The Miami Heat are great. They have been since their big 3 players joined up together 3 years ago. They will almost certainly be great again this year. The question is just how great will they be. Let’s take a look at what the Heat looked like last year from an xRAPM and xWARP perspective.
The Heat here look like a 59 win team. So why, then, did they actually win 66 games? Well, there are two major reasons for this. First, they played the easiest strength of schedule in the league — part of that is that they didn’t have to play themselves, part of that is that they play in the weaker Eastern Conference, and part of it was just lucky for them. Second, they won more than their share of close games. It might be that they were a team that was better at executing late in close games, and while there is definitely some of that for this team, these sorts of overperformances tend not to reoccur year-to-year.
Going a little deeper on these two factors, the Heat had an SOS of -.84 according to Basketball-Reference. This means their opponents were, on average, .84 points worse than league average per 100 possessions. Over the course of an 82 game season, that produces an extra 2 wins using the simple margin of victory (MOV) to wins calculation (2.54*MOV + 41 = Wins). In addition, the Heat overperformed their MOV (+7.87) by about 5 games. The Heat, then, performed like a 59 win team had they played a league average schedule. As a result, we should expect some regression to the mean for this team, even without any major changes. Additionally, the Heat have a lot of older (30+) players who project to decline slightly. So what does the projection say for the 2013–14 Heat?
The Heat of next year look like … a 59 win team, again. This result should not be terribly surprising. Although they recently amnestied Mike Miller, which will hurt a bit as he is an above replacement level contributor and they have no way of adding anyone else who would be as good as he was and is, the Heat will have a full season of Chris “Birdman” Andersen, who was a pretty amazing per minute contributor (+5.19 xRAPM) in his role for the Heat this past season (and also in the playoffs). As a result, even with a bit of a projected per minute decline in productivity for Birdman (down to +4.79 xRAPM), due to his age, the loss of Mike Miller should not be too damaging in terms of the Heat’s overall regular season record.* Where the Heat may ultimately most miss Miller is in the playoffs when rotations shorten and the loss of a top 8 rotation player will be magnified. The Heat have come quite close to defeat in the playoffs two years in a row and losing Miller is not nothing. He was quite safely above replacement level and he’s one less reliable floor spacer the Heat will have in their playoff rotation. Fortunately for the Heat, they still have LeBron and shortened rotations tend to favor the team with the best player in the world.
After projecting the Bulls, Nets, and Heat, thus far, all three teams look to be very, very strong with the rankings as 1. Nets, 2. Heat, and 3. Bulls. The projections are so close, though, that any number of things could tilt things. If my minutes projections are off, if some major contributor declines much more or much less than I estimated, or if there is a major injury or Jason Kidd turns out to be a lousy head coach, any of these things could upset the projections quite easily. The big takeaway is that all three of these teams should be absolutely great and the top of the Eastern Conference is going to be a total slugfest.**
* I only projected Birdman to play 17.6 minutes per game for next year’s Heat. This seemed appropriate to me, as that is his career average, and he played 15 MPG for the Heat in this year’s playoff run, so I doubt that Coach Spo plays him much more than that, especially given how much the Heat like to keep Bosh at the 5. I think Birdman’s per possession effectiveness is maximized in that role, as he is able to go totally full tilt with the energy and hustle in his limited minutes. So playing him more than that runs the risk of him being worse overall per possession.
**As an added footnote, Hickory High has just released a post today with their full RAPM projections for this year’s rookie class, for this year. I will be using those numbers from here on out. Go read that post, though, it’s great stuff. They don’t change the projections for the Bulls or Nets really at all, as for those teams rookie’s the numbers I used previously look to be about the same and I had projected them all to play such few minutes that they didn’t really change the expected wins of either team.
Image from Keith Allison via Flickr