 2012-2013

Games Played

75

47

Minutes per game

20.7

20

True Shooting percentage

46.2

53.6

Assist rate

10.45

14.03

Turnover rate

14.9

10.29

Usage rate

27.6

17.85

Rebound rate

10.3

9.8

PER

10.8

11.48

Win Shares per 48

-0.047

.099

No, that negative is not a typo. He was 15th in the league in usage rate and was actively taking wins away from his team! When you have the ball in your hands that much, you either have to be a great shooter or great distributor. Beasley is neither. He has always been a ball dominant player that hasn't looked to involve his teammates in the action (he only averages 2 assists per 36 minutes throughout his career), and when you have the worst shooting season of your life, you make a dreary season in Phoenix just a little more worse. More on his shooting in a bit.

As you would expect, Beasley was a negative on defense as well. He certainly has the athletic ability to be competent on this end, but he hasn't been able to play consistent defense at his stops in Miami, Minnesota, and Phoenix. The Suns were one of the league's worst defensive teams, letting up 105.7 points per 100 possessions and an effective field goal percentage of 51.2. With Beasley, they managed to do even worse than usual.

How awful has he been? First up, Kevin Zimmerman at Valley of the Suns:

Of the Suns who played at least 15 percent of the available minutes, Beasley had the third-worst on-court plus-minus of -10.4, behind only Kendall Marshall's -12.7 and Wesley Johnson's -11.6. Beasley recorded the second-best off-the-court plus-minus on the team of -3.9, only trailing Markeiff Morris' -3.8, according to 82games.com. Beasley's PER has fallen in every one of his five NBA seasons, and his effective field goal percentage (taking into account the value of a three point shot) and true shooting percentage (which also accounts for threes and free throws) each hit all time lows. According to HoopData.com and BasketballReference.com, his true shooting percentage was more than 4 percent lower than it has been in any of Beasley's first four seasons.

Beasley was dead last - 469th to be exact - in win shares with a figure of -1.5, according to BasketballReference.com.

And Mark Deeks over at the mothership:

Beasley certainly has a degree of talent, but it is not that which we hold it to be. The rebounding numbers dwindle further year on year, and the defense and playmaking for others were never there. Furthermore, the scoring talent we build our perceptions of his talent around is based on a faulty premise: that Beasley is a high-quality scorer.

There isn't the evidence for this. Beasley scores because he shoots a lot, not because he shoots well. And the shots he takes a lot are not even good ones to take. The decision-making (perhaps the most under-appreciated facet of a player's talent level to ever exist) is consistently dreadful and somehow getting worse, while the shot-making talent for which he most lauded is only laudable if you ignore the facts that he is a mediocre shot maker from all ranges outside of 10 feet and that he consistently refuses to acknowledge this. (emphasis mine)

As the excerpted sections tell us, Beasley was quite possibly the worst player in the league last year.  As an offensive player, he has shown a preference to taking jumpers to driving the basket. As Deeks alluded to, Beasley is not someone who isn't that consistent outside of in close, having gone over the 40 percent threshold from the midrange only once in his career.

With that as the backdrop, Beasley returns to Miami with no expectations placed on him. As it stands right now, he's behind the sparingly used three point marksman James Jones on the Heat depth chart. On this roster, his defensive shortcomings will be hidden so he can focus primarily on his scoring abilities. If he manages to get playing time with the Big Three, he should receive plenty of open looks as defenses will rightfully place their energy into slowing them down. Miami's spacing should allow for him to drive to the basket, where he's shot close to 60 percent in the restricted area for the past four seasons.

2. What are the strengths of this team?

Their offense is blistering. Thanks in large part to LeBron, the Heat led the league in Offensive Rating, Effective Field Goal percentage, and True Shooting percentage. We all know about the Big Three, but we should also acknowledge the team's great three point shooting. They finished second in the NBA in three point percentage at 39.6 percent, and had five players shoot at least 40 percent from deep (Allen, Chalmers, Battier, Mike Miller, and James). When you have willing and able passers like James and Wade, it becomes contagious across the team. MIA finished third in team assist rate, which represents an improvement from the previous two seasons. Even with all these great attributes, I think the most important aspect of Miami's offense is their ball control. You can have the most skilled shooters on the planet, but you turn the ball over, you're not gonna be as great as you can be. They finished with the eighth lowest turnover rate in the Association, which (again) was an improvement from the previous two years. Cohesion is a beautiful thing!

When they're on, they can't be stopped on defense. In addition being a dynamic offensive player, James could legitimately cover every position on the court and do it extremely well. Wade (when he's healthy and on his game), Battier, and Chalmers are solid and can guard multiple positions as well. Zooming out and looking at the team, they are one of the best in the league at forcing turnovers, finishing Top Five in opponent's turnover rate each of the past two seasons. They do it by aggressively trapping teams, and once you turn it over against them, you know what happens next.

It may not seem like it, but I think the Heat have more depth than they're given credit for even when we take into account the loss of Mike Miller. It seems like we all forget it sometimes, but Chris Bosh is a hell of a player that could conceivably be the featured player (by usage rate) on most teams in the Association. When he needs to, he can give you 20+ points a night with OK rebounding. The best part of his offensive game is his work in the high post. He shot 50.2 percent in the midrange last year, which was 15th best in the entire Association. Lest you think he was a non-factor in the low post, think again. His 73.1 percent shooting inside the restricted area was good for 16th in the Association, and that includes all those dudes who have 100 percent shooting on only one attempt.

Moving on from Bosh, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, and Chris Andersen are all pretty solid as well. Chalmers, Allen, and Battier each shot over 40 percent from three point land last season, and when players like James and Wade command so much attention, you need shooters to help them out. It also helps that they can each take and make big shots when winning time comes. When he came on, I don't think anyone expected anything out of Andersen. However, he came in and provided a bolt of energy and blended in perfectly to an already rolling Miami team. He kept it up during the playoffs, and managed to shoot a career high 80 percent from the line throughout Miami's Championship run.  And while he's not a world beater, Norris Cole is acceptable enough for a backup PG.

3. What are the weaknesses of this team?

Although it hasn't cost them yet, their lack of size in the frontcourt could finally get them this year. Even with Chris Andersen having the season of his life, Miami still got pounded on the inside against Indiana and San Antonio in the playoffs. Assuming Greg Oden isn't able to chip in this year, Bosh, Anderson & Anthony are gonna have to do more on the defensive glass. The Heat were one of the weakest defensive rebounding teams in the league last year, and when they meet up with Chicago, Indiana, and Brooklyn, they're probably gonna get punished on the glass (they were numbers 3-5 on the offensive glass last year). Again, it hasn't irreparably damaged them, but it's still an issue that could hinder them late in the year.

4. What are the goals of this team?

Miami is looking to accomplish something that hasn't been done in almost 30 years. The Heat are looking to be the first team to make it to the NBA Finals for four consecutive seasons since the 1984-1985 Los Angeles Lakers. The Jordan-Pippen Bulls could've made it to the Finals four straight seasons, but reasons (twice) prevented them from getting there. The Shaq-Kobe Lakers tried to make their fourth straight Finals appearance in 2003, but injuries, Robert Horry's three rimming out in San Antonio, and the Spurs beating the hell out of the Lakers in Game 6 put a stop to that. The Kobe-Gasol Lakers had a chance to make it to the Finals for the fourth straight year in 2011, but Dirk Nowtizki and the Dallas Mavericks swept them in the Conference Semifinals.

Of course, getting to and winning the Finals will be extremely challenging. It seems like everyone is writing the epitaph to Dwyane Wade's career, and Miami is gonna need him to be healthy when the Heat get to the playoffs. Although he took a step back last regular season, Wade was still one of the most productive players in the NBA. If he's healthy, the Heat are still the team to beat and should help offset the improvements made by the other four contenders in the Eastern Conference.

5. It's LeBron's World

Originally, I was gonna title this section "Fighting Ghosts" as a nod to Grammy Family, but Jonathan Tjarks over at the mothership beat me to it. By two years. At this point, everyone acknowledges that James is far and above his peers. You can make very strong comparisons between Lebron and: Magic, Michael, Bird, Barkley, Pippen, Karl Malone, Oscar Robertson and every other legend you can think of. His game is so dominant and unique that even if you hate LeBron, you have to acknowledge his greatness and place among the legends of the sport.

Of the many great attributes to James' game, his willingness to reassess his play and work to improve is probably his best. When he first came into the league, the knock against him was that he couldn't shoot jumpers, and he has improved to the point where he's actually one of the better jump shooters in the league and will make you pay if you dare him to shoot it from the midrange area. After he fell apart against Dallas in the 2011 Finals, he got to work on his post game and put away the three pointers. After being a poor three point shooter for years (even though he kept taking around five a game) and scrapping it for a year, LeBron linked up with Ray Allen, brought the three pointers back (albeit on a limited basis) and shot a career high 40 percent from downtown. Hell, the only thing left on his to become a free throw shooter (I'd love to see him have a 50-40-90 season).

Although the most frequent Miami lineup (Chalmers-Wade-James-Haslem-Bosh for 633 minutes) had him at the small forward position, LeBron pretty much spent the entire year at the 4 spot. He was more than able to handle this new assignment, as he did a little bit more on the defensive glass than in previous years. Coach Spoelstra hasn't done it yet (well, he hasn't done it for more than 28 minutes), but I'd love to see Miami put LeBron at the center for a while. He's strong enough to handle pretty much every big guy in the post, his post game is solid, and with a combination of Chalmers-Wade-Allen-Battier, it'd be very pleasing to watch (OK, they'll get killed on the glass, but it's not like they're Chicago on the glass amirite?!).

The legacy talk is always murky water no matter who the player is, but it feels doubly so when it comes to LeBron. It seems like every event, good or bad, is a mark on how we will remember James. When he wins, he Over at The Shadow League, Bomani Jones explains:

With all these moving parts, we still try to figure out James place in history, though he is – ­and we are – fully immersed in the present. It’s irrational and selective, but it’s hard to avoid when talking about a once-in-a-generation talent. Duncan may be one of the 10 best players of all time, but LeBron might be so much more. And whether or not he’s remembered as such is dictated by so many things – big and small – that have nothing to do with him.

We clearly recognize the folly in this approach. Otherwise, everyone would be graded on the fly like James is. Needless to say, that’s not the case.

I think by the time he ends his career, LeBron will be remembered as the best player of his generation, and maybe of all time. As a player, James can do it all. He's the best finisher in the sport, a tremendous passer, amazing defender, great rebounder, and someone you trust to make the right decisions late in close games. I know, I know he doesn't have the rings Jason Segel, but he's only 28 and has a lot of great years of basketball left in the tank. If you assume he plays until 41 (the year Kareem retired), he almost certainly would've broken his MVP record and added some more Championships to his resume by then. But even if he falls short, he's made enough of an impact on and off the court that he won't be forgotten by history.

Bonus Reading: Hot, Hot Hoops

Part I: The New York Knicks

Part II: The Indiana Pacers

Part III: The Chicago Bulls

Brooklyn Nets preview

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