Basketball brains diagnose the Heat

BOSTON -- It seems everyone is talking about the Heat's struggles against winning teams. Even those on the inside.

During the basketball analytics panel of the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference held in Boston on Friday, ESPN.com senior writer Marc Stein asked the panelists their perspective on the Heat's 2-12 record in games within five points against winning teams: Is it real or is it much ado about nothing? It's a question that I had hoped would get tossed into the discussion since the team's close-game record is widely cited as a meaningful flaw, even if statistical studies refute that very premise.

Mark Cuban, panelist and out-spoken owner of the Dallas Mavericks, shared his thoughts. First, he touched on the Heat's predictability in those situations and the downside of the Heat’s talent inequality. Most teams understand that the balls either going to one of the Big Three and that places extra importance on the Heat's supporting cast to step up and keep defenses honest. Eddie House has come through in the clutch this season, but he along with Mike Miller and James Jones haven’t capitalized in crunch time. If the shooters pose no threat, the opposing team can load up on the trio without repercussions.

It's a tough dilemma for the Heat since putting the ball in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade or Chris Bosh’s hands is typically the optimal choice, but at what point does it become too scripted?

Cuban also pointed out that the regular season record in close games should be taken with a grain of salt since playoff circumstances change everything. Teams have extra time to do their homework on their opponent and players sharpen their focus with larger stakes.

Kevin Pritchard, a panelist and former general manager of the Portland Trail Blazers, got the first hack at Stein's question. Echoing many statistical analysts, Pritchard wants to see more games before drawing a conclusion. Pritchard's issue is about sample size: thirteen games just doesn't tell us a whole lot. He also believes the Heat are unique because the new personnel. Whereas other teams, like the Lakers and the Celtics, have played with each other for several seasons, they’re more familiar with the team’s late game strategies and what works. The Heat’s roster overhaul this summer doesn’t allow them to enjoy that luxury. To be sure, no one’s feeling sorry for them.

ESPN Insider John Hollinger offered his take which is that the 2-12 record isn’t all that credible in the first place. The stat lends itself to the dangers of arbitrary endpoints, a topic that I touched on lightly in Thursday’s piece. Essentially, the factoid’s parameters are arbitrary. Why do we care only about games within five points? What about six points? Hollinger’s implication is that if the Heat hit a three-pointer at the end of a game to stretch the Heat’s final lead to six points, does that make them less “clutch” than if it was a two-pointer which would only make them win by five points?

The discussion finished up by Stein referencing the Heat’s title team in 2005-06 who struggled against good teams in the regular season, including being swept by the Mavericks. In the end, those records did not matter.

Putting sample sizes aside, more concerns about end-game strategy were raised. Cuban, in particular, questioned James and Bosh’s decision to shoot threes with the game on the line, pointing out that they’re not efficient 3-point shooters. This was in reference to the Heat’s final moments against the Magic when Miami needed 3-points to tie the game and the ball went to Bosh, a career 29.5 percent shooter, as opposed to, say, Mike Bibby or Mike Miller who are far more competent from beyond the arc. The play was drawn up for Dwyane Wade, not Bosh, according Erik Spoelstra’s post-game remarks, but even so, three-point shooting is Wade’s biggest weakness as a scorer.

Ultimately, the basketball analytics panel were hesitant to pronounce the Heat fatally flawed just yet. But the team’s questionable late-game execution certainly isn’t making it hard on opponents. No, none of this insight is news to the Heat organization. With that said, they’re the only ones who have the power to fix it.

For more on the day's panels and presentations, check out TrueHoop's in-depth coverage and the MIT website.