There are times when you see the limitless potential of the Heat’s offense under the direction of LeBron James, even in the confines of the halfcourt, and even in the midst of the team’s choppy start to the season.
During the course of Saturday’s home win against Toronto, James noticed that the Raptors were sitting at the elbows, waiting to challenge him whenever he turned the corner. And in doing so, they were all but ignoring Dwyane Wade – something that, in previous Heat seasons, no opponent would dare to do.
So coming out of the timeout with 5:40 remaining, James told Wade to float in behind him whenever the Heat ran a similar set.
“It worked out well,” James said.
James, once arriving at the right elbow, pitched a pass to Wade, as if they were Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams running a Wildcat reverse option on a football field. Wade snatched it, darted to the basket behind the sealing screen of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and slammed the ball through. It was just two points against an undermanned squad without an intimidating interior defense. Still, it was a play that required recognition and collaboration to go with the duo’s undeniable athleticism. It was a sign of what may be to come, as James gains more comfort with his role as a facilitator, the abilities of his teammates, and the evolving counter-strategies of opponents.
Already, the presence of James – and to a lesser extent, Chris Bosh – has elevated the Heat’s offensive numbers.
The premise that he’s hindering the Heat on that end?
That’s preposterous, if you consider how the Heat struggled to score before he arrived.
Miami, with Wade as the lone star, was 25th in the league in scoring last season, at 96.5 points per game. This season, it is eighth in the league, at 102.7 points.
Miami was 17th in the league in field goal percentage last season, at .458. This season, it is at .472, which is seventh in the league.
Without James, the Cavaliers, scrappy as they’ve been, have still slipped significantly. From ninth to 21st in points per game. From third to 21st in field goal percentage.
Still, we’ve heard many of the same criticisms of James’ offensive, and specifically, half-court offensive play with his new team as with his old one. That the ball sticks in his hands. That he settles for too many early, long jumpers. That too often, the King leaves too many teammates standing around like palace protectors.
Those complaints became even louder after James shined the spotlight on himself with “The Decision” and then joined a team that required him to take on even more playmaking responsibilities than he did in Cleveland. While Carlos Arroyo starts as the nominal point guard, and Mario Chalmers has worked back into the fringe of the rotation, neither handles as much as Mo Williams did for the Cavaliers. Erik Spoelstra has granted permission to Arroyo, Chalmers, Wade and James to bring up the ball after made baskets but, during the moments that most matter, neither Arroyo nor Chalmers has been on the floor – so James has taken those duties. He’s taken them even though, all admiration for Magic Johnson aside, he prefers not to be called a point guard.
Over the past eight games, his statistics resemble that of a rather good one.
After committing 17 turnovers, against 10 assists, in the first two games, he has recorded 79 assists and 25 turnovers since. That’s better than a 3-to-1 ratio, which is better than the season ratios of Utah’s Deron Williams, Orlando’s Jameer Nelson, New Jersey’s Devin Harris and even Chicago’s Derrick Rose. That would also be the best ratio of his career.
And he’s done this while playing with teammates who are often unsure where to be and what to do, and for a coach who acknowledges that he’s using a stripped-down playbook while waiting for the learning process to play out.
Bosh has readily admitted that he’s struggling to adjust to his new place in the pecking order – third to get looks after several seasons as Toronto’s first option - and his new spots on the floor. Wade would seem to have the easiest transition, since he and Udonis Haslem have the most tenure in the Heat system. Yet he’s had to all-but-abandon the mid-range game that he’s worked so hard to develop, and which had become such a weapon over the past five seasons. He got a lot of those pullup 15-foot shots off isolation, where he could get to his sweet spot. Now he often waits for the ball to swing around to the weak side, sometimes later in the shot clock, and he’s expected to attack.
The roles of the role players are still in flux, especially until Mike Miller returns from thumb surgery. James Jones, his wrist healed, has found his shot. Haslem, as expected, has provided consistent minutes. And Ilgauskas has outplayed Joel Anthony, which has earned him a starting spot, in order to better space the floor.
These are all new teammates for James, other than Ilgauskas for seven seasons in Cleveland and Wade and Bosh for an Olympic summer. At times, he’s been too unselfish. At times, it appears that he and Wade are taking turns, which leads to one of them playing passively. And yes, at times, he’s settled, rattling a rainbow off the front rim before his teammates have even taken their half-court places.
How does James decide whether to shoot, drive or distribute?
“It is a fine line, because I’m so used to…,” James said, pausing. “I’ve been a facilitator my whole career, but I had to do a lot more scoring in Cleveland, of course. For me, if I find a crack or an opening in the defense, I take it. Most of the time, I know I’m going to attract so many eyes and so many bodies in front of me, that if I attract two guys, like last game I saw (Ilgauskas), I’m going to continue to give Z the ball. If I see D-Wade, I’m going to give him the ball if I attract two defenders. There’s times I know that I need to be aggressive too, where the offense needs my production.”
Which is Spoelstra says he wants.
“I don’t have a problem with rhythm jumpers, when he or Dwyane are open,” Spoelstra said Monday. “That’s fine. We all understand that we need to put pressure on the defense by attacking, also creating some kind of trigger with two guys on the ball, and hunting down the best available shot. As we move forward, we’re finding out that our best opportunities to attack and get to the rim are often coming on secondary situations. Because teams are so loaded up on that initial one. But I don’t want guys to be robots at the same time, so when they feel something that’s open, within their game, I want them to be aggressive.”
Ideally, he’d like the team to defend and then rebound so well, that the aggression takes place in the open court, leading to easy dunks or early uncontested offense. Monday, James and Wade combined for 25 free throw attempts and just two three-point tries.
“That’s a great one,” Spoelstra said of the differential. “Against some teams and some nights, that’s not realistic. But we’ve been getting to the line virtually every single game. And that’s something that we definitely wanted to establish. What we’re finding, though, to get those attack layups, if there are not free throws, a lot of times we have to trust to get to a second situation to get to that.”
Spoelstra said the Heat is starting to learn itself, and learn how opponents are countering.
“And we have three of the best attackers in the game, in Dwyane, LeBron and Chris, but that initial attack is often so crowded, regardless of even personnel,” Spoelstra said. “And if guys are playing Dwyane or LeBron on the weak side, they don’t care. They’re just taking that defender and putting him in the paint. So our game of trying to develop ball movement, even player movement, we’ve even added some movement sets, to get guys on the weak side to loosen it up. That’s going to be very pivotal as we move forward.”
“Again, it’s that recognition.”
That’s what James showed Monday night, and passed on to Wade, before passing the ball.
That’s what he figures to show more of, with each passing month.
Ethan J. Skolnick is a sports columnist for the Palm Beach Post