By Brian Weingartner
I’m going to put this right here in the first few lines of this post. The Miami Heat are going to be good. Really good. They are going to win a bunch of games and finish as one of the top seeds in the East. I’m not trying to hate on them, but the Heat have raised the expectations past being good. They did themselves when they put this team together. Anything less than the Larry O’Brien Trophy at the end of the year is a disappointment, and anything less than a finals appearance is a disaster. The question is not if they are good. The question is, are they good enough to pass the elite teams in the league and win the NBA title.
In the posts before this one I think I’ve laid out a fairly strong argument that a team needs an elite low post defender to win the NBA title, so the natural question is do the Miami Heat have an elite guy? The short answer is no, they don’t. So the next thing to look for is does the Heat have a guy that could be that low post defender.
The obvious guy to look at would be Chris Bosh. The problem with looking at Bosh is that has never show to be a championship level type defender. That’s not to say he doesn’t have the talent to become one. Bosh is athletic enough and he has put in some solid defensive years. His rookie season in 2003 was pretty good and he had another solid season in 2006, and in Bosh’s defense he’s may never have been motivated to try. The thing is defense is about motivation and effort. It would be one thing if Bosh was always a solid defender on bad teams, but Bosh has shown over his career and especially last season, that he’s willing to mail in his defense. I know Bosh was injured for a lot of last year, but I worry about guys that never seemed to be dedicated to defense and then it is expected for them to flip a switch and become great defenders.
Still I think it would be a good idea to attempt to find a historical reference. Of the 10 guys I listed in my previous post, I see Horace Grant being the guy closest to Bosh, in size and ability. Grant had an advantage of having two of the all-time great defenders in Jordan and Pippen, who both could defend the best guard and/or wing players on the opposing team. This brings me back to my first post [link], where Brendan had the theory that LeBron and Wade would be so good out on the perimeter that Bosh will have an easier time. The Bulls comparison seems to work pretty well here with Wade and LeBron in the roles of Jordan and Pippen and Bosh in the role of Grant. So looking back at Horace Grant, did Grant’s defense get a boost from playing with Pippen and Jordan?
I think everyone’s assumption would be he did, and I think the numbers would back us up to a point, but it’s not clear how much. Basketball is the most team oriented popular sport there is, so players receive a boost from playing with other great players. Grant had four great regular seasons and five really good to great playoffs with the Bulls. Then he moved to Orlando and played next to a young Shaq and had another two great seasons. After Shaq left for LA, Grant still put up two more solid defensive seasons playing with the likes of Rony Seikaly, and Bo Outlaw, before age and mileage caught up with him. So while Grant was better with Jordan, Pippen and Shaq, it seems he was always solid or great defender, except for when he first came into the league and after it became clear he was too old to do it night in and night out. Even then, at the age of 35 Grant had one last solid playoff run playing next to Shaq and Robert Horry on the 2001 Lakers. Grant had the advantages that he came into an up and coming team, wasn’t expected to carry the offense, and got to spend a year behind Charles Oakley learning how to be a great defender. Bosh has had none of these advantages, so it will be interesting to see if he can make that jump.
What complicates this more is that it is hard to find examples of big changes in team defense when a great wing or guard defender has been added to a team. One example I could find is when Scottie Pippen went to the Portland Trail Blazers in 1999, but I had a hard time finding other examples (If you can find some, put them in the comments, I’d love to take a deeper look at this). On the other hand, it is not hard finding examples of a great low post defender changing an entire team’s defense, with the most recent example being Kevin Garnett and the 2008 Celtics. I’ll go into the Celtics more in my next post so I’m going to hold that thought there.
Back to the Heat, I have three questions about Bosh and the Heat in general that can not be answered until the season starts and really once the playoffs are over.
Question One: Can Chris Bosh become an elite defender in the first year of the Super Friends?
While I’m sure that Bosh will have an easier time playing defense with LeBron and Wade, who are both elite perimeter defenders, I’m not sure Bosh can go from being decent to great or elite over the course of one regular season. There is a trend in the league that championship level players need to get pushed around a few times in the playoffs before they make the leap. For Horace Grant it was the Celtics and Pistons. For Gasol it was the Celtics. For Shaq it was the Rockets, Spurs, and Jazz. For KG it was the Spurs, and Lakers. For Laimbeer it was the Celtics and on and on. It’s pretty rare that a low post defender answers the bell the first time around unless they have someone who has already been there showing them how it is done. Think Shaq on the 2006 Heat. The closest Bosh has to that is Haslem, who I’m guessing benefited from playing next to a motivated Shaq during a championship run. It also seems Haslem might be coming off the bench, due to Bosh’s desire to not play center.
The obvious question is how will Bosh handle facing the Magic, Celtics, or Lakers in the playoffs? With history as a guide I’m guessing not well enough. This is not Bosh’s fault. I just think most guys have to metaphorically get punched in the face a few time before they realize how hard it really is to play championship level basketball. In Bosh’s favor is that there are going to be plenty of regular season games that will feel like playoff games for the Heat. Every team will be have their games against the Heat circled on their calendar and try to hit them with their best shot. Will that be enough to accelerate the process? The playoffs are their own beast and while I know Wade and LeBron have been tested, Bosh is young and has never made it out of the first round. History tells me Bosh needs at least one year to make the jump to being a championship level defender.
Question Two: If Bosh does become an elite defender this season, will that be enough?
For the sake of argument, let’s say Bosh makes the leap this year. Every team will be gunning for the Heat, just like every team was gunning for the Celtics in 2008. Maybe a regular season of high intensity games gets Bosh up to speed. The Eastern conference is stacked with good front court teams this upcoming season. The Magic and Celtics already boast elite post defenses anchored by Dwight Howard and Kevin Garnett. The Bulls have a tandem of battle tested players with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah who both seem to be ahead of Bosh on the learning curve. Even the Milwaukee Bucks with Andrew Bogut, Ersan Ilyasova, and Drew Gooden, look to cause some trouble. If the Heat manages to make it through the Easter Conference, there is a really good chance the Lakers will be waiting for them in the finals. With the rosters where they are now, no one in the West can stack up to the Lakers frontcourt, making motivation and health the real biggest challenges to the Lakers making their forth strait finals appearance. That should be along grueling road and it is a lot to ask of Bosh.
As of now, Bosh’s frontcourt mates are going to be Joel Anthony, Udonis Haslem, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard, and Jamaal Magloire. Of this whole group, Haslem is the only one that I think can really rise to the occasion in big a playoff series and it’s been a few years since he’s been asked to really do that. Ilgauskas has had some nice years and one good playoffs in the past, but his last quality season was two years ago. At this point, I doubt Big Z can put in a great defensive season playing against younger and more athletic big men. Juwan Howard is a good name, but he hasn’t been anything more than solid defensively in over ten years. Jamaal Magloire had a nice two year run in 2003 and 2004, but since then, not so much. Last, Joel Anthony has shown some promise with the amount of blocks he got in limited minutes, but really Anthony is a completely unproven commodity. Interestingly enough, the Heat’s two best low post defenders last year were Michael Beasley, and Jermaine O’Neal. O’Neal is now on the Celtics, and Beasley, now with the Timberwolves, was inconsistent and often lost.
Let’s go back to the Jordan Bulls for a second. When we look back at the teams that gave those Bulls fits we see teams with stacked front courts. The Pistons had Laimbeer, Rodman, and John Salley. The Knicks had Ewing, Charles Oakley, and Anthony Mason. The Indiana Pacers had Dale Davis, Antonio Davis, and Rik Smits. The way to challenge those Bulls teams was to beat on them up front and make drives to the basket difficult. If Jordan was not the greatest player ever, do the Bulls get out of those series? I think the same thing applies to the Heat here, and as I’ve pointed out a few paragraphs up, the East is stacked with these kinds of teams. These are teams that will make it really hard for Wade and LeBron when they go into the lane, but on the other end of the court, who is going to make it hard for other teams?
Question Three: Am I thinking about the Heat in the right context, is there even a previous comparison to use as a guide?
So far I’ve been working under the assumption that the 1989-1993 Bulls are the best comparison, but is that the correct assumption? When I looked back at past championship teams, I had to go back to the 80s to find two teams that did not have an elite low post defender, but still won the title. Those teams were the 1987 and 1988 Los Angeles Lakers. While those Lakers teams had Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and AC Green, Kareem was past his prime as a defender, and AC Green was still young and good, but not great. The team thrived around Magic’s ability to play multiple positions offensively, and be able to guard a few positions without hurting the team. Those teams would outscore you most of the game and had enough solid defenders to get the stops they needed. And not to discount what those teams accomplished, but in both 1987 and 1988 the Lakers benefited from both the Celtics and the Pistons having injuries to key players on their teams in the Finals.
Still, I think we have to look at the Heat with the possibility that they might be able to duplicate what the Lakers accomplished in 1987 and 1988. LeBron James could defiantly play in the Magic mold. For starters, LeBron has been quoted recently that he’s looking to take on more of a Magic Johnson role. From an offensive standpoint that’s one thing, but that’s not what I’m looking at here. LeBron at this stage of his career is a better defender than Magic was during those two seasons. If the Heat use LeBron to defend power forwards from time to time in the playoffs, things could get pretty interesting.
Really, without seeing the Heat play at all it’s hard to guess what the model of comparison is, or if there is even a team in the past to compare them to. If the team uses LeBron in a Scotty Pippen type role most of the time, then I think they run the risk of relying on Chris Bosh too much down low. If they use LeBron to guard power forwards and use Bosh at center, then they run the risk of weakening themselves somewhere else. Overall, commitment to defense is going to be the main challenge for the Heat in general. There have been rumors that the Heat didn’t want Pat Riley to be the coach of the team because Wade, James and Bosh did not want to go through the Riley practices all season. That puts all of the effort and commitment on the Super Friends.
Looking at the Heat’s roster right now, I keep thinking that this is a team that is at least one year away from a title. That could change of course. They might be able to make a trade, or find the right guy to coming in after he gets waved by another team. Maybe there are injuries to other teams that provide and easier path to the title. Whether or not you or I think the Heat have enough to win the title this year, they are going to be one of the more fascinating teams to watch in years.
In the next post of this series I’m going to be looking at the Boston Celtics (this is a blog about the Celtics after all) and what this all might mean for them heading into next season.