TrueHoop: Shane Battier

MIT Sloan 2015: Best Of Day 1

February, 27, 2015
Feb 27
By Matt Walks
Adam Silver headlined the last panel of the first day of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, and among the topics the NBA commissioner discussed was the future ability of fans to watch an NBA game from a first-person virtual perspective.

Companies such as Samsung and Oculus are making it possible for consumers to experience events in revolutionary ways, and Silver believes it could be key to reach billions of global NBA fans who would never have the opportunity to see a game in person.

[+] EnlargeAdam Silver
Tom Dulat/Getty Images for LeadersNBA commissioner Adam Silver said the day may come when fans experience the NBA virtually.
"It's not a substitute for the real, live communal experience of being in a building with thousands of people," Silver said. "Arenas are modern-day town halls . . . But I think it really has an ability to change what it means from a media standpoint for what we can provide to our fans."

Could the day come when you purchase a digital courtside seat?

Elsewhere . . .

Shane Battier may have been the MVP of Day 1. The former NBA player spoke on three panels and punctuated his support of advanced analytics in basketball with droll anecdotes from his playing career.

One of his best stories took place during the early 2000s, when he played for Hubie Brown's Memphis Grizzlies. The nascent idea of advanced stats was becoming a popular topic of conversation, so Brown gathered his team together and told them he knew the real secret to winning basketball.

As the staff and players leaned forward, ready to take notes, Brown took to the chalkboard:

"If you do not have good players," Brown wrote, "you will not win."

Later, Battier discussed the motivation superstars add to a team.

"Peer pressure is the most powerful force on a sports team," Battier said. In his experience, he said, players like Steve Nash and Kevin Garnett raise the level of their entire teams just by example.

Overheard at Sloan

“The two keys in fourth-grade girls’ basketball are this: Can you make a layup, and do all of your players show up? Because if all 10 show up, you have to play them equally, but if you can convince two that they’re really sick ... your two best players play three quarters. That’s how you win at fourth-grade girls’ basketball.” -- ESPN analyst Jeff Van Gundy, embarking on a tangential rant about Sacramento Kings owner Vivek Ranadive

"Are you worried your shrimp cocktail on the plane is going to be a little bit warmer?" -- Former head coach Mike D'Antoni, on the concerns of travel fatigue on NBA players

"To be honest with you, they're doing great things with therapy. I'm good." D'Antoni in response to a fan question of whether coaching Carmelo Anthony's ball-stopping tendencies gave him "nightmares"

"This is the panel I’m moderating because, as Charles Barkley put it, I couldn’t get girls in high school.” -- ESPN The Magazine writer Pablo Torre, having a little fun with Barkley's recent comments about basketball's stat nerds

Embracing The Data

October, 7, 2014
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh

TrueHoop TV Live: With Shane Battier

January, 24, 2014
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
Miami Heat forward Shane Battier joins us at 4 p.m. ET for a special THTV two-man game.

How Shane Battier would fix the NBA

December, 26, 2013
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh

Playing with the best on the planet

December, 18, 2013
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
Shane Battier discusses what it's like to play next to LeBron James and why he gave up 3-pointers to focus on dunking.


LeBron's historic effort brings another title

June, 21, 2013
By ESPN Stats & Information
LeBron James hit big shots from the outside with consistency in Game 7.

It lacked an epic ending, but Game 7 of the NBA Finals proved to be both highly entertaining and riveting down the stretch.

The Miami Heat were a few shots better than the San Antonio Spurs. And the difference was that the best player on the floor made the big shots when it counted most.

Let's run through some of the statistical highlights.

Heat go back-to-back
The Heat become the second team in five seasons to win back-to-back titles, joining the 2009-10 Lakers. It marks the 12th time in NBA history that a team won consecutive titles.

The Heat are the third team in NBA history to win Game 7 in the conference finals and NBA Finals in the same season ('62 Celtics, '88 Lakers).

They are also the third team in NBA history to win the NBA title without leading the NBA Finals at any point in the series until after Game 7 ('69 Celtics, '78 Bullets).

LeBron does too
LeBron James won his second NBA title and joins Bill Russell and Michael Jordan as the only players in NBA history to win back-to-back regular-season MVPs and NBA titles.

He joined Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant and Hakeem Olajuwon as players who won back-to-back NBA Finals MVPs (O’Neal and Jordan won three straight, with Jordan doing so twice).

James is now 3-0 in Game 7s with the Heat after losing both of his Game 7s with the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Heat’s Big Three are now 5-1 all-time in elimination games.

The Elias Sports Bureau noted that James tied the record for most points in a Game 7 NBA Finals win, matching the mark set by Tom Heinsohn for the Boston Celtics in 1957.

James had a rough series outside the paint through the first six games, making only 21 of 62 shots. But in Game 7, he was able to hit from the outside repeatedly, including the basket that made it a two-possession game inside of 30 seconds to play.

The last word on James: He averaged 25.3 points, 10.9 rebounds and 7.0 assists for the series. The only other player to average 25-10-7 in an NBA Finals series was … James in 2012.

Unsung Star: Shane Battier
Shane Battier made six 3-pointers in Game 7, tying the record for most 3-pointers made in any Game 7. Tim Hardaway made six against the Knicks in the 1997 Eastern Conference semifinals and Joe Johnson made six against the Heat in the first round in 2009.

Another Ring for Riley
Heat president Pat Riley has now been a part of nine championship teams. He won six as a coach (five as a head coach), two as an executive, and one as a player (in 1972 with the Lakers).

Spurs finally beaten
The Spurs suffer their first NBA Finals series loss after winning their previous four.
They fall to 3-5 all-time in postseason Game 7s and lose back-to-back games for the first time this postseason.

The Spurs got 24 points from Tim Duncan, but Tony Parker and Danny Green both struggled, shooting a combined 4-for-24.

Parker's issues are noted in the chart on the right. Green was 1-for-12 from the field. He was 2-for-19 in the final two games of this series after shooting 57 percent from the field in the first five games.

Elias noted that Green became the second player to take 12 or more shots in Game 7 of a NBA Finals and make one or fewer. The other, Dennis Johnson (1978 Seattle SuperSonics) went on to have a Hall-of-Fame career after going 0-for-14 from the field in a loss to the Washington Bullets.

It’s the first time the Spurs lost consecutive games in which all three members of their Big Three played since last Dec. 12-13.

Home-court advantage
Home teams are now 15-3 all-time in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, with six straight wins. The last road team to win was the 1978 Bullets over the SuperSonics.

3-pointers, pick-and-roll important in Finals

June, 5, 2013
By ESPN Statistics & Information

Steve Mitchell/US Presswire
The Spurs and Heat both ranked in the top five in 3-point shooting and scoring off the pick-and-roll this season. Tony Parker has the most points on pick-and-roll plays this postseason.

The San Antonio Spurs will have their hands full with slowing down the Miami Heat and their quest for a second consecutive championship. Despite the challenge of limiting LeBron James and guarding a bunch of long-range shooters, San Antonio has a few matchup advantages to exploit.

The Heat and Spurs ranked among the top five teams in the NBA in 3-point shooting during the regular season, with Miami coming in second behind the Warriors.

The strong shooting from both teams has continued in the playoffs, with the Spurs and Heat ranking second and third, respectively, in 3-point shooting during the postseason.

The corner 3

The corner 3-point shot has become a staple of the Heat and Spurs. Miami made 309 corner 3-pointers this season, 35 more than the next closest team, while the Spurs ranked third with 261 during the regular season. The Spurs are shooting a slightly better percentage on corner 3-pointers in the playoffs, but Miami has made 13 more field goals from that spot on the floor.

Ray Allen (15), Shane Battier (11) and Norris Cole (7) have 33 of the Heat’s 48 corner 3-point field goals this postseason. Allen’s 15 corner 3-pointers are tied with Quincy Pondexter for the most of any player in the playoffs.


Pick-and-roll plays will be important for both teams in this series as well. The Spurs and Heat are first and second in the postseason in points per game on pick-and-roll plays, averaging 38.4 and 36.6 points per game, respectively. However, the Heat are second in postseason defensive efficiency against the pick-and-roll, allowing 0.80 points per play. The Heat cause turnovers on 16.9 percent of their opponents’ pick-and-roll possessions in the playoffs, leading all teams.

The Heat haven’t faced a guard similar to Tony Parker in the postseason. Parker is responsible for nearly 62 percent of the Spurs’ pick-and-roll offense. This postseason, Parker has the most total points on pick-and-roll plays with 152 and the second most points per game off the pick-and-roll. During the regular season, Parker’s 562 pick-and-roll points were second to Damian Lillard’s 629.

Can the Spurs stop LeBron?

The Spurs have done a great job of taking away their opponents' best options in the playoffs.

Tiago Splitter held Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to 15-of-48 (31.3 percent) shooting in eight games.

Danny Green was asked to guard Stephen Curry and held him to 25 points in six games on 22.9 percent shooting, including 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) from the 3-point line.

But can the Spurs stop LeBron James? Kawhi Leonard has played against James just once in his career, as a rookie Jan. 17, 2012. James was 9-of-14 from the floor with 20 points with Leonard as the primary defender. This postseason, the Spurs have allowed 93.7 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the court. That’s the second-lowest total, behind Tyson Chandler, for any player averaging at least 25 minutes a game this postseason.

Sunny Saini and Evan Kaplan contributed to this post

Shane Battier and the buzzer-beater problem

January, 17, 2013
Mason By Beckley Mason
With just 1.3 seconds remaining in the first quarter of the Miami Heat's Wednesday night win over the Golden State Warriors, LeBron James caught a pass and turned up court. But instead of trying a 70-foot heave as time expired, James took a leisurely dribble, waited for the buzzer, then shot the ball. He had a chance, a slim one, to give his team points.

So why did he purposely wait until after the buzzer to shoot?

Shane Battier knows why. Players in James's situation want to take the shot, they just don't want to hurt their shooting stats. USA Today's Sam Amick recorded Battier's thoughts on the matter before last night's game:
"If you're a true shooter, those shots add up," [Battier] said, while making it clear that his view was also the opinion of most, if not all, NBA players. "It's not worth it (to shoot them). Even though statistically speaking, it's a positive – it's a plus-play (in terms of probabilities of success). If you shot every buzzer beater, you're going to make one out of - whatever the odds are.

"Even the heave is a plus-play. But unfortunately we're not judged on the plus-plays. We're judged on (shooting) percentages. I think they should take the heave out of the stat book. It's common sense."

And if they did change the rule book to reflect this stance?

"You'd have guys fighting to take that shot, because it's a hell of a fun shot," he said. "We shoot those shots every day in practice."
The last line is my favorite part of this. Of course players want to shoot that shot! But they don't because of money. When it's time for a new contract, players want to present the best version of themselves and that best version has a higher field goal percentage because he doesn't chuck up a 75-footer at the end of the period.

So how could the NBA change the rules to reverse the incentives?

Ethan Sherwood Strauss has been all over this topic for a year, and his idea is to count these fun, but unlikely shots as "fouled attempts." That way they could only impact a shooter's field goal percentage if they go in: "If it goes in, gravy. An elevated field goal percentage to the heaver. If it misses, the shot will be recorded but not incorporated in FG percent."

Others have long suggested simply not counting them as attempts at all, at least as regards field goal percentage.

Henry Abbott has a HoopIdea, saying that if money (that might be lost from a future contract) is the issue, well, use money to encourage players to shoot: "The NBA could get some league-wide sponsor, who can use the highlights of these exciting plays in commercials, to pay players a little something for every attempt at an end-of-quarter shot, and a big something if they make them. They aren't shooting them 'cause of money. Money ought to fix it."

How would you fix this problem? Give us your suggestions here:

TrueHoop TV: Shane Battier on Hero Ball

December, 26, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Christmas primer: 10 questions for 10 teams

December, 24, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Getty ImagesWorking on Christmas: Deron Williams, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony.

A third of the NBA will be in action on Christmas Day, as fans will be treated to 14 consecutive hours of basketball featuring the league's top four teams and seven leading scorers. For those who make the Christmas quintupleheader their first real look at the NBA season, here's a handy guide to some of the league's more compelling storylines:

Can Deron Williams lead Brooklyn where it wants to go?
Deron Williams isn’t wrong when he says that the Brooklyn Nets run nothing as fluid as the flex offense he guided as the Jazz’s point guard. But Brooklyn’s roster isn’t endowed with the collective skill set those Utah teams had, and the absence of an orderly system doesn’t explain why Williams has taken 241 shots outside the paint, for a terrible 40.7 effective field goal percentage.

Williams might argue that a good number of those attempts are hand grenades he finds himself with at the end of wayward possessions, but if he truly wants the Nets to improve upon their 11th-ranked offense, Williams will have to create his own flow. With some prompting from Williams, Gerald Wallace could make some devastating flex cuts, and Joe Johnson can space, post and pass better than any wing Williams ever had in Salt Lake City.

Williams has real assets in Brooklyn, and a point guard with his talent shouldn’t need an orthodox system to play systematic basketball.

Can the Boston Celtics re-establish their defensive bite?
Boston hasn’t had a top-10 offense since 2008-09, but its elite defense has kept it in the conversation every spring. The Celtics are still loading up on the ball handler while zoning up the weak side. And they’re still stymieing high ball screens at the point of attack while asking rotating defenders to take away everything but sketchy corner passes and long 2-pointers for guys who have no business shooting them.

This season, offenses are having an easier time generating open looks. When you watch the film, the incriminating evidence isn’t glaring. This is still a comparatively efficient defense (11th overall) practicing those same principles, and the familiar cycle of movements is there, but point guards whom the Celtics used to send to remote outposts on the floor are finding their way to the middle. That old Celtics swarm doesn’t cause the same disruption it once did, which means offenses have more available options on the floor.

Defensive systems take time to master, and it’s possible everyone will achieve the level of fluency necessary. The Celtics should hope so, because the team’s margin for improvement probably lies on that end of the floor.

Are the New York Knicks for real?
This is the single biggest conversation starter heading into Christmas Day for casual NBA fans, League Pass junkies, NBA players, coaches and execs alike -- and trying to solve the mystery will trigger a whole series of associated questions:

Has Anthony’s game undergone a profound evolution at the power forward slot, or is the uptick in production largely attributable to eight weeks of hot, but unsustainable shooting? How do you integrate Amar’e Stoudemire back into the rotation after the team forged a strong identity without him? And if your plan is to confine him to a much smaller role, how exactly do you break that to him without the risk of killing the good vibe around the team? Is the defense (ranked 17th) strong enough around Tyson Chandler for the Knicks to have championship expectations?

When the Knicks were horrendous, there was a school of opinion that said the NBA would be much more interesting if New York had a relevant NBA team. Those in that camp were correct.

How close are the Los Angeles Lakers to a breakthrough?
The Lakers now have their four stars on the floor together for the first time since October. Let's say they hold their home court against the Knicks on Tuesday. And let’s say Dwight Howard continues to build strength, as does the defense. And the offense, already ranked fifth in efficiency, starts operating as the lethal machine it was designed to be. And the wins start to pile up.

That’s an entirely conceivable chain of events, but it’s no lock, either. The Lakers still feature a core of players who like to work with the basketball operating in a system that prefers they pass or shoot instantly. Success will require some compromise, but any offensive philosophical differences will likely resolve themselves -- there’s too much talent. The Lakers’ prospects hinge primarily on a willingness to play defense. Howard didn’t have any perimeter stoppers in front of him in Orlando, but anchored a top defensive unit. The Lakers can play that brand of defense if Howard is up to the task, the other starters and the coaching staff apply their wits, and the second unit makes guarding opponents its mission.

If those scenarios shake out and the Lakers are playing some of the best basketball in the league headed into the All-Star break, does the early-season turmoil get summarily dismissed as old news?

How many different ways can Kevin Durant score?
It’s unlikely this Oklahoma City Thunder team will ever develop a brand-name offense, but when Kevin Durant is as dialed in as he has been this season, structure seems almost quaint.

High-usage wing players like Durant are not supposed to post true shooting percentages in the 65 range. Michael Jordan exceeded 60 percent four times and Larry Bird topped the 60 percent mark twice, but both maxed out around 61 percent. And LeBron James’ career-high mark of 60.5 percent came last season.

Durant this season? 65.4 percent.

He quietly has become one of the most brutal post assignments in the game from either side of the floor. He’s getting more separation than ever on curls and pin-downs, working in some sneaky misdirection like a wide receiver running a route. When he’s off the ball, he’s looking more than ever to slip beneath the defense for easy feeds at the rim. And he’s drawing more contact than ever off the dribble.

Durant has never displayed anything but maximum effort on the floor, but did close proximity to a title this past June ignite something more visceral in his game?

Do the Miami Heat have anything serious to be concerned about?
Size up front? As NBA worries go, that’s so retrograde. Nobody cares anymore if the heaviest guy in the rotation is 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds, least of all the Heat, who won a title in June flouting convention.

The defense was another story as recently as a few weeks ago, when narcolepsy was the Heat’s preferred defensive strategy in the half court. Were the issues systemic or did Erik Spoelstra just need to shuffle the rotation?

Shane Battier returned from injury and Joel Anthony returned from exile just as the Heat were being embarrassed on their home floor by the Knicks. In the seven games since -- the only seven games both Battier and Anthony logged double-digit minutes -- the Heat have posted a defensive efficiency rating of 96.0. Only Indiana’s top-ranked defense has been better over the course of the season (95.7).

There are other factors at work, of course. The Heat are a high-risk, high-reward defensive outfit with a license to gamble, but guys were abusing the privilege and calculating risk without care. Now, James and Dwyane Wade are locked in, and that string the Heat are so fond of referencing as the connective tissue of their defense is taut once again.

Are the Houston Rockets figuring things out?
So this is what it’s like to have a pure playmaker at the top of the floor who can get a shot off against constant pressure anywhere between the rim and 26 feet?

How strong has James Harden been in this regard? Of the Rockets’ top eight in minutes played, he’s the only one whose player efficiency rating is above league average, yet the Rockets come into Christmas Day with the league’s seventh-ranked offense.

There’s little magic to the Rockets’ offensive formula. The priorities, in descending order, are as follows: (1-2-3) transition; (4) quick-hitters for Harden if he can find a modicum of space off a drag screen, or for others if Harden can leverage the attention of the defense; (5) a more deliberate high pick-and-roll for Jeremy Lin, and by deliberate we mean with 15 seconds on the shot clock rather than 19; (6) fast, easy ways to free up shooters -- flare screens courtesy of Omer Asik, or pin-downs set by little guys for big guys who can shoot.

Next item on the agenda: Protecting the basket area and picking up shooters early -- two hazards of playing at a breakneck pace the Rockets haven’t yet figured out.

Can the Chicago Bulls manufacture enough offense?
When discussing how the Bulls try to score without Derrick Rose, manufacture is more descriptive than metaphoric. It’s a laborious process being managed by diligent guys with limited skills but strong work ethics. But as a viewer, it’s like watching the factory floor at a cannery.

Try as Tom Thibodeau might to create open space in the half court with cuts and constant motion, he simply has nobody on the floor who can find an easy shot in isolation or pressure a defense by bursting off a screen (let alone, driving away from one the way Rose does more artfully than anyone). Defenses never have to make any tough decisions when the ball is in the hands of Kirk Hinrich, Nate Robinson, Marco Belinelli or Jimmy Butler, and that makes every possession a grind.

On the bright side, the Bulls make life similarly difficult for everyone else, which is how a team wins nine out of 13 with the parking break on. That’s the beautiful thing about an air-tight defensive system: The principles work irrespective of personnel. So if the Bulls can hang on in the meantime, and Rose can return as Rose, Chicago is going to be a nightmarish spring matchup for an Eastern Conference foe.

Will the Denver Nuggets ever have a homestand?
The most consecutive games they’ve played at home this season is two -- and the Nuggets have done that only once through 28 games. Are their white jerseys on back order? Is the Pepsi Center in downtown Denver undergoing chemical fumigation? Are they finally installing reliable Internet in that building, a process that requires a complete rewiring of the place?

Whatever the case, the Nuggets find themselves on someone else’s floor on Christmas night. Their 15-13 record might suggest the league made a programming error, but when you consider the home-road split, the Nuggets just might be the sleeping giants in the West. When the calendar turns on New Year’s Day, the Nuggets will play 15 of their next 18 games at home, where they’re 8-1.

With the defense showing signs of life, Andre Iguodala gradually adapting to his more open living space and the Nuggets gobbling up their own misses at unseemly rates, this team could quietly vault itself into the upper ranks of the West simply by playing quality basketball at home.

Is Vinny Del Negro smarter than everyone?
Junkies will continue to scratch their heads when Willie Green is announced as the Clippers’ starting shooting guard, and the playbook might never be put behind a glass display in Springfield, Mass., but you think the 21-6 Los Angeles Clippers care?

Del Negro’s approach has been simple: a few very basic offensive precepts, plenty of freedom for Chris Paul, trust in a second unit that could probably win 48 games as a starting five and a few tried-and-true sets that maximize Blake Griffin on the left block and Paul as a prober. Most of all: manage expectations and let Paul be the guy. If that means letting him sculpt the offense or playing Green to start the first and third because Paul wants it that way, so be it. Del Negro believes that leading is often a task in deference, and he isn’t about to muck things up with a heavy hand when a light touch will do.

If the defense were mushy and the Clippers were still dropping games they shouldn’t, the discussion might be different. But the Clippers have established some simple coverages the young bigs have mastered, and they’re rarely finding themselves in the sort of end-of-game chess matches that challenge a team’s tactical prowess. The day will come when a Gregg Popovich is strolling the opposing sideline, and that will be the true test. In the interim, keep things light.

How worried should Miami be about its D?

December, 7, 2012
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz

Christopher Trotman/NBAE/Getty Images
There was a little too much of this on Thursday night for the Heat's beleaguered defense.

Chris Bosh says it’s the frenetic pace. LeBron James says it’s about communication. Shane Battier says it’s all in the head. Erik Spoelstra says it’s execution.

However you diagnose the Miami Heat’s defensive meltdown against the New York Knicks and the champs’ general listlessness all season, they’re a disaster on that end of the floor.

There are no shortage of explanations, but Miami’s woes are especially bizarre because, with the exception of Ray Allen, the personnel is largely the same as last year’s championship team, which ranked No. 4 overall in defensive efficiency. Theoretically, most of the principles are the same, but somewhere between application and result, the defense is drifting off-course.

Occasionally when you look at a colossally bad defensive performance, a single, obvious flaw reveals itself. What’s notable about Thursday night’s train wreck is how diverse the lapses were.

The switch-outs that guided the Heat to success in the 2012 playoffs allowed Miami to respond quickly to opponent’s actions. Against the Knicks, those switches created confusion both at the point of attack and in the back-side rotation. The Heat have a lot of guys who can defend bigs, smalls and space, but right now that flexibility isn't producing results.

For the most part, the Heat got back in transition promptly on Thursday night, but virtually every Miami defender would backpedal to the middle of the floor to stop the ball with no one splaying out to the wings where the Knicks had been spotting up and blistering opponents all season.

On those rare occasions when the Heat accounted for perimeter shooters while Raymond Felton and Tyson Chandler ran a high pick-and-roll, there was nobody to bump (or “chuck”) Chandler off his course to the rim.

And the rotations behind the Heat’s traps of Felton (a questionable strategy in itself) made the Heat appear like a bunch of second-year players straight off the bus from their first training camp. When the Knicks have long-range threats like J.R. Smith, Steve Novak and Jason Kidd spread along the perimeter, it’s unconscionable to have a third guy drifting away from one of those shooters toward a trapped Felton at 27 feet, leaving the two remaining defenders to account for Chandler diving toward the rim along with three shooters primed for a catch-and-shoot.

James isn’t himself without blame. He’s an all-powerful defensive god when his antenna is up and he’s reading every movement, potential action and passing lane on the floor. When James is locked in, there isn’t a defender in the league who makes smarter risk-reward decisions like when to shoot the gap on a post feed and when to stay home; when to zone up on the two guys he’s covering on the weak side, and when to call, say, Mario Chalmers to fill his spot so he can meet a driver at the rim.

One of the great pleasures of Heat basketball is observing James play half-court defense in a big game. Try it sometime -- instead of watching the ball, focus solely on what James is doing. But had you done that last night, you wouldn’t have caught a glimpse of that sharpness. James was working -- primarily because he spent a ton of time on the ball -- but those secondary decisions weren’t made with a lot of precision. Even on a bad night, James is still a plus-defender. But if you’re looking for a reason why a No. 4-ranked defense falls to No. 23, decision-making by principal defenders is a contributing factor because, tempting as it might be, you can’t blame Allen for everything.

It’s an empirical fact that the Heat are playing horrific defense, but we’re also pretty certain they feature the personnel to play elite defense. There's actual evidence of this somewhere in a glass case inside AmericanAirlines Arena. So how manageable are these issues? Are they merely coasting rather than playing on a string, which is how the Heat characterize their defensive proficiency when everyone is where they’re supposed to be and all five guys moves as one unit in the half court? Would a healthy Battier and a few more minutes of Joel Anthony do the trick?

This time last season, the defense wasn’t exactly locking opponents down. The Heat weren’t running shooters off the 3-point line and they were gambling more loosely than Floyd Mayweather. Miami took some lumps early but privately understood that Spoelstra was engaged in some experimentation. The Heat were trying to figure out if they could morph a fairly conventional scheme into one that could maximize speed and instincts without sacrificing the integrity of the entire defense. It took a while, but the strategy bore a Larry O’Brien Trophy.

Is that what’s going on here in the early going? Is an outing like Thursday night just a symptom of a team that’s futzing around in the laboratory trying to come up with new solutions?

Chalking up bad defense to systematic failures (Defenders aren’t pushing guards down on the pick-and-roll; Nobody is sinking to the level of the ball when it goes inside; etc.) is usually more satisfying than attributing them to generalities like energy motivation, but there’s something that rings true in the postgame statements from James and Bosh about the Heat’s lack of urgency. The game tape looks like a snuff film, but even watching all the Heat’s tactical errors on defense, you find yourself saying, “They know better than this.”

The knowing part is simple, as are the basic adjustments required to fix what’s broken. This isn’t about buying into a system -- that sale was made a year ago. It’s not about hiding older, poorer defenders, abandoning a pick-and-roll coverage that isn’t working or modulating the pace.

This new project is about fully appreciating that immortality doesn’t exist in sports. You never know demise until it’s too late.

Heat reload with aging ammunition

July, 11, 2012
Mason By Beckley Mason
Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen
Getty Images
The Heat add shooters, but at the expense of youth, athleticism.

“Add old shooters with big-time reputations” is a fair summary of the Miami Heat’s offseason agenda thus far. Their two free-agent acquisitions, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, are 36 and 32 years old, respectively, and have spent a combined 30 seasons playing NBA basketball. Each has made some monster 3-point shots in the playoffs, an important résumé item for anyone planning to join Miami, especially now that LeBron James has established residence on the block.

But both players are also inarguably on the decline. In 2007, Allen and Lewis boasted PERs of more than 20. However Lewis’ PER hasn’t been above 15 (league average) in three seasons and Allen’s dipped below 15 for the first time in his career last season. The Heat's role players didn't exactly shine during the regular season, so these two are likely an upgrade, especially in the short term. But keep in mind that in 2011-12, Allen lost his starting spot to second-year guard Avery Bradley and battled bone spurs while Rashard Lewis has played in less than 60 percent of his team’s games over the past two years.

Sure they can still shoot, but can they play, especially in Miami’s frenetic defense, one that emphasizes speed and versatility?

Consider the case of James Jones, who played about eight minutes per game during the Heat’s playoff run and couldn’t even get in the game a few times. Jones is a lights-out shooter, a champion of All-Star weekend’s Three-Point Shootout. The dude can be trusted to make it rain when he’s open.

However Jones also fits poorly into the Heat’s defensive plan. He’s smart and aware, but really struggles on closeouts or to handle anyone with much strength inside or speed on the perimeter.

A player who worked out in a big way, Shane Battier, doesn’t shoot or even drive the ball much better than Jones and is hardly "quick," but he can guard a bunch of different positions and that allows the Heat to capitalize on their team speed. Even Mike Miller, who looked like he needed to be playing with a Life Alert (“I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”) alarm on his wristband, could shuttle defensively between three positions, though not always with much effect.

Long story short: If you looked at the Heat bench during the playoffs, you’d see a bunch of players who can play only one position. Even though the Heat are wise to replace Miller's crumbling body and game, they are attempting to do so with players who, while more productive, have less malleable identities.

For all the experience and dead-eye shooting Allen and Lewis will bring to the Heat, defensive versatility is decidedly absent from their repertoires. That’s not to say they won’t be useful. Defending the LeBron James-Dwyane Wade pick-and-roll gets a whole lot more complicated when Ray Allen is coming off a double screen on the other side of the court. Rashard Lewis gives coach Erik Spoelstra a second power forward, along with Shane Battier, who can pull a help defender all the way to the 3-point line, freeing up the middle for the Big Three.

Still, I question whether this is how a dynasty is built -- on players with deteriorating skills and rapidly approaching expiration dates.

Here's a short list of way-too-old players acquired by the Heat just in the past two years: Jerry Stackhouse, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Mike Bibby, Jamaal Magloire, Juwan Howard, Erick Dampier … you could even lump Eddie House in there.

The Heat skipped an opportunity to add valuable young talent -- Perry Jones, John Jenkins and Draymond Green come to mind -- in the draft, preferring to patch over holes rather than add to the team’s foundation. Now they have two more multiyear contracts with players whose defensive ability -- remember this has been Miami’s real strength on its back-to-back Finals visits -- is questionable already and will only become more so.

It should be mentioned that, if these two can stay healthy throughout the season and Lewis finds his stroke again, I have no idea how any team is going to guard the Heat. As our Tom Haberstroh mentioned on Twitter, “When Miami's Big 3 played with 2 non-PG shooters, they scored 127.4 points per 100 poss. All other Big 3 lineups? 109.8.”

That’s serious firepower, but only if the gunpowder stays dry.

Thinking one year at a time is generally bad strategy in the NBA; that’s how teams get stuck with bad contracts and fading players. Certainly right now, with each member of the Big Three still putting up big playoff numbers (combined 72.0 playoff PER), the strategy makes some sense. But Dwyane Wade, who underwent another knee operation this offseason, is on the tail end of his prime and we’ve already seen the benefits of developing young talent in what a crucial player Mario Chalmers has become.

Miami’s offseason moves suggest the franchise is living for its brilliant present. They’ll sort out the future, which always gets here before anyone expects, when it arrives. That’s the luxury of having James and Bosh, two superstars in the early stages of their prime years.

Durant scoring well against James

June, 18, 2012
Mason By Beckley Mason
Kevin Durant, LeBron James
Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images
Kevin Durant has been able to get the step on LeBron James.

Can anyone stop Kevin Durant? Maybe, but that person is not LeBron James.

Over the course of the first three Finals games, James has ramped up the amount of time he spends checking Durant, but it doesn’t seem to be bothering the Thunder’s scoring ace all that much.

Here’s a quick breakdown:
  • Game 1: James defends Durant on only two shot attempts (he made one), while Shane Battier bore the brunt of Durant’s barrage (6-for-11 FGs).
  • Game 2: James and Battier each cover Durant for seven attempts. Durant makes five of them against Battier and just two against James.
  • Game 3: James guards Durant for the majority of the game, during which time Durant shoots 7-for-14. He misses his only shot (which was his first of the game) against Battier and goes 2-for-2 in isolations against Dwyane Wade.

For the series, Durant is shooting 57 percent overall and 58 percent against Shane Battier. But against James, that number dips all the way to 43 percent. If you'll allow for even smaller sample sizes, it's worth noting that, in the fourth quarter, Durant is 5-for-8 against Battier and 3-for-9 against James.

So James is doing pretty well, right?

Yes and no. The tape shows Durant is hardly struggling in one-on-one confrontations with James. In fact, James has not been able to stay in front of Durant off the dribble and Durant has also been able to shoot with relative ease because James tends to play one-on-one defense with his hands low.

Durant has missed some open shots, but for the most part he’s getting the same looks he did against Battier.

Where James seems to make a difference is in transition (this is self explanatory if you witnessed Durant’s borderline-cruel fast-break dunk over Battier in Game 2) and, perhaps surprisingly, when Durant doesn’t have the ball.

The Heat’s scrambling half-court defense usually requires at least a couple of players to rotate away from their primary assignments. That means no hugging up on perimeter shooters, even ones as talented as Kevin Durant. When Battier guards Durant, he struggles to recover after he’s forced to help on Russell Westbrook or James Harden. James, on the other hand, can actually offer some help to his teammates and still get back in time to close down Durant.

James can't do it every time -- Durant blew past him on the right wing for a first half dunk in Game 3 -- but it’s slightly better than the alternative. In a series this tight, that matters.

Even that modest praise might overstate the difference between Battier and James. The Heat have also adjusted their overall defense to rotate less from the corner and give a bit more help on Durant curls, so James may simply have less distance to cover than Battier did earlier in the series. Chris Bosh has been especially effective, and helped turn away three Durant shots near the rim late in Game 3.

Against Durant, there are no solutions. Even James needs support.

Thus far in the Finals, it seems the best way to defend Durant is to attack him on the other end and hope foul trouble keeps him off the court altogether.

James on Durant can't solve everything

June, 14, 2012
Mason By Beckley Mason
Some expect LeBron James to spend more time guarding Kevin Durant, who dropped a breezy 36 points in Game 1, many on Shane Battier's watch. The reasoning is straightforward. As our Tom Haberstroh points out, James is the Heat's best defender and he did good work on Durant during the regular season:
James barely even guarded Durant in Game 1 even though the OKC star was mostly neutralized this season against the Heat when James was his primary defender. According to ESPN Stats & Info, James guarded Durant on only five plays in Game 1, which led to two missed shots and two turnovers. When guarded by a host of defenders led by Shane Battier, Durant scored 34 points and shot 12-for-18 from the floor without turning the ball over once. In fact, all of Durant's 10 turnovers against the Heat have come while James was the primary defender.

This comes full circle. The Heat were desperate for turnovers and stops in Game 1, but they struggled to get any without James guarding Durant.

Of course, there are any number of reasons why Heat coach Erik Spoelstra might want to keep James from guarding Durant, but here are four good ones:
  1. Switches: The Heat want James to be guarding Durant when he looks to score, not when the possession begins. Especially in the second half, Miami switched on almost every screen, so starting James on a player like Westbrook allows him to switch onto Durant whenever those two screen for one another.
  2. Foul Trouble: We saw how tentative Durant became when he was guarding LeBron after picking up a cheap early foul. The Heat needs James to be available and aggressive for as many minutes as possible.
  3. Exhaustion: Asking James to run the offense, score frequently and cover Durant while Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison hit him with burly screens amounts to burning the candle at both ends with a blowtorch.
  4. Team defense: James is a stellar individual defender, but he might be an even better team defender. Starting him on a guy like Perkins doesn't just conserve energy, it allows James to expend that energy helping his teammates. And when there are multiple Thunder players who can breakdown the defense single-handedly, James may be able to prevent more easy shots by playing free safety, sort of like Kevin Garnett does. When James covers Durant, and it's unlikely James would lock down Durant like he did Pierce, he has to stay attached to Durant on the perimeter and cannot slough off to bother Westbrook or Harden.

The fourth point becomes especially significant considering it looks like Russell Westbrook can blow past Dwyane Wade with regularity. That means James might be the only player on the Heat roster who can handle either Westbrook or Durant, though he can only cover one at a time.

Alone, James may be able to dent the Thunder's offensive machine by focusing his efforts more on Kevin Durant. But it will take a total team effort from Miami to throw a wrench in what has been by far the most productive playoff offense since 2005.