Killer lineup: The Heat's big starting five

January, 16, 2013
1/16/13
12:32
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Miami Heat
Mario Chalmers | Dwyane Wade | LeBron James | Udonis Haslem | Chris Bosh
Minutes Played: 251
Offensive Rating: 111.6 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 99.1 points per 100 possessions

How it works offensively
Last postseason, the Heat defied convention when Erik Spoelstra placed Shane Battier alongside LeBron James in the frontcourt. The seas parted, tectonic plates shifted beneath AmericanAirlines Arena and James was no longer a small forward -- just a champion.

The Heat stuck with that blueprint to start this season before Battier sprained his MCL in late November. In an effort to preserve the spacing, Spoelstra experimented with Rashard Lewis as a starter, but when that didn't yield results, the Heat's yeoman, Udonis Haslem, was inserted into the lineup. Even as Battier recovered, Spoelstra stuck with his frontcourt of James, Chris Bosh and Haslem, which is where we are now. And with that, the Revolution of 2012 came to a close.

That seems to be the case on the surface, except when you look at the the Bosh-Haslem unit in the half court, it looks a whole lot like the Heat’s small-ball lineup, only it’s Bosh who’s setting up in the far corner where Battier generally does. Bosh still does his fair share of diving to the hole off high ball screens, but if he’s not a part of the primary action, you’ll usually find him out on the perimeter as the play materializes -- not hanging out near the paint.

Naturally, the Heat make good use of that space and it all starts with James. There’s good reason why he’s averaging a point per possession as an isolation player this season for the first time in his career. With the boundaries of the floor stretched, James has more room to work than ever before. As a result, he’s drastically reduced the number of those pull-up jumpers from midrange. It’s not that he has suddenly become a paragon of discipline. With the floor spread, defenders are simply too far away to help load up on him when he’s attacking the basket.

The spacing also pays dividends to Dwyane Wade, who can do more off the ball in a less-cluttered environment, especially if James is facilitating. We saw this Monday night in Utah, when the Heat ran a flex cut for Wade with Mario Chalmers as the screener. As Wade streaked to the basket, easily shaking Randy Foye, James delivered the ball on the doorstep to Wade for an easy bucket.

Well, what about Haslem? He’s not draining those baseline jumpers with any sort of proficiency. Shouldn’t that be adversely affecting this unit’s offensive output? We can say this about Haslem -- he’s a guy who understands his limitations and how to make himself useful. Whenever the Heat have anything resembling a break, Haslem will run the floor one lane over from whoever is bringing the ball up. And almost every time down court, Haslem will set an early drag screen before his man has even the slightest chance of being in a position to defend it. James, Wade and occasionally Chalmers routinely have a gold-paved path to the rim on the secondary break, and Haslem is the guy laying the bricks.

That early offense has become essential for this unit, especially for Wade, who knows precisely how to exploit a backpedaling, unbalanced transition defense. And the Heat still have plenty of tricks in the bag when the pace slows. They’ll frequently post up James just off the left block. On these sets, Bosh is very good at watching James work inside, then fading to a spot at about 17 feet with an agreeable angle for one of those zip passes. You can also spot the Heat running staggered pin-down screens off which James busts up from the baseline, collects the pass, then returns right where he came from -- only this time with the ball.

Even though they’re committing to their pace-and-space strategy, the Heat haven’t torn out every page of the playbook that utilizes Bosh at the elbow. They’ll have Wade rub his man off Bosh at the high post on the weakside. If Wade gets separation, Bosh’s man will often pick up Wade diving toward the basket. Now a free man, Bosh will step to the foul line extended area, catch the pass and shoot -- one fluid sequence of motions.

Will Spoelstra stay with this unit indefinitely, or will Battier find his way back into the starting lineup when the Heat reach May? Either way, the Heat have made the spacing work.

How it works defensively
Like the whiz kid who screws around during dead week knowing he has the raw intellect to crush his finals without a lot of preparation, the Heat seem fully convinced they’ll succeed defensively when they need to, even if they take certain liberties along the way.

Most nights, on most of their half-court possessions, the Heat apply the same principles that helped them establish an elite defense from the moment they planted their stake in Miami. Gone is the switch-fest that was all the rage of the 2012 postseason. Bosh and Haslem show high and hard on most ball screens, or make a concerted effort with Chalmers to corral point guards who are moving quickly to their strong side.

Spoelstra long ago accepted that with James and Wade on the floor, he wouldn’t be able to install a system with the structural integrity like the one his defensive mentor, Stan Van Gundy, implemented in Miami, then Orlando. With three inveterate gamblers in James, Wade and Chalmers, along with two mobile bigs in Bosh and Haslem who aren’t prototypical rim protectors, this unit allows the risk-takers to indulge their habits, while using the collective speed of the unit to compensate for any bets gone bad.

When things are going well for this lineup defensively, it’s because they’re focused intently on taking away the opponent’s best stuff in the half court. The Heat pay a lot of attention to entry angles early in possessions. This isn’t just about unleashing chaos by jumping a passing lane. The Heat are intent on denying the primary action, whether that’s an entry pass to Roy Hibbert (witness Bosh fronting the Pacers’ center aggressively early in a recent loss -- but solid defensive effort -- at Indiana), or loading up on LaMarcus Aldridge as he bounces up off a pin-down to Dirk-Land for a quick feed.

Here’s where the starters are at the best and worst as a defensive unit. Like many skilled gamblers, James and Wade love nothing more than to leverage their bets when they have an advantage at the table. Once that first option is extinguished, James and Wade begin their paramilitary operation, attacking a young, vulnerable guard (say, Damian Lillard or Isaiah Thomas on the current West Coast swing) who is trying to manufacture something after the initial plan has gone awry.

This strategy cedes plenty of acreage on the weakside, and Haslem is generally the guy who has to patrol the baseline and, as is often the case, close out on shooters in the corner. This unit is surrendering a ton of 3-point attempts (21.8 per 48 minutes). Opponents are hitting those shots at only a 31.6 percent clip, but when you roll the tape, two things are evident:

1. James is capable of closing out on a shooter from an adjacent county.
2. The Heat are getting very, very lucky.

The Heat will tell you that they’re focused on taking away the middle, that they have to communicate better when the ball is reversed, that penetration inevitably causes breakdowns. All true, but even when the roving works, there’s collateral damage on the boards. This lineup collects only two out of every three defensive rebounds -- you won’t find a worse starting unit in the NBA. There’s no single explanation, but when the Heat’s opponents crash the offensive glass, it’s often because defenders are nowhere near their primary assignments.

Should the Heat worry? Is the Heat’s defense in danger of suffering a systematic breakdown if these problems aren’t corrected, or are the speedy wings exploring the limits of their intuition and athleticism?

Truth be told, this unit is doing fine defensively (the reserves are another story entirely). The starters’ 99.1 defensive rating (and the 98.7 rating of the starting unit that includes Battier), would still place them sixth overall in the league in defensive efficiency. It’s a reasonably safe assumption that, come playoff time, Heat defenders will stop rerouting themselves on recoveries and embrace the scheme’s tried-and-true methods.

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