One of the great mysteries of the wonderfully weird Miami Heat is why the team has abandoned coach Erik Spoelstra's almost-famous turnover creation defense. When Spoelstra took over the Heat in 2008, he immediately installed a pressure defense that suited his roster, focusing on pressing for steals in the halfcourt and playing, by NBA standards, relatively dangerously.
It was a bit of a marvel, even if it wasn't foolproof and had its hiccups. But in that 2008-09 season, Miami was No. 4 in turnover creation and No. 12 in defense. It gave Miami a dependable identity beyond Dwyane Wade's electric scoring ability. And it was sustainable: Last season, Miami finished No. 8 in turnover creation, and No. 6 in defense. The team's shot defense picked up dramatically with Jermaine O'Neal at center, but its turnover game remained strong.
Now, with the most athletic roster Spoelstra's ever had, the Heat are down to No. 23 in turnover creation. Why?
Essentially, the Heat have abandoned Spoelstra's system. It's not clear whether it is by decree of the coach himself or if the players just aren't into shooting the passing lanes and contesting live dribbles around the arc. But it's perfectly clear that Miami no longer plays for the turnover -- the team is very content to rely on its (awesome) shot defense and (decent) defensive rebounding. The Heat's total defense hasn't fallen off -- the team is still No. 6 in the NBA, just like last season. But it's happening in a different way.
With LeBron James next to Wade, the team has two of the best on-ball perimeter defenders in the game. Playing standard, straight-up defense, the Heat are allowing opponents to shoot just an effective field goal percentage of .472; only the Bulls (.462) and Celtics (.470) are stronger, and that's owed to Tom Thibodeau's rotate-rotate-ROTATE! system (and some really good defensive players). That's great -- shot defense is the single most important determination in judging a defense's quality. Based on Dean Oliver's old studies, shot defense is 2-3 times more important than turnover creation or defensive rebounding, and much more important than foul rate.
But for this team, with these players, you'd think getting back to Spoelstra's flying defensive attack would be a huge boon. No one can stop LeBron or Wade in the open court, and the tandem has shown a penchant for excellence in transition. Where in the halfcourt the two stars take turns, on the break the pair has been positively electric and greater than the sum of their own talents. It's truly magical to watch, and no fast break since the advent of Seven Seconds Or Less has captured the glee of up-tempo basketball like the Heat have.
That's an aesthetic judgment, sure, and Spoelstra -- facing heavy fire from the critic class -- needs to worry about results. But Spoelstra led a far less talented bunch to strong defensive performances relying on his ideas about turnover creation. It can work with this roster, and he ought to push his players to get back to that style of attacking defense. If he has been pushing them to do it and they still aren't trying -- the Blazers committed just nine turnovers on Tuesday -- then that speaks to larger problems with Spoelstra's authority in South Beach.