Jason’s record on his early NBA picks for 2013-14, up to February 1 inclusive:
The Miami Heat are not the best team in the NBA. Not right now. At the end of Saturday’s action, the Heat had a record of 33-13 (20-26 ATS), putting them fifth in the overall standings and 3.5 games behind the Indiana Pacers (36-10 SU, 29-17 ATS) for first place. If things continue like this, the two-time and defending champions will be handing over the torch to Indiana this summer.
And yet the Heat are still the favorites to make it three in a row. Bodog has Miami listed at 12-5 to hold onto the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy, with Indiana at 11-4 and the Oklahoma City Thunder (38-11 SU, 29-20 ATS) checking in at 5-1 on the NBA futures market. Is there a disconnect between the betting market and the reality on the ground? Or are the Heat simply playing at a lower gear until the postseason?
Before we bury the Heat, we have to put their regular-season performance in perspective. Let’s look at Miami’s offensive and defensive efficiency numbers for each of the past four seasons since LeBron James decided to take his talents – and his Vitaminwater – to South Beach:
2013-14: No. 2 offense (109.4 points per 100 possessions), No. 14 defense (102.8 points allowed/100)
2012-13: No. 1 offense (110.3), No. 7 defense (100.5)
2011-12: No. 6 offense (104.3), No. 4 defense (97.1)
2010-11: No. 3 offense (109.3), No. 5 defense (100.7)
You can clearly see the downgrade in Miami’s defense through the first half of the regular season. But this isn’t a surprise to many people – the Heat are always under the microscope, and gallons of virtual ink have been split breaking down their performance. The “battle” between reigning MVP LeBron James (28.8 PER) and Oklahoma’s Kevin Durant (31.3 PER) just adds to the deluge.
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Let’s join in on the fun anyway. Defensive metrics still have a way to go before they’re as useful as PER, but one look at LeBron’s own numbers this year, and it’s highly unlikely he’ll make the NBA All-Defensive First Team for the sixth season in a row. His steal rate is at a career-low 1.7 percent, and his 1.7 Defensive Win Shares thus far projects to 3.2 over the course of the season, which would easily be his lowest output since his rookie campaign in 2003-04.
Laxity on defense isn’t something most casual NBA fans normally notice, especially when James is still scoring 25.5 points per 36 minutes. But there’s still plenty of enmity out there for LBJ – check out that “LeBroning” meme that was floating around a couple of weeks ago. Anything that puts James in a bad light can and will be used against him. People want to crown Durant as the new MVP. They pretty much already have.
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Fewer casual fans care about the Pacers, or they wouldn’t be 29-17 ATS right now. But anyone who’s paying attention can see that Indiana is playing at a level above Miami, and for good measure, the Pacers just added Andrew Bynum (15.2 PER) to shore up their bench. So even if the Heat do flip the switch and crank up the intensity, it might not be enough this year.
But you can say that every year with every team. Even in the NBA, where the best teams usually make it to the Final Four, there can be only one. And anything can happen in a seven-game series. The Dallas Mavericks proved it in 2011 when they spoiled LeBron’s first season in Miami. And the Heat proved it again in Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals. There will be many more twists and turns this year before we get to the mountaintop, so let’s enjoy the journey and see what happens.