Writing off a team 26 games into the season isn't easy to do. For a team with Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O'Neal, it is even harder. Ditto that for a team that has been known to have a knack for digging its way out of holes. But the time is fast approaching to pronounce the death sentence for the 2007-08 Miami Heat.
The Heat simply aren't getting the job done right now. Or maybe -- with one exception -- they just don't care. Perhaps the worst part is that they aren't even close. It isn't that part of their game is functioning and part of it needs some tweaking. This team is just playing terribly mediocre basketball right now.
For the team at large, the numbers tell the story. The Heat are 22nd in offensive efficiency and 18th in defensive efficiency. They aren't shooting the ball (15th in eFG) or defending opposing shooters (19th in eFG allowed) with any particular efficacy. They aren't making a real difference one way or the other in the turnover game. They aren't great on the boards, with an average differential of minus-1.9 per game. As a result, there isn't a quick fix for this team. There isn't a single player that the Heat have the ability to acquire who can come in and make a be-all, end-all difference. There isn't a quick solution to shore up the one part of the game the team is struggling in, because there isn't simply a one-facet-of-the-game issue here.
The excuses about Dwyane Wade can officially be thrown out the window. Much talk has been made (certainly by yours truly as much as anyone else) about how we needed to wait on seeing this team with a healthy Wade in order to judge them. The contention was made that Shaq would care more and up his game with Wade in the lineup. The rest of the team would adjust and change their roles drastically, and Wade would be Wade. Instead, the Heat are 6-13 since Flash returned. It's one thing to not get off to a great start with the man first coming back, but to be winning less than a third of their games since their best player returned to the lineup is flatly unacceptable for a team just two seasons removed from winning a championship.
Indeed, the most widely held conception is that Wade still isn't the same player that he was before the injury. There is certainly a case to be made that he is still getting some of his explosiveness back and that whether or not he can return to form completely remains to be seen. But the scariest part of the issue for the present state of the Heat is that as of late, Wade has been as good as ever. He has played out of his mind in December, averaging 27.7 points, 7.6 assists and 4.6 rebounds on 49 percent shooting from the field in eleven games this month. He has scored at least 30 points in six of his last eight games and has looked simply unstoppable at times. And it hasn't even made that much of a difference. In those eleven December games, the Heat have gone 3-8. Meanwhile, Shaq's touches and numbers have actually gone down in December after initially perking up upon Wade's return. While Shaq's game hasn't deteriorated to the full extent that many think it has, the primary reason to have faith in him was to believe that Wade's return would get him more motivated and more willing to really push himself to get involved. Wade's return should have led to a drop in field goal attempts per game for the likes of Ricky Davis (13.6), Udonis Haslem (11.9) and Jason Williams (8.1). Instead, Shaq has taken a backseat. That isn't a formula for this team to win basketball games.
Further, if Shaq was going to be successful (something part of me still believes can be the case), he was going to have to do it by playing reduced minutes. His reduced floor time this season was hopefully something that would help Shaq make the most of his time on the court and keep him rested for a possible playoff run. That rest won't mean much if there is no playoff run, and with the recent injury to Alonzo Mourning, the Heat are in big trouble in the middle. Done for the year and possibly for good, Zo was easily the Heat's biggest defensive presence and the only factor allowing Pat Riley to even have a shot to get away with keeping Shaq off the floor as much as he has early on this season. With Zo gone, the Heat will only weaken on defense, and Riley will have a decision to make about Shaq's minutes. Expanding those minutes will probably hurt Shaq in the long run. Keeping them constant could leave the team helpless on the interior for crucial stretches on a night-to-night basis. Sounds like a classic lose-lose.
Sure, the Heat have the talent and the star power to occasionally beat a very good team, as they have done against Phoenix and Houston this season. But as of now, they can't come close to sustaining that on a night-to-night basis. Instead, they are routinely losing games to the heavily cooled off Nets, the wounded Wiz and the upstart Pacers and Hawks. If they can't win an enormous majority of the games against opponents anywhere close to their level, the Heat can pack it in now.
Ultimately, Dwyane Wade is back and ballin' as of late. His teammates haven't followed and aren't following suit. And now one of the few of those teammates that was making at least something of a difference is finished. This Miami Heat team doesn't appear to be far behind.