Miami Heat Index: Juwan Howard

Heat looking to go small in the draft?

June, 27, 2012
6/27/12
3:24
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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Pat Riley
Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire
Who might Pat Riley select in Thursday's draft with the 27th pick? His draft guru sheds some light.

MIAMI – With the No. 27 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, the Miami Heat select …

It might not be the kind of player many think the defending champions need.

Based on how the Heat effectively finished the season with their small-ball versatile lineups, team vice president of player personnel Chet Kammerer said Wednesday that Miami is more likely to draft a perimeter player than a big man when commissioner David Stern steps to the podium with their draft card Thursday night.

“It's not that we're not going to be interested in a big,” Kammerer said during Miami's pre-draft media availability at AmericanAirlines Arena. “We have the greatest player in the world on our roster. What we have to do is bring a player in that will complement him and our stars. I think it's the most important thing right now.”

Despite what appears to be a glaring need for a center, Kammerer indicated the Heat won't necessarily think conventionally when they select late in the first round. Instead, the priority will be to find a player who is capable of playing two positions and who can fit alongside Finals MVP LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Several mock drafts have the Heat targeting power forwards or centers such as Syracuse's Fab Melo, Vanderbilt's Festus Ezeli or Norfolk State's Kyle O'Quinn, whereas ESPN's Chad Ford sees Vanderbilt's wing Jeff Taylor as a possibility for the defending champions. Kammerer said he's followed several of the media-produced mock drafts, but wouldn't put too much stock in where players are slated to go beyond the top 14 picks.

Although team president Pat Riley's challenge to his draft staff is to find “a good big,” the Heat don't believe any of the potential centers on their draft priority board will be available in the late 20s when their pick comes around.

“I think it's going to be difficult to get a big man at No. 27,” Kammerer said. “For us to find someone, at No. 27, that will totally excite us.”

Kammerer, who has been evaluating draft prospects for the Heat for two decades, said he sees plenty of depth and potential in this year's class, particular with players he has rated between the No. 20 and 40 picks. Miami has worked out 41 prospects in the days leading up to the draft.

Kammerer's mission to “find the right fit” could have multiple meanings for the Heat.

Miami could be on the lookout for a player who can play both small and power forward, one who could buy James a few minutes of rest during the regular season. The Heat might also target a power forward or center to add depth behind converted center Bosh with so much uncertainty at those spots on the current roster.

Power forward Juwan Howard and centers Eddy Curry and Dexter Pittman all enter free agency on Sunday. Small forward Mike Miller is evaluating options that could include back surgery and, possibly, retirement despite having three seasons remaining on his five-year contract.

A few things Kammerer was fairly certain about entering Thursday's draft was that the Heat likely won't trade out of the pick or make a move to acquire a second-rounder. The plan also is to acclimate their draft pick into the system as quickly as possible, with a spot on the Heat's entry in the Las Vegas summer league next month.

Pittman along with first-year guards Norris Cole and Terrel Harris are likely to play on the summer league squad. Kammerer also said 2010 second-round pick Jarvis Varnado, who has played overseas the past two years, is scheduled to play with the summer team.

But for now, the objective is to add a productive young piece to the veteran mix – not necessarily a new developmental project.

“With the way we ended the season, it's more likely we look at a perimeter (player) more now than we would have two weeks ago, frankly,” Kammerer said. “We ended up switching a lot defensively this year, which turned out to be pretty successful for us. So if we can find a player that's versatile, that can fit and play defense and switch and not cause mismatches, that's going to be pretty important.”

A round-up from Monday's Heat practice

May, 21, 2012
5/21/12
5:28
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- Coming off a win in Indiana in Game 4 to tie the series, the Heat were in a good mood at practice on Monday.

With topics ranging from LeBron James' reading material to James and Dwyane Wade's big 70-point night to the Lance Stephenson-Juwan Howard confrontation to Udonis Haslem's bloody eye to James Jones' valiant dunk attempt over the Pacers defense ... it's time to go bullets-style.
  • On LeBron and Wade's historic night

    James and Wade found out about their 38 consecutive points after the game and didn't hear about the historical precedence of James' 40-18-9 performance until they got on the plane.

    When asked whether James took some extra time to take in the historical aspect of his Game 4, James just shook his head.

    "No, not really," James said.

    Wade later elaborated.

    “Last night when we heard about [the statistical feat], we were like, ‘Wow,' and then we moved on," Wade said. "We don’t have time to pat ourselves on the back with our opponent [on Tuesday]."

    Wade was mired in an awful shooting slump before reeling off eleven straight buckets on Sunday. It's hard to explain a turnaround like that, but Wade gave it his best shot.

    “Obviously, the rim gets bigger and bigger," Wade said. "It’s something that’s indescribable. It’s something you really want to understand because at times the rim seems so small, it looks like a Cheerio. You can’t get the ball in it at all. And then other times it opens up like the ocean.”

    Wade wasn't done making analogies. He likened LeBron's night to a video-game NBA 2K. And then to Dirk Nowitzki.

    "It was video-game-like. You’d get that on [the video game NBA] 2K," Wade said.

    "I was watching the game last night on the plane and I turned to Ronny Turiaf who was sitting behind me and I said, ‘You know what, I’ve played in the league for nine years and I’ve seen some amazing things, but I’ve never really played with a guy that I’m amazed so often by the things he does. I’m used to kind of not being the one who is in awe of things. Sometimes he does things and I’m like, ‘How did just he do that?’"

    Wade went on.

    “I think there was one shot he made in the game, it was kinda like the Dirk shot where he went and drove and fired and faded back off the wrong leg and banked it in. I looked back at Shane Battier and I was like, ‘What? How did he do that?’ I’ve seen a lot, but the performance he put on last night was a typical MVP kind of performance.”
  • On LeBron reading "The Hunger Games"

    Full disclosure: I haven’t read “The Hunger Games” yet. Having not read the book, I couldn't get into detail with LeBron about his latest read by Suzanne Collins that is out in theaters. LeBron has been a bit of a bookworm throughout the playoffs, having just finished up basketball legend Jerry West’s autobiography titled “West by West.”

    You might have noticed he certainly isn’t shy about his reading hobby around the media and cameras either.

    “I’ve been doing it since the playoffs started,” LeBron said Monday. “It just puts me in a different mindset. Honestly, before the game I don’t even think about what’s going to happen throughout the game. I’ve just been reading and it’s been able to calm me down. It’s been great.”

    His early review of "The Hunger Games"?

    “It’s good, it’s really good,” LeBron said. “I just started reading it.”
  • On James Jones' dunk attempt

    If you're like me, you watched James Jones' dunk attempt at least 30 times. If not, here's footage in GIF form brought to you by the folks at SB Nation.

    The team watched the play on the plane ride back from Indiana last night and the team got a good laugh. When asked about it at practice, Wade squealed with laughter.

    “That was by far the funniest thing that happened all year," Wade said. "It showed a great deal of aggression and toughness … but he wasn’t even close. That was the funniest moment on the plane when he watched it on tape.”

    Jones got a good laugh out of it, too. He also thought he might have gotten fouled.

    “I saw the lane get open, so I tried to attack it. I was hoping the referee would make the right call," Jones said.

    "Since I’ve been here, I’ve been predominantly a spot-up shooter, but I saw an opportunity to attack the lane, it didn’t go as I had planned, but it’s just me trying to be aggressive. In the grand scheme of things, it was something that gave some comic relief knowing we had to come in here today and prepare for a tough Game 5.”

    And then Jones got serious for a moment talking about trying to prove his talents to his fellow teammates.

    “You try as much as possible to remind yourself and your teammates that you’re still a player and that you can do certain things even if it’s not what the team calls for you to do on a nightly basis.”
  • On the Lance Stephenson-Juwan Howard scuffle

    Wade insists he had no idea about Juwan Howard approaching Lance Stephenson during the pregame warmups until after the game (watch and read about it here).

    Howard and Wade grew up in the Chicago area so Wade felt some hometown pride when he found out that Howard, who hasn't played more than a few seconds in the playoffs, stuck up for the team like that.

    "That’s Juwan Howard from Chicago," Wade said. "He’s invested in everything that goes on with this team."

    And then Wade might have gotten a little carried away, even dabbling in the third person.

    "Juwan as big of a part of this team as LeBron James and Dwyane Wade is," Wade said. "His voice and his leadership around here means a lot to us. He understands that and he really gets it this year. If it takes something like that, hey. I didn’t know he did it until after the game and I said, 'That’s hilarious. That’s my boy from Chicago.'"
  • On Udonis Haslem's cut above his eye

    LeBron put up a historic line on Sunday, but in his effort to be humble about the whole thing, he sent Haslem some praise.

    "He's the biggest part of how we won last night," LeBron said. "Even with the individual performance of myself and D-Wade, I think UD got the game ball."

    About the gash above his right eye from Lou Amundson's inadvertent elbow?

    Oddly enough, Wade enjoyed that.

    “Yeah, I liked it because I know certain people when they see their own blood, they get a little crazy," Wade said. "I actually liked it when I saw the blood dripping down.”

    How does Haslem look now after the nine stitches? Here's a photo I snapped.

    Haslem
    ESPN.com

  • Not bad for nine stitches.

    I guess.

Progress Report: Heat's Midseason Grades

February, 29, 2012
2/29/12
9:16
AM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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Miami Heat
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images
The Heat are off to their best start in franchise history. But who has passed the test so far?

MIAMI – Just before the All-Star break, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra asked his team two pertinent questions that will define their destiny.

“What kind of team do we want to be?” Spoelstra probed. “What's our motivation?”

The Heat will resume their search for those answers on Thursday, when they open the second half of the season with a game in Portland. But to this point, what we've seen from the Heat is a team that appears determined to return to the NBA Finals and finish the job this time after falling to Dallas in six games last season.

Miami is far from perfect, but it very well could be in the midst of the best basketball we've seen since LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh joined forces in the summer of 2010 to alter the league's landscape. They've yet to define their destiny, but the Heat have developed this season into a team that tied with Oklahoma City for the NBA's best record entering the break at 27-7, and one that resumes play riding an eight-game streak of victories by a double-digit margin.

Overall, the Heat deserve an “A” for a midterm grade after getting off to the best start in franchise history. But I'll go a step further and break down the marks for each player on the roster, along with evaluations of Spoelstra and team president Pat Riley based on the progress they've made amid Miami's lofty championship-or-bust expectations.

JOEL ANTHONY, Starting C
(3.0 PPG; 4.3 RPG; 1.2 BPG)
Upshot: There have been stretches this season when Anthony has simply dominated the paint defensively with his shot-blocking. His offense has improved enough to the point where he's developed a decent jump hook, and there's a pretty good chance he'll actually catch and finish once in a while.
Downside: Being undersized and mainly a non-factor overall offensively puts the Heat in a tough spot. His rebounding numbers could also be better.
Midterm Grade: C

SHANE BATTIER, Reserve SG/SF
(4.5 PPG; 2.1 RPG; 1.1 APG)
Upshot: The cold front finally ended about two weeks ago. Maybe it coincided with his guy, Jimmy Buffett, coming to town for that concert. It finally appears his offense is catching up with his defense. Battier also ranks among the NBA's leaders in drawing charges, and will be key down the stretch.
Downside: His first half was such a struggle offensively, he shot just 38.9 percent and sometimes looked like a washed-up player on both ends of the court. Consistency is a significant concern.
Midterm Grade: D+

CHRIS BOSH, Starting PF
(18.4 PPG; 8.30 RPG; 2 APG)
Upshot: It finally seems to be sinking in for Bosh that he might never be as productive, statistically, as he was as a featured man in Toronto. He's had a great attitude and is trying to make the most of his adjusted role. Recently, his rebounding has picked up and his mid-range jumper continues to drop.
Downside: Bosh just doesn't spend enough time attacking the lane. He should easily be a 20-10 player, but too often falls short. His play will ultimately determine how tough Miami will be in the postseason.
Midterm Grade: B-

MARIO CHALMERS, Starting PG
(11.1 PPG; 2.5 RPG; 3.6 APG)
Upshot: Chalmers is justifying that new $4 million-a-year salary by having a career season. He's developed into one of the top 3-point shooters in the league. He's always been confident about his game, but we're now seeing a dependable and consistent presence from a far more mature Chalmers.
Downside: If he faced Jeremy Lin every night, Chalmers would be just fine defensively. But that's one area of his game that leaves a bit to be desired at times. He should be that motivated every game.
Midterm Grade: B

NORRIS COLE, Reserve PG
(8.7 PPG; 1.7 RPG; 2.5 APG)
Upshot: Two words you'll never use to describe the Heat's rookie point guard: Bashful and slow. The kid is flat-out fearless on the court and has proved to be a late first-round steal. Cole has been the change-of-pace guard Miami needed to push the pace for it's much-improved second unit this season.
Downside: For a guy who gets to the rim with relative ease, Cole should be a much better finisher in the lane. He also needs to make more plays as a facilitator and learn when to shift gears to mix things up.
Midterm Grade: B

EDDY CURRY, Reserve C
(1.1 PPG; .7 TOT; .1 APG)
Upshot: Even though he's privately frustrated with the lack of playing time, Curry has publicly maintained a professional and positive demeanor about his role in Miami. He lost a ton of weight to prove to Pat Riley that he was serious about this comeback after nearly three years of inactivity.
Downside: Spoelstra is more comfortable with second-year center Dexter Pittman than Curry. That doesn't bode well moving forward for Curry's chances on a team that already prefers to play smaller.
Midterm Grade: I (Incomplete)

MICKELL GLADNESS, Reserve PF/C
(.3 PPG; 1.4 RPG; .3 APG)
Upshot: The second-year development player was brought back for a second 10-day contract on Tuesday, and could be one step closer to remaining for the rest of the season. Gladness, a slender shot-blocker, showed enough talent to make the team out of camp but opportunities have since been slim.
Downside: Gladness needs to spend more time in the weight room to bulk up. He's also learning the hard way that life trying to get his shot off in the NBA is a lot more difficult than in the D-League.
Midterm Grade: C- (Incomplete)

TERREL HARRIS, Reserve SG
(3.3 PPG; 2.6 RPG; .9 APG)
Upshot: Harris has the size, strength, scoring ability and defense to contribute on any roster that doesn't include LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Shane Battier, Mike Miller and Norris Cole in the perimeter rotation. But when he got the opportunities, Harris showed in games that he's a legit NBA prospect.
Downside: Unfortunately for Harris, the Heat have contract commitments for their perimeter players that extend beyond this season. He'll be the next Anthony Morrow to get away amid a numbers crunch.
Midterm Grade: B-

UDONIS HASLEM, Reserve PF
(6.3 PPG; 8.1 RPG; .7 APG)
Upshot: He's healthy. That couldn't be said about Haslem much of last season when he missed most of it, including the first two rounds of the playoffs, to recover from foot surgery. The Heat certainly missed his interior toughness and rebounding, which have been exceptional so far this season off the bench.
Downside: Those baseline and straight-away jumpers that have been automatic for Haslem the past few years are flat broke right now. He's struggled to find an offensive rhythm and is shooting a career-worst 41.8 percent.
Midterm Grade: B-

JUWAN HOWARD, Reserve PF
(.8 PPG; .7 TOT; .3 APG)
Upshot: Howard is a proud vet who resents being reduced to this tag, but he's been a consummate professional and solid locker room presence. At 38, he is clearly along for the potential ride to a title. His best work comes in pushing Bosh, Curry and Dexter Pittman in workouts. He also still does a mean Cabbage Patch.
Downside: But nobody does the Cabbage Patch anymore. And it hasn't been easy having a locker next to LeBron for home games and being smothered by media lining up for those postgame interviews.
Midterm Grade: C

LEBRON JAMES, Starting SF
(27.4 PPG; 8.10 RPG; 6.8 APG)
Upshot: So far, no one in the history of the game has done it better or more efficiently on the court that LeBron, who was named conference player of the month for December/January and has positioned himself well to win his third MVP award. He's added a post-up game, as promised, and has been on a tear lately.
Downside: LeBron still can't get out of his own way sometimes. The flirting with Cleveland and the fallout from the way his All-Star performance ended created serious questions that just weren't necessary.
Midterm Grade: A+

JAMES JONES, Reserve SF
(3.3 PPG; .9 RPG; .2 APG)
Upshot: There's no doubt in anyone's mind that Jones is capable of knocking down big shots when needed. He's shooting 42 percent from 3-point range and also continues to grade well defensively by draw charges. The fact that he re-signed shows how badly he wants to stick with his hometown team.
Downside: Having Jones and not playing him is a luxury. In hindsight, though, would the Heat have been better off using Jones' or Howard's spot to get younger and more athletic at power forward/center?
Midterm Grade: C+

MIKE MILLER, Reserve SF
(6.3 PPG; 3.4 RPG; .7 APG)
Upshot: Just like Haslem, Miller is enjoying an extended stretch of good health after missing a major chunk of last season with injuries. He's second in the league in 3-point shooting at 51.7 percent, has thrived defensively and has found a comfort zone on the second unit with Battier, Haslem and Cole.
Downside: He remains the Heat's most realistic trade asset beyond the Big Three should Riley seriously pursue adding more size. Miller is on pace to average career lows in minutes, points and assists.
Midterm Grade: B-

DEXTER PITTMAN, Reserve C
(1.5 PPG; 1.5 RPG; .1 APG)
Upshot: Big body, big hands and solid footwork are all major assets for Pittman, a second-year center still trying to prove he can be a long-term fit. He's also dropped plenty of weight to show he's serious about maintain a roster spot in Miami. Pittman can at least say he's beating out a veteran in Curry.
Downside: Pittman has had enough time to crack the rotation. Still, Spoelstra would rather play Bosh, Haslem and Anthony at center. That tells you all you need to know about Miami's project centers.
Midterm Grade: D+

DWYANE WADE, Starting SG
(22.4 PPG; 4.40 RPG; 4.8 APG)
Upshot: LeBron's efficiency is obviously rubbing off on Wade, who is ranked second behind his teammate in PER. Wade has been a different player since he came back from the foot injury that cost him six games. His boost helped propel the Heat to their current eight-game streak of blowout victories.
Downside: Wade is praised for his ability to help out in the lane and block shots, but he also deserves a bit of the blame for blown assignments that have led to the Heat giving up a ton of open 3-point looks.
Midterm Grade: A-

ERIK SPOELSTRA, Head Coach
(27-7, First place in the East)
Upshot: Miami lost eight games by the time it played 17 last season. This year, the Heat have yet to reach eight setbacks through 34 games. Credit Spoelstra for finding the right buttons to push. He's altered the playing style, managed egos, settled on a rotation and has Miami rolling through a tough schedule.
Downside: No other coach works under the assumption that anything less than winning a championship could be considered a failure. That leaves Spoelstra in a tough spot regardless of that new contract extension.
Midterm Grade: A

PAT RILEY, President of Basketball Operations
(27-7, First place in the East)
Upshot: Riley was absolutely right about one thing: The Heat didn't need major roster tweaks after finishing two games short of an NBA championship in the first season of the Big Three era. Instead, they only needed to get healthy and focus a bit more on the game itself and less on distractions.
Downside: It's too early to know if offseason investments in Battier and Chalmers will pay off in the playoffs. But the lack of depth in the post has yet to be addressed as the March 15 trade deadline looms.
Midterm Grade: B

LeBron's transformation into an inside man

January, 10, 2012
1/10/12
9:58
AM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
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LeBron James
Steve Mitchell-US Presswire
LeBron James has always looked the part, but now he is playing like a big man. And like never before.

SAN FRANCISCO – The Miami Heat’s first practice in weeks is over and players are into their standard post-workout maneuvers.

Some are icing while looking at their phones, some are running sprints under the watch of the conditioning coach, some are still on the court in a mixture of work and horseplay as equipment managers pack up.

For years this has been a time LeBron James has spent shooting 3-pointers. Sometimes it was for money, sometimes it was part of an elaborate shooting game, sometimes it was just emotionless repetition. Not anymore.

On this day James is wearing out assistant coach David Fizdale, grunting as he meticulously drills his footwork around the rim. Over and over, paying close attention to balance and technique. Fitzdale starts to sweat as James continues, spinning on him and pump faking him. He’s a former collegiate point guard and clearly overmatched though that is not the point, the point is to act as the punching bag.

“Just getting some extra work in,” James would say later, not in the mood on this day to be too revealing or insightful. “Just trying to get better.”

Once James spins hard and explodes to the rim for a two handed dunk, shaking the basket standard. The move both startles and thrills a young boy standing a few feet away. He’s not in school so he can get this special access that is becoming quite memorable. Wearing a James No. 6 T-shirt and holding a basketball he’s sheepishly waiting to get autographed, the kid instinctively recoils but does so with a smile on his face.

James has been coming to this gym at the University of San Francisco since he was 15 years old. He’s been back many times over the years on stops in the Bay Area. USF is a popular practice spot as NBA teams usually stay in the city and not across the bay in Oakland when they have stopovers to play the Warriors, as the Heat are Tuesday night. On one visit James spent this time tossing one-handed full court shots in front of the cameras with the impressive ease of a quarterback. The one he splashed was on all the local newscasts that night. But this is the first time James has ended a practice here like this.

A few minutes later, James is joined by teammates Chris Bosh, Mickell Gladness and Dexter Pittman. These are, essentially, the Heat’s centers. At the other end of the floor the team’s guards are shooting those 3-pointers. James is no longer a part of that group. Now he’s stepping in and trying to show Pittman how to execute the drop steps and spin moves.

Pittman has been a center all his basketball life but it is James, the recently reformed 3-point shooter, is now trying to do some coaching on the matter. For this, Dwyane Wade joins in, feeding Pittman the ball and giving his own instructions. It is the only time all day Wade steps on the court, he’s still out with a foot injury and came to the practice a half hour late because he was at the hotel getting treatment.

“I’m not about hiding my tricks in my own bag, you know?” James said, flicking his head toward Pittman, who the Heat are really hoping can become some sort of big man option. He’s recently started playing, coach Erik Spoelstra giving him veteran Juwan Howard’s minutes in hopes that he can work into a trustworthy option for a couple of minutes a night.

In addition to the young and green Pittman, Eddy Curry is the team’s Hail Mary to play that role. He didn’t come out to work with James and Fizdale, he was over in the bleachers with ice. But this is still progress. It was Curry’s first practice in a month and the team still has no expectations of him. All of that is why James is doing this in the first place. The Heat continue to badly need him to be this serious, badly need that big man who can score in the trenches when playoff games are tight and long jumpers unreliable.

James is still trying to prove that he’s seriously dedicated to playing like that big man and not just a guard in a big man’s body, which has marked his career to the point. The referendum on it doesn’t come now, which everyone knows. Just because James is off to a remarkable offensive start – his touches in the post doubling from last year and his field goal percentage and free-throw attempts leaping with his interest in playing closer to the basket – doesn’t mean he’s proven he’ll do it when the Heat really need it. James simply doesn’t have the luxury of enjoying regular season honors anymore.

On Monday, he won his second straight Player of the Week Award, something that hardly caused him to look up from breakfast when he found out about it. When asked about it for the cameras and microphones after the workout, he reaches for a bland response that credits his teammates for letting him shoot so much. Though, of course, he puts it differently.

Meanwhile, Spoelstra is growing a little fatigued of answering questions about James’ post game. He knows quite well that James posted up on seven percent of his offensive plays last season and now it is more than 15 percent. He knows that James is shooting 65 percent on those post plays, the best in the NBA so far. He also knows has that James averages 1.219 points per play from the post, another in-depth stat that Spoelstra specializes in.

Those stats and the ones fans are much more familiar with – like James’ 30.1 point scoring average and his 60 percent shooting percentage – say the obvious: keep doing it. They are a major reason the Heat are 8-1 and looking like a juggernaut offensive team.

Still the James in the post talk is what the coach calls “a storyline,” an easy idea for the media to ask and write about. In a new city, the questions about it are coming and Spoelstra answers them without much feeling behind it.

“It’s making us much more dynamic and efficient,” Spoelstra said. “We’re able to do it in different ways. Not just the post. People want to compartmentalize what we’re doing. There’s actually been a lot of tweaks.”

As Spoelstra says it the biggest compartmentalized tweak of them all is still out on the floor receiving entry passes and working on hook shots.

Nary a 3-pointer to be seen.
LeBron James
David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images
LeBron James and the Heat look to start the season 6-0 tonight, but the Hawks stand in their way.

After crushing the Charlotte Bobcats by 39 points to move to 5-0 on the season, the Heat will face a more formidable foe in the Atlanta Hawks on Monday. In the Heat's second pair of back-to-backs in the early going, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh take on the Hawks' trio of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford in a battle of Eastern Conference powers.

The Hawks are off to a good start of their own, winning three of their first four games, but they haven't exactly been battle tested with wins against the New Jersey Nets (twice) and Washington Wizards. In Atlanta's final game of the 2011 calendar year, the Houston Rockets beat them by 11 points.

Are the Hawks a better test for the Heat than the Mavericks and Celtics? Is Al Horford a better big man for the Heat than Chris Bosh? Is Jeff Teague better than Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole? Are the Hawks and the Heat going to finish in the top four in the East? Will the Heat win by double-digits on Monday night?

In another edition of Heat Index's 5-on-5 series, our stable of writers play some "Fact or Fiction" with some of the biggest storylines heading into Monday's Southeast tilt.

1. Fact or Fiction: Atlanta has been Miami's toughest opponent yet.


Tom Haberstroh, Heat Index: Fact. I'm not willing to say that the Hawks are better than the Mavericks or Celtics this season, but Paul Pierce was sidelined against the Heat and you couldn't have picked a better time to play the disheveled Mavericks than on opening day. Although the Hawks' cake schedule thus far isn't too inspiring.

Bret LaGree, Hawks blog Hoopinion: Fiction. The Hawks feasted on the Nets and Wizards in the first three games but the team has a history of overwhelming less talented teams before struggling to score against the league's best teams. This week's schedule (two games against both the Heat and the Bulls) will either confirm or challenge the team's established identity.

Kevin Pelton, Basketball Prospectus and ESPN Insider: Fact. I'm not convinced the Hawks are going to be a better team than the Celtics at season's end, but factoring in Paul Pierce's absence and Atlanta's terrific start, you'd have to be a bigger Timberwolves believer than even I am to argue otherwise.

Michael Wallace, Heat Index: Fact. But that depends on which Hawks show up tonight: Jekyll or Hyde. Their most recent appearance in Houston aside, the Hawks quietly have gotten off to a good start. They have a solid roster with a nice combination of athletes and skilled players. The problem has always been that you never know what to expect from these guys. Few teams in the league have the potential or gall to go from bust to beast - and back - like Atlanta.

Brian Windhorst, Heat Index: Fact, they are the most complete opponent yet. Later this season playing the Mavericks, Celtics and Wolves will likely be more demanding than what the Heat faced in the first week of the season. The Hawks never seem to change, year over year. They've got plenty of talent and can beat anyone. They are the closest thing to a finished product Heat have seen yet.



2. Fact or Fiction: Miami would be better with Al Horford than Chris Bosh.


Haberstroh: Fact. But I really wanted to say "push." Horford's passing, defense and versatility would fit incredibly in this Heat team, but Bosh's scoring on the block is essential to the Heat's attack. It's close, but I think adding Horford would mean more minutes for Udonis Haslem and LeBron at the 4 and less burn for Juwan Howard. That's no small thing.

LaGree: Fiction. The inability to create his own shot is the only thing keeping Horford from being a true franchise player. Despite his scoring efficiency, passing, and defense Horford simply doesn't produce enough points to make him the equal of Bosh. Yet.

Pelton: Fact. A couple of factors tip the scales in Horford's favor. His ability to play center would give Erik Spoelstra more lineup flexibility. Horford is also slightly superior when it comes to controlling the paint on defense. Bosh's big advantage -- his ability to create more shots for himself -- is relatively unimportant on the Heat, so Horford is the better fit.

Wallace: Fiction. I'm no stickler for statistical analytics, but you'd think I stayed at the Tom Haberstroh Inn last night on this one. Horford, not Dirk Nowitzki, led the league last season in efficiency on mid-range jumpers from 16-23 feet. So what does that tell me? Not much other than the Heat already have a skilled, jump-shooting big man who prefers not to play center. So the grass may not necessarily be greener on the other side.

Windhorst: Fiction. Bosh has more polish at this point of his career than Horford does. He also fits in with what the Heat do.



3. Fact or Fiction: Jeff Teague is the best point guard in this game.


Haberstroh: Fact. And that's not just because we walked the same halls of (the great) Wake Forest University, but because he's a Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers hybrid. He's a bullet in the open court, can shoot and isn't afraid to score the rock. Did you know Teague led the Hawks in playoff PER last season? Now you do.

LaGree: Fact. Jeff Teague must have been jealous about all the opportunities Mario Chalmers had to lose the point guard job in Miami over the past three seasons. It took an injury to Kirk Hinrich for Teague to get a chance to start, but he got it, and he's not giving it up.

Pelton: Fact. This is sort of the opposite of the last question in that I'm not sure Miami would trade the Chalmers/Cole duo for Teague, but for most teams in the league the Hawks' point guard's ability to create off the dribble outweighs the perimeter shooting provided by the Heat's pair. Teague has carried over his strong postseason with quality play as a starter.

Wallace: Fact. Having filled in for John Hollinger as the go-to man on the unofficial Hawks Index during last season's playoffs, I saw Teague up close when he took over for the injured Kirk Hinrich. Teague stared down MVP Derrick Rose in the East semifinals and didn't flinch. Quickness. Athleticism. Vision. Shooting. Teague has it all. He'll soon have Hawks fans forgiving the team for mistakenly passing on Deron Williams and Chris Paul and taking Marvin Williams in that fateful draft a few years back.

Windhorst: Fact. But check back later. Teague is proving to be a nice draft pick and he's developed very nicely over the last two years. He's proven that he can be an effective scorer in addition to the having the modern-day requirement of being able to break down the defense with quickness. But Norris Cole has all the same talents plus a confidence that sets him apart. He's got a chance to change the equation if he keeps this up.



4. Fact or Fiction: The Heat and the Hawks are both top four seeds in East.


Haberstroh: Fiction. I'm not willing to bury the Celtics just yet and I'm a big believer in the Pacers this season so don't pencil in the Hawks in the top four just yet. Beat someone better than the Nets or the Wizards and then we can revisit.

LaGree: Fact. I think the Hawks will significantly outperform projections that don't know that Marvin Williams and Joe Johnson played hurt last season, or that Teague and Zaza Pachulia are qualified for bigger roles than they were given last season.

Pelton: Fiction. I know, Atlanta has the league's best point differential thus far. But it's been four games, and to call the Hawks' schedule so far soft would be charitable. Give them credit for taking care of business against lowly New Jersey and Washington, but we'll need to see them maintain that success against playoff-caliber foes before labeling this start legitimate.

Wallace: Fact. The Heat are certainly in the top-four mix. The Hawks definitely have the potential to compete with Miami, Chicago and Boston. But with the Celtics and Knicks always dealing with key injuries, and with the uncertainty in Orlando surrounding Dwight Howard, not only is a top-four spot up for grabs in the East, the Hawks could play their way into the top three. The ultimate question is whether the Hawks will ever break through their second-round playoff ceiling?

Windhorst: Fact. The Hawks are stable in a conference without much stability among the top 3-8 teams. They also probably have a trade to make with Josh Smith seeming destined to be moved at some juncture. I have the Hawks at the four seed right now.



5. Fact or Fiction: The Heat will win by more than 10 points tonight.


Haberstroh: Fiction. The Heat are on a back-to-back and the Hawks are well-rested. Yes, the Heat have the home-court advantage, but I see this as being a Heat win by a shade under double-digits.

LaGree: Fiction. The Hawks are deservedly heavy underdogs but, through offensive rebounding and not turning the ball over, they'll keep the game under 90 possessions and stay within striking distance of the Heat.

Pelton: Fact. If Atlanta is going to keep it close, I think it's going to be more along the lines of the fourth-quarter comebacks Dallas and Boston put together earlier this season than nailbiters against Charlotte and Minnesota. I expect the Hawks will have the Heat's attention and respect more than those lottery opponents.

Wallace: Fiction. We won't know for sure until we see just how the Hawks handled having New Year's Day off in South Beach before tonight's game. But this is a team, for all the reasons mentioned above, that can hang with the Heat from both an athletic and a skill standpoint. You could argue that Atlanta's bench is even better than Miami's. With every team in the league capable of making an obligatory run, it's hard to predict 10-point victories. Especially at this early and highly competitive stage of the season.

Windhorst: Fact. The Hawks were off on New Years while the Heat played. But the Hawks have also not played a quality opponent yet and they're about to get a full dose of the East's best team at the moment. Also, the Hawks have been in Miami for the last two nights, which is always a factor.


The Heat's preseason progress report

December, 19, 2011
12/19/11
10:21
AM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
Archive
Joel
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images
LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Erik Spoelstra had work to do after last season. How've they done?

MIAMI – Where do matters stand with the Miami Heat now that the two-game preseason and condensed training camp are already halfway over?

Depends on which player or coach you ask.

“We're making some progress,” coach Erik Spoelstra said after Miami's 118-85 destruction of the Orlando Magic in Sunday's preseason opener for both teams. “This was an encouraging step forward. We just have to look to get better. Our focus can't be on anything but getting better.”

Considering the Heat have had only 10 practices, a scrimmage and one preseason game so far, it can be difficult to gauge just how far the team has come since training camp opened on Dec. 9. But there already have been a mix of encouraging surprises and disappointments as Miami prepares for the Dec. 25 opener against the Dallas Mavericks in a rematch of last season's NBA Finals.

There's already a strong sense that Miami is grounded in reality as the Heat rebuild from that disappointing finish in the six-game series loss to the Mavericks.

“We can't win a championship today,” guard Dwyane Wade said. “We have to work our way back up.”

The development of rookie first-round draft pick Norris Cole at point guard has been a highlight of camp. But injuries to potential impact additions Shane Battier (quad strain) and Eddy Curry (hip flexor) have tempered some of the enthusiasm as the Heat limp forward in a quest to build chemistry around Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh.

In other words, the Heat remain very much a work in progress – albeit a promising one – heading into the second full week of camp, which includes one more tuneup Wednesday against the Magic. In the meantime, let's take a look at where the top 15 players in camp stand in our Heat Progress Report.

Joel Anthony, C
UPSHOT: Perhaps Anthony might have journeyed with LeBron to Houston last summer to get a few post-up pointers from Hakeem Olajuwon. There are signs Anthony has improved at catching and finishing around the basket. He's at least looking to be accounted for on offense. He was never a threat last season, which often forced Miami to play four on five. Anthony had his hands full in Sunday's preseason opener against Dwight Howard, but he was much more aggressive in last week's scrimmage.
DOWNSIDE: The Heat have twice before tried Anthony as the starting center, and twice it proved to be a difficult experiment because Anthony, undersized at 6-9, struggles to stay out of early foul trouble. He's better cast as a second-unit center, where his energy and defense tend to provide a spark.
BOTTOM LINE: With Eddy Curry yet to establish himself with the team and Dexter Pittman still a work in progress, the Heat don't have many choices than to start Anthony. “I'm confident knowing I have Joel out there beside me when I go out there,” Bosh said. Miami might get away with it in the regular season, but the void down low could ultimately come back to haunt them again.

Shane Battier, SF
UPSHOT: The coaching staff is already salivating about the deep corner three-point shot opportunities Battier will feast upon playing alongside LeBron and Wade. Defensively, there's also talk in camp that Battier is making LeBron work as hard in practice as he's ever had to in his career. Ideally, Battier is the perfect complement to this team. He's gritty, experienced, a good shooter and an eager defender.
DOWNSIDE: We have to take the players' and coaches' word for it, because a quad strain has kept Battier out of the scrimmage and preseason opener. He insists the strain is mild, and it's likely he'll give it a go at practice Monday, which means he could be available for Wednesday's final tune-up.
BOTTOM LINE: On a team that didn't have great depth to begin with, Battier's presence is essential. The Heat can least afford to go through another season waiting to get whole. “Caution is the word right now,” Battier said of his injury. “The last thing you want to do is rush anything and make it worse.”

Chris Bosh, PF
UPSHOT: What's been the biggest difference in Bosh's approach during this camp? “I'm definitely trying to show more parts of my game,” he said. “I'm not really boxed into just one thing. I feel like I have confidence to open up my game.” We've seen the versatility, from handling the ball in transition to stepping comfortably into three-point shots. He also had three steals and two blocks on Sunday.
DOWNSIDE: We've seen Bosh just about everywhere on the court except consistently in the one area where his team needs him the most: down low. With Miami's options at center either limited or inexperienced, Bosh needs to embrace the challenge of being a beast on the block. The time is now.
BOTTOM LINE: The reason why Bosh worked out so extensively in the weight room in the offseason wasn't to take more 18-foot jumpers. Or, at least it shouldn't have been. The day he sees playing a power game as more of an obligation and responsibility than an occasional option is the day the Heat reach their full potential. It's truly time for more jams and fewer jumpers.

Mario Chalmers, PG
UPSHOT: This tells you all you need to know about one of the sources of Mario's motivation. “Even with the new contract, people are going to say I didn't deserve it,” he said. “Plus, we didn't win the Finals. So that's all going to be my motivation.” Confidence and a desire to execute in the clutch remain Chalmers' strengths. He finally regained the starting job he had three seasons ago as a rookie by default. And there seems to be a calmer, more controlled pace to his play in camp. He's also matured, as his stat line from Sunday suggests: 8 points, 5 assists, 2 steals, 0 turnovers.
DOWNSIDE: He's in a no-win situation – unless the Heat win big with him as a starter. The three-year, $12 million deal he signed recently is seen as a questionable investment by the Heat, considering it still doesn't seem they are totally convinced he's their top priority at point guard moving forward.
BOTTOM LINE: Lucrative contract aside, as long as there are viable point guard options available via free agency or trade, and as long as rookie Norris Cole continues to progress, Chalmers won't ever ease into a comfort zone. And the Heat don't want him to, either. The last place they need him is content.

Norris Cole, PG
UPSHOT: The media attention the rookie, first-round draft pick garners these days rivals the crowds that gather around LeBron, Wade and Bosh. He followed a 21-point scrimmage with a productive, yet at times uneven, preseason debut. Cole had eight points, a team-high eight assists and four turnovers Sunday against Orlando. But the two shots he nailed were spectacular. The first was a pull-up jumper over the outstretched arms of Dwight Howard. The second was a cross-over, step-back 3-pointer he buried against Jameer Nelson. The crossover sent Nelson sprawling toward Key West while Cole pulled up to hit the jumper from Hialeah. Speed. Poise. Confidence. Cole is showing it all right now.
DOWNSIDE: He only knows how to play the game at one speed: blur. That creates timing and pace issues with teammates. He also tends to over dribble and loses sight of where he is on the court. “I don't ever want him to take the pedal off the metal,” coach Erik Spoelstra said.
BOTTOM LINE: Cole is on pace to be a key contributor to the rotation. His play and development – even more so than Chalmers' – will determine if the Heat stand pat at the point or go out and seek help.

Eddy Curry, C
UPSHOT: If 'Big E' can get right, the Heat will get a huge return on their veteran minimum investment in Curry to help fill a major void at center. Despite having played just 10 games in the past three seasons, Curry rolls out of bed possessing two qualities the Heat sorely lack: size and, well, more size. But for now, he remains the Big Enigma. “He's talented, first of all,” Heat president Pat Riley said in camp of Curry. “He's proven that if he can stay healthy, he's an 18 (points) and 10 (rebounds) guy.”
DOWNSIDE: But so far, Curry has offered very little reason to have hope. A hip flexor injury has limited him to just one full practice since camp opened, and he's missed the scrimmage and Sunday's preseason game. There's no telling when he'll be available or in suitable game shape. “I want to be out there. I need to be out there,” Curry said. “Nobody more than me wants to get out there and do what I came here to help this team do.”
BOTTOM LINE: Nothing is guaranteed here for Curry. Not his contract. Not any playing time. Not even that he'll be on the team for the next practice. Having said that, the Heat didn't maintain an interest in Curry throughout the offseason to cut bait at the first sign of trouble.

Terrel Harris, SG
UPSHOT: I initially didn't plan to include fringe training camp roster guys in this progress report. But the fact that Harris occupies this space is a sign of the surprising impact he's having in camp. After scoring 17 points in the scrimmage, Harris came back with 16 points on Sunday against Orlando. He shot 60 percent from the field in those two appearances, and has hit 5 of 6 from 3-point range. The rookie from Oklahoma State is making a case to stick around.
DOWNSIDE: A logjam of wings will be almost impossible for Harris to overcome regardless of how well he plays in camp. In a perfect world, he'd be make a perfect case as to why it would make sense to keep a young talent over an end-of-bench veteran such as Eddie House or Juwan Howard. But this is a franchise that has long valued experience over upside. Perhaps Harris will be a rare exception.
BOTTOM LINE: Shooters and athletic wing defenders are always needed in Miami. Harris possesses all of those assets. He's the second coming of Anthony Morrow in Heat camp, and the coaching staff still kicks itself for letting Morrow get away a couple of years ago while locked into Daequan Cook.

Udonis Haslem, PF
UPSHOT: There probably isn't a player on the roster who came to camp in better game shape than Haslem, who professes to be 100 percent healthy after overcoming foot and shoulder injuries that cost him most of last season. “I only know how to attack this game one way,” Haslem said. “And that's by giving it everything I've got. It's amazing what finally being healthy can do for you.” What it's done is return Haslem to being the double-double contributor off the bench the Heat didn't have last season. When he's good to go, count on contributions like the 11 points and 9 boards he produced Sunday.
DOWNSIDE: Every time Haslem hits the floor, everyone on the team cringes. His heart and hustle don't erase the fact that he remains undersized at power forward, let alone center. He plays with reckless abandon, and there's a concern that the wear and tear will eventually catch up to him.
BOTTOM LINE: The Heat absolutely must find a way to limit Haslem's minutes at center in order to get the most out of him at his natural power forward spot. “I make this team better,” Haslem said. But the Heat shouldn't overburden him.

Eddie House, SG
UPSHOT: You won't find a more fearless or streaky shooter off the bench in the league. House made the most of his limited minutes last season, and is back to provide a similar spark this season – even though his opportunities might be even harder to come by this time around.
DOWNSIDE: For the second time in as many training camps with Miami, House is sidelined while recovering from an offseason surgery. Last year it was his shoulder. This season it's his knee. House is likely to be out another four to six weeks, and is only able to shoot on the side. “I don't really want to put a timeframe on when I'll be back, because my thing is to get back before whenever they tell me,” House said. “I'm feeling a little better every day.”
BOTTOM LINE: House opted to return for the second and final season on his contract for the veteran's minimum. There's plenty of incentive to keep him around. But there will also might be a huge temptation to eat his contract and release him if the younger, bigger Harris continues to surprise.

Juwan Howard, PF
UPSHOT: The best quote in camp came from Wade a few days ago. “If there is a fountain of youth somewhere, Juwan's hiding it from everybody,” he said. Howard is back for his 18th season but is playing like he's only 10 seasons in. The 38-year-old forward dunked in both the scrimmage and Sunday's game. More importantly, he's savvy enough to play emergency minutes at center. Howard will be the first to correct you; he's not here to be a “locker room guy.” He's here to contribute.
DOWNSIDE: While his experience and professionalism are invaluable, one has to wonder if an already aging Heat team wouldn't have been better off using the roster spot on a younger and more athletic big. Reloading with youth and athleticism was supposed to be among the offseason priorities.
BOTTOM LINE: The fact that Howard is willing to play center without being an offensive liability is enough to not only keep him around, but also keep him on the cusp of the playing rotation.

LeBron James, SF
UPSHOT: When you're already the most scrutinized player in the league, it's difficult to do anything on the court without every aspect of your game being over-analyzed. But the truth is there have been some modest strides made in LeBron's post-up game so far. If nothing else, he's been a remarkable passer out of the mid-post position. Riley challenged James to shore up his mid-range game, and he appears to have taken that command seriously. LeBron seems to actually realize when he has a clear advantage on mismatches, which happens almost every time he touches the ball anywhere near the basket. “For me, it's just all about being more comfortable at this point,” James said after he finished with 19 points and six rebounds in Sunday's exhibition. “I'm more calm now.”
DOWNSIDE: Maybe it's too much to expect for a few sessions last summer with Olajuwon to transform LeBron into a “Mini Dream” but there has to be more of a desire to use those post moves for the purpose of attacking the basket. Again, this gets back to that comfort issue. Until this becomes a comfortable part of LeBron's game, it will always be served as an appetizer instead of a main dish.
“It's going to take some time,” Spoelstra said. “But he's absolutely serious about improving that part of his game. And you can already see it when he's out there.”
BOTTOM LINE: LeBron already has all the tools he needs to be the most dominant player in the game on both ends of the court. So the focus shouldn't be on his game. It's all about his attack mentality.

James Jones, SF
UPSHOT: James sacrificed money and potential playing time to return to the Heat, hoping to retire with his hometown team. He deepens Miami's arsenal of long-range shooters capable of stretching the floor for LeBron, Wade and Bosh. Last season's 3-point shootout champion at All-Star weekend, Jones falls behind Battier and Miller as a rotation priority, but he'll be ready when needed.
DOWNSIDE: He's another player who can be viewed as a wing luxury on a roster that has obvious shortages at point guard and center. Jones' ball-handling and defense also leave plenty to be desired, meaning he's a shooting specialist in every sense of the word. But he's struggled with his shot so far in camp, which is understandable considering he spent all that time in New York negotiating the new collective bargaining agreement as the union's secretary-treasurer.
BOTTOM LINE: Jones is insurance in case Miller or Battier are injured, which both are currently.

Mike Miller, SF
UPSHOT: Miller is said to be ahead of schedule in his recovery from a fourth surgery in the past 14 months. He's already back on the court getting up plenty of shots in practice and hopes to be back from hernia surgery in early January rather than the latter part of the month. “It still hurts a little to cough, but not to laugh anymore, so that's a good thing I guess,” Miller said. “I'm running out of places to get hurt, so hopefully that means I should be good moving forward.” This Heat team won't reach its full potential until Miller gets his mind and body right and ready to contribute on a regular basis.
DOWNSIDE: The Heat chose not to use the amnesty provision on Miller, which would have given the team more flexibility to pursue a center in free agency. But with even the likes of Kwame Brown going for $7 million a season, the Heat wouldn't have had enough money to get an impact big man. Considering Miller's recent injury history, there is not a lot of confidence that he can stay healthy.
BOTTOM LINE: “We know what Mike is capable of doing,” Wade said. “We just want to see him get to a point where he can get on the court and help us become the team we're capable of being.”

Dexter Pittman, C
UPSHOT: The second-year center can help the Heat this season. Pittman showed flashes of his potential in the second half when he went toe-to-toe with Howard and didn't flinch in the second half of Sunday's game. In 13 minutes of playing time, Pittman made all three of his shots and grabbed three rebounds. But more impressively, he used his wide body to wrestle Howard away from the basket. He also refused to back down when things got intense. Pittman has also been a rebounding machine in practice, according to his teammates. That can only help the Heat.
DOWNSIDE: Foul trouble and footwork continue to be Pittman's demons, but that's to be expected considering he's still working his way into the level of conditioning the Heat demands. “Those were good, valuable, important minutes for (Pittman), playing against a perennial All-Star,” Spoelstra said.
BOTTOM LINE: Spoelstra wants to use Pittman as the first center off the bench behind Anthony. It's a stretch to suggest Pittman's a certified rotation player right now, but Sammy Dalembert ain't walking through that door right now. This is a move out of necessity.

Dwyane Wade, SG
UPSHOT: Wade came to camp leaner than he's been in years and also more willing to take some of the pressure off LeBron's shoulders by being the more outspoken team leader. He already declared that the season would be “a bust” if the Heat doesn't win a championship. “We had our time in the sun,” Wade said Sunday night. “It's our job to come in and worry only about basketball. No matter what the outside expectation is, we expect even more from ourselves in here.” Wade has vowed to take his all-around play-making skills to a new level, and showed examples with 14 points on 5-of-8 shooting to go with five assists, four rebounds, a steal and a block in 22 minutes Sunday.
DOWNSIDE: As he approaches his 30th birthday next month, there's no telling how many more years Wade will have at the peak of his game. That, in part, was the reason behind his push to get in the best shape possible entering camp. Expect Wade to “pick his spots” more efficiently this season than ever before. But that means LeBron and Bosh must be more aggressive and effective from the outset.
BOTTOM LINE: After confessions of never having gotten to their preferred game and pace last season, it's imperative that Wade, James and Bosh reach a level of balance and cohesiveness that brings out the best in all of their talents this season. That process starts with Wade. He's the conductor. He's also the finisher. Roles must be more clearly defined this season, and Wade is eager to lead the way.
Heat
Getty Images
Miami played an intrasquad scrimmage for season ticket-holders on Thursday. What did we learn?

Let's get the caveats out of the way. It was a scrimmage. LeBron wore cotton shorts that reached down to his ankles. Juwan Howard played more than 10 minutes. The stats were taken by hand. Burnie the Mascot started at point for the Red team in the second half.


Well maybe that last line was made up, but still the point remains: it's hard to draw anything meaningful from an intrasquad scrimmage. But then again, it's the first look at the 2011-12 Miami Heat and it's part of our sports culture to draw ironclad conclusions from preseason action.

Right?

So, what did we learn? Who made the biggest impression? Who made the least noise out on the floor? What remains to be seen?

In another installment of Heat Index's 3-on-3 series, our writers offer first impressions of the first glimpse of Heat action this season.

1. Most surprising thing that you saw in the scrimmage.


Tom Haberstroh: That Mario Chalmers didn't demand to be traded at halftime. All kidding aside, rookie Norris Cole stole the show and if he keeps this up, he could steal Chalmers' starting gig by January. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but there's a lot to like about his speed, assertiveness and pure point guard skills. In the words of Chris Bosh post-game, "The kid can play."

Brian Windhorst: I knew Norris Cole was quick and I knew he was a 22-year-old rookie who had some savvy. What I didn't expect was to see him play with so much confidence. Granted a scrimmage is hardly a proving ground but Cole showed no fear whatsoever in his first public appearance as an NBA player. Doesn't mean he's going to be a serious contributor but it does mean the Heat have reason for optimism.

Michael Wallace: How smooth and easy rookie point guard Norris Cole looked running with the big boys and playing at an up-tempo pace. Thursday's scrimmage offered a peek at what Cole's teammates have been raving about in camp. The kid will be in the rotation.



2. Least surprising thing that you saw in the scrimmage.


Haberstroh: That Eddy Curry sat this one out. The buzz in Miami's training camp has slowly gravitated away from the Big Three and toward Curry, literally the Heat's biggest player. He wore the Heat's practice uniform, but watched the scrimmage from the bench. He might get a look in the Heat's preseason games, but it wouldn't raise an eyebrow if he sat those out, too.

Windhorst: There were a lot of turnovers. The team had eight practices before the scrimmage and they are working on several new aspects of the offense. Preseason games are usually rife with turnovers and fouls and since there are only two preseason games for each team, this is something you'll be seeing a lot of in the early going all over the league.

Wallace: That after all the talk so far about playing more "big man basketball" we didn't see much of Chris Bosh establishing himself in the paint, where the Heat has a major void. His feathery touch on the jumper remains effective. But there needs to be a commitment to a legitimate post-up game. Same goes for LeBron James.



3. Biggest thing you're still waiting to see.


Haberstroh: Spoelstra's set rotation. Dexter Pittman certainly played like he had a rotation spot to win on Thursday night and with Shane Battier on the bench with a minor quad strain, the big man took advantage of the opportunity to carve out some real minutes down the line. Will Spoelstra lean on Udonis Haslem and Battier for some small-ball in the second unit? Or will he ask Pittman for some reserve minutes at center? Something to monitor as we head into next week.

Windhorst: Whether the Heat can follow through with their plan to play more up tempo. They did a little bit in the early going Thursday night but then cooled to a standard pace. The challenge of playing quicker is to be committed to it. It's easy to do in training camp, it's harder to do on a back-to-back or a third game in four nights.

Wallace: Eddy Curry in action. Enough said.

The Heat's big void lingers, front and center

December, 10, 2011
12/10/11
10:43
AM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
Archive
Tyson Chandler
Don Emmert-Pool/Getty Imagess
Without a true center, the Heat struggled to stop Tyson Chandler in June. Expect more of the same.

MIAMI – Friday night was a cheerful time in the Miami Heat’s offices. Downstairs in the arena the Trans-Siberian Orchestra was playing electric Christmas music to a late-arriving crowd. Upstairs several players happily signed multi-million dollar long-term contracts.

None of them was a center.

There were a handful of reasons the Heat got beat the Mavericks in The Finals six months ago. First, the Mavs were pretty darn good. But the Heat did have their issues. Some the front office can’t really address. What happened to LeBron James is something he’s probably got to deal with on his own. What happened to the Heat in the trenches, well, that they could’ve done something about.

Friday night the Heat committed themselves to more than $25 million in new deals, sailing into the luxury tax zone where new rules limit their ability to change the roster. That is not to say they can’t or that they won’t have that needed quality big man come the playoffs. But it looks like they came up short in what was their top offseason priority. Whether it comes back to haunt them will unfold over the next seven months.

It was always going to be tough. While the center market this year was much deeper than usual, the Heat had limited ways to attract one. Considering how much money they have tied up in All-Stars it’s understandable. But understanding doesn’t get rebounds or block shots.

The Knicks spent $72 million to get Tyson Chandler this week, $58 million they paid him and $14 million they had to pay Chauncey Billups to clear the salary cap for it. They may have signed Chandler anyway but don’t think that his dominance against the Heat last June didn’t kick that price tag up a few notches.

Two of the centers the Heat used last season, Erick Dampier and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, aren’t currently in the league. Another one, Jamaal Magloire, wasn’t retained. The two true centers they plan to have in training camp, Dexter Pittman and Eddy Curry, combined to play 11 minutes last season. Both are on nonguaranteed contracts. In other words, they Heat are hoping for magic but there’s not a lot of faith.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, the Knicks have loaded up by adding Chandler to Amar’e Stoudemire. The Nets are scheming of ways to get Dwight Howard and Nene together in their frontcourt. And the Bulls’ duo of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah combined to average 20 rebounds a game in the conference finals last year, doubling up the output of Heat starting big men Chris Bosh and Joel Anthony.

“We feel very comfortable with about our roster even without many any moves,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after his team’s first practice of the year. “Last year was a successful year for us on many fronts…to make it within two games of our goal, we feel like we have enough.”

Spoelstra is giving the company line and it’s not untrue. James, Bosh and Dwyane Wade ought to be enough for any team. Most of the time last season, it was. In the Finals, it wasn’t.

When the Heat re-visit the Mavs on Christmas, their three top center options are likely to be Anthony, Bosh and Udonis Haslem. Same as at the end of last season. None of them are true centers. Neither is Juwan Howard, who re-signed with the Heat Friday.

The Heat are thrilled they signed Shane Battier, beating out a host of rivals to add one of the most desired role players on the market. They are pleased they’re bringing back James Jones on a three-year deal that could take him to the end of his career in his hometown. They’re apparently bullish on Mario Chalmers, the mercurial point guard who has the rare gene of playing better under pressure. So much so they gave him a three-year, $12 million contract.

Perhaps Friday will go down as the day the Heat put the final pieces in place to put them over the top. But with their free agent resources nearly exhausted now, it is basically the same team they had a year ago plus Battier. And Battier can do a lot of things, but playing in the middle isn’t one of them.

Dispatch from Day 1 of Heat workouts

December, 1, 2011
12/01/11
5:48
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Archive


The NBA is back. Or at least, the players are back on the team’s courts.

On Thursday, Heat players worked out at the Miami Heat’s practice facility at AmericanAirlines Arena on Thursday for the first time since June when they fell to the Dallas Mavericks in the 2010-11 NBA Finals. Honestly, it's been about five months since we last saw these guys player here, but the lockout made it feel like five years.

All in all, six players showed up to the Heat practice facility including Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem, Joel Anthony, Juwan Howard, James Jones and Dexter Pittman. No, there was no signs of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but are both expected to join their teammates sometime in the coming days. Thursday's Big Three consisted of Bosh, Haslem and Jones as the trio took the court in front of the media.

The big news that blindsided everyone in the gym was that Mike Miller was going to be out eight weeks after recent hernia surgery. Udonis Haslem also laughed off the rumors around the basketball world that he was going to be packaged to Denver for Nene. Here are some other tidbits from the day:
  • Lot of anticipation to see if Chris Bosh put on noticeable weight in the offseason. Can he help out at center? Is he going to play stronger in the post? Those were the questions from reporters before entering the gym. Many of the media members threw around the weight-gain number at 15 pounds, but after seeing him put him shots today in person, I'm guessing it's closer to 10 pounds. It's noticeable, but let's just say that the only way the Heat can get a Nene-sized big man is if they actually acquire him. Bosh isn't there yet, folks. See for yourself above or here.
  • Good to see James Jones back on the floor after he suffered a broken toe in the playoffs last season. He looked fine on the court, but you couldn't help but notice that he wasn't wearing Heat garb on the court. Bosh and Haslem both wore short and tees with Heat logo prints, but in symbolic fashion, Jones wore some generic work out clothes from Adidas. Jones, a Miami native, is a free agent and told reporters that there was a "50/50" chance that he rejoins the Heat soon. As a treasurer for the players union, he can't seem to get that 50/50 split figure out of his mind.
  • As far as notable events in a workout go, Udonis Haslem drilling 10 jumpers from the top of the key was pretty earth-shattering. News! But he looked 100 percent out on the floor and admitted as much. One byproduct of the lockout is that guys like Haslem haven't run in full-court games in months. Haslem was sidelined anyway for a few months because of foot surgery and literally walked the sidelines as LeBron's coach in the South Florida All-Star Classic. That said, he maintains that conditioning won't be a problem, saying, "Did you see how quickly I got back in the Finals?"
  • Udonis Haslem explained why he cut his cornrows. "It was just a lot of maintenance," Haslem said as he combed his hand through his hair. "It was hard, two to three hours in a chair, once a week, travel schedule. This is a little easier to maintain." Then a smile came to his face. "Nothing's changed. I just want you guys to understand that I'm probably still going to use the same amount of profanity out there. Same number of technical fouls."
  • Joel Anthony showed up after Thursday's Big Three left the court. He didn't speak with the media, but considering how much of a gym rat he is, I was stunned not to see him out there on the court with the others.
  • Dexter Pittman spoke briefly to the media and said he has lost 50 pounds since being drafted last season. As a big man on the roster, he has taken it personally when people claim that the Heat lack inside presence, calling it "a slap in the face." Pittman thinks very, very highly of his teammate Joel Anthony. "We're big guys. You saw what Joel Anthony did. He altered a lot of shots and blocked a lot of shots. He was one of the best players in the NBA last year." Well, maybe not.
Jones/Wade/Chalmers
Brian Babineau/Getty ImagesBefore the Heat go shopping, they must first decide what to do with James Jones and Mario Chalmers.

Let the games begin.

The start of free agency is just around the corner and, by all accounts, the Heat will be active participants in the league-wide frenzy. Outside of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, there's no question that Heat president Pat Riley has some holes to fill. Everyone and their friend's mother knows that Miami's most glaring needs are at the point guard and center positions.

But can they address those needs internally? In the debut edition of The Heat Market, we'll look at the Heat's impending free agents and the chances that they return to the Heat in another quest for the championship.

MIAMI'S FREE AGENTS

Mario Chalmers - Restricted | Age: 25 | Hollinger's projected PER: 10.3
James Jones - Unrestricted | Age: 31 | Hollinger's projected PER: 9.6
Mike Bibby - Unrestricted | Age: 33 | Hollinger's projected PER: 10.7
Juwan Howard - Unrestricted | Age: 38 | Hollinger's projected PER: 7.6
Erick Dampier - Unrestricted | Age: 36 | Hollinger's projected PER: 9.4
Jamaal Magloire - Unrestricted | Age: 33 | Hollinger's projected PER: N/A
Zydrunas Ilgauskas - Retired | Age: 36 | Hollinger's projected PER: N/A



Tom Haberstroh: As part of the master plan in 2010, the Heat dedicated a large portion of the roster to veteran stopgaps and fliers. As a result, it’s possible that only seven players return to the team in 2011-12 -- eight if you really want to include Dexter Pittman as a “returning player.” So they have some work to do.

In my opinion, it all starts with Mario Chalmers, who really came alive in the Finals last season. He was the only established youngster outside of the Big Three, but the Heat will see some serious competition if they want to reel him back. As a restricted free agent, the Heat will have the final say, but when it comes to the price tag, how high is too high for Pat Riley to re-sign Chalmers?

Michael Wallace: Of the six in-house free agents on the Heat’s roster last season, I could only make a strong case for bringing back two at most: Mario Chalmers and James Jones. Chalmers would be foolish to think he’d be valued more in another franchise after the repeated opportunities he’s been afforded in Miami. In all honesty, Jones might have more value in the open market than any of the Heat’s free agents, including Chalmers, considering the way he shot the ball last season when given a respectable chance at playing time.

As with most teams, how the new collective bargaining agreement plays out will dictate the directions they go. If the Heat go beyond the 1-year tag on Chalmers, I’d think Pat Riley would value him somewhere along the lines of Joel Anthony, who got 5 yrs/$18 million last year.

Brian Windhorst: It must be assumed that the Heat will attempt to use their mid-level exception to get help at center. Combine that with the relatively thin point-guard market and all signs point toward re-signing Chalmers to be a legit need. Though I give him credit for showing that he can deliver in the clutch, there’s no way I’d commit to Chalmers long-term. There’s a chance the Heat attempt to get Chalmers to play for his one-year qualifying offer, which is just over $1 million.

The only way Jones is back is if he’s willing to accept the minimum, which he already opted out of in June. The Heat may have him as a backup plan if some of their other shooter targets don’t come through. Jones may look at the Heat the same way if there’s a limited market for his services.

TH: Jones is an interesting case. Jones initially served as Mike Miller’s insurance plan last season, but he proved that he’s worth more than the league minimum. I’m with you Brian -- I don’t see him coming back unless the Heat strike out on guys like Shane Battier and Grant Hill. Aside from them, can we all agree that Zydrunas Ilgauskas (who retired), Jamaal Magloire, Juwan Howard and Erick Dampier have played their last games in a Heat uniform, or an NBA uniform for that matter?

BW: The Heat are desperate at center, frankly. I know they were only two games from winning it all. Actually, I feel they were 2-3 plays from LeBron in the fourth quarter of Game 4 from winning it all. But their center situation is their most pressing need. There was a reason the Heat were at the scrap yard last year looking for centers, they were in that bad of shape. Now they have a chance to address it and they will make that the No. 1 priority. All of their own free agents are down the list from that need.

MW: I think there might be a market for Magloire -- somewhere. He did have, what, 20 rebounds in that regular-season finale against Toronto that helped Miami ultimately secure homecourt advantage in the Finals over Dallas. The Heat will bring in a center via free agency, hang on to Joel and likely hope that Dexter Pittman can develop as the third, break-glass-in-case-of-emergency center.

TH: Last season was defined by uncertainty, especially on the personnel-side. The Heat have maintained that they needed wiser (older) veteran big men to help implement a no-nonsense professional and defensive mindset, but is that necessary anymore? In other words, what did the Heat learn from their experiment with older bigs last season? Did they reshape what Riley thought this team needs underneath?

MW: Riley knows his team needs an infusion of youth and athleticism, especially in the low post. Pittman could provide some of that, in terms of youth. They’ll have to do some outside shopping for the athleticism. As far as the veteran touch, I remember how much Juwan Howard resented being classified as a “locker room guy.” Last year, that might have been needed to help everyone ease into a major transition. But this year, that leadership and tone should be set by primarily by James, Wade and Bosh.

BW: There are probably 5-7 different free agents who can fill a role for the Heat on the wing and maybe 3-4 names that could help them at point guard because they don’t need a true PG on the floor all the time. At center, it’s a tight list. It’s so tight they are probably going to use their entire mid-level on a center and then sign Eddy Curry and maybe even a third nameless big man. Then they’re going hope that between them and Pittman (who I wouldn’t count on for anything) and Anthony that they can get enough to get through four rounds of playoffs.



Thursday's edition of The Heat Market: Miami's free agent point guard options.


Myths and realities of the Heat's offseason

June, 17, 2011
6/17/11
6:23
PM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
Archive
Dwyane Wade
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
Dwyane Wade and the Heat will try to upgrade in a few specific areas -- but don't expect an overhaul.

MIAMI -- As the Heat coped with the letdown of the Finals, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he and the team would be taking the next few weeks to digest what happened during the season. Every team has a different process, but usually this means meetings and lots of long, in-depth conversations to boil down opinions and confront some questions.

Many of the fans who followed the Heat during the season and the playoffs have their own ideas. Here’s a look at some of the statements that have been floating around since the end of the Finals and whether they have merit.

The Heat need to revamp their roster.
False. In the era of fantasy sports leagues, in which so many fans have become amateur general managers, it is very tempting to suggest wheeling and dealing. Pat Riley hasn’t been afraid to do this in past offseasons. Who could forget his five-team, 13-player trade in 2005 that reshaped the Heat’s roster and helped set up the 2006 title? Riley, though, performed his major shakeup last summer when he signed all those free agents. After it took the team at least half the season to begin to find its stride, stability will be the value play over the next year.

There are a couple of other realities that also come into play. First, the Heat were only two wins from the title. In the disappointment of losing, this can too easily be forgotten. The Heat’s three-All-Star core, despite the long process of learning to play together, is young and arguably the best in the league. They are not perfect, but everyone believes they will get better by playing together more. This is what the Heat will allow them to do.

As for the role players, every team looks to make adjustments in every offseason. The Heat don’t have a great deal of flexibility because they have a significant amount of money invested in Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem. But with both players coming off injuries -- Miller is going to need at least one more surgery on his left thumb over the summer -- the Heat think betting that both will be better in the long run is more prudent than looking to trade either with depressed values.

Several players are going to contemplate retirement, including Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Juwan Howard, with Erick Dampier and Mike Bibby having uncertain futures. So there will be new faces. But it is unlikely there will be an overhaul, and for good reason.

Dwyane Wade and LeBron James don’t fit together.
False. You can look at plus/minus numbers and a couple of misguided fourth quarters, especially against the Mavericks, and arrive at the opposite conclusion. But ask the 76ers, Celtics and Bulls about it. The continuous one-two punch -- whether it comes over the course of 48 minutes or in bursts when one is resting and the other is scoring -- wore out those teams in the postseason.

Wade and James were a historically great offensive duo in their first season together, as each finished in the top six in scoring in the league. Meanwhile, they also were a major reason the Heat were one of the league’s best defensive teams.

They might not be a classic fit, and they don’t have a depth of experience in settling into roles under pressure. This manifested itself during the Finals when the Mavs’ fourth-quarter attacks seemed to freeze them up. Indeed, it would have helped if they could have played more inside-out basketball as a tandem, with James working more effectively from the post. Those films are going to be heavily reviewed by James, Wade and the Heat coaching staff as they attempt to learn and prepare better for those situations in the future.

Their body of work, though, leaves little doubt that their experiment was a success, and it should be viewed that way.

The Heat need an upgrade at point guard.
True. Starter Mike Bibby was inconsistent defensively and shot the ball poorly throughout the postseason. Mario Chalmers proved to be valuable in the Finals but it is questionable whether he’s a true starter over the long haul.

With Wade and James as ball handlers and creators, there isn’t the same demand to have a classic or “true” point guard on the floor at all times. What the Heat need more than anything is a combo guard who is a strong shooter. Whoever plays the other perimeter position with James and Wade is going to get plenty of open shots, and at times this season, James Jones and Miller fit in nicely. But Jones and Miller aren’t ball handlers, and that is what the Heat need. The Mavs had a lot of success pressuring the ball full court. This disrupted the Heat's offense when the team counted on Wade and James to bring the ball up the floor.

A guard who will break down the opposing defense off the dribble and can be relied on to get eight assists per game would be nice, but that probably isn’t realistic. The free-agent market for point guard is thin this summer, and the Heat likely will be compelled to re-sign Chalmers, who is a restricted free agent. There will, however, be players available through the draft and via trade who can help in this area. The Heat will be looking closely.

The Heat need an upgrade at center.
Both true and false. At the end of the season, the team technically didn’t even have a center to upgrade from. All three of the team’s 7-footers -- Ilgauskas, Dampier and rookie Dexter Pittman -- were inactive. Joel Anthony, who is more of a power forward, was the starter, while Howard, a power forward, served as his backup. In essence, the Heat took care of their center issue by eliminating the position altogether.

As an energy player, however, Anthony is probably best served coming off the bench. Also, he is not a threat to score, and that often negatively affected the Heat’s floor balance. The Heat need a big man who demands some attention from the defense -- to be guarded, at the very least -- and who can rebound. With Wade and James sometimes required to crash the boards because of rebounding issues, especially against the Bulls in the playoffs, the team’s effective transition game was shelved at times.

In this case, there are some quality options on the free-agent market. Tyson Chandler and Nene aren't realistic, but there are a number of candidates who are. It will depend on how the new collective bargaining agreement is structured, and until then, it is somewhat pointless to speculate. But getting some help at center -- and Pittman could figure in some way -- will be the Heat’s No. 1 offseason priority.

Long on talent, short on execution

June, 13, 2011
6/13/11
3:36
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Archive
Miami Heat
AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee
None of the Heat's Big Three played up to his potential when it mattered most in an elimination game.

MIAMI -- Talent gets you only so far. The rest is up to execution.

This much was painfully clear for the Miami Heat in Game 6. The game of basketball is played on 94 feet of hardwood. It is not played on a preseason stage full of pyrotechnics. It is not played in a cloud of hype.

Put away the MVP trophies. Toss out the All-Star appearances. Forget the ring count.

Ultimately, to win the elusive championship, a team must simply play better basketball over the course of a seven-game series, and the Heat failed in that endeavor.

Why did the Heat lose to the Mavericks in the Finals?

The truth is in the details. With a top-heavy roster, the Heat were long on talent, but short on execution.

“They played great, we came up short, and that's really it,” Chris Bosh said after the game.

They came up short. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra used that phrase four times during his postgame presser, with each echo underlining the sobering fact that his team failed to reach its goal of winning the title. Spoelstra stressed all season that the Heat needed to execute their game plan and stay focused on the task at hand, or else they’d fall short.

And on Sunday, they didn’t just fall short. They looked completely lost in the confines of their home arena. It genuinely appeared as if Sunday was the first time the Heat had played together on a basketball court. They dribbled the ball off their own feet, passed it to the ankles of their teammates, and jumped in the air without a purpose. There was no precision, decisiveness or polish.

All the work they put in since training camp at the military base, all the chemistry that Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Bosh seemed to build during the regular season, all the poise we witnessed down the stretch against Chicago and Boston -- all of that disappeared before the millions who watched Game 6. We expected their bubbling talent to rise to the top. Instead, it vanished into thin air.

“The habits that we built all season long would suggest that how we played at times during this series was very uncharacteristic,” Spoelstra said. “That's not how we played during the season, and that certainly wasn't the way we played in the first three rounds.”

Spoelstra then diplomatically tipped his cap to the Mavericks.

“A large part of this [struggle] would probably be the competition,” Spoelstra said. “Yes, we will beat ourselves up about so many things we could have done better. But ultimately, that's what this stage is about. And sometimes as tough as it is to admit, sometimes you get beat by a team that it was their time.”

Of all the statistics printed on the page of the box score, none of them carried more weight than the 17 turnovers tallied by the Heat. The miscues alone dragged on the Heat’s offense, but the crushing blow was the fact that the 17 turnovers -- including six by James and five by Wade -- led to 27 Mavericks points.

Let’s start with James. We’re not psychologists so it’s not worth trying to speculate what’s going on between his ears. We can only talk about what we saw -- and boy, was it a train wreck.

One of the most head-shaking moments of the game came with 40 seconds remaining in the first quarter and the Heat down by five. Jason Terry had just missed a 3-pointer. Mike Miller handed the ball to James after pulling down the rebound. James took possession and started dribbling up the court. As James made his first couple trots down the floor, DeShawn Stevenson stepped up to defend James in the backcourt and to put some light pressure on him. But as soon as Stevenson got in his crouch in front of James, the two-time MVP panicked, immediately picked up his dribble and passed the ball to Miller.

The only problem? Miller wasn’t looking. He had already put his head down and started jogging down the court, but James decided to pass to Miller anyway. The ball subsequently bounced off Miller’s heels behind him. Miller had no idea that James had passed it to him until the ball ricocheted off his shoes. Stevenson picked up the loose ball behind the Mavericks 3-point line and drained a 3-spot on the Heat as James helplessly looked on underneath the Mavericks' basket.

It was just one of James’ mind-boggling errors in Game 6, but it illustrated how even the slightest sign of pressure swallowed him whole. James may be 6-foot-8 but he remains one of the best ball handlers in the game, but that moment spoke volumes about how James appeared like a different player on this Finals stage.

James barely penetrated into the paint, but when he did manage to pierce the Dallas defense, he inexplicably passed out at the first touch of resistance in the lane. That led to turnovers too. This was not the same James we were accustomed to seeing muscle his way through multiple defenders and propel himself to the rim like a wrecking ball.

No, James actively avoided contact. Instead of taking it to the rack, he dished it to Juwan Howard -- Juwan Howard! – on multiple occasions in the lane in the second half. James took four free throws during the entire game, and he was lucky to rack up that many considering how timid he looked with the ball.

Of course, Wade wasn’t much better. The Heat can survive if one of the members of the dynamic duo has an off game, but not both. Wade had five turnovers of his own, two coming in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter. Down seven points with just under 10 minutes left, Wade let Terry strip him 40 feet away from the basket. Turnover, going the other way.

A couple possessions later, Wade lost focus and straight-up dribbled the ball off his foot out of bounds. Wade was supposed to represent the steady hand of a guy who’s been there before, but he was no less shaky than James.

And Bosh? Almost all of those backbreaking offensive rebounds by the Mavericks in the fourth quarter occurred because Bosh failed to either box out his man or get his hand on a live ball. All those Tyson Chandler tip-outs? That was Bosh’s guy. Each one of those offensive rebounds was Bosh’s ball to lose.

Sure, Bosh could have probably used a couple more touches on offense -- he recorded only nine shot attempts from the floor -- but he let Chandler beat him to the ball at the worst possible moments.

The Big Three came up short. The most talented trio in the NBA totaled 57 points in an elimination game at home, 10 points fewer than their average in the postseason.

Playing on their home court, Wade, Bosh and James were upstaged by the Mavericks in nearly every facet on the game. The fluid cohesion that we expected to see from the Big Three on the big stage? Nowhere to be found.

The NBA is not a fantasy league. This will be a lasting message of the Heat’s 2010-11 season. You can’t just assemble a talented trio, add up all the individual stats, and start collecting the rings. Basketball is more complicated and more nuanced than that.

For all the hours of highlight reels that the Heat accumulated over the course of the season, the Big Three will remember other things. James will be haunted by all the times he couldn’t puncture the Mavericks' defense. Wade will run through all the shots that he missed and the balls that he coughed up down the stretch. Bosh won’t forget all the rebounds that Chandler stole from his grasp.

You can have all the talent in the world, but the chemistry and execution matters most.

“It’s like a puzzle,” Wade explained after the game. “And their pieces came together a little bit better than ours at the end.”

After the first trial of the NBA's great experiment, the puzzle is still waiting to be solved.

The LeBron James 4th-quarter experience

June, 11, 2011
6/11/11
11:14
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Archive
By now, you've probably heard about LeBron James' disappearing act in the fourth quarter during the Finals. In today's age of uber-comprehensive media coverage, there's not just one way to capture how little James has contributed in the final frame.

We'll start with the cold, hard numbers. Over at TrueHoop, the ESPN Stats & Info group delivers the goods. They've found that James has scored just 11 points in the fourth quarter in the Finals, which comes to an average of 2.2 points per game in that quarter, down from his average of 7.6 points in the previous three rounds this season. That means he's contributing less than a third of the scoring that he normally did heading into the series against Dallas.

But it gets worse. If we sharpen the focus to just crunch-time (less than five minutes remaining, score within five points), James' numbers fall off a cliff:
Perhaps most startling of all is LeBron James’ crunch-time absence in a series that has seen all five games decided late. When the score has been within five points in the last five minutes, James has yet to score in the series, missing all seven shots. Those numbers contrast sharply with Dirk Nowitzki's 26 crunch-time points on 8-13 shooting, not to mention the 34-point difference in plus-minus.

S & I informs us that James doesn't even have a crunch-time rebound either. It's a stark contrast to what he was doing previously in the playoffs in the clutch, when he shot a hot 15-for-31 (48.4 percent) entering the Finals (NBA average is 39.2 percent in these situations.) His efficiency from the floor had been better than anything we'd seen in years.

Want another stat? ESPN Insider's John Hollinger provides some framework around James' 11 points in 60 fourth-quarter minutes:
That’s a wee bit south of superstar territory. Actually, it’s a wee bit south of Juwan Howard territory -- he averaged 14 points per 60 minutes this season. Every Miami player except Joel Anthony scored at a higher rate.

Don't care for statistics? Well, do you dig pictures? Well, Tom Ziller of SB Nation has just the thing for you. Over at his NBA blog, Ziller put together a fantastic infographic called "LeBron James Every Shot Review" that illustrates, well, every shot James has taken in the Finals. When did he take them? Where did he take them? Did it go in? Go check it out.

Ziller sums it up by comparing James -- not to Howard or Anthony like Hollinger did -- but to [gasp!] Mike Bibby:
So not only is LeBron being less aggressive a scorer in the fourth quarter, and not only is he relying more on jumpers than inside play than in the second and third quarters, not only is he missing most of his shots in fourth ... he's also getting worse altogether as the series rolls on. At this rate, by Game 7 he'll be Mike Bibby. It's a perfect storm of misery.

I don't know who should be more upset, James or his teammates for being the punchline.

If the statistics and the infographic doesn't do anything for you, then you'll certainly enjoy the prose from SI.com's Zach Lowe and John Krolik here at Heat Index.

First, Krolik, who has watched as many games of James as anybody, points out that James has shot 3-for-21 in outside 15 feet in the Heat's three losses. And one particular 3-point shot from James, the one with just under two minutes left, struck a chord.
From the moment that 3-point attempt left James' hand, it had no chance -- the ball looked like it was filled with helium, and veered toward the rim like it hadn't been given a set of directions. It clanged harmlessly off the rim, Jason Kidd made a 3 to put Dallas up two possessions, and it was all downhill from there.

With the score tied, LeBron was given three possessions to give the Heat a 3-2 series lead. By the time they were over, it was all but assured that Miami would have to play two elimination games.

Over at the indispensable Point Forward blog, Lowe combs through James' struggles of recent times and notices that he's still being passive. Especially late in games:
When a Wade/Udonis Haslem pick-and-roll went nowhere with 4:05 left, Wade dished to James on the perimeter, and LeBron tossed a hot-potato pass through a thicket of Dallas arms toward Haslem in the lane. Kidd deflected it. The idea was a decent one, but it was a high-risk pass. And, again, this is LeBron James against Jason Kidd with no screener in the way to muck up his path to the basket.

These were not isolated incidents. James started the game taking long jumpers, and he only began attacking the hoop after Miami coach Erik Spoelstra forced him to by calling for repeated postups. And James still falls into the habit of standing around late in games when Spoelstra calls a Wade-centric pick-and-roll.

Of course, people are having a little fun with James' fourth quarter struggles, too. There's this picture passed along by NBAPlaybook.com's Sebastian Pruiti. And then there's always the Dos Equis guy line that's making the rounds. If James delivers a virtuoso performance in Game 6's fourth quarter, then I guess the joke's on us.

The Heat's high five analytics

June, 9, 2011
6/09/11
1:58
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Archive
Joel
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
According to a study, the Heat trail the Mavericks in a very important ingredient to winning: high fives.

The Wall Street Journal apparently knows the key to my heart.

There, in the middle of an article on their NBA page, is a chart titled "The Touchy-Feely Index" which breaks down how many times players made contact with each other during the NBA Finals -- hugs, high-fives, chest bumps, you name it. Yes, researchers from WSJ watched the film from Games 1-3 and broke it all down. Analytics!

There's a reason they did this. According to a study by three researchers at University of California, Berkeley, teams whose players touched each other often during games tended to win more games. They watched all the games from the 2008-09 season and during that time, the Celtics and Lakers players dapped and slapped each other the most, and wouldn't you know it -- they were pretty darn good.

It's science.

So the Wall Street Journal tracked all three of the Finals broadcasts and charted the results. Are the Mavericks more touchy-feely than the Heat? And who hands out the most high-fives on the Heat? (Hint: it's not Mike Bibby). WSJ:
The Mavericks, with 250 slaps, hugs, taps or bumps, are almost twice as touchy-feely as the Heat, who had only 134 instances of televised contact. In those three games, the Mavericks were 82% more likely to high five.

...

No player over the three games collected more high fives than Mavs forward Tyson Chandler (90). He was followed closely by teammates Nowitzki (88), Shawn Marion (69) and Jason Kidd (69). "It's all about positive reinforcement," Mavs reserve Brian Cardinal said. "And we've got a bunch of guys who really get along."

James led the Heat with a mere 41 high fives. But the touchiest Miami player might be veteran forward Juwan Howard, who averaged 38 high fives per 48 minutes, good for the highest rate on the Heat.

High fives per 48 minutes! Welcome to the new frontier, folks.

So Howard, the former Fab Five member, loves to high-five. He has 11 high fives in 14 minutes, giving him a 38 high fives per 48 minutes ratio. And Mike Bibby? He's played 71 minutes in the Finals and has dished out only nine high fives. Somewhere Steve Nash scoffs in Bibby's direction.

Interestingly enough, the Heat's camaraderie has fallen off as the series has progressed. The Heat only made 34 high fives in Game 3 after tallying a whopping 58 in Game 1. Where's the love, Miami?

Heat at Bulls, Game 2: 5 things to watch

May, 18, 2011
5/18/11
9:36
AM ET
By Kevin Arnovitz and Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
Dwyane Wade
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
The Heat will need more from Dwyane Wade in Game 2 to overcome the Bulls' stifling defense.

Can the Heat rebound from getting outrebounded?
Game 1 was not just a one-game fluke; the Bulls have dominated the Heat on the boards all season. Game 1 just happened on the biggest stage.

On Sunday, the Bulls collected 41.3 percent of their offensive boards which led to 31 second-chance points. Joakim Noah was a monster underneath the rim and Carlos Boozer was chomping at the bit for putbacks. Chris Bosh missed his box out assignments and LeBron James forgot to seal his man after contesting the shot. The latter two are fixable, the first two aren’t changing any time soon.

Noah and Boozer will always be there, but it’s the Heat’s job to minimize their impact. At practice on Tuesday, Bosh said, “I was always looking for the answers to the rebounding and all that stuff. A dude just told me just go get the ball one day. It made sense.”

While simplicity can be virtuous, Bosh needs to be more cognizant of the big men around the rim and less preoccupied about where the ball is. If there’s a jump ball, Noah will beat him to it every time due to his length.

Dwyane Wade doesn’t get a free pass since he’s 6-foot-4. For a guy who collects six or seven rebounds in his sleep, his Sunday total of three rebounds isn’t sufficient for a team that plays small. The Heat need him to crash the boards like he did against Boston, and refrain from leaking out in the open court when the shot goes up.

It’s true that many of the offensive rebounds from the Bulls were 50-50 balls that ended up in Chicago’s hands, but the Heat’s rebounding deficit is a season-long trend. Every player needs to do better, not just the big men.

Will the Heat find a way to attack the Bulls' defense?
Wired for sound, Erik Spoelstra told his team in a timeout huddle during in Game 1 that they couldn't beat the Bulls with isolation. Yet that's exactly what the Heat tried to do, especially in the second half when they managed only 34 points.

Most nights during the regular season, the Heat can get away with one-on-one play if their first or second options in the half court are denied. They can simply put the ball in the hands of James or Wade and let them create. It won't always produce the most efficient results, but against the vast majority of the league, the Heat can scratch out a living this way.

The Bulls aren't the majority of the league and their defense simply doesn't allow opponents to live off isolation and whimsy. Their top-ranked defense invited this sort of impatience by denying Heat advantages they're used to enjoying.

The mismatch the Heat are accustomed to getting in a high pick-and-roll for James or Wade? It's not such a mismatch when Noah or Taj Gibson are the big men defending. Those cuts and rip screens Wade and James use to catch the ball on the move? It's not so easy when defenders are bumping them and also applying ball pressure on the potential passer.

Chicago proved in Game 1 that nothing is going to come easy in the half court. If the Heat are going to generate points, they'll have to be resourceful. That means working the ball to James Jones on the weakside, continuing to use Bosh in the high post and getting James and Wade the kind of looks they got by working off the ball in the Boston series.

Can the Heat “contain” Derrick Rose again?
Few 28-point performances have been as quiet as Rose’s Game 1 outing. The combination of his perimeter shot selection and highlight reel plays from others allowed him to fall under the radar.

Rose recorded just one field goal attempt at the rim in Game 1, which is only the fifth time he’s been limited to that total in a game this season. On the flipside, he took 15 jump shots beyond 15 feet, hitting seven of those shots. The Heat will take that shot chart any day, considering Rose is a 35.5 percent shooter outside 15 feet and a 60 percent shooter at the rim.

How did they manage it do it? Just as they promised leading up to the game, the Heat mixed up their coverage against the MVP point guard, but they were exceptionally aggressive on traps. This prevented the lightning-quick point guard from turning the corner and penetrating like he typically does, and to that end it was successful.

But there is a downside to that aggressive pick-and-roll coverage: the Heat were thin on the boards. These go hand-in-hand. When Rose launched a jump shot or kicked it out to spot-up jumper, you could find the Heat’s big man who trapped on Rose frantically retreating back to the basket while the ball made its descent to the rim. Not only was that player out of position for the rebound, but it also forced undersized Heat players to pick up Noah and Boozer as they rolled to the rim.

Although Rose recorded 28 points, the Heat can be satisfied with their coverage on him, but maybe not with everyone else. The Heat will roll the dice with 15 jumpers from Rose, but they have to sharpen their coverage once the ball leaves Rose’s hands.

Who gets minutes up front?
One of the common critiques of the Heat headed into the season was that the lack of a reliable, conventional center would ultimately doom them. The Heat responded by posting the NBA's third-best rebounding rate and keeping opponents at bay not with size but with quickness.

Spoelstra doubled down on that strategy in Game 1 against a Bulls' front line of Noah, Boozer, Gibson and Asik. The Heat knew they'd never be able to match Chicago's combination of length and athleticism up front, so they went with a patchwork approach: The undersized but big-hearted Anthony, LeBron with extended minutes at power forward, Jamaal Magloire and Bosh logging time at center.

The Heat's strategy backfired and now they're left with a series of flawed choices. Does Spoelstra activate either Erick Dampier or Zydrunas Ilgauskas, his starting centers for most of the season? They'll unquestionably slow the Heat down -- both on the break and against Derrick Rose -- but would probably help the cause on the boards. Do the Heat stick with Anthony, who had been fantastic for 10 games, but with a shorter leash? Does Magloire see significant minutes again?

The Heat don't need to be perfect on Wednesday night at the 5, but they do need to tread water. In Game 1, they were swamped and there are no easy or satisfying answers for Spoelstra against the unit in the league who can most exploit this weakness.

How much of the load can James and Wade carry?
There's no perfect correlation, but when you see that James and Wade combined for only 10 shots at the rim and just four visits to the line, it's a pretty grim indicator.

We know that, for the Heat to win Game 2, James and Wade need to get back on the attack, but they also have to do even more. That was the cost of assembling a top-heavy roster in Miami -- the knowledge that, to beat the very best competition, James and Wade would have to be otherworldly.

If the Heat are going to survive the rebounding battle, Wade will have to match or exceed the 7.6 rebounds per game he gobbled up in the first two rounds. If they're going to get anything done in the half court, James will need to be playmaker extraordinaire, exploiting all that defensive attention to create opportunities for teammates. At the same time, they can't engage in heroball. Aggressiveness doesn't mean impatience, and there was far too much freelancing in Game 1.

Both guys will have to be killers on the defensive side of the ball. Chances are the Heat will be forced to go with some slower centers, a byproduct of which will be more pressure on whoever is guarding Rose -- and Wade and James continue to be the best candidates for that assignment. When they're not walling off Rose, they'll need to apply every ounce of their energy and athleticism toward smart decision-making. Wade can't afford to be careless or frenetic, and James will at times have to be the Heat's most imposing big man.

James and Wade knew their team would be outclassed at two positions every night against the best teams. That was the understanding when they came together, and the only individuals who can reliably compensate for that shortcomings are them.

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