Are the Miami HEAT Suffering From A Championship Hangover?
The two-time defending champion Miami HEAT (30-12) own the fifth best record in the league and currently sit second in the Eastern Conference standings. For any other franchise in the league these type of results would be applauded. However, through the first half of the season the defending champions have hardly resembled a dominant team set on hoisting their third consecutive Larry O’Brien trophy.
This isn’t to say the HEAT haven’t been capable of turning on the juice at varying points during the season at hand. Miami holds a 12-4 mark versus teams with a .500 or greater record which includes victories over Indiana, Los Angeles (Clippers) and Portland.
But the HEAT have struggled mightily putting away inferior teams on a consistent basis, posting an 18-8 (.692) record versus teams below .500 which includes losses to Brooklyn (2), Chicago, Detroit New York, Philadelphia and Sacramento.
»In Related: Miami HEAT Salary Cap Information
On the surface Miami is winning close to 70 percent of their contests versus substandard competition, but a quick stroll among the league’s top teams clearly illustrates Miami’s struggles in this area.
Records versus sub .500 teams (as of January 22)
San Antonio Spurs 17-1 (.944)
Indiana Pacers 20-2 (.909)
Los Angeles Clippers 16-3 (.842)
Portland Trail Blazers 19-4 (.826)
Houston Rockets 16-4 (.800)
Oklahoma City Thunder 13-4 (.765)
Miami HEAT 18-8 (.692)
Obviously, the nightly uncertainty of whether All-Star guard Dwyane Wade’s troublesome knee is able to go is a primary driver in the team’s up and down play this season. However, there have been numerous examples pointing to the team’s inability to start fast against inferior opponents, instead relying on late game heroics.
Reigning league MVP LeBron James recently admitted to the media that the club’s core group may be fatigued from all of wear and tear accumulated from playoffs runs over the last three seasons (three straight trips to the Finals).
However, looking a bit deeper, Miami may not be struggling as much as being portrayed. In 2013, the HEAT won 66 contests and through 41 games this season the current iteration is actually winning at a similar level:
2012-13 Miami HEAT: 28-13 (.683)
2013-14 Miami HEAT: 29-12 (.707)
Similar starts, but last year’s unit finished the season in an extremely dominant fashion winning 38 of their final 41 contests. But one of the main differences is the fact Wade missed just 13 games last season. To date, Wade has missed 12 games in the current campaign and will likely miss plenty more before the season concludes as the team looks to preserve his health for playoff time.
“It’s tough,” [LeBron] James told Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald. “Guys think it’s easy, but it’s tough. We have a team built on chemistry, built on rhythm. With so many of the guys being in and out, and the concern with D-Wade, it’s been tough on all of us. We’ve got to go in with the mindset sometimes that he’s not playing, as opposed to: Is he playing?
“We’ve had a little more guys out than just Dwyane this year. From a rhythm standpoint, it’s kind of hurt us. We’re a team that is built on rhythm and chemistry, and we’ve had so many guys out with injuries that it’s kind of hurt our performance.”
The toughest thing in sports to do, after winning a title, is pulling off a repeat. Miami is attempting to pull off the ever rare three-peat and between the physical fatigue, injuries and possibly a championship hangover of sorts the team has struggled to remain consistent. But when the smoke clears, assuming a healthy Wade is in the rotation, Miami figures to be in the thick of things in late May.
Luis Scola Trade Paying Off For Indiana Pacers
The Indiana Pacers have the best record in the NBA this season. The team features a legitimate MVP candidate in Paul George and a solid contender for Defensive Player of the Year honors in Roy Hibbert. Former All-Stars Danny Granger and David West provide veteran leadership, while forward Lance Stephenson is an emerging force having a breakout campaign.
While those guys consistently get the mainstream headlines, the Pacers’ offseason acquisition of forward Luis Scola from Phoenix has undoubtedly played a significant role in Indiana’s evolution.
Scola, 33, is averaging 8.3 points and 5.2 rebounds on 50 percent shooting from the floor this season providing the Pacers with the frontcourt bench presence the team has lacked in recent years.
Hibbert has been impressed with his new teammate and believes the veteran forward could take on an even larger role if given the opportunity.
“He has been playing really well, solid,” Hibbert told Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star. “(Scola) knows how to pass, rebound, he’s been working on his athleticism too. Before, in training camp, we had a dunking drill and he airballed a dunk. Now, he’s like two-handed slamming it, one-hand slamming it. He’s a hard worker and I’m happy.
“Seriously, I feel like he can do a lot more for us but you know, he gives into the system of playing with four bigs and he’s very efficient in the time he’s on the court.”
»In Related: Indiana Pacers Salary Cap Information
Hibbert also added how he tries to Scola more involved on a nightly basis.
“I always try to find him in the post because I know he can do a lot more than what he’s doing because of the minutes he’s playing,” Hibbert said. “So whenever I’m out there, I always tell him I’m going to look for him. I try to hook him up with some passes for him to dunk it and (get) one or two more shots than he usually gets.”
Despite his teammates confidence, Scola is content in his current role as his career starts to wind down.
“I’m getting closer to the end of my career, so the most important thing for me is winning and this is a great chance for me to achieve that,” Scola said. “It’s a great place to work and as a matter of fact, we’re winning a lot of games.”
Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird has consistently stated acquiring Scola was priority number one last summer and to this point the move has paid immediate dividends.
The Pacers are 33-7 and currently own the best record in the NBA.
PODCAST: Breaking Down The Western Conference Playoff Race
Basketball Insiders Deputy Editor Jesse Blancarte and Writer James Blancarte break down the Western Conference playoff race and check in on the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers.
NBA Daily: The Cleveland Cavaliers Need Tyronn Lue
The Cleveland Cavaliers have faced injury adversity and a roster shakeup, and now face uncertainty regarding coach Tyronn Lue’s health.
The most enduring image of Cleveland Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue came moments after his team sealed the 2016 NBA Finals with a third consecutive win after trailing the Golden State Warriors 3-1. As the team celebrated its historic comeback and readied to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy, one camera focused on Lue, who sat on the bench with his face buried in his hands.
— Buddy Grizzard (@BuddyGrizzard) June 20, 2016
The image tells a thousand words about the pressure Lue was under as Cleveland teetered on the brink of elimination for three games. Rather than sharing the euphoria of his players, it seemed that Lue’s emotions centered around the massive weight that had been lifted from his shoulders. Almost two years later, it appears that burden has caught back up with Lue, whose leave of absence for health reasons complicates things for Cleveland with the playoffs just around the corner.
“It’s like losing one of your best players,” said Cavaliers forward LeBron James after Cleveland’s 124-117 win at home over the Milwaukee Bucks on Monday.
Kevin Love returned from a six-week injury absence to post 18 points, seven rebounds and four assists against the Bucks. James likened Lue’s absence to the burden of trying to replace Love’s output while he was unavailable.
“We’ve got to have guys step up, just like guys trying to step up in Kev’s absence,” said James. “We have to do the same as a collective group as long as Ty needs to get himself back healthy.”
There’s optimism that Lue could return before the playoffs, but there’s a great deal of uncertainty given the seriousness of his symptoms, which reportedly included coughing up blood. Lead assistant Larry Drew, a former head coach with the Bucks and Hawks, will handle head coaching responsibilities until Lue is ready to return.
Kyle Korver played under Drew in Atlanta and said he’s confident in his ability to fill in.
“We’d love to have Ty here and healthy,” said Korver after the Bucks win. “Coach Drew has done this for a long time as well. He coached me for a full year in Atlanta. We know he’s fully capable.”
Korver also doubted Drew would introduce any major stylistic changes.
“I think LD’s been Ty’s top assistant for a reason,” said Korver. “They really think a lot alike. They coach very similarly. We miss Ty, but I think the style of what we do is going to be very similar.”
While style and approach should remain unchanged, what could an extended absence for Lue mean for the Cavaliers? Lue cemented his legacy as a leader by keeping the Cavaliers together as they fought back from a 3-1 deficit to the Warriors, but Drew hasn’t had that kind of success as a head coach.
In 2012, the Hawks had a real opportunity to reach the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in Atlanta history. The Hawks faced an aging Boston Celtics squad in the first round. The eighth-seed Philadelphia 76ers awaited in the second round after defeating the top-seeded Chicago Bulls.
After splitting the first two games in Atlanta, the Hawks faced a pivotal Game 3 in Boston with the opportunity to retake home court advantage. Atlanta Journal-Constitution beat writer Michael Cunningham used Synergy Sports to break down every offensive possession for Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. His conclusion? For three quarters, Rondo did not score a single basket while guarded by Hawks combo guard Kirk Hinrich.
The Hawks traded a package that included a former and a future first-round pick to obtain Hinrich from the Wizards in 2011. But in Game 3, Hinrich failed to score a point despite his effective defense. Apparently feeling the need for an offensive spark, Drew left Hinrich on the bench in the fourth quarter and turned to career journeyman Jannero Pargo.
With Hinrich out of the game, Rondo’s offense came to life as he slashed to the basket at will. Boston opened the fourth with a 13-7 run before Pargo went to the bench and Atlanta closed on a 15-7 run to force overtime. The NBA did not publish net rating data at the time, but we can now see via historical data that the Hawks were outscored by nearly 52 points per 100 possessions in Pargo’s minutes in Game 3. Rather than entrust Atlanta’s season and his own legacy to a player the Hawks traded two first-round picks to obtain, Drew went with Pargo, a career end-of-bench player.
What does this mean for the Cavaliers? It means the team needs to get Lue back. Drew and Lue are both former NBA players who have received mixed reviews as head coaches. But when his legacy was on the line, Lue pushed the right buttons.
For Drew’s part, in his first postgame press conference since Lue’s absence was announced, he remained publicly deferential.
“Coach Lue is the one who makes that decision,” said Drew when asked about lineup combinations. “That’s not my call. We look at a lot of different combinations — whether guys are starting or whether they are coming off the bench — and we assess everything.”
On the critical question of how lineups will be fine-tuned as the Cavaliers prepare for the playoffs, Drew once again emphasized Lue’s active role even as he steps away from the bench.
“I’ll talk to Ty,” said Drew. “He’s got the final say-so. Whatever he wants, then that’s what we’re going to go with. But if he tells me to make a decision, then I’ll have to make the decision.”
With Lue suffering acute symptoms, there’s no way of knowing when he will be ready to step back into the pressure cooker of a leading role for a team with championship aspirations. But the Cavaliers need him and need his steadying influence and instincts. Cleveland is a team that has battled through injuries and a major roster overhaul at the trade deadline. It also faces the pressure of James’ impending free agency decision this summer.
Now, with the playoffs just around the corner, the Cavaliers must endure uncertainty about Lue’s ability to return and lead the team. James has emphasized that Lue’s health overshadows any basketball concerns, but gave his most terse remark when asked about learning that Lue would step away on the same day Cleveland finally got Love back.
“If it’s not one thing, it’s another,” said James. “That was my reaction.”
A Breakout Season for Joe Harris
Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Harris talks to Basketball Insiders about his second chance with the Nets.
The NBA is all about second chances. Sometimes players need a change of scenery, or a coach who believes in them, or just something different to reach their full potential. They may be cast aside by several teams, but eventually, they often find that right situation that allows them to flourish.
Such was the case for Joe Harris. Originally drafted by the Cleveland Cavaliers with the 33rd overall pick in the 2014 draft, Harris rarely saw the court during his time in Cleveland. He averaged about 6.4 minutes per game over the course of about one and a half seasons with the Cavaliers.
During the 2015-16 season, his second in Cleveland, he underwent season-ending foot surgery. Almost immediately after, the Cavaliers traded him to the Orlando Magic in an attempt to cut payroll due to luxury tax penalties. He would never suit up for the Magic as they cut him as soon as they traded for him.
After using the rest of that season to recover from surgery, he would sign with the Brooklyn Nets in the summer of 2016. He had a very strong first season in Brooklyn, but this season he’s truly broken out.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just the right situation in terms of circumstances. It’s a young team where you don’t really have anybody on the team that’s going out and getting 20 a night,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a collective effort most nights and it can be any given person depending on the situation. It’s one of those things where we’re real unselfish with the ball. A lot of guys get a lot of good looks, so your production is bound to go up just because of the system now that we’re playing.”
Known primarily as a sharpshooter in college at the University of Virginia as well as his first stop in Cleveland, Harris has started developing more of an all-around game. He’s improved his ability to put the ball on the floor and make plays as well as crashing the glass and playing strong defense.
In a relatively forgettable season record-wise for the Nets, Harris has been one of their bright spots. He’s putting up 10.1 points per game on 47.3 percent shooting from the field while playing 25.4 minutes per game. He’s up to 40.3 percent from the three-point line and he’s pulling down 3.3 rebounds. All of those numbers are career-highs.
“My role, I think, is very similar to the way I would be anywhere that I was playing. I’m a shooter, I help space the floor for guys to facilitate,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “I’m opportunistic offensively with drives and such. I’m out there to try and space the floor, knock down shots, and then play tough defensively and make sure I’m doing my part in getting defensive rebounds and that sort of stuff.”
Although Harris didn’t play much in Cleveland, he did show glimpses and flashes of the player he has blossomed into in Brooklyn. He saw action in 51 games his rookie year while knocking down 36.9 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also saw action in six playoff games during the Cavaliers’ run to the 2015 Finals. But more importantly, it was the off the court things that Harris kept with him after leaving Cleveland. The valuable guidance passed down to him from the Cavaliers veteran guys. It’s all helped mold him into the indispensable contributor he’s become for the Nets.
“Even though I wasn’t necessarily playing as much, the experience was invaluable just in terms of learning how to be a professional,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “The approach, the preparation, that sort of stuff. That’s why I learned a lot while I was there. All those good players that have had great, great, and long careers and just being able to kind of individually pick their brains and learn from them.”
When Harris came to Brooklyn two years ago, he initially signed a two-year deal with a team option after the first year. When he turned in a promising 2016-17 season, it was a no-brainer for the Nets to pick up his option. Set to make about $1.5 million this season, Harris’ contract is a steal.
However, he’s headed for unrestricted free agency this upcoming summer. Although he dealt with being a free agent before when he first signed with the Nets, it’s a different situation now. He’s likely going to be one of the most coveted wings on the market. While there’s still a bit more of the regular season left, and free agency still several months away, it’s something Harris has already thought about. If all goes well, Brooklyn is a place he can see himself staying long-term.
“Yeah, it’s one of those things that I’ll worry about that sort of decision when the time comes. But I have really enjoyed my time in Brooklyn,” Harris told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a great organization with a lot of good people, and they try and do stuff the right way. I enjoy being a part of that and trying to kind of rebuild and set a good foundation for where the future of the Brooklyn Nets is.”