Thursday, April 12, 2012
Realizing Pat Riley's vision of versatility
By Tom Haberstroh
Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images
The Heat finally debuted a lineup on Tuesday that put Pat Riley's offseason plan on display.
When Pat Riley called Shane Battier this offseason to make his free agency pitch, Battier brimmed with excitement. Not just because there was a Hall of Famer on the other end trying to woo him to join forces, but because the Heat's roster offered a unique basketball opportunity. From Battier's perspective, the Heat weren't just a championship contender; they were a squad featuring boundless versatility. And he wanted to be a part of it.
How important was the team's versatility to Battier? Consider this: "Is LeBron going to play the 4?" was one of Battier's first talking points with Riley in December. Being a player who can defend multiple positions, the situation in Miami appealed to Battier for a number of reasons, but a chance to take the floor among other multi-dimensional players ranked right at the top.
Riley told Battier that he saw it the same way. With LeBron, Battier, Dwyane Wade, James Jones and Mike Miller in tow, the Heat boasted an arsenal of wings that could wear different hats depending on the situation. More than that, Chris Bosh's height and Udonis Haslem's toughness allowed the Heat to play without a traditional center.
"When we get Mike Miller healthy, I think we're going to have four of the best, most versatile perimeter players in the league," Riley said during a press conference with Battier in December.
"It reminded me a little bit of what I had for nine years in Los Angeles," Riley said. "I had Magic (Johnson) and (Michael) Cooper and (Byron) Scott and (James Worthy). Basically perimeters that played all different positions. I see Shane and Mike Miller and I see Dwyane and LeBron in almost the same kind of thing.
"(Erik Spoelstra) has the same opportunity."
And on Tuesday night against the Boston Celtics, Spoelstra took full advantage of that opportunity.
Down eight points at the 3:25 mark in the third quarter , Spoelstra made a call to the bench. Needing a fresh jolt to bring the team back into the game, Spoelstra inserted Battier, Jones and Haslem into the game, joining LeBron and Miller on the floor. With one move, Spoelstra put something into place that you almost never see on a basketball court:
Five players wearing the same jersey, all listed with the same height.
Yes, the Heat were able to put five players standing 6-foot-8 on the floor and barely anyone blinked an eye. In fact, we haven't seen something like this all season. According to NBA.com data, the Jones-Miller-Battier-James-Haslem five-man unit is the only lineup used in the 2011-12 season to feature five players of the same height. This might seem like an trivial event fit for barroom banter, but the meaning goes far deeper than that. In putting that lineup on the court, Spoelstra showcased the Showtime-inspired vision that Riley designed in the offseason.
The Heat have been forced to keep that lineup in their back pocket for months, thanks to Battier's slow integration and Miller's variety of injuries. But with the Celtics playing without a giant center, Spoelstra found a prime opportunity to unveil it on Tuesday. LeBron played point guard on offense and power forward on defense, the wings spread the floor, and the undersized Haslem played the role of the big man. Was it successful? Not particularly. In the sliver of about three and a half minutes of action, the Heat were outscored by the Celtics 7-6.
Evidently, the 6-foot-8 quintet won't be an instant juggernaut, and it may never be. But don't expect that lineup to be a one-time deal. More likely, it will develop into one of Spoelstra's favorite units when he rests Wade and Bosh. Spoelstra, as most coaches would with his palette of personnel, holds an affection for the unconventional. Look no further than the playoff series against Chicago when the Heat's "Big Five" lineup of Wade-Miller-LeBron-Haslem-Bosh was the team's most-used lineup outside of the starting five.
With the struggles of Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers, it's expected that Spoelstra will continue to experiment with his versatility and put LeBron or Wade in the point guard slot for long stretches. On Tuesday, the Heat were plus-eight with LeBron running point guard on Tuesday and minus-16 with Cole or Chalmers on the court. The unconventional lineups have been successful and Spoelstra will likely keep pushing the envelop down the stretch, even with the understanding that the players might feel "uncomfortable" with some of the personnel changes.
There's no doubt that the team is still evolving after 56 games. And we'll probably see more lineup creativity on Thursday against the Chicago Bulls. At this stage of the season, Spoelstra is hoping to catch opponents off guard and deploy versatile lineups that the league hasn't seen before. Just as Riley drew it up.