This warm-weather team, which recently traded Shawn Marion and Shaquille O'Neal, wasn't expected to contend in the 2009-10 season. However, they are one off to a terrific start; two weeks into the campaign, they are one of four teams remaining with just one loss. Yes, 2009-10 has been good to the Miami Heat.
Oh, you thought I was referring to the Phoenix Suns? While Phoenix has drawn plenty of attention for beginning the season at 7-1, Miami has opened up 6-1 in relative obscurity. It hasn't helped that the Heat doesn't have a signature win along the lines of the Suns' road upset of Boston. Miami's best shot at that kind of victory might have come last Tuesday, when Phoenix came into AmericanAirlines Arena and was on the other end of the Heat's lone loss.
Still, what Miami has done so far demands attention. The Heat's point differential--+8.7 points per game--ranks third in the league. Even when adjusted for a relatively easy schedule that has given Miami five out of its first seven games at home, the Heat has played 7.3 points better than an average team per game. That also ranks third behind Boston (+11.6) and Dallas (+8.4). It is in fact far better than the Suns' ranking (+5.7, 7th), in large part because five of Phoenix's seven wins have come by single-digits.
What is unusual about Miami's start is that this was supposed to be a transitional year for the Heat. As Bradford Doolittle explained in detail in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10, Miami can clear far more cap space than any other NBA team next summer and has the ability to sign another superstar as a free agent in addition to re-signing Dwyane Wade.
With the summer of 2010 in mind, the Heat let starting small forward Jamario Moon walk over the summer, replacing him by adding well-traveled Quentin Richardson in a trade. None of that did much to suggest an improvement on 2008-09's 43-39 record and first-round playoff exit was in order. Starting so well has offered hope for something more.
Digging deeper, however, reveals some reasons to be dubious of the way Miami has started. Entering Wednesday, the Heat ranked fourth in the league in Defensive Rating (98.6) and was one of five teams in the NBA allowing less than a point per possession. That was before holding Washington to 76 points in 90 possessions on Wednesday. Relative to the rest of the league, Miami's defense has been better than in 2004-05, when the Heat won 52 games (finishing seventh in Defensive Rating), or 2005-06 (11th), when the team would go on to win a championship. It has also been much improved from last year's 13th-place finish.
However, how Miami has done it defensively may not be sustainable. The Heat is above-average in each of the defensive Four Factors, but elite in the most important one--opponent shooting, as measured by effective field-goal percentage. Miami is slightly better than the league in terms of defending two-point shots, really standing out when it comes to shutting opponents down from beyond the arc. The Heat has allowed opponents to hit just 49 three-pointers and make them at a 27.8 percent clip. Both marks lead the league.
There was no real warning that Miami would suddenly become so stingy when it comes to giving up threes. My studies have shown no consistent correlation between opposing three-point percentage in successive years, and using last year's results would hurt the Heat anyway--Miami allowed 38.9 percent shooting beyond the arc in 2008-09, which ranked 28th in the NBA.
Personnel doesn't seem to explain the discrepancy either. The biggest change for the Heat, save Richardson replacing the longer Moon in the lineup, has been Michael Beasley spending more time playing small forward. That bigger unit should sacrifice perimeter defense for strength in the paint, and in fact Miami allows 9.0 more points per 48 minutes with Beasley at the three as compared to when he is at the four.
If the Heat had allowed opponents to shoot threes at an average rate thus far, their Defensive Rating would be almost exactly the same as the overall Offensive Ratings of the offenses Miami has faced so far this season. Given that and the team's history, it seems likely the Heat is truly an average defensive squad masquerading as an elite one thanks to the schedule and a little good fortune beyond the arc.
That's not to say all hope should be lost. Miami has also played better so far on the offensive end than in 2008-09, though the improvement (from 19th to 12th) is not nearly so dramatic. Here, the reasons are easier to trace. The Heat was an improved offensive team (but slightly worse defensively) after adding Jermaine O'Neal at the trade deadline, and O'Neal has been effective down low in the early going. Meanwhile, Richardson has knocked down 43.3 percent of his threes, providing the floor-spacing presence Miami needs at small forward. Wade has been typically brilliant, and as long as he remains healthy the Heat will always be competitive.
There also remains something of a vacuum of power in the Eastern Conference after the top three teams (and even Cleveland from that group has looked vulnerable early in the season). Last year, Atlanta edged out Miami for that fourth spot in the conference semifinals, winning a seven-game series after finishing the regular season four games ahead of the Heat. The Hawks are off to a good start themselves, going 5-2 with a solid point differential, so Atlanta and Miami could fight it out for home-court advantage in the first round all season long--even if opponents' threes start falling against the Heat.
Pro Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.com. See our PBP 09-10 page for more details and to purchase your copy in printed form or as a downloadable PDF.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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