LeBron James, Miami Heat Playing Without Championship Identity

It’s nights like last night’s loss to New Orleans (the losses to Denver, Brooklyn, or Boston can be used in this scenario, too) that make you wonder just how content LeBron James and the Miami Heat are with losing these types of games.

We hear the post-game talk. Chris Bosh openly saying that the team “sucks” and LeBron James living off the traditional Heat mantra of making “no excuses” is satisfying to hear, but it doesn’t translate to actions.

Otherwise, the Heat, who for the past three years have heavily prided themselves on their defense and their ability to end games in just a few possessions, would not be doing the soul-searching they’re doing now.

We’re past the point of excusing the Heat for losses simply because their inferior opponent just happens to make everything. That’s certainly a contributing factor, but it’s also a cop-out for the real problem of this team being apathetic and lethargic in its approach on defense.

After giving up 105 points to a New Orleans team that was playing without its starting backcourt, All-Star Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon, the Miami Heat found themselves in sole possession of the 12th spot in defensive efficiency.

Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick sent out a series of disturbing tweets showcasing Miami’s defense, or lack thereof, against New Orleans. Seeing Luke Babbitt and Brian Roberts get to the lane as easily as they were last night was as bothersome as any game this year.

They’re giving up 103.3 points per 100 possessions. They’ve never finished below seventh in defensive efficiency and had never given up more than 100.7 points per 100 possessions, which was set back in their first year together. Even then, they ranked fifth in the league.

This year, there’s been nothing special about the Heat on defense. They’re a pedestrian, run-of-the-mill defense going through the motions. That’s why they rank behind the likes of the Washington Wizards and are just a few percentage points ahead of a Minnesota Timberwolves defense that’s known for Ole defense in the interior.

Don’t forget that the Heat have always been at their best when their defense is flying. They’re back-to-back champions, and should be going for a four-peat, because their defense was nearly impossible to penetrate unless pinpoint passing was made along the perimeter.

But even that was easier said than done. The Heat were renowned for their pressure on ball-handlers and instantly turning a pressure-cooker defense into a steaming plate of two-seconds-or-less offense. Miami would win games by double-digits because they’d string that intensity together for a few possessions, devastating their opponent and creating a sizable lead seemingly within seconds.

That intensity that made the Heat special has not been present all season. What we’ve been getting is a condensed version; one that has the Heat applying minimal pressure to ball-handlers, leading to a pass out of a double-team and the defense scrambling to rotate.

Without that intensity and mindset to turn every defensive possession into instant offense, the Heat are just like any other team on that end of the floor, maybe even worse. They’ve been using their speed and athleticism to make up for the lack of a rim deterrent. Because they’re not putting the necessary pressure on ball-handlers, though, the deficiencies they were being hidden are becoming apparent.

Not even LeBron James is exempt from criticism on defense. When he’s fully engaged, his teammates will follow suit, since it’s usually the best defender on your team that sets the tone. He’s been considered for Defensive Player of the Year the past two years because of how he led the spirited attack of controlled, frenzied panic that is Miami’s defense.

Let this stat be an indication of just how much effort LeBron has put into the defensive end this year: The Heat are giving up 104.4 points per 100 possessions when LeBron’s on the floor, as compared to 100.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s off.

Chris Andersen, who comes across as the only one who exerts a fair amount of effort every game, has the team’s top defensive rating, giving up 100.9 points per 100 possessions.

Statistically speaking, the Heat have been considerably better on defense when LeBron isn’t playing. There is not a single consistent rotation player on this team that has a worse defensive rating, unless you want to count Michael Beasley and Greg Oden.

Here’s LeBron’s defensive ratings since the 2010-11 season:

2012-13: Heat give up 99.3 points per 100 possessions when he’s on, 103.7 when off.

2011-12: Heat give up 97 points per 100 possessions when he’s on, 97.3 when off.

2010-11: Heat give up 99.9 points per 100 possessions when he’s on, 103.7 when off.

He’s acquired only 2.9 defensive win shares this year, which will likely be the lowest he’s racked up since his rookie season. His previous low with the Heat was 4.5.

His net-rating of 7.1 is also a low with the Heat. Since the first season, the Heat have always outscored their opponents by at least ten points per 100 possessions when he was on the floor. Last year, LeBron’s net-rating topped off at a staggering 14.1.

There could be a number of factors leading to this. LeBron’s been dealing with various ailments this year, from back spasms to a groin injury, he could be fighting fatigue (as any burdened player would after three consecutive title runs), or there’s just a mindset to not care because it’s the regular season.

I’d like to believe that last reason, but LeBron’s never come off as the type of player who would coast for an entire regular season, especially on that end of the floor. There’s always been a disposition within this team to thrive on defense, yet it just hasn’t occurred because their defensive leader hasn’t been the general leading his troops into battle he’s become known for.

Chances are if your star player, your crutch and everything you depend on, is giving up 104.4 points per 100 possessions, winning games is going to be a task, as it’s seemingly become now. Miami cannot expect to win a championship when they are better on defense without LeBron James.

There’s no doubting that LeBron is a gifted offensive player, who is currently leading the Heat to rank first in offensive efficiency, but it’s not at that end of the floor where championships are won, and he above anyone else should know that.

That’s why I am not fretting about this recent stretch of futility and apathy, because it still seems to be a problem based on the effort, not the system.

The lack of focus has been punishing to a team that has the demeanor of a team that’s going through the motions until the playoffs begin. It’s affecting their defensive pressure at the perimeter, their movement on offense, and the care put into passes; all factors that can be improved with a touch of focus and a sample of motivation.

The most jarring part of this season, by far, has been LeBron’s indifference to the defensive end he’s thrived on his entire career. His defensive rating this year is the worst of his career. He had a defensive rating of 104 points per 100 possessions three other times, but those all occurred within the first five years of his career.

Like the shooting of Ray Allen and Shane Battier, this, too, shall come around. It would come as quite the surprise if LeBron James, perennial DPOY candidate and five-time member of the All-Defensive First Team, continues to play on defense as poorly as he has this year.

If the Heat’s season comes down to LeBron playing defense, I’d feel pretty reassured right now.

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