Can the Heat Repeat?

Posted on February 15, 2007 by

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“I ain’t as good as I once was.”

This might be the theme song for the aging stars of the Miami Heat in 2006-07. With a record of 26-26 heading into the All-Star game, Miami just doesn’t look like a team that will successfully defend its title.

Of course, for a champion, Miami was not the most successful regular season team in 2005-06. Last year the Heat only won 52 regular season games. As champions go, this win total is a bit on the low-side. Since 1980, only the Houston Rockets (in 1995) won a title with fewer regular season wins (on average, again since 1980, the average NBA champion has won close to 61 games in the regular campaign). So Miami was not one of the stronger champions in recent memory.

This season Miami is demonstrating that they are also not one of the stronger defending champions in recent memory. As noted, Miami has only won 50% of its games this season. To put that performance in perspective, since 1980 only the Chicago Bulls of 1998-99 failed to win at least 57% of their regular season games played the year after taking the title. And that Chicago team entered the season without the services of major talents like Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, or Scottie Pippen. So it was not surprising to see the Bulls struggle.

Unlike the Bulls of 1998-99, the Heat returned every single significant player from the team that took the title in 2006. Despite returning 13 players, though, Miami is still struggling to find consistent success. And the struggles seem related to the four veteran “stars” who agreed to return to Miami for another title.

Prior to Eddie Jones joining the roster a few weeks ago, the Heat had only four players with at least ten years of NBA experience: Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Gary Payton, and Antoine Walker. Over the past ten years these four players have offered the following levels of Wins Produced and Wins Produced per 48 minutes [WP48]:

  • Shaquille O’Neal: 164.6 Wins Produced, 0.334 WP48
  • Alonzo Mourning: 75.8 Wins Produced, 0.222 WP48
  • Gary Payton: 121.4 Wins Produced, 0.199 WP48
  • Antoine Walker: 31.0 Wins Produced, 0.052 WP48

An average player offers a 0.100 WP48, so three of these players have historically been well above average.

This season, as highlighted in the following table, all four are playing much worse.

Table One: Four “Stars” for the Miami Heat

With respect to shooting efficiency, rebounds, and turnovers, all four players have declined from what we saw just last season. Not surprisingly, each player’s Win Score per minute and WP48 have also declined. If these players had maintained the level of productivity we observed last season, we would estimate an additional eight victories for this team. In other words, this team would be contending with the top teams in the East (though still off the pace from what we see from the Best in the West).

Although one suspects that age is taking its toll on Mourning and Payton, it can be argued that Shaq’s decline might be entirely due to his injury. Last year he missed 23 games, which was part of the reason the Heat failed to perform better in the 2005-06 regular season. This year he has already missed 39 games. Still, when he has played, Shaq is not anywhere near what he used to be.

And although injury might be Shaq’s story today, at some point we know he will also succumb to the ravages of time. Yes, even Shaq is going to reach a point where his age will prevent him from competing effectively in the NBA.

The good news for the Heat, as the following table illustrates, that even as these veteran “stars” age less than gracefully, there is still some younger talent on this roster.

Table Two: The Miami Heat After 52 Games

As the numbers illustrate, clearly this team is now Dwyane Wade’s team. As we saw in the analysis of the NBA after 41 games, Flash is currently the top shooting guard in the league. Wade, though, is not a one man team. The team is also receiving above average performances from James Posey and Dorell Wright. And Eddie Jones looks like he is still capable of being a very effective NBA player.

For this team to take the title, though, some of the four “stars” from the past are going to need to play better in the post-season. Certainly these players are not as good as they once were. But these players must hope that for each game in the playoffs they can be – as Toby Keith says – “as good once as they ever was.”

– DJ

Our research on the NBA was summarized HERE.

Wins Produced and Win Score are Discussed in the Following Posts

Simple Models of Player Performance

Wins Produced vs. Win Score

What Wins Produced Says and What It Does Not Say

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