The Heat vs. the Bulls: Who Really Plays a More Team-Oriented Game?

Conventional wisdom says Miami relies on its three big stars while Chicago depends on the entire squad. But is it true?


Reuters/Joe Skipper

The heavyweight match-up between the Chicago Bulls and Miami in the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals has many compelling storylines. This year's Most Valuable Player (Chicago point guard Derrick Rose) plays against the 2009 and 2010 winner (Miami forward and notorious Decision-maker LeBron James). The two best defenses in the league this year square off. Pat Riley's hair continues to fascinate. And so on.

But no meme dominated the conversation more than assertion that Chicago played team basketball of the 1960s Boston Celtics variety, while Miami relies on three uber-talented individuals who alternate hogging the ball while the rest of the team stands around and watches. The argument that the Heat depends on individual talents while the Bulls are a cohesive unit has been made so many times it's basically been accepted as fact.

Then last week, ESPN's J.A. Adande started a story on the exploits of the Heat's role players with: "The biggest misconception in the NBA is that the Miami Heat aren't a team, that they're strictly three big names and a bunch of empty jerseys." Adande argued that while most of the Heat's scoring comes from James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh, a host of role players have provided critical defense and rebounding and have occasionally had big offensive games of their own.

Adande's argument prompted me to go a step further: What if the Heat played better "team basketball" than the Bulls? Both squads are considered paragons of team defense (anyone who doubts that needs to rewatch Game 2), so I limited my focus to offensive play, tracking every halfcourt possession for each team in Sunday's Game 3. Eliminating end-of-quarter possessions and fast breaks (which lend themselves to individual play anyway), I charted the following statistics:

Number of halfcourt possessions: Chicago 76, Miami 73

Passes per possession: Chicago 2.22, Miami 1.99

Separate players touching the ball per possession: Chicago 2.62, Miami 2.59

By those rudimentary statistics, the Bulls do have a slightly more inclusive offense, particularly in terms of ball movement. But relative to their passes per possession, Miami actually had a wider variety of players touch the ball. The reason for the disparity is Chicago's Rose, who handled the ball far more than anyone else on either team. The superstar point guard touched the ball more than once on 21 of Chicago's 76 possessions, a whopping 27.6 percent total that gets even bigger when you factor in the time he spent on the bench (a total of nine minutes in the second and fourth quarters).

Miami did run more single-player sets for James and Wade, while the Bulls isolated Rose just twice in the game. But James often passed out of those sets for open jump shots by Wade and Bosh, part of a balanced passing attack that led to 20 assists on 34 made shots (in comparison, the Bulls had just 15 assists on 32 makes). Twice in the first quarter, James was double-teamed on the perimeter, found center Joel Anthony open under the basket, and hit him with a perfect pass for an easy dunk.

One game is not exactly a representative sample. And the Heat are certainly more top-heavy than the Bulls—Miami used just eight players to Chicago's 10, and James, Wade, and Bosh scored 73 of the team's 96 points. But it's clear that in many ways, Miami plays as much of a team-oriented game as Chicago. And its ability to spread the ball around helped Bosh— unquestionably the team's third option—lead all scorers with 34 points and be the difference-maker in the game.

When the final buzzer sounded, the Heat had won, 96-85, to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. Now that's what I call teamwork.