March 4, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Miami Heat shooting guard Mike Miller (13) scores a basket against the Los Angeles Lakers during the first half at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE

Best Team in the Eastern Conference? I still take the Heat

Remember the 9-game winning streak where the Miami Heat blew out their opponents by double figures each game? I am sure most of the basketball world has tried their hardest to forget that.

 

March 23, 2012; Auburn Hills, MI, USA; Miami Heat shooting guard Dwyane Wade (3) dunks the ball in the second quarter against the Detroit Pistons at The Palace. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

 

When that streak was alive, all I heard opponents fans saying, “It’s the regular season, who cares.” Others would say, “Wait till they play a real team.” Fact of the matter is, blowing out 9 straight opponents in the NBA is a feat that should be appreciated. How often do you actually see that happen?

If we dig deeper into that streak, the Heat actually beat 4 potential playoff teams. Six of the nine wins occurred on the road.

Of course, if you are the Heat, you have to win the games by 100+ in order for NBA fans to be impressed these days.

Since the all-star break, Heat critics have come out of hiding and have been enjoying themselves watch the Heat play. Miami has been playing terribly since the break and have gone only 8-6. Blame it on fatigue or injuries, the Heat have just not seem to be engaged in the games.

Heat critics are responding by saying that this is preciously the reason will not win the NBA Finals. The same people that claimed that the Heat 9 game winning streak was unimpressive because it was only the regular season.

Directly after the all-star break, the Heat blew out the Portland Trail Blazers on the road 107-93. The next night, it seemed fatigue kicked in and the team was not at its best. That is still no reason to lose a winnable game to the Utah Jazz. This game will be remembered as the game that Lebron passed on the game winning shot, again.

That same week, the Heat traveled to Los Angeles to face the Lakers. In that game, the Heat were without Bosh. Jon Barry was adamant about the Heat beating the Chicago Bulls on January 29th did not count because Loul Deng was out, surely the Heat could use that same excuse with Chris Bosh out due to the death of his grandmother.

 

Mar, 25, 2012; Oklahoma City OK, USA; Miami Heat power forward Chris Bosh (1) shoots a free throw during the third quarter against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Chesapeake Energy Arena Mandatory Credit: Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE

 

Nope, the Heat were criticized for losing a game where Metta World Peace of all people was knocking down all his shots and actually looked like he cared. Bosh or no Bosh, this was also a winnable game that the Heat had an opportunity to win.

After three straight wins, the Heat lost to the Orlando Magic and Chicago Bulls in back-to-back games. The game against the Magic was a game where Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic played the most inspired game that I had seen in a while. There was going to be no denying them of a victory that night. The players were trying to prove to Dwight that the Magic were good enough for him to remain with. The Heat lost a winnable game, but it was a game I was not going to lose sleep over.

The next night was an absolute embarrassment. The Heat lost to a Bulls team that was without the MVP Derrick Rose. This game was laughable to watch as a Heat fan. From the get go, it was obvious that the Heat did not have the inspiration that they needed to beat a hungry team. A hungry team that was out to prove that the Bulls were not just D-Rose or bust.

It should be noted that this game was the second game of a back-to-back for the Heat after they played an overtime thriller against the Magic the night before. Still, when you have the expectations that the Heat players placed on themselves, this is not an acceptable excuse. After all, this is the Heat team that won 3 games in 3 nights by outscoring their opponents by a combined score of 53 points.

The Heat then went on to win four straight games, but nobody noticed.

Then the Heat had their most lopsided and embarrassing loss of the season. The Oklahoma City Thunder made the Heat look like a team that was owned by Michael Jordan. The Heat lacked hustle and the desire to win.

Mar, 25, 2012; Oklahoma City OK, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder fan Derrick Seys supports his team during the fourth quarter against the Miami Heat at Chesapeake Energy Arena Mandatory Credit: Richard Rowe-US PRESSWIRE

When your team captain has to yell and beg  you to match the intensity of the other team in a game against one of the best teams in the NBA, there is a problem.

The Chicago Bulls are an NBA best 40-11 and are the only team to clinch a playoff spot.  The Miami Heat currently sit at 35-15. That is good for the third best record in the NBA, behind the Western Conference leading Oklahoma City Thunder. For me as a Heat fan, that is not good enough. But if you ask me, the Heat are still the best team in the Eastern Conference, currently.

Why do I still think the Heat are the team to beat in the Eastern Conference and the 2012 NBA Finals favorites still?

The Superstars:

 

Mar 16, 2012; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Miami Heat forward LeBron James (6) and guard Dwyane Wade (3) during the fourth quarter against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Wells Fargo Center. The Heat defeated the Sixers 84-78. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-US PRESSWIRE

The best way to measure a how efficient a player is over the course of an NBA season is to use PER. PER is a metric, much like sabermetrics in baseball, that ESPN’s John Hollinger designed. Hollinger was actually inspired by the famous Bill James.

First off, I will let John Hollinger explain exactly what PER is:

 The player efficiency rating (PER) is a rating of a player’s per-minute productivity.

To generate PER, I created formulas — outlined in tortuous detail in my book “Pro Basketball Forecast” — that return a value for each of a player’s accomplishments. That includes positive accomplishments such as field goals, free throws, 3-pointers, assists, rebounds, blocks and steals, and negative ones such as missed shots, turnovers and personal fouls.

Two important things to remember about PER are that it’s per-minute and is pace-adjusted.

Because it’s a per-minute measure, it allows us to compare, say, Steve Blake and Derek Fisher, even though there is a disparity in their minutes played.

I also adjust each player’s rating for his team’s pace, so that players on a slow-paced team like Detroit aren’t penalized just because their team has fewer possessions than a fast-paced team such as Golden State.

Bear in mind that PER is not the final, once-and-for-all evaluation of a player’s accomplishments during the season. This is especially true for defensive specialists — such as Quinton Ross and Jason Collins — who don’t get many blocks or steals.

What PER can do, however, is summarize a player’s statistical accomplishments in a single number. That allows us to unify the disparate data on each player we try to track in our heads (e.g., Corey Maggette: free-throw machine, good rebounder, decent shooter, poor passer, etc.) so that we can move on to evaluating what might be missing from the stats.

I set the league average in PER to 15.00 every season.

Among players with at least 500 minutes in 2010-11, the highest rating was LeBron James’ 27.34. The lowest was Stephen Graham’s 4.41.

Like Hollinger said above, “PER is not the final, once-and-for-all evaluation of a player’s accomplishments during the season.” But it is the best statistical way to compare players and their efficiency.

When it comes to PER, the Heat have the two best players in that in the NBA.  The Bulls have Rose ranked at 7th and their second best player is Carlos Boozer, ranked 32nd.

Lebron is having a near record season when it comes to PER. The highest PER in NBA history belongs to Michael Jordan (1987/88) season of 31.89 PER. Lebron is currently sitting at a 30.66 PER. If he can get back to how he was playing at the beginning of the season, he has a great chance to break that.

Right now, I would rank Lebron James as the best player in the NBA. At this point, I would say that Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade are about equal. It is only a matter of time before Rose surpasses Wade, and it kills me to say that.

Strength of Schedule

The Heat have posted a record of 35-13 with a strength of schedule that is tied for third toughest this season at .516. The Heat have still maintained the second highest margin of victory in that span. Meanwhile the Bulls have had the second easiest schedule so far.

In fact, when you compare the Bulls schedule to the Heat’s, the Bulls hold a clear advantage. The Heat have to play more quality teams then the Bulls. The Bulls only have to meet the Lakers and the Thunder one time each. The Heat face off those teams two times each. The Bulls face the Magic, Sixers, and the Pacers three times each, while the Heat face those teams four times each.

March 26, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers small forward Danny Granger (33) shoots the ball against Miami Heat center Ronny Turiaf (21) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeated Miami 105-90. Mandatory credit: Michael Hickey-US PRESSWIRE

On the opposite pole, the Bulls face the leagues worst teams more often. The Bulls have two match ups with the Western Conferences two worst teams, the Kings and the Hornets, while the Heat only have one.

 

Efficiency

The Heat have the second best offensive efficiency behind only the Thunder. The Bulls rank fourth in offensive efficiency. Even more impressive is that the Heat have maintained this pace even through their recent struggle where they have not posted 100 points in six straight games.

The Heat also maintain the fourth most efficient defense, the Bulls are number 1. When the teams face off, it all comes down to which team can dictate the pace. With Lebron James ability to guard Derrick Rose and a blueprint to follow from last years Eastern Conference Championship series, advantage Miami.

Overall, it is easier to trust a team that has three primary scoring options opposed to a team that is dependent on one player. The Heat have two defenders capable of guarding Rose in Lebron and Wade. The Bulls do have the personal to guard each of the Heats primary scorers, though.


The Bulls are currently the number 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. But  the Heat are only 3.5 games back and the teams have two head-to-head matchups left. The race for the regular season Eastern Conference crown is far from over.

Still though, the Heat were able to beat the Bulls in a playoff series without home court advantage. There is no reason for the Heat not to be able to do the same thing this season!

Possible Achilles Heel

The Miami Heat’s biggest Achilles heel has to be injuries. Dwyane Wade and Mike Miller have missed a significant amount of games. Lebron James is battling his own injury woes right now. The Heat have some depth, but they are not like the Chicago Bulls that they can just replace a player and stay in rhythm and not miss a beat. Rotation depth, the Bulls have a huge advantage, but if the Heat stay healthy, they are top heavy enough to not have to worry about that.

Another major advantage the Bulls hold over the Heat is rebounding. Chicago is the most efficient rebounding team in the NBA. The Heat are not too bad themselves, ranking seventh. The Heat were able to overcome this battle in the playoffs by working hard and putting 100% effort in.

Bosh can be a top rebounder when he is engaged. That is what the Heat need from him. Having a healthy Mike Miller should also help. He is always active on the boards and at least causes problems for the other teams when they try to get an offensive rebound. If the Heat can have him healthy, have Haslem, Turiaf, and Anthony fighting hard on the boards, and Bosh engaged, the Heat will do well in making up the rebounding efficiency deficit they have when facing the Bulls. If not, the Heat are in a world of trouble.

 

So overall, I believe that the Miami Heat are still the class of the Eastern Conference. For one, they are still the defending Eastern Conference champs that need to be knocked off. Secondly, they have two of the top overall players in the NBA, both of whom are the most efficient players in the NBA. Thirdly, they have faced a tougher test in the regular season then the Bulls and are going to be more battle tested going into a potential playoff series. Finally, if the Heat can stay healthy and remain engaged in the game through the four quarters in an NBA game, they have the most talent in the NBA.

What do you guys think? Let me know in the comments what you think!

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Tags: Boston Celtics Chicago Bulls Chris Bosh Derrick Rose Dwight Howard Dwyane Wade Kobe Bryant Lebron James Miami Heat

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