The Next Evolution of the HEAT

They’ve won the NBA Championship. They’ve kissed the trophy. They’ve had their parade. They continue to celebrate. But in a couple of days, with the NBA Draft and soon after the beginning of Free Agency, the Miami HEAT will begin building their roster for next season. Changes are coming, which means that even as the champagne continues to flow, it’s time to consider what comes next.

When you get past the many storylines the HEAT dealt with, altered and put to rest during their playoff run, one of the first nuggets of information that will linger as the years go on is that Miami won a title using a bevy of unconventional lineups. They played three traditional small forwards at the same time. They pushed power forwards to center. They had their wings play power forward. Erik Spoelstra had his team constantly evolving, and rarely was he making traditional, safe choices.

And when you manage to defeat all comers doing things a little differently, people take notice.

“I think really the whole outlook of the league is about to change,” Chris Bosh said. “I was really just looking at film and looking at the Finals, and I said, ‘Wow.’

“Usually the Finals is the prototype for where basketball is going. The fact that we were playing fast, putting traditional guys in the next position over. Putting Shane Battier at the four and it working out, putting LeBron at the four and it working out, I think you see that a lot from different organizations and different teams. We’ll see how that goes.”

Questions about changes to the league landscape are too big to answer here – and really, most changes are of a more cyclical nature anyways – but it is an interesting thought. Many of Miami’s lineups were dictated by both the makeup of their opponents and Bosh’s abdominal strain that kept him out for most of the Indiana and Boston series’, but there has already been a shift towards more versatile, positional-ignorant tactics in recent years, and teams like Miami and Dallas winning in consecutive seasons using what many would term experimental lineups could change a few minds along the way.

“This is a victory for smallball,” Shane Battier said.

Granted, the Los Angeles Lakers recently won consecutive titles featuring a frontline of Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. It’s easy to get wrapped up in philosophical discussions about the tides of trends and forget just how dependent wins are on talent. Anything works if you have the better players playing the better basketball, and often the things we see as new and different are simply coaches finding ways to put their best players on the floor together at the same time.

No matter how you decide to build your team, you need good players, and in Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, the HEAT had three incredible talents leading the way and embracing new roles.

The question that is more pertinent for Miami, then, is how much their recent success with smaller – in a relative sense, because James isn’t smaller than many power forwards – lineups affects the future. Spoelstra has typically saved many of his best lineups, such as one with James-Wade-Bosh-Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller sharing the court, for important spots during the regular season and the playoffs (health provided), so could we see these new lineups becomes part of the team’s day-to-day? Could the starting line up in Game 5 of the Finals against Oklahoma City, Wade-James-Bosh-Battier and Mario Chalmers, start the opener next season?

That much is unlikely, especially considering the wear and tear on Battier, even if it’s something Spoelstra will likely consider simply due to recent success. But to a lesser extreme, will we see Battier or James at power forward in the first month of the regular season?

I don’t even want to think about that right now,” Battier said. “I think I can get away with it. The regular season is not as physical. I’m not hitting guys as hard as I do in the playoffs and guys aren’t hitting me as hard as they do in the playoffs.”

How much will Bosh play the five?

“How that works for me, I’m sure that I’ll be playing a lot more five,” Bosh said. “It’s kind of cool, because I can say, ‘I’m the starting center for the NBA Champions.’ You would look at me and you wouldn’t think that. The other guys are a lot bigger than me, but the game is changing, I think, and it’s getting a lot faster. The formula seems to work.”

The question for James is a little more complicated. He plays just about every position no matter the opponent, no matter the lineup. Labeling him as a power forward in a particular lineup is probably unfair in light of all his responsibilities on the floor. The lineups in question could continue to be used, James could continue to post-up and rebound as well as or better than any other power forward in the league, and he still wouldn’t be a power forward. He’s simply LeBron.

“As far as going forward with me at the four,” James said. “I don’t know, as the years go on, I don’t see a 31-32 year-old LeBron playing power forward. But we’ll see. Whatever it takes. I don’t know. If I can stay healthy, I can play any position.”

With Wade, who is a couple of years older than James and Bosh, there has been an evolution taking place on a more personal level. A major reason behind his work with assistant coach David Fizdale on his post play and been to reduce Wade’s reliance on attacking off the dribble from the perimeter. In essence, before James and Bosh even arrived in Miami, Wade had begun making changes geared towards making things a little easier, to reduce the game-to-game pressure on his body especially with respect to dealing with things like the fluid in his left knee during these playoffs.

That evolution will continue this summer, as Wade works on what might be the single most important aspect of his game.

“[I’m going to] continue to get better in the post,” Wade said. “Trying to really focus on my outside shot a lot more. Going to probably do more with that than I’ve ever done. From the three-point line, to my mid-range game, getting that back. Obviously a lot of that comes with being healthy, but it also comes with just putting work in.

“I’ve already tried to plan a little bit in my mind with trying to work with different people, from the standpoint of working with a shooting coach for the first time ever. Someone who can give me a different look on my shot and where I can get better at. I just want to make sure that whatever my role is, I can be as great in my role that I can possibly be.”

As has been stressed over and over here, nothing is more important to Miami’s offense than spacing. Spacing means there is room in the middle of the floor to attack. Spacing means the defense has to cover more ground to react. Spacing means shooters get more open looks. Spacing means efficiency. And while Wade has made a positive impact on that spacing by working in the post and improving his play off the ball, his shot wasn’t enough of a threat to keep a defender from standing with a foot in the paint while he was on the three-point line. Only 40 of Wade’s jumpers during the regular season were of the catch-and-shoot variety and he shot 33.7 percent on jumpers off the dribble, so you shouldn’t have to stretch your imagination too much to see how things could change with defenders being forced to respect his position on the floor.

To Wade’s credit, as he admits, he hasn’t always been receptive to help on his shot, but now he is. In a sense, Wade’s decision to dedicate his summer to his shot is just as crucial as Bosh accepting a transition to playing both center and out of the high-post and James pushing his game into the post.

“I worked with a shooting coach for about two weeks one summer, and I was stubborn then,” Wade said. “He told me some things and I was like, ‘Ahhh….’.

“But I do know there are certain things that can change, that can help me. But it’s a lot of practice that has to go into it. Obviously, I have a lot of time this summer, to do that. And it’s not something that can take a lot of toll on my body, that I really have to pound, pound, pound.”

Just don’t expect a major reconstruction of Wade’s shot. Something like that can take years for a player with such deeply ingrained muscle memory. A few changes here and there could be all it takes to make a massive difference for Miami, and for Wade’s career.

“My mechanics are not that bad, I don’t have an ugly shot,” Wade said.

The HEAT have their first championship with the current core of players, but that success has in some ways raised as many questions as it has answered. They aren’t bad questions to have, of course, but they are fascinating. And best of all, it’s all about the basketball.

Statistical support provided by Synergy Sports.