Has the Miami Heat’s dependency on the three-pointer become their fatal flaw?
The league-wide uptick in three-point shooting is primarily the byproduct of two factors in basketball evolution: the modern-day playing style that trends heavily towards skilled, multi-positional, well-rounded players rather than traditional, standard positional traits has opened up the court and brought the now-common pace-and-space tactics to the forefront; as well as ever plain and simple math.
Three is unequivocally more than two, and as the playing style continues to open up the court, the shooting outburst doesn’t look like coming to an end anytime soon. We may not have scratched the surface in terms of a league-wide revolution, but already teams are pushing this concept to the extreme. It begs the question: is there a point of diminishing returns? When does the shot-jacking defeat both math and logic? We may already have an answer.
The Miami Heat finished 41-41 last season, recovering from their disastrous 10-31 start to reverse that in the second half and win 31 from their last 41 games and narrowly miss the playoffs. There was more than just rust contributing to their slow start — an inherent character trait that illustrates a key factor in their offensive performance gives an explanation to the radical mid-season turnaround.
Through the Heat’s 41 wins last season they averaged 44% on threes, which would be the highest mark in the league; through their 41 losses, they shot 31.7%, which would represent the worst mark in the league. Aside from being a fascinatingly linear statistic, it raises questions about how much they depend on the three-point shot, and whether that amount is healthy. The Heat were trying to bulk up their scoring, but if you’re trying to build muscle you don’t just abandon your diet and chug protein powder; moderation is key, and a swing in results that so closely mirrors such fragile percentages suggests the Heat had a preferred method of getting it done.
And whilst it would seem a fair counterpoint to say that those numbers don’t depict a dependence, but rather a team underperforming and then finding their identity midway through the season, the continuity of the roster and a continued correlation suggests otherwise.
So far this season the Heat are shooting 39.4% (would rank fourth) in wins and 27% (would be last in NBA) in losses. They sit a disappointing 2-4 through six games.
Essentially, the Heat are running it back, simply going through the same phase they did early last season. That isn’t suggesting that they will only take win 10 from their first 40 games, but their current win record and three-point percentage is heading in a similar trajectory. In a league where the teams trying to win are getting better, treading water is drowning.
Tonight’s starting 5 vs the Celtics pic.twitter.com/K6mfnOZnsl
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) 28 October 2017
Shooting threes is more efficient from a numbers perspective, but they’re worth more because they’re harder to make (obvious, but important and often forgot). Jacking them up in huge numbers opens up the variance and can swing the control of a game in a few possessions, but depending on them falling, unless you have all-time great shooting or creative talents, is generally a losing proposition — it was last year, and has been thus far for the Heat.
And even with great talent creating or shooting the shots, dependence can be perilous. Take some of the most trigger-happy teams in the league from the 2016-17 season:
• The Warriors shot 40.9% from three in wins; 26.7% in losses
• The Rockets shot 38.6% from three in wins; 29.5% in losses
• The Cavaliers shot 40.7% from three in wins; 34.3% in losses
But there is something fundamentally different about all three of those teams compared to Miami: the Cavs (51-31), the Rockets (55-27) and the Warriors (67-15) are elite teams armed with top-five individual players and an army of deadly snipers. The Heat don’t have either of those, and that makes relying on these types of shots much riskier, and hence their loss total much higher.
For the Heat’s system, penetration is key: last season they led the league in drives per game with 35.1, predominantly charged by their electric backcourt of Goran Dragic (11.9 drives, 3rd) and Dion Waiters (6th with 11.0). Most importantly was what happened at the end of those drives; Waiters was 1st in the league in assists from drives with 1.4 and Dragic a close 2nd with 1.3, and they were the top two ranks in passer-to-shooter combinations. They were creating inroads and using them to find each other, and other open shooters spotting up, and once the combination gelled the Heat’s season turned around.
Business was boomin’ for 7-11 tonight
51 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists & 4 steals combined pic.twitter.com/vwza28rjPG
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) 31 October 2017
This year, the Heat are second in drives per game — a huge increase to 56.4 per game that is all but guaranteed to come down — but lightning doesn’t strike twice. They are scoring more points off drives this year with 24.4 points per game, compared to 20.0 last year, but shooting lower percentages on threes — 34% on catch and shoots compared to 38% last year. The driving lanes are still created, but opponents are aware of the Heat’s tendencies and are choosing to stay at home on shooters and force them to beat the defenders inside. Like we said, three is more than two, and defences have come around to the idea as well.
Simply, the shots just aren’t falling. It sounds simple, but it’s a make or miss league, and it’s absolutely the case here: the Heat are actually generating more wide open shots (defender outside 6ft) with 17.6 a game up from just 9.4, but hitting a lower percentage, 37.5% down from 40.3% last season. For further perspective, they’re taking less tightly guarded shots (defender within 2ft) but were making an absurd 36% last season, which has understandably plummeted to a measly 13% this year.
Granted, it’s a relatively small sample size, but considering last year’s data that was heavily influential on the course of their season, both in the good and bad stretches, and the continuation of the trend, it’s fair to begin drawing conclusions. The focus of the offence has to change, or at the very least be altered somewhere, to allow for a plan-B when the shots aren’t falling. The common troupe in basketball is that jump-shooting teams don’t win championships, and it’s partly true: you need something else to fall back on, as well as a different leading elite skill, not to mention a top-five player in the league (the Warriors, whilst great at it, aren’t a ‘jump-shooting’ team). The Heat, in turn, have constructed a jump-shooting game plan around a borderline-average shooting team — it just isn’t a recipe for success.
Despite the result, an amazing night for Dion Waiters.
DW scored 21 of his game-high 33 in the final 5 minutes of the 4th quarter and OT pic.twitter.com/3CsshlmuSb
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) 31 October 2017
One component that can’t be ignored is variance. We saw the Houston Rockets embrace this concept with video-game-level absurdity last season, but the reason was relatively logical: if the talent deficit is overly favouring one side — as it did with the Warriors — the best way to tip the scales is to throw the entire system out and go with whatever has the highest upside. A sound idea in theory, but almost as tough to carry out as it is to beat them straight up. It creates a degree of randomness that can help, but obviously said randomness isn’t repetitive, and ultimately the Rockets bombed out as expected. They’ve turned it down this year and went the conventional route in acquiring more talent.
Which is just another notch on the argument that this tactic isn’t reliable. The very same way it can make ground against superior opponents, it can invite inferior opponents into the game. When you’re the Nets and there’s no inferior opposition, this is a calculated risk worth taking. It’s the same outcome that leads to the Nets — an objectively bad NBA team — starting out with a 3-1 record. When both sides are playing that game then these random outcomes can occur. Have a dependable game-plan to rely on, and it’s a regular, winnable game.
Shooting is a skill that improves over the season, whether through touch or the better implementation of the offence leading to better shots, but leaving the run too late — as they did last year — will leave them on the outside looking in. The East is so weak that the Heat may be able to scrape into the playoffs even with this fatal flaw, but if they reach the post-season, where shooting percentages commonly go down rather than up, and open shots and spacing are much harder to seek out, this once again will come to the forefront.