Heat Trap: The Miami Heat are the 2014-15 Eastern Conference "Attrition Factor"

In 2010, the Miami Heat pulled off the biggest free agent coup…ever? It’s quite possibly true. The team’s front office re-signed Dwayne Wade and brought in marquee free agents Chris Bosh and Lebron James. That team never failed to disappoint over the four years they were together. In a combination of unstoppable talent and makeshift additions of specialists playing on minimum and veteran deals, they rumbled through the Eastern Conference four consecutive seasons, winning the NBA title twice.

Lebron James, arguably the biggest and best piece of the “Big Three” that Miami assembled in 2010 has returned to his former team this offseason. As in 2010 he doesn’t go to a team with a talent cupboard that is barren. In his return, he was pivotal in constructing a trade that brought the best pure scoring PF in the NBA, Kevin Love, to Cleveland. While we all knew that the Heat were not going to be left dead in an Eastern Conference that is primarily bereft of teams loaded with talent or championship capabilities, not much has been said of the challenge of attrition that they present for any would-be contender in the East.

The Heat are the 2014-15 “unmentionable” as a team that we take for granted. They have been stripped of their world-beating superstar. Gone also is three-point nomad Mike Miller, now also in Cleveland with James, and future-Hall of Famer and sharpshooter extraordinaire Ray Allen. The attrition to the Heat’s roster parallels the attrition that any Eastern Conference hopeful will endure to get through them in an effort to reach the NBA Finals this season.

The previously non-existent “Attrition Factor” that I probably made up and attribute to the Heat lies in the fact that they are who we thought they were. Both Wade and Bosh are still intact as is the coach, and they have added workhorse and All-Star, Luol Deng. The system will experience minor adjustments no doubt, but the remaining talent that Miami holds is inserted into a system they understand; a system that they used to great success in the past. The adjustment that will be required is minor compared to the task that faces David Blatt and the many pieces accumulated in Cleveland, or the many new faces and challenges in Chicago.

The season is very young; however, we are already seeing some of the things we anticipated falling into place. Toronto continues to rise, Chicago is again in the running for the title of regular season champions, Cleveland is completely loaded but still adjusting, the Wizards are buoyed by veteran additions and await the return of Bradley Beal, Miami has picked up nearly where they left off with one enormous subtraction. The playoff borderlands contenders are amassed as we wait to see if the Bucks make an unrealistic push for the 8th seed as the Hornets seems like a lock for a bottom-end berth.

Lots of speculation about the playoffs can be had and last week we had a preview of what most consider a future conference finals matchup between Cleveland and Chicago. But what of the road to that matchup, should it happen? The Bulls have struggled with the Wizards over the past four seasons, going 6-9 against them, including a 4-1 series loss to the Wizards in the playoffs just last season. The Cavaliers will get right and look terrifying and mortal at the same point many times over this season. The Hornets will get better as their additions and long-time standards learn to play together, or at least hit overtime buzzer-beaters off the glass from 25-30 feet out. Miami will take advantage of playing in what I would consider the weakest division in the NBA. Toronto can falter and still have plenty of breathing room to chase that top seed.

And what if that happens? There are a number of indicators that the push for the top four spots in the East will be tighter than in previous years. The strong are getting stronger, the weak are marginally gaining. There are few true contenders in the East, but the attrition that stands in their way is growing stronger and Miami is the least-discussed, most-realistic threat at this point. They are the “Attrition Factor” for the 2014-15 Eastern Conference playoffs. Pretty much any scenario in the playoffs that you could come up with that includes the Heat is going to require the three to four contenders ahead of them to face them in addition to at least one of the other top four teams in the conference. Just to reach the conference finals.

The star piece is gone as we noted, but the other major pieces remain. Should you not think that matters, I refer you to any Spurs team in the past decade. Early season numbers bear the caveat of being unreliable predictors of full season statistics, but where the Cavaliers are experiencing growing pains both on the court and on the sidelines and Thibs is trying to learn to actually coach a full roster of talent with interchangeable pieces, the Heat are about business as usual for the most part.

A lot has been made of the Cavaliers inability to create assists, notably having Kyrie Irving go seven full NBA quarters without getting an assist as a starting point guard on a team that features both Lebron James and Kevin Love. There have been times where I thought that I could get at least one assist if you put me on the court with those guys (yeah…right). The Heat currently average 22.0 assists per game, ranking them 5th of teams to have played 5+ games so far this season. Notably, fellow contenders in the East, Washington and Charlotte, also rank in the top five in that category. Cleveland has only played four games so far this season and they rank dead last in the NBA with just 16.0 assists/game. But the movement is still there for Miami as well. In the 5+ game category for passes/game they sit 6th at 328.4. Charlotte is currently second in that category while the Cavaliers come in a full 23.1 passes per game below them, more on par with the Bulls and Wizards. The Wizards passing numbers will likely go up with the return of Beal, but this still shows that the Miami Heat are playing comfortably and interchangeably to begin their first season without James. As noted, teams that play within themselves and have a high level of effectiveness within what they do, not simply in quantity can make life difficult for more talented teams. The Spurs not only do that consistently, last season they dismantled the South Beach Empire in a matter of about a week.

The numbers across the board are encouraging for the Miami Heat. Wade will never again be what he once was, but few players even approach the heights he once inhabited. His early season numbers show only the slightest difference from his full season numbers last year: he is less than half a point off of his scoring average (-0.4), slightly down on his rebounds (-0.3), and his assist numbers have actually climbed by a little over one full assist per game (+1.3). While Wade and company are older than they ever have been before, the understanding of their system continues to allow them to cheat time and age. The Spurs are currently running the fastest game in the NBA as 4.3 mph. The Heat are running at 4.1, equal to or better than the Bulls, Wizards and Cavaliers. System matters and the Heat are staying within their system. I understand that this comes early in the season and we need to take all statistics with a grain of salt. The encouraging news is that the NBA is the most predictable of the major sports leagues in America.

The addition of Deng is hard to quantify. The wonderfully non-real “will to win” intangibles that he brings to the table as a disciplined, hard-working player on both ends of the floor who, for years, bought in and performed well for the drill sergeant that is Coach Thibs in Chicago is evidence that he is a solid player, capable of thriving inside of an established system. And while that will not win a championship, it will make them difficult to beat. You’re going to have to work for it against this Miami Heat team; they have some scrap and grit in them. Remember, this is the same Wade that broke Kobe’s nose in an All-Star game.

The Miami Heat will not win the NBA Championship in 2014-15. They probably will not win a title for the foreseeable future and possibly way beyond that. But in a league that features 82 regular season games to be followed by three rounds of playoffs before reaching the finals, the small things add up. The Heat are playing within themselves and that is enough to make the playoffs. No matter whom they face, it will take a toll on their yet-to-be-determined opponents. The Wizards are a long shot and may need to go through a combination of the Heat, Bulls, Raptors and Cavaliers. The Bulls may need to go through the Heat, Wizards, Raptors, and/or Cavaliers. The Cavaliers may need to go through themselves, the Bulls, Heat, Wizards, and Raptors. The East is not as strong or deep as the West, but things are starting to get crowded at the top. We saw what teams like the Mavericks and Trailblazers did in the playoffs last year. There is always a price to pay to be the best; every season has its attrition. The “Attrition Factor” team in the East this season will be the Miami Heat.