MIAMI -- The big man on top of Erik Spoelstra’s big board was a man they call “Birdman.”
With Ray Allen being signed with the taxpayer’s midlevel exception in the offseason, the Heat still needed another big man to help anchor the reserve core. One name kept popping up: Chris Andersen. Literally.
All summer long, Riley’s cellphone incessantly pinged with text message alerts reading Andersen’s name. Someone was begging Riley to sign the free-agent big man, who was cut via the amnesty provision by the Denver Nuggets in July. Normally, a barrage of these types of sales pitches in Riley’s inbox come from agents pushing their clients. But not this time.
“If I got another text from Spoelstra about getting Chris Andersen,” Riley joked recently, “I was going to put my hands around his neck.”
Persistence pays off. The Heat made sure they did their due diligence on an off-court legal matter that made headlines in May, but Andersen was never charged with a crime. And in early February, the Heat signed Andersen for the rest of the season after a pair of 10-day contracts showed promise. He has been one of the NBA’s best backup bigs ever since.
For those casual fans who tune into the NBA once the playoffs roll around, Game 1 was Andersen’s coming-out party. It’s plain to see why Andersen has quickly become a crowd favorite in Miami. The razor-sharp mohawk, the colorful tattoos, the undying energy. When he rises from the bench and sheds his warm-up gear, the crowd noise swells like an oncoming tidal wave. Once he descends to the floor from an acrobatic dunk, he preens in the spotlight like a pro wrestler who just completed his signature move.
But this is one of those rare cases in the NBA where a player’s basketball value can match his entertainment value.
Andersen is a character, yes, but he holds more currency in basketball terms. You saw it in the first quarter of Game 1 with a give-and-go to LeBron James on the baseline. You see it with the soaring putback dunks after missed shots. Sometimes his contributions are of the subtle variety, like when he causes the defense to collapse after a pick-and-roll rim attack and James feeds a lonely shooter on the perimeter for a 3-pointer.
The 34-year-old Andersen finished the regular season with a 17.4 PER in 14.9 minutes per game, averaging 11.9 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks along with 58 percent shooting every 36 minutes on the floor. He finished with the team’s best on-court defensive rating, as opponents scored just 97.3 points per 100 possessions while he was in the game, according to NBA.com/stats.
“You don’t normally see an opportunity to pick up an impact player in the playoffs on a championship-level team,” Spoelstra said after Game 1. “He’s had a great impact on our team on both ends.”
And if you thought the Andersen story couldn’t get more fascinating, consider this: He is aiming to be a legitimate 3-point shooter for the Heat. Yes, the same guy who boasts a 15 percent career 3-point shooting mark.
Forget his career percentage, Andersen says. Focus on the fact that he has never been allowed to shoot more than 10 in a season. In his mind, he just needs a chance.
“The thing is I’ve never gotten an opportunity to shoot that shot,” Andersen said. “My confidence level is up. Coaches know I work on it, and they know I make a high percentage of them. It’s why I don’t get pulled every time I take it.”
He’s serious about this. Before every game and after every practice you’ll find Andersen sharpening his craft. Where you won’t find him is in the paint like a typical big man, working on his pivot and post moves. Rather, he’s squared up beyond the 3-point arc, splashing jumper after jumper through the net. Even at Monday’s practice, there he was, shooting dozens of 3-pointers. By himself. No rebounder, just himself.
Apparently, the Heat aren’t taking this 3-point thing as seriously as Andersen.
Andersen has made two of his 3-point tries this season. All three have come at the top of the key just before the quarter or shot-clock buzzer sounds. His banked his third 3-point try of the season in Cleveland. No word if he followed protocol and called “bank” before it went in.
But don’t be surprised if Andersen tries to follow Chris Bosh’s lead as a stretch 5.
“It’s still in the works,” Andersen said of his 3-point shot. “Spo lets me shoot those at the end of the shot clock. But there’s not one set play for the Birdman to shoot the 3. Yet.”