When corners of the basketball world predicted the Miami Heat were going to innovate the modern game, this is what they had in mind:
LeBron James, the reigning two-time MVP, has become the leader of the Heat’s second unit.
Actually, it may be accurate to say that the conventional term “second unit” simply doesn’t apply to this Heat team. In Miami, the presence of the Big 3 has rendered that expression irrelevant. Nonetheless, sometimes we have to speak in conventions in order to explain how the Heat are breaking the mold.
“A lot of times, LeBron is featured with the second unit,” Dwyane Wade said Tuesday. “Chris is featured. I'm featured. So that brings a different dynamic that I've ever been a part of in Miami.”
Looking at the Heat’s substitution patterns, there doesn’t seem to be any resemblance of a traditional second unit that most teams employ. At least one of the Big 3 has been on the floor for all but 10 minutes and 27 seconds of the 192 minutes of competition so far. There have been only two circumstances in which the Big 3 sat the bench together: for about a minute in the third quarter against Orlando when the Heat were up by 21 points and for the final nine minutes of garbage time against New Jersey when they had a 24-point lead.
“You always have someone out there on the floor that demands that attention, that's used to that way of playing, but has to do it for only five or six minutes,” Wade said. “Then you have the other guys coming back in. So that's the depth of our team. That's the thing we're excited about."
The loudest criticism of the Heat has been the thinness of their bench. But the bench’s depth becomes less of a liability when it’s infused with a superstar or two (or three for that matter). Whereas other teams have to substitute in fleets to keep their stars aligned, the Heat have the luxury of keeping a Top 20 player on the floor for the entire game. No mercy until the Heat have run up the score.
It’s a scary proposition for Heat opponents. The least-talented Heat lineup that opposing teams will face is a slightly lesser version of the Raptors starting lineup last year. But that’s a worst case scenario and it rarely happens; Bosh has played without James and Wade for fewer than five minutes thus far.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra seems to have established a substitution pattern already. In each of the first three games of the season, Spoelstra elected to play LeBron for the entirety of the first quarter and into the second while letting Bosh and Wade catch breathers. Spoelstra switched up his strategy during Sunday’s game against the Nets only when James picked up two quick fouls with 4:24 left in the opening quarter.
But some of LeBron’s most effective moments in a Heat uniform have come when he’s played with the so-called second unit, one that closely resembles his former digs in Cleveland. In fact, when LeBron goes to work without Bosh and Wade, the Heat have outscored opponents by five points in just over 25 minutes of play. It's a reminder that even when the Heat let off the gas, they're still deploying the game's most talented basketball player.
Will opposing coaches act first or react to Spoelstra? Will other teams have to alter their substitution patterns to combat the Heat's unique advantage? Will opponents use a "second unit" against the Heat or will they be forced to run their stars into the ground?
Tonight, Timberwolves head coach Kurt Rambis may join the others in searching for answers.