How bad is Heat's early-season malaise?

Norris Cole defends Pablo Prigioni. - Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Heat are ranked 23rd in defensive efficiency. After 17 games, is it cause for alarm?

If you've read Lee Jenkins' profile on LeBron James -- if you haven't, you should -- you know that James doesn't like to lose two games in a row. Perhaps it should come as no surprise, then, that James worked out after the Miami Heat's blowout loss to a New York Knicks team without Carmelo Anthony Thursday night.

He said, "we've got a lot of work to do," and he's right. Miami is ranked third in offense, but twenty-third on defense. And according to Basketball-Reference.com, only 27 teams over the last 33 seasons have made the conference finals after finishing outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency. But how serious is this problem? Are the Heat players going to simply elevate their defensive intensity in the playoffs? Grantland's Zach Lowe mentioned that the 2000-01 Los Angeles Lakers stand as "perhaps the greatest 'flip the switch' team in NBA history," as the team lollygagged through the regular season before losing just one game in the playoffs. Is Miami also headed down that road in the pursuit of a second straight championship, as those Lakers were?

A lot of Miami's defensive lapses amount to a lack of effort, focus and discipline. James played some ho-hum defense last night, allowing 35-year-old Pablo Prigioni to blow right by him for an open layup at the end of the third quarter. He also failed to bump Tyson Chandler on a few of his dives to the rim after pick-and-rolls. Dwyane Wade has played unevenly this season -- even on offense -- and the Heat's excessive switching made the offense easy for the Knicks. After opposing teams have penetrated the ball, sometimes two defenders close out to one shooter, leaving another one open. Miami's rotations in general have looked less-than-stellar, as the Heat don't look like the athletic team that quickly plugs any holes that momentarily spring up. Miami is also forcing fewer turnovers than it did last season, which produces fewer opportunities in transition. It's also important to note that Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith made a few contested 3s.

These are all issues that the Heat can solve. Miami has defended at high levels for the past two playoff runs with a lot of the same personnel. A lot of people have made a lot about Ray Allen's impact on the defense. It's true that the Heat are allowing a respectable 99.7 points per 100 possessions without him and 107.4 when he plays. He has rotated late several times. But Allen will learn the system and can adapt to the Heat's style of defense. Mike Miller and James Jones played in Allen's role for the past two seasons, and both of them aren't particularly fleet of foot. Even Shane Battier -- who has missed a lot of time and only played sparingly last night -- and Udonis Haslem aren't quick. If Allen just needs to learn the nuances of the Heat defense, then Miami should be a good defensive team with him on the court. He's one of the smartest players in the NBA.

The Heat's record after 17 games last year stood at 12-5, just as it stands today. Miami has had some shockingly bad defensive rotations, but we've seen a Heat defense that never gave Steve Novak an open look from 3. With Rashard Lewis now out of the rotation, the only newcomer is Allen. With more discipline from the returning players -- Wade should run back on defense -- and more practice in the Heat's system from Allen, Miami should develop the level of defense that stymied opponents. It's a realistic proposition.

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