Ettinger: Heat not so hot

If the season ended today, the 5-3 Miami Heat would play the 4-3 Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the NBA playoffs. What does this tell us? It tells us that it’s far, far too early in the season to say anything about anything in the NBA. That doesn’t mean, however, that we can’t have fun trying.

So what do we think of the Heat so far this season? Not bad? We’ve seen an impressive win over Orlando and an embarrassing collapse against Utah. They haven’t earned the credibility of, say, the esteemed New Orleans Hornets, but the team is beginning to notch W’s.

But what quality of ball are we seeing from The Three Bromigos? We’ve seen in the past that all three of James, Wade and Bosh are capable of stepping in and taking over a game. But if this team is going to win a title (or seven), they’re going to need to be capable of more than that—they’re going to need to play team ball. This point was obvious from the outset, and from day one of the Miami Escapade, one question loomed: how will the three superstars co-exist in a way that doesn’t just accommodate their talents but rather augments them?

Bill Simmons wrote a column on October 29 titled “LeBron and Wade: Can it Work?” The Heat were 1–1 and had been convincingly thumped by the Boston Celtics, who, led by Rajon the Wonderful, had played exactly the team ball that Charles Barkley was sure would keep the Heat from title contention. Simmons made a convincing argument that both LeBron and Dwayne are players whose first instinct is “I got this.” Eventually, Simmons argued, if the Heat were to piece it all together, one of the two would have to step back and accept the role of facilitator. He reasoned that because James is the superior player, it would have to be Wade — the man perhaps most responsible for assembling the Super Friends in his hometown in the first place.

It would appear that the Heat have done exactly the opposite. As the young season has progressed, Wade has turned into scoring machine. His 26 points per game are good for fourth in the league, having dropped a cool 39-spot in the Heat’s thrilling loss to the Jazz on Tuesday. There wasn’t much facilitating to speak of — Wade contributed just one assist, bringing his season average to just 3.4 per game — well below his career average of 6.6. LeBron, meanwhile, has harnessed his inner Magic Johnson and become the team’s de facto point guard. His 14 assists on Tuesday raised his season average to 8.6, good for eighth in the league. The next forward on the list? The 76er’s Andre Iguodala, with 5.8, at 18 in the league. Like Magic, James is finding opportunities to create when he needs to, scoring 20.6 points per game. That total is well below his career average (27.7), but not bad for a player playing second-fiddle to Wade. These two would appear to present a devastating combo — James’ incredible vision and Wade’s finishing ability are a nightmare for any defense. Plan B, it would appear, is for James to take the rock himself and pound the lane — something he did with unmatched success in Cleveland. What could be better?

The picture isn’t quite so rosy. The most obvious problem so far is Bosh. His 14.8 points per game make sense for a scorer who is most certainly the Heat’s (formidable) Plan C, but Bosh was signed to grab boards. If Plans A through C fail, just try again, right? For the team to compete, the Torontophile is going to need to grab more than 5.9 boards per game.

But there is a deeper problem. The evidence suggests that the Heat might need an actual point guard. Carlos Arroyo was never expected to break into a Fantastic Four, but 2.0 assists and 6.3 points per game simply aren’t enough from the team’s true point guard. The strategy would suggest it doesn’t matter, but the results are troublesome. In their three games against elite point guards (Rondo, Chris Paul and Deron Williams), the Heat have been embarrassed in the backcourt. Rondo dished the ball 17 times to Arroyo’s zero when the Heat played the Celts. Against the Hornets, Arroyo did manage an assist, but Paul managed 19. Williams out-assisted Arroyo 14-2 in Tuesday’s game. In all three games, Wade and James have put together admirable performances. In all three games, Arroyo has been absolutely outmatched and underused on both sides of the ball. In all three games, the Heat have lost.

The point here isn’t that anyone (other than Bosh) isn’t doing his job. This is in no way Carlos Arroyo’s fault. However, the notion that James can pull a Magic and take over as the team’s facilitator from the forward position probably isn’t going to fly. At some point, the Heat are going to have to incorporate their point guard—be it Arroyo, Mario Chalmers or even Eddie House. The Heat’s non-Big Three players aren’t even half bad. But the game plan of “LeBron to Wade and sometimes just LeBron” isn’t going to work on every play, and the Heat will be exploited when they face quality point guards.

This situation isn’t without precedent. In 2007, the Celtics put together a big three with a shooting guard (Ray Allen), a small forward (Paul Pierce) and a power forward/center (Kevin Garnett). That year, a second-year point guard out of Kentucky put up 5.1 assists per game as the Celtics took home the NBA Championship. Rajon Rondo has now blossomed into perhaps the best player on the team, averaging an impressive 14.8 assists on the young season.

So where do the Heat go from here? I won’t pretend to have the answer, but it’s clear that their current game plan is a little too simple and has too many holes. Two people, in particular, will need to step up. Bosh needs to be more aggressive on the glass and be the rebounder the team thought he would be. More importantly, coach Erik Spoelstra needs to get creative about how to integrate his Big Three into a dynamic, creative offense that exploits the talents of his players. Until then, the Heat will be stuck pondering LeBron’s favorite question: “Who should I be?”

John Ettinger is a junior in Saybrook College.

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