Wizards rally down stretch, top Heat 105-103 (Yahoo Sports)

MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 19: Paul Pierce #34 of the Washington Wizards reacts to winning a game against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena on December 19, 2014 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

MIAMI (AP) — One of the biggest reasons why Paul Pierce decided to join the Washington Wizards was because he thought they could be a contender if they learned how to finish games.


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NBA Trade Rumors: Breaking Down Buzz on Rajon Rondo, Corey Brewer and More

The NBA trade rumors are flying, but just how many teams are actually participating in roster-building (or perhaps roster-dismantling) discussions?

According to Detroit Pistons head coach Stan Van Gundy, it could be all of them.

“Everybody’s talking right now — everybody’s always talking right now,” Van Gundy said, via Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press. ”It gets a little more serious when more people get involved. Of the 30 teams, all are talking.”

Now that free agents signed in the offseason are eligible to be traded, general managers are free to wheel and deal without any major restrictions.

The buzz surrounding big names in the NBA is deafening at this point. It would be a major disappointment for fans eager for new-look rosters and new storylines if no trades went down before the calendar year is up.

Here is a breakdown of the latest chatter regarding three notable players whose names have cropped up in recent trade rumors.

Rajon Rondo

It feels like Rajon Rondo’s name has been in trade rumors for years now, but it appears that the Boston Celtics might finally be ready to rip the Band-Aid and part ways with their highly regarded floor general, via ESPN’s Marc Stein:

The Boston Celtics, after years of flirting with potential Rajon Rondo deals, are in substantive discussions on a trade that would send Rondo to the Dallas Mavericks, according to league sources.

Sources told ESPN.com that the Celtics and Mavericks have been discussing a swap that would furnish Boston with multiple draft picks — including at least one future first-rounder — as well as blossoming Mavericks center Brandan Wright and other players needed to make the salary-cap math work.

The Celtics also have been talking to teams such as the Sacramento Kings, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets about potential Rondo deals, according to sources, but the most advanced discussions have been with Dallas.

Although the possibility of seeing Rondo run the triangle offense to Pythagorean perfection in New York tickles the imagination—and would be an absolutely crushing development for Lakers fans who’ve been pining for Rondo for quite some time—moving the veteran point guard to the 19-8 Mavericks makes the most sense for both parties. 

ESPN’s J.A. Adande passed along his take on the potential blockbuster:

CBS Sports Network’s Sean Grande noted that Mavs coach Rick Carlisle praised the point guard’s all-around ability in November:

If the Mavericks can land Rondo—and perhaps even ink him to a long-term contract—he would greatly improve the franchise’s prospects in both the short and long term. 

Rondo and his 10.6 assists per game would be the perfect fit for a team replete with scoring options such as Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons and Monta Ellis. 

The West is ultra-competitive this season, but adding Rondo to this potent lineup would give Dallas another title shot before the aging frontcourt of Nowitzki and Tyson Chandler really starts to break down. If he signs with the team long term, he and Parsons can keep the team competitive if they are forced to search for another complementary star in a couple of years.

Rondo is a pest on defense and would be a fine asset for the Mavericks on this end of the court. Dallas is ranked 20th in the league in defensive efficiency, per ESPN.com

Wright would be a notable asset to give up. He leads the team in player efficiency rating at 26.25, via ESPN.com, but wouldn’t leave too big of a hole in the lineup as he plays just 18.7 minutes per game.

Boston risks losing Rondo to free agency this summer. The 28-year-old Kentucky product is a draw for free agents due to his unselfish nature, but the 2015 class is weak and the Celtics don’t appear to have a young player in the pipeline who can develop into an elite scoring threat. Jeff Green leads the team with 19.7 points per game, but he’s already 28 years old and unlikely to improve much beyond his current level of play.

Blowing things up and starting over with 2014 No. 6 overall pick Marcus Smart at point, draft picks and a young squad might truly be their best course of action.

Of course, nabbing Rondo would hardly gift-wrap the title for Dallas. There are two bona fide title contenders in the state of Texas alone with the 19-5 Houston Rockets and the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. There are six teams in the West with winning percentages over .700, including Dallas.

If Rondo indeed goes to the Mavs, look for the 2015 Western Conference playoffs to be one of the most brutal postseason gauntlets in quite some time.

Corey Brewer

The Minnesota Timberwolves’ Corey Brewer, when he’s not busy taking leisurely strolls across the hardwood, is one of the league’s better little-bit-of-everything contributors.

The 28-year-old veteran swingman is averaging 10.5 points, 3.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and a league-leading 2.3 steals per game. Unfortunately, it’s not enough to help drag the young pups on the T-Wolves to victory.

Minnesota could be looking to go all in on its youth movement and give more time to the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Shabazz Muhammad at small forward. ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Stein provided an update on Wednesday of the team’s looking to snatch the league’s resident master thief:

Sources told ESPN.com that the Timberwolves, beset with injuries and mired at the foot of the Western Conference with a record of 5-19, are again engaging contending teams in trade discussions for Brewer after making him available in mid-November and then abruptly pulling him off the market.

The Houston Rockets and Cleveland Cavaliers, sources said, remain the most interested suitors for Brewer, but have also been joined by the Los Angeles Clippers.

Brewer would make an excellent veteran bench contributor on an NBA contender, but he’s best fit for either Houston or Los Angeles.

The Cavaliers defensive and bench issues are well documented, but the team already has small forwards in LeBron James, Shawn Marion and Mike Miller. They could also stand to use a rim protector to bolster a frontcourt that lacks a premier defender.

Teams are shooting 63.3 percent from within five feet of the basket against Cleveland, per NBA.com. That’s the second-worst clip in the league, trailing only the Timberwolves in paint-protecting futility.

Brewer would be quite useful in Houston, as he could challenge Trevor Ariza, who is struggling on offense, and possibly help cover James Harden‘s occasional lapses in concentration on defense, although Brewer does gamble on some of his steal attempts. Still, he would be a nice veteran presence on the bench to go along with the young Kostas Papanikolaou.

The Clippers could use a defensive upgrade at a very thin small forward position, but as Clips Nation’s Steve Perrin points out, they could have trouble coming up with an appealing deal for the Timberwolves:

He’s making $4.7M and the Clippers have basically no flexibility to bring in more salary in their current situation. Nor do they have much to offer that might interest the Timberwolves. A straight up Jamal Crawford for Brewer trade would work financially — but would just create a different problem for the Clippers, and wouldn’t hold any interest for the Wolves since they already have Kevin Martin in that role and they’re in rebuilding mode.

Minnesota is unlikely to take any veterans in return and should be committed to the in-house development of Wiggins and Muhammad. If that truly is the case, Brewer’s best shot at landing on a contender might be with Houston.

 

Josh Smith

The Detroit Pistons are 5-21 and face the looming prospect of losing Greg Monroe to free agency in 2015. If the team is to bolster its future prospects, as they have little chance of making an impact this season no matter how paper-thin the Eastern Conference is, it stands to reason they should try to make a trade of some sort.

According to Ellis, the team has discussed trading forward Josh Smith but should be wary of trying too hard to move him:

At this point, Smith is the only player the team (5-20) has seriously discussed trading. But even that is just preliminary; teams are scared off by Smith’s price tag and the evidence that he’s a declining player.

So the Pistons could be facing a Ben Gordon scenario.

In June 2012, the team gave up its eventual 2014 first-round pick — along with Gordon’s bad contract — to the Charlotte Bobcats. That’s a mistake the Pistons won’t make again.

The numbers don’t lie; Smith is 29 years old and providing the Pistons with diminishing returns.

He’s at least managed to curb his appetite for low-quality three-pointers, taking just 1.3 shots per game from downtown as compared to 3.4 last year, per Basketball-Reference.com. 

The greater selectivity hasn’t improved how often he makes these shots, but it’s a sign of his willingness to play within himself. Smith also noted on Dec. 15 that he’s feeling better after spending time hampered by lingering injuries.

“Yeah, I am,” Smith said, via Ellis. “Time is good. Bones don’t feel as stiff, but just been able to get a lot of work in before the game, a lot of stretching, a lot of massages on the legs and try to open everything up to be a little looser early on in the game.”

If teams take note of Smith’s recent performances, like his 21-point, 13-rebound, five-block effort against the Sacramento Kings on Sunday, it’s possible the Pistons might actually be able to complete a deal and then focus on retaining Monroe, who, at 24 years old, offers far better long-term prospects than an aging Smith.

Something has to give in Detroit, other than the porous defense. The capital “B” Big Three experiment of Smith, Monroe and Andre Drummond just hasn’t worked out at all for this franchise. Drummond looks to be a mainstay in Motor City, and if the Pistons are serious about getting some sort of return on their dubious investment in this trio of stars, Smith just might have to go, albeit at a cut-rate offer.

Otherwise, Monroe can walk in 2015 and Detroit is saddled with an aging Smith and Drummond as its two biggest stars with little in the way of a supporting cast.

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Kings’ Rudy Gay Throws Down 2-Handed Poster Dunk over Thunder’s Serge Ibaka

The Sacramento Kings may have trailed against the visiting Oklahoma City Thunder after the first half on Tuesday, 61-54, but Rudy Gay was at least able to get the home crowd fired up.

Just before the end of the second quarter, Gay drove to the basket and threw down a poster dunk over Thunder forward Serge Ibaka, drawing a foul in the process.

Here’s another angle of the play:

Gay hit the ensuing free throw, and his 11 points tied for the team lead at the half with backup guard Ramon Sessions.

[Vine, h/t Twitter]

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Arizona Basketball: Breaking Down What Makes Wildcats Dominant on Defense

Scoring against Arizona this season is going to be tougher than watching SEC basketball.

Michigan found that out the hard way, as the Wildcats smothered the opposition to the tune of an 80-53 win. After some close calls earlier in the year, everything was clicking for the home team to earn a dominant victory against a talented opponent.

Wolverines coach John Beilein was pretty impressed with what he saw, via Zack Rosenblatt of the Arizona Daily Star:

While everything seemed to go Arizona’s way in this game, it was all started by the excellent defense. This team is a favorite to win the Pac-12 and is a top contender to bring home a national title this year, thanks to its ability to keep teams off the scoreboard.

The amazing thing is there isn’t just one reason this defense is so great. Multiple factors work together to help make this one of the best units in the nation. Here is a breakdown of what allows the entire system to work.

 

On-Ball Pressure

There are many keys to success in a man defense, but no one can survive without first being able to guard the person in front of you. Arizona goes above and beyond in this category by pressuring the ball at every step.

This all starts with T.J. McConnell, who is often referred to as little more than just a veteran game manager, but the truth is he is so much more. He especially excels at going after an opponent’s point guard and forcing him into mistakes throughout a game.

He currently leads the Pac-12 with 2.4 steals per game, a mark that is likely to remain throughout the year.

Meanwhile, Arizona has a not-so-secret weapon in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, whom head coach Sean Miller recently called ”one of the nation’s great defenders.”

The 6’7″ wing can guard almost any position on the floor, impressing ESPN’s Seth Greenberg during the win over Gonzaga:

With the willingness from these players and others to play aggressive defense, opponents are forced into mistakes or, at the most, very difficult shot attempts. This means it shouldn’t have been a surprise when Michigan could make only 35.2 percent of field goals Saturday.

 

Length and Athleticism

Some things you simply can’t teach, but you certainly can recruit.

No matter where you are trying to shoot against Arizona, there will likely be a long arm in your face closing quickly. The most common lineup for the Wildcats features the 6’6″ Stanley Johnson at shooting guard, 6’7″ Hollis-Jefferson at small forward, 6’8″ Brandon Ashley at power forward and 7’0″ Kaleb Tarczewski at center.

Even when Tarczewski comes out, fellow seven-footer Dusan Ristic comes in to help defend the rim.

Although none of these players can be considered true shot-blockers, they can alter shots by just getting their hands in the air. Scoring inside is especially difficult, and it requires either a lot of toughness or some serious body control to get around the towers in the paint.

At the same time, the Wildcats use their athleticism on the perimeter to close quickly in rotations. Even when an opposing player sees a little bit of daylight, it disappears in a hurry.

Miller has scouted and recruited the perfect players to put into his system, and it seems to be working so far.

 

One-and-Done

This doesn’t refer to Johnson’s likely plans for college life before going into the NBA. Instead, this is about what opposing offenses have to deal with every time down the court.

Some of the easiest points you will get in basketball come on a putback when the defense doesn’t box out. A missed shot often leads to a wide-open layup or dunk when you crash hard on the weak-side glass.

While Arizona is weaker on the offensive glass this season, it has done an excellent job at securing defensive rebounds. According to TeamRankings.com, the Wildcats lead the nation by grabbing 82 percent of opportunities on opponent’s missed shots.

This incredible number was actually bested in the win over Michigan. Arizona had 31 defensive rebounds compared to just six offensive boards for the Wolverines. This means that after one (probably bad) shot, Michigan was done for the possession and had to go back on defense.

Stanford, Utah, UCLA and others will attempt to cause problems in the Pac-12 with the ability to get offensive rebounds and get second-chance points. However, the Wildcats can virtually shut down these offenses by limiting each possession to one shot.

 

Continuity

The team came into the year having to make up for the losses of Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson, two extremely talented players who were valuable on both ends of the court. However, the majority of the rotation returned this season, and it gave the team a decent amount of experience.

To make things even better, Arizona has a short rotation that actually works to its favor. Six players have represented the team’s core, as McConnell, Johnson, Hollis-Jefferson, Ashley and Tarczewski account for 80.5 percent of the team’s minutes this season.

All except for Johnson have been playing together in Miller’s system for over a year.

Ristic, Elliott Pitts and Parker Jackson-Cartwright have played in every game this year, but none of them average more than 15 minutes per game.

What this does is create plenty of continuity defensively to help create an even more fluid system. The players know where everyone is going to be on the floor and how to play off each other. A perimeter defender can be more aggressive going for a steal because he trusts his teammate to have his back if needed.

Everyone on the team works together to help create the No. 9 most efficient defense in the nation, according to KenPom. Based on the way the squad is playing, it wouldn’t be surprising to see this number move even higher by the end of the year.

Offense might sell tickets, but this defense is what’s going to keep Arizona in the national title discussion all year long.

 

Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.

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Orlando Magic’s Tobias Harris Hits Game-Winner to Take Down Atlanta Hawks

The Orlando Magic pulled out a 100-99 victory thanks to an incredibly clutch shot by Tobias Harris.

With the Magic trailing 99-98 and 3.4 seconds remaining, Harris received the inbounds pass and hoisted up a miracle that found the bottom of the net as time expired to lead the Magic to a key win over the East’s third-best team.

Harris finished with 20 points and six rebounds, but most importantly, he led his team to a win. 

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NBA Trade Rumors: Breaking Down Buzz on Joe Johnson, Lance Stephenson and More

Baseball might have the hot stove, winter meetings and a flurry of big trades toward the end of every calendar year, but the NBA is no slouch when it comes to trade talks and rumors in December.

Several big names have been bandied about in recent days as the league inches ever closer to Dec. 15, when free agents signed during the summer months are allowed to be traded. The relaxing of this restriction gives many teams greater flexibility when it comes to making the kind of moves that can improve a franchise in the short or long term (or both). 

Here is the latest buzz surrounding three players who are reportedly in contention to swap squads this season.

Joe Johnson

The Brooklyn Nets don’t appear to be afraid of tearing down the current roster and building anew.

According to ESPN.com’s Marc Stein and Ohm Youngmisuk, the Nets have let other teams know that three of the team’s biggest stars are on the trading block: ”The Brooklyn Nets have begun reaching out to teams to let them know that former All-Stars Deron WilliamsBrook Lopez and Joe Johnson are available via trade, ESPN.com has learned.”

The Nets are 9-12 on the season, and the three aforementioned players rank fifth, third and first on the team in player efficiency rating (excluding the recently signed Darius Morris), respectively, per ESPN.com.

Although Brooklyn has a losing record, it does play in the Eastern Conference, where playoff hope springs eternal for just about every team not located in either Detroit or Philadelphia, or playing home games at Madison Square Garden.

However, the early results fall well short of the expectations of a team that also features the likes of Kevin Garnett and is coached by Lionel Hollins, who enjoyed plenty of success running the Memphis Grizzlies.

While all three players could prove to be very difficult for the Nets to offload—they would need trade partners who possess a distinct win-now mentality—Johnson might be the toughest of them all to see getting traded. 

He’s putting up fine numbers comparable to last season, although the 33-year-old swingman‘s shooting percentages are down this year.

Still, Johnson and Williams aren’t exactly detrimental to the squad. According to ESPNNewYork.com’s Mike Mazzeo, the Nets tend to struggle when Lopez is on the floor:

The Nets have to slow it down with center Brook Lopez in the game, and his teammates have struggled playing with him. Lopez has a minus-3.3 on-court net efficiency rating (100.2 points per 100 possessions for vs. 103.5 points per 100 possessions against). Brooklyn is only slightly better offensively with him on the court (98.9 offensive rating on bench). The Nets are much better with Joe Johnson (103.2 offensive rating on vs. 93.0 offensive rating off) and Deron Williams (101.3 offensive rating on vs. 94.5 offensive rating off) on the floor as opposed to the bench.

The big issue with moving Johnson is his massive contract. His deal doesn’t expire until the end of the 2015-16 season, and he has a $23 million cap hit for next year, per Spotrac.

Scoring points has always been Johnson’s calling card as he’s not renowned for his defense in any way, but it would be tough for any team to justify taking on that salary with his current level of production.

Despite the trade rumors swirling, Johnson remains focused on winning with the Nets.

“This is what comes with the territory,” he said, via Mazzeo. “It’s part of it. And us as players, we still have jobs to do. And that’s to come out, try to get victories and help this team be successful. We just gotta stay focused with that.”

 

Lance Stephenson

The Charlotte Hornets thought they had found the perfect complementary piece to the inside-outside combo of Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson when they signed Lance Stephenson as a free agent prior to this season.

However, the swingman has struggled on the floor since the opening tipoff, and the new-look Hornets’ 6-16 record isn’t helping the franchise distance itself from the tarnished Bobcats moniker that graced many of these players’ jerseys as recently as last season.

According to RealGM.com’s Shams Charania, several teams have expressed interest in trading for Stephenson:

Lance Stephenson has garnered fresh trade inquiries into the Charlotte Hornets’ front office recently and wouldn’t be opposed to a potential move to the Brooklyn Nets, but hopes to remain part of and succeed in his partnership with the Hornets, league sources told RealGM.

Four to five NBA teams have shown an interest to the Hornets on Stephenson, but no deal is imminent, Stephenson has made clear his desire to help propel a turnaround and both sides believe there’s still time to salvage a productive relationship and run with the franchise, sources told RealGM.

A move to the Nets would be an intriguing blockbuster, as Stephenson hails from Brooklyn, and the team is reportedly looking for big-time trade partners.

Stephenson’s signing was indeed a sign that the Hornets were ready to become main players on the NBA stage, and they could be just the type of win-now team ready to try something new and salvage a potentially lost season. Johnson would be the best fit considering the Hornets are set at point guard with Walker and in the frontcourt with Jefferson.

However, the Hornets would be unwise to give up on a 24-year-old with so much potential so soon. Stephenson shot 37.5 percent from the floor in November but has improved to 46.4 percent in four games in December, per ESPN.com. He’s still a disaster from beyond the three-point line (0-of-8 in December), but he has the strength and athleticism to find higher-percentage shots without serving as a threat from long range.

Some of Charlotte’s biggest issues this season have come on the defensive end of the floor. It ranks 21st in the league in defensive efficiency, per ESPN.com, and is giving up 100.5 points per game.

Of Hornets with at least 10 games under their belts this season, Stephenson ranks fifth in defensive rating per Basketball-Reference.com. He also ranks second on the team in both steals (0.8) and rebounds (7.4) per game.

With shutdown defender Michael Kidd-Gilchrist only just recently making his way back from a foot injury, the Hornets could really suffer on defense if they trade Stephenson and don’t get quality defenders in return. It’s best the team stands pat for now and takes a chance on turning things around with a young swingman with building-block potential.

 

Wilson Chandler

Something about the Denver Nuggets roster makeup just screams potential trade partner. They’ve managed to remain competitive for the past few seasons without a bona fide superstar on the squad, but a 10-12 record in the competitive Western Conference makes them little more than a fringe playoff contender at this point in the season.

It’s like a less depressing version of the Milwaukee Bucks’ former eighth-seed-or-bust mentality. 

The latest Nugget to end up in the rumor mill is Wilson Chandler, who has reportedly drawn interest from the Oklahoma City Thunder, per Sports Illustrated‘s Chris Mannix.

Chandler is averaging 14.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game. At 27 years old, he should be in the prime of his career and would provide a valuable scoring option and veteran presence out on the wing.

The 10-13 Thunder got off to a poor start this season with injuries to superstars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but they are on a five-game winning streak and should be able to secure a playoff spot if team health permits.

Chandler would be an excellent asset for a 2014 NBA title run, which has to be the Thunder’s aspirations as the small-market team’s window could be closing with Durant set to become a free agent in 2016. 

It’s unclear what they would have to give up to get Chandler, but the team would be better off trading future assets and preserving the integrity of the team it has now. Draft picks and/or a young player with potential like Jeremy Lamb could be enticing in any potential trade, as the Nuggets don’t have the talent on the current roster to compete in a Western Conference flush with heavyweights.

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Russell Westbrook throws down powerful one-handed slam (Video)

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook threw down a powerful one-handed slam dunk during the second quarter of Thursday night’s game against Cleveland.Westbrook got ahead of the Cavaliers defense on a fast break and received the lead pass from teammate Reggie Jackson, then exploded for the strong finish.Westbrook was the star of the game with 26 points to lead the Thunder to a 103-94 victory over the Cavs.Video via NBA.
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Breaking Down What’s Behind the Terrible Miami Heat Defense

The strangest thing about the Miami Heat‘s start to the post-LeBron James era is the team’s inability to stop.

Get stops, that is, on defense.

Losing James was bound to hurt the Heat on offense. But few expected his departure to hobble Miami on the other end, where his inconsistent effort level in 2013-14 made him a great defender in reputation, but not in practice.

Replacing LeBron in the lineup with Luol Deng—a defender who, despite high mileage, is probably a more consistent performer—should have helped the Heat maintain their solid defensive rating of 102.9, which ranked 11th in the league last year, per NBA.com.

Instead, the Heat have cratered on D, posting a rating of 107.1 that ranks 26th. Only the New York Knicks, Minnesota Timberwolves, Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Lakers have been worse this season.

So, what gives?

 

Hot Shooting Scorching Heat

The Heat have allowed opponents to shoot 48 percent from the field this season, the third-highest accuracy rate in the league. Obviously, when the other team is making its shots, it’s hard to avoid bad defensive numbers.

But at the quarter pole of the season, raw field-goal percentage can still be misleading. We have to look deeper to figure out the source of Miami’s issues.

Permitting opponents to hit 62.5 percent of their shots from inside five feet is a a problem, but the Heat permit just 27 attempts per game from that range, per NBA.com, the fifth fewest in the league. So it’s not as though Miami is getting killed by layups and dunks.

Using Basketball-Reference.com’s sorting system to parse the data more finely, we get an interesting revelation: Miami’s field-goal percentage allowed within three feet is 64.4 percent, which ranks in the middle of the NBA pack overall—not great, but not crippling.

The Heat are unusually generous from three to 10 feet, though, where they allow a field-goal percentage of 41.8 percent that ranks fifth worst in the league. Most teams would love to see opponents take all the shots they want from that awkward distance, and you’d have to expect the Heat’s overall numbers to improve as teams’ accuracy from that low-percentage area regresses.

To put it simply, Miami has been a bit unlucky.

More evidence of bad fortune fueling bad defensive stats: Opponents are shooting 46.6 percent from 10-16 feet this season, a figure that ranks a fraction of a percentage point behind the Toronto Raptors for worst in the league, per Basketball-Reference.com.

When you’re getting killed by floaters and mid-range jumpers, there’s not a lot you can do besides wait for the law of averages to even things out.

 

Something Besides Bad Luck

Then again, perhaps those high accuracy rates are signs of a bigger issue. After all, Miami is allowing an accuracy rate of 37.3 percent from beyond the arc as well, seventh worst in the league and an indicator that it is simply not staying close enough to shooters anywhere on the floor.

Head coach Erik Spoelstra has a theory on how Miami’s failure to handle the defensive basics is hurting his team more than anything else, per Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel:

It’s the other possessions, where they end up getting an easy one on a cut, on a drive, where we don’t really contain the ball mano a mano. An open three in the corner where it’s not really any kind of action, just hitting somebody and not really getting him off the line. Those are the ones during the course of the game that really hurt you more than playing a great defensive possession and they hit a bomb at the end of the clock.

The eye test confirms Spoelstra‘s theory; the Heat don’t keep the ball out of the middle of the lane, which leads to open shots on kickouts and missed assignments everywhere as scrambling help defenders arrive a step late.

New personnel throughout the roster explains some of this. It takes time for players unfamiliar with a system and each other to develop the kind of trust and consistency necessary to play good team defense.

In addition, losing James may be hurting the Heat in a very specific way. Deng is a tireless worker who can guard multiple positions, but he’s not a superhuman athlete who shuts off passing lanes from impossible angles, closes distances like a jaguar and generally causes havoc with sheer speed.

The Heat still gamble and trap often, a strategy that made sense with a roster that could take advantage of the James-era Heat’s length and quickness.

With James gone, Dwyane Wade a constant injury concern and new players failing to replace the missing explosiveness, perhaps a more conservative strategy is in order.

 

Blame and Change

In one sense, personnel is part of the problem. But we need to be careful about assigning blame to specific players.

ESPN.com’s Chris Broussard recently said the following on WQAM’s Mark Hochman Show (via CBSSports.com): ”I’m a bit baffled. I don’t think (Josh) McRoberts has worked out for them. What I’ve heard is he’s a real strong-minded guy. He kind of does his own thing and that doesn’t really work in Miami.”

Josh McRoberts‘ injury issues have contributed to the Heat’s lack of lineup continuity, but we can’t pin their defensive troubles on him. Though he’s played just 296 minutes this year, Miami has defended better with him on the floor, and its offense has been almost exactly as effective with him as it has without, per NBA.com.

Responsibility belongs to everyone—from Bosh and Wade, to Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole, to Spoelstra himself.

Finding fixes won’t be simple. But toning down its gambling tendencies will help Miami prevent middle penetration and all the easy shots that follow. That will be a fairly big change for a Heat team that has long defined itself on defense with steals and chaos creation, but perhaps not as big as some might think.

Last year, Spoelstra toned down the hard hedges and aggressive traps a bit. So scaling back even more in those areas might just be part of a natural progression toward a more conservative norm.

Of course, if the Heat are persuaded that their poor defense stems from anomalously high opponent field-goal percentages, they could simply stand pat and wait for shots to stop falling.

Don’t count on that, though. We already know Spoelstra isn’t thrilled, and it sounds like the Heat’s best player is also fed up with the status quo.

“We’ve had speeches,” Bosh told Winderman. “We’ve had demonstrations. We’ve had walkthroughs. We’ve had practices. And, still, nothing happens.”

As Spoelstra has said so many times over the years, it’s all about the process. There’s an inherent patience attached to that sentiment—one that keeps the Heat head coach from overreacting to bad short-term results.

At the same time, when Spoelstra does make changes, he makes big ones, with the Heat’s now famous switch to small ball three years ago being the most transformative. If the defense stays broken through the All-Star break, we should expect drastic changes.

Realistically, though, Miami won’t be a poor defensive team all year. There’s enough talent and coaching skill to prevent that. Keeping the ball out of the middle will be key, but the Heat should also expect their opponents to cool off from low-percentage areas on the floor.

And as all the new pieces come together, the trust and connectivity needed for decent D will improve.

When all that happens, they’ll start getting stops.

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Shabazz Muhammad throws down the hammer on Chris Kaman (Video)

Minnesota Timberwolves reserve forward Shabazz Muhammad finished a fast break by throwing down a monster one-handed slam over Portland Trail Blazers center Chris Kaman during the second quarter of Wednesday night’s game at the Target Center.Muhammad scored 11 points off the bench as the Timberwolves pulled off an upset the Blazers with a 90-82 victory.Video via NBA.
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Kobe: If Lakers were the Titanic, I’d go down with that

The Los Angeles Lakers are officially one of the worst teams in the NBA. Kobe Bryant is probably wasting the last two or three decent seasons of his career, and he seems to know it. But his loyalty has never wavered. After the Lakers were blown out by the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday night,…Read More

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