HANG TIME NEW JERSEY — The question on everyone’s mind these days is whether there will be a new pope before the Miami Heat lose a game.
OK, here’s a more pertinent question: Are the Heat a better team than they were last season?
The answer is yes, but it comes with a small asterisk.
After Tuesday’s win over the Hawks, the Heat are 48-14, on pace for 63 wins and the best winning percentage in franchise history. They’ve outscored their opponents by 9.4 points per 100 possessions, about 2.2 points better than they were last season. The 2011-12 champs never won 19 straight games, either. Their longest winning streak was just nine games.
A look at pace-adjusted numbers shows the ups and downs of the Heat’s three seasons with LeBron James.
Heat pace and efficiency, last three seasons
Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
The Heat have made a big jump offensively. In fact, though they ranked sixth on that end last season, they’re the second-most improved offensive team in the league, with the Knicks having made a slightly bigger jump.
Miami and Oklahoma City have been taking turns at the top of the offensive rankings for the last few weeks now. While the Thunder do more damage from the free throw line, the Heat shoot better from the field.
Better shooting counts for most of the Heat’s offensive improvement, but a decrease in turnovers has also been key…
Heat offense, last two seasons
OREB% = Percentage of available offensive rebounds obtained
TmTOV% = Turnovers per 100 possessions
FTA Rate = FTA/FGA
James’ turnovers are down, but not as much as those from Mario Chalmers, who went from turning the ball over 15.7 times per 100 possessions last season to just 12.2 this season.
The Heat’s shooting improvement has as much to do with the shots they’re taking as it does about how well they’re shooting them. Now, they’re shooting better this season from every area on the floor, but they’re also taking more of the most efficient shots.
The best shots are those from the restricted area (worth 1.18 points per attempt across the league) and those from the corners (worth 1.17). The Heat have taken 44.1 percent of their shots from those two areas (sixth highest mark in the league), up from 41.2 percent last season. James, in particular, has done a nice job of reducing his mid-range shots.
That’s a big reason why James is having the best shooting season of his career. Of course, Chris Bosh has taken more mid-range shots this season, and he’s also having the best shooting season of his career. Dwyane Wade is too.
The one small asterisk mentioned earlier comes on the other end of the floor. Only six teams have regressed more defensively than the Heat, who are allowing 3.8 more points per 100 possessions than they did last season.
There’s been some improvement over the course of the season and some great defensive games at times, but there’s never been a significant stretch of games where the Miami defense has just shut everyone down. Even over the course of their 19-game winning streak, the Heat have been just the sixth-best defensive team in the league, having to rely on offense to get a handful of those wins (including a few over bad teams).
Part of the regression has been defending the paint. But they’re also not rebounding as well as they did last season, an aspect of their defense that may be harder to improve if they plan on flipping the switch come playoff time.
Now, we’re picking nits here. The Heat are finally dominating the competition like we asked them to do a month and a half ago (just before the streak started) and we’re still hung up on their defense. But they’re simply not as good defensively as they were last season, or as good as any of the five NBA champions before that.
2012-13 Heat vs. last 10 NBA champions
|Season||Team||OffRtg Diff.||Rank||DefRtg Diff.||Rank||NetRtg||Rank|
OffRtg Diff. = Points scored per 100 possessions vs. league average that season
DefRtg Diff. = Points allowed per 100 possessions vs. league average that season
Do the Heat need to be better defensively? Maybe not. Comparing offensive efficiency vs. the league average, they’re the ninth-best offensive team of the last 36 seasons (since the league started counting turnovers in 1977), and their NetRtg of +9.4 points per 100 possessions would also rank in the top 10.
So we’ll just have to wait and see — probably until mid-June when they finally face a similarly dominant team — if this new formula works just as well for the Heat as the last one did. Or maybe they’ll just flip the switch on April 20 and start defending as well as they did last season.