Wednesday, March 7, 2012
Meet the NBA's best halfcourt team
By Tom Haberstroh
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat have quietly pummeled teams in the halfcourt.
The Heat's offense is really good.
This is no secret if you've been paying attention to the NBA's goings-on this season. If you take a look at the list of most potent offenses in the league, the Heat stand head-and-shoulders above the competition; the Heat are currently scoring 108.1 points every 100 trips down the floor, which places them first in the offensive efficiency rankings.
More instructive, though, is the cushion that separates them from the rest of the league. The Oklahoma City, for example, rank second in offensive efficiency at 106.1, a 2-point difference which is roughly the same distance between the 10th-ranked 76ers offense and the 17th-ranked Nets offense. Two points, on the aggregate, is no small thing.
The Heat's offense is really good, that much we know. But where they're really good might surprise you. The overriding narrative -- which holds plenty of merit --is that the Heat's new up-tempo playing style has driven their rise. And this is true, the Heat are playing much faster than they did last season. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have stepped on the gas and the Heat have, at times, blown past their opponents in the open court.
But that's not the whole story. While it's true that the Heat have catapulted through the ranks thanks in part to their dominant transition assault, there's more to this team than highlight reels and fastbreak dunks. In fact, four out of every five Heat plays on offense don't occur in transition, according to Synergy video tracking. (Synergy tracks every possession in the NBA and places each offensive play into two groups: transition and halfcourt.) The Heat, like all teams, only spend a handful of plays in transition per game and mostly engage in halfcourt warfare.
So what happens in the halfcourt?
Here's where the narrative separates from reality. When you look at how the Heat get their points, you'll find that they get the majority of their points, not from racing up and down the floor in high-velocity brilliance, but from pounding teams when the game slows down in the halfcourt. This fact was underlined in Tuesday's blowout win over the New Jersey Nets.
Amazingly, the Heat built up a 38-point lead on the short-handed Nets with exactly none of those points coming on fastbreaks. Not one. Their first fastbreak points on Tuesday came late in the fourth quarter when Norris Cole laid it in after a pass from James Jones. LeBron, Wade and Chris Bosh were not involved, unless you count cheerleading from the bench as being involved.
So it's as good a time as any to point this out: the Heat rank as the most efficient halfcourt offense in the league, according to Synergy tracking. Said in laymen's terms, the Heat get more out of their halfcourt possessions than any other team. And they have been doing this for quite some time.
Below is an interactive chart that illustrates the Heat's separation from the league in halfcourt efficiency (points per 100 possesions). I've also shown how much they "use" halfcourt offense as a percentage of their total offense. As a handy rule, teams want to be in the upper-half of the chart. Teams that use halfcourt offense more often than others will find themselves on the right-side of the chart.
This probably doesn't jive with the national perception. Since the Heat have played at a faster pace this season, their sharpness in the halfcourt gets lost in the analysis. And so far this season, 83.8 percent of the Heat's plays have come in the halfcourt and a look at their efficiency reveals they've scored 94.7 points every 100 possessions. By comparison, the Oklahoma City Thunder check in at second place with 91.7 points every 100 possessions. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Hawks -- a team that garners a considerable amount of praise in the halfcourt -- ranks right around average (86.5 points).
So what's going on here? When did the Heat start flipping the script? A few things have stood out recently. For one, the Heat have relied more on LeBron and Wade in the post this season compared to last. Although it's not a straight one-for-one trade, these two superstars have abandoned most of their ill-advised 3-point tries in exchange for attacks in the paint with their back to the basket.
Secondly, they're spreading the floor with sharpshooters. The Heat's designated Dranos -- Mario Chalmers, Mike Miller, Shane Battier and James Jones -- have shot a scorching 44 percent from downtown (172-for-390). The threat of perimeter shooters has acted as a decongestant for LeBron, Wade and Bosh to penetrate into the paint as well as provided a safety valve when defenses decide to collapse.
And lastly, as part of the Heat's pace-and-space offense, Spoelstra has built in more cuts to the basket from the weakside, encouraging more movement and disruption for the defense. Their offense generated from cuts has risen from 7.0 percent last season to 9.5 percent this season.
The big implication here is that the Heat shown that they're well-equipped for playoff-style basketball, a development that flies in the face of the conventional wisdom. While teams slam on the brakes in the postseason, the Heat have actually done the same in the past few weeks. And have thrived in that style of play. The Heat's pace has slowed down considerably since jumping out of the gate and they've more recently focused on picking apart teams in the halfcourt.
So if you think the Heat are just a fastbreak team, well, think again.