The Miami Heat had a top-ranked defense in 2015-2016, yet they forced a historically low amount of turnovers. How Miami's "safe" play was a feature of their failure.
Defense wins championships. That’s old adage. Well, if that were true, the Miami Heat’s second-best ranked regular season defensive efficiency rating — 97.7, per NBA.com/Stats — would have probably got them a little further than a second-round exit.
With the Heat’s defense so stout, it must have been the their offense that stymied their playoff jaunt, right? YES. But shouldn’t holding your opponents to .982 points per 100 possession — for 82 games — translate into more than a second-round exit? Probably. But it turns out that the 2015-2016 Heat defense had plenty of bark, just no bite.
First, some back ground.
The easiest points to come by in the NBA are of the transition variety. It’s a little easier to get by Kawhi Leonard when he’s back peddling off a turnover than when he’s squared up, and ready to shadow you’re every gesture. It’s no secret. Half-court offense is hard. Unless you’re the Warriors or the Spurs, then it’s beautiful and hard. In the half court, you have to cut, screen and move with fluidity; anything else, and you might derail your chance at a manufactured bucket — and that’s all if you even remember the play.
All that is why teams covet transition possessions. As gorgeous as the “Hammer Play” is to watch develop, teams would much rather get an easy layup in transition — especially the Heat, who’s lackluster half-court offense tallied the second-most 24-second shot clock violations (.805 per game) in the 2015-2016 regular season, only runner-up to the team that eighty-sixed them from the playoffs, the equally stagnant Toronto Raptors, according to nbaminer.com
So, how do you get points in transition? You turn the other team over; you pick their pocket, you contest their shots, you make them watch “The View”; you make their lives harder (or annoying). You force them to make mistakes.
By advance metric standards, the Heat were the second-best defense in the regular season, holding opposing teams to a stingy .982 points per 100 possession. Conversely to that last sentence: per basketball-reference.com, since the dawn of the 3-point Era — barring the 1998-99 lockout season (50 game season) — the 2015-2016 Miami Heat forced the least amount of turnovers in franchise history with 1060 turnovers (12.9 per game). All bark, no bite. What correlates directly with turnovers? Transition opportunities, fast break points.
Not forcing turnovers at a historically low rate means more than a few less tallies in the boxscore. It means hardly any chance to execute in transition; it means having to operate out of the half-court, a lot, which, for the Heat, led to a lot of standing around, at times.
Consequently, because the Heat didn’t turnover their opposition, they were bottom-five in points off turnovers (14.8 points a game), and tied for seventh-to-last in fast-break points, per NBA.com/Stats. Defense leads to offense. And as it turns out, the Heat’s defense wasn’t very prickly, despite the numbers.
This season, the Heat played a very conservative style of defense; for instance, they forced the least amount of turnovers in franchise history, in the 3-point Era, excluding lockout years. There’s nothing more prevalent in the NBA zeitgeist than the pick-and-roll; every team runs a variant of it multiple times a game. And how teams guard the pick-and-roll is a big part of their defensive identity. The Heat’s defensive identity this year: Passive.
When you hear the word “passive,” you think lazy, undisciplined, et cetera. But for the Heat it meant safe. The Heat guarded the pick-and-roll by dropping their big man into the paint, ignoring the mid-range area (or “No Man’s Land”). If the opposing team’s guard wanted to rocket off a screen, leaving his defender at the arc, the Heat wanted to have a big fella at the rim; and often time, that big fella was Hassan Whiteside, an octopus-like rim protector.
Conservative would be another word to describe the Heat’s defense. They weren’t going to give up anything that they didn't have to. And routinely, that meant sticking to your man, or switching/rotating if you had to. Mostly, it meant that they weren’t taking risks on defense; less hedging and double-teaming, less getting out of position and into passing lanes. All that can be good, safe — but it can lead to a historically low amount of forced turnovers.