Are LeBron James and Dwyane Wade worn out from the up-tempo offense?
Remember the "pace and space" offense? That was what Erik Spoelstra called the Heat's new offensive philosophy. Run the floor, space the floor and attack relentlessly. For the first couple weeks of the season, the Heat did just that. In the season premiere on Christmas, they pummeled the Dallas Mavericks with 31 fastbreak points and turned the defending champs into petrified wood. Over the first ten games of the season, the Heat averaged 21.6 points per game on fastbreaks. The Heat were fulfilling their vision as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade lead a stampede through the league.
And then it all came to a halt. First impressions are hard to break, so it's easy to overlook how the Heat have slowly transformed from a hare to a turtle. And in the process, the Heat's offense has experienced their ups and downs. In February, the Heat's offense was thriving, but it wasn't because of their open court assault. Their fastbreak points per game fell to 15.6 in the month of February and they no longer were among the league leaders in the category.
But after a dominant February, the Heat's offense has come back to Earth and the fastbreaks are few and far between. The deceleration was underscored in Monday's loss to the Indiana Pacers when the Heat scored just four points in the open court. In the meantime, the high-powered offense has been in a freefall since they lost to the Lakers on March 4 and the "pace and space" offense is nothing but a memory.
Below is a chart of the Heat's offensive efficiency across the season, shown as a 10-game trailing average. It answers the question: "How well have the Heat scored over the past 10 games?" We look at offensive efficiency (points per 100 possessions) because it strips the inflationary effect of pace (a super fast team's points per game numbers overstate its effectiveness.)
The Heat's offense peaked at the Utah Jazz game and then it's all downhill from there.
Pay close attention to the color of the line. We've added another layer to the graph to illustrate the disappearance of fastbreak points. The stronger the red, the greater the percentage of Heat points generated from fastbreaks. Notice how it's blood red for the first 10 or 15 games of the season and then -- poof -- the Heat abandoned their fastbreak game.
Why did the Heat stop running? Dwyane Wade got hurt. After that, the Heat were forced to switch up their attack, hit the brakes and insert a 3-point shooter in the lineup. The fast break points dwindled in his absence, but it never really returned.
What do we have to blame for that? The Heat's "pace and space" offense was met with skepticism around the league for two reasons: a) history tells us that teams who vow to run fast in the preseason rarely actually do; b) the condensed season is exponentially taxing on the players. Sure, the Heat might have been the most athletic and conditioned team heading into the season, but even for them, sprinting through a marathon season was a tall task especially when the organization has rarely, if ever played up-tempo.
Another thing is going on here that isn't captured in the graph above, but is equally important. The shooting has been terrible. Over the past few weeks, the Heat couldn't hit water if they threw a rock in Biscayne Bay. Since the All-Star break, 3-point shootout contestant Mario Chalmers is converting 34 percent of his shots from the floor and 30 percent from downtown. Norris Cole? He's shooting an abysmal 27 percent from the floor. Even LeBron has watched his field goal percentage drop from 55 percent to 50 percent pre- and post-All-Star break, respectively. Wade and Bosh have watched their shooting rates sink as well.
So not only have the Heat stopped running, but they've stopped splashing the ball through the net. Are the two interrelated? It's hard to say. If this is a team that is fatigued from sprinting out of the gate, they're showing it in the numbers. The Heat's offense has been in decline over the past month and they'll need to bounce back in a big way against the Dallas Mavericks, a tough defensive-minded team, on Thursday.