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Thursday, October 28, 2010
Taking the Temperature

By Tom Haberstroh

BOSH TAKING A BACKSEAT

When LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh joined forces this summer, it came with the understanding that their roles on offense would have to evolve in their new confines. The biggest adjustment? Learning to share the ball after shouldering most of the scoring burden in their previous basketball lives.

And after two games, it’s Bosh who has had to scale back the most.

How can we tell? Let’s look at some numbers. Last season in Toronto, Bosh used 28.7 percent of his team’s total possessions while on the floor, which in advanced stats circles is referred to as a player’s usage rate (USG%). Any time a player uses a possession, either by shooting the ball or turning it over, he adds to his usage rate. You know a high-usage player when you see one, even if you don’t necessarily refer to them as such. They’re the ball-hogs.

The average player has a 20 percent usage rate which should make plenty sense given that a team’s possessions are divvied up amongst five teammates. Some players, like Joel Anthony who sported a miniscule 8.7 usage rate in 2010, will fall far below the 20 percent benchmark while other ball-dominant wings, like Dwyane Wade who lead the league with a 34.9 percent usage rate, will check out much higher. Each player’s figure largely depends on their individual appetite for scoring as well as their role within the offense. It’s a blend of nature and nurture.

Bosh has never posted a usage rate below 18.3 percent in any season of his career. But so far in 2011 (which admittedly isn’t far at all), Bosh’s usage rate has plummeted from his 2010 level of 28.8 percent down to 17.4 . There’s almost zero chance that Bosh’s scoring load sinks below average for remainder of the season but nonetheless, it’s a trend we need to keep an eye on.

With respect to degrees, Wade and LeBron James haven’t seen their offensive responsibilities change much. James has actually seen a slight uptick in usage rate -- from 33.7 percent to 34.6 percent -- while Wade has dipped to 33.8 percent.

Why has Bosh taken the biggest hit? It’s about control. As ball-handlers, LeBron James and Wade can have more power over their usage rate compared to post players since the latter relies heavily on entry passes and offensive boards to get scoring opportunities. For Bosh, using up a possession is the easy part, but getting his hands on the ball has proven to be much tougher task in the early going. It’s safe to say that if he were the one bringing the ball up every possession, it’d be a different story.

As a result, the 26-year-old has only taken 10.8 field goal attempts per 36 minutes, down considerably from his 16.0 rate last season.  which actually places fourth among Heat players behind Wade, James, and shooting specialist James Jones. The Heat have certainly demonstrated a tendency to run the offense through Bosh on the elbow, but instead of looking for his shot there, Bosh has typically worked to initiate the offense.  He can change that. And he may soon.

BIG 3, A LOSING TRIO?

Two games in and the sum of the parts has decidedly eclipsed the whole. In Miami’s season opener, the Big 3 struggled to find rhythm against a stifling Celtics defense, falling short of the stratospheric expectations in their debut. In fact, when James, Wade, and Bosh took to the court, the Celtics outscored the Heat by 8 points over 30 minutes. Conversely, when one or more of the trio members rode the pine, the individual components of the offense seemed to fit more harmoniously.

While their synergy did improve during their second game against Philadelphia -- a considerably lesser opponent -- the Heat still come out losing by 3 points overall on the season, according to data from ESPN Stats and Information:

Before we declare the Big 3 a failure, we need a healthy dose of perspective. In the grand scheme of things, 54 minutes of shared playing time is practically nothing in terms of drawing meaningful conclusions. Consider that 54 minutes equates to about 3 percent of the time that Boston’s trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen played together in their debut season of 2007-08.

Given that Wade is effectively going through his preseason, this will likely be the trio’s rustiest 54-minute sample of the season.  With a 13 point improvement from Game 1 to Game 2, the Heat are already beginning to click. Key word: beginning.

IS THIS A TRANSITION TEAM?

It remains to be seen whether Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra will encourage a high-flying transition game or maintain their crawling tempo, a veritable hallmark of Riley basketball.

There are two ways to measure pace.  The simplest method is to count how many possessions a team receives per game. That’s a surefire ticket to a psych ward if you track a full 82-game season. Thankfully, basketball statisticians have created a quick and accurate formula for pace to save us our precious time. You can find pace numbers on ESPN Insider John Hollinger’s team stats page on ESPN.com.

There you’ll see that the Miami Heat were the third slowest team last season, averaging 91.9 possessions a game. And that's slightly slower than their 2008-09 tempo. Surely the 2011 team flies by those drowsy teams, right?

Not so fast. Even with James firmly in the driver’s seat, the Heat have averaged just 93.4 possessions per game so far, a rate that would have the Heat leap-frogging all of two teams in last season’s ranks. Part of that is teeny-tiny sample size which hands considerable influence to the Celtics, who also share Miami’s methodical playing style.

So by that method, the Heat haven’t exactly stepped on the gas thus far. The other way to get at pace is to measure transition plays as a proportion of the overall offense. This is a more accurate method because it strips away the pace effects of the other team.

The transition game made up 11.8 percent of the Heat’s total offense against Boston as they scored 16 points off 12 transition plays. In Game 2 against Philadelphia, that rate nearly doubled to 19.2 percent, indicating that the Heat played off transition every fifth time down the court. For reference, the league average last season was 12.8 percent and Golden State paced the way with 17.9 percent (pun very much intended).

What’s interesting is that, according to Synergy tracking, the Heat didn’t make a single play off transition in the fourth quarter against Philadelphia. All 19 transition plays (and 22 transition points) came in the first three frames. Not coincidentally, the Heat finished the third quarter up 26 points. Considering that four of LeBron’s nine turnovers occurred during fast breaks -- a very un-Lebron feat I might add -- there’s a strong probability that this team is more devastating in transition than we saw on Wednesday night. In all likelihood, the best is yet to come.

As the Heat get more games under their belt, they should get much more comfortable in their unfamiliar surroundings. But most importantly, the more games they play, the more comfortable we will be in drawing conclusions.