Tuesday, September 28, 2010
The Heat's old, slow bench
By Henry Abbott
LeBron James. Dwyane Wade. Chris Bosh.
Pat Riley and his staff get an A+ for how they handled the offseason. They got the big things so right that it almost didn't matter how they handled the little things.
However ... Let's be clear. Not all those little things went perfectly. If they gave separate grades for signing role players, the Heat staff would get a D for that.
If for some reason this team does not work out, if there are not rings for everybody in the years to come, it's worth noting that Riley and company had countless options in filling out this roster. They could have scoured Europe and the D-League. They could have coaxed all kinds of players to play alongside these stars. They could have used their vast scouting apparatus to uncover some gem.
The opportunity was huge. Instead, they are left almost entirely without young, developing players, and with a major shortage of bench athleticism and speed. With hardworking veteran leadership they have a great environment to get the best out of impressionable young athletes -- yet there are hardly any of those guys in Heat camp. With unbelievable quickness and size from the perimeter stars, the Heat has the chance be the the fastest team in NBA history -- but not with brittle aging athletes like Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Juwan Howard or James Jones on the floor.
Imagine if an executive with less juice -- say Billy King in New Jersey -- had filled the bench with the crusty half-dozen of Jamaal Magloire, Carlos Arroyo, Ilgauskas, Howard, Jones, and Eddie House (while drafting Dexter Pittman, Jarvis Varnado and Da'Sean Butler).
If someone besides Riley-on-a-hot streak had done that, they would have said indecent things about him on talk radio for three weeks, and he's have been left fighting to keep his job to the end of preseason.
When is the last time any one of those players had a great game, or even a decent season?
And before we get stuck arguing about the past, let's consider that all that matters is the future. If your mission is to win as many titles as possible while the SuperFriends are still in their primes, then wouldn't you like to have some upside around? Some players who will be getting better with time? Some players who can keep the energy level high when the stars need to rest? I know that Pat Riley has won more titles than I ever will. And I know he holds veterans in high regard, and I know that these are all good guys who are unlikely to make things difficult or cause trouble.
However, as much as these six are low risks to be do boneheaded rookie-type things -- none will break a play to create off the dribble in crunch time of Game 7 -- they're zero risks to become more athletic, be usable as trade bait, or to develop new parts of their games.
Everybody loves the top of the Heat's roster -- I recommend John Hollinger's excellent preview, for instance. And the quality in the Heat roster goes more than three deep.
Mike Miller can do the main thing this team needs: Shoot 3s. (We'll ignore the fact that Minnesota and Washington thought he'd do that too, and he just didn't shoot much.)
I'm also sympathetic to the signings of company men Udonis Haslem and Joel Anthony. In addition to bringing muscle and mobility, they offer fellow Heat employees strong messages about loyalty. Basically, when the Heat ask players to sacrifice (money, playing time, blood, sweat, etc.) they can point to those two and say "we take care of our guys. We're a certain kind of team that does thing a certain way." Those kinds of long-term organizational vibes just played a major role in bringing in the blue chip free agents.
The post-dated bench-warming veteran six-pack, however, makes less sense to me.
No production. I'm all for some veteran savvy. But this is a group of six players who have already been marginalized by age. An average NBA player has a PER of 15 -- that's John Hollinger's clever composite of boxscore contributions. These players have all been good-to-excellent by this metric. But that was years ago. Last season not one of them topped 13: Ilgauskas and Arroyo were around twelve, Howard and House about ten, while Jones and Magloire were just about nine. That doesn't mean all six were poor signings, but did you need so many guys with low production, and little potential for improvement?
No staying power. They were mediocre when they were out there, and -- owing to assorted injuries, age and the aforementioned lack of productivity -- they weren't out there all that much. As a group, these six averaged about 1,000 minutes each last season. That's the equivalent of playing about one 12-minute quarter in each of 82 games.
No flexibility. This might be the least flexible roster in the history of the NBA. You're not trading any of the SuperFriends. Maybe you could get something for Mike Miller or Udonis Haslem, but you need them. If something happens, and the squad's not tremendous right out of the box, who are they going to trade? Hope Mario Chalmers shows up ready to impress rival GMs ... because this past summer the Heat gave up four first-round picks and Michael Beasley, so there is not exactly a ton of young talent in the pipeline.
No speed. At their positions, James, Wade and Bosh may be the fastest players in the League. That's a real opportunity. I'm not just talking about getting out on the break. What excites me even more is what that means they could, in theory, have done on defense.
The very day of The Decision, with all signs pointing to the James heading to Miami, I interviewed David Thorpe to try to understand what a Heat team would look like. I pointed out that they'd need somebody to guard a quick point guard like Rajon Rondo and a big beast of a man to tussle with Dwight Howard. Thorpe's response:
It's a myth that defense is a story of one-on-one matchups. OK, Kendrick Perkins can slow Dwight Howard in some games, or for a quarter. But not every game. Defense is a five on five story, and you can challenge the ball with any one of those five players.
You can double-team.
You can zone up. That's all legal. Not to mention, Wade, LeBron and Bosh may be the fastest at their positions in the NBA. Certainly the three fastest really skilled players. You can create a tempo game. You can aggressively trap. You can make it a game about aggressiveness, and those three will all have a great feel for that.
Thorpe pained a pretty picture of a scrambling, aggressive defense. Can't you just picture opponents hoisting shots in distress, only to have Wade and James swoop in for the help blocks? That's all a little far-fetched if defenders are too slow to deliver the rotations and help to put opponents in distress to begin with.
Coach Spoelstra can put together some athletic lineups, so long as he plays just about all of his healthy, youngish bodies. But the Heat are simply not staffed to make speed a focal point.
No upside. In July, Thorpe pointed out that "this team will have a real advantage in getting the most out of development, because nobody's going to relax. When your best players are your hardest workers, good things happen. Players in that environment play much better and develop faster."
He talked about fringe NBA players like Jeremy Evans or Brian Zoubek whom the Heat might have had. Neither, he guessed, would help immediately. But either, or many others like them, would have an excellent chance of being extremely useful by January, after a few months of seeing work ethic in effect and learning precisely what the team needed of them.
In summer league, the Heat had Duke's Jon Scheyer who could have played in the D-League while auditioning to one day fill this team's Steve Kerr role -- but after an injury, he didn't make the squad, as his roster spot went to an older player. There is still a long list of NBA free agents out there, especially if you're shopping for young players who can be hired cheaply and developed to fill roles.
Instead, the Heat made an almost startlingly strong bet against youth and development. There is almost nobody on this roster who could be targeted to have a big jump in productivity this season or down the road.
The main story is that this team has more than enough firepower. Every team would love to have their problems. But a secondary story -- and one to watch as the season unfolds -- is that this team has almost no way to improve. Having just traded away four first-round draft picks, the Heat's competition will have roster-building advantages almost every summer. As the Heat's bench requires upgrading, they only obvious tool in their arsenal will be the annual salary cap exceptions -- and who knows what will become of them in the next collective bargaining agreement.