The Spread Offense Experiment

When reading about the Miami HEAT this season, you’ve probably heard about Pace and Space. The mantra that described everything the team that wanted to do with the ball, running out on the break off both misses and makes while giving talents like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade room to take advantage of their habits of being bigger or faster than most anyone guarding them.

The only problem with that phrasing, as far as it can be perceived, is that it puts those two things on an equal playing field. Pace has high visibility. Pace produces fast, thrill-a-nanosecond plays that hit the conveyer belt to the highlight factory the instant they occur. That’s why it becomes a talking point during training camp for just about every NBA team, regardless of personnel.

But, and you can factor in the usual syllogism about things slowing down in the playoffs to whatever degree you please here, the vast majority of possessions don’t involve pace. No team in the NBA uses more than a fifth of its possessions in transition, even the 2005-06 Phoenix Suns. There is a trickle down effect stemming from the aggressive mindset pace produces, but it trickles down into the half-court, where teams live.

Space governs all, including transition. There is no greater premium. No matter how many All-Stars you have, how well you’ve trained your team to move the ball or how clever the sets are, there is no sustained functionality without space.

That’s why coaches put shooters on the floor and why they like veterans that understand positioning. If one defender is allowed to cheat off his man, X’s and O’s can flatline.

That’s why Erik Spoelstra is experimenting with new lineups now that he has a healthy complement of players. It might be too close to the playoffs for observers to feel comfortable, but the better defenses get and the more congested the lane gets in the coming month, knowing which lineups produce the best spacing can mean all the difference. And to know anything, you’ve got to gather data.

The newest sets of data came against the Boston Celtics, when Spoelstra consistently had Mike Miller, Shane Battier and James Jones on the court, and for the first time ever, all at once.

“We’re such a versatile team that we all expect at some point we can play with a certain group of guys because it’s a very, very open rotation,” Jones said.

“Depending on the matchup, depending on the situation, we all know that’s a viable lineup. We’ve seen it in practice, maybe not intentionally, but just the way we work. I’ve been on the floor with Mike, Shane, UD and LeBron as a group. So we’re all comfortable when coach makes decisions or tweaks like that on the fly.”

Joined by LeBron James and Udonis Haslem, that sharpshooting trio was on the floor for the final three minutes of the third quarter. The lineup was outscored by one point during that stretch, but the creativity on display seemed to open up a world of postseason possibilities.

Because look . . . the spacing.

“You want to unclog the elbows,” Battier said. “You don’t do that for a three-point shooter when you run to where the arc turns into the flat line. That constricts spacing because now a defender can play two players, the ball and his man. As shooters, our main job is to create space and we do that by getting flat every single time.”

In other words, you need your shooters in the corners when the ball is up top. If the defense is respecting those shooters, as they are in the above image, then all James has to do is turn the corner and the paint is his playground. Here, Greg Stiemsma goes way under the screen set by Haslem and James passes to Miller on the left side. Miller takes Rondo off the dribble and misses a pull-up shot, but no other defender affected the play. Miller utilized the space, and every offensive player on the floor is tall enough to see who has the most of it.

Of course, there are some problems with a lineup like this – even if we’re assuming that it is capable of defending and rebounding against whoever is on the floor the opponent. For starters, even though position designations don’t matter as much when James has the ball in a read-and-react situation, you still have multiple players that all tend to fill the same spots on the floor.

“Where the confusion lies is when the ball comes up on the same side as the two guys on the wing, one on the corner and one on the wing, does one guy cut though? That stuff needs to be ironed out,” Jones said. “If we get that situation again, you see the ball is on your side and your side is stacked usually the baseline guy will cut through to the weakside.”

“Usually what will happen is in transition it’s wherever you run to,” Miller said. “We’re going to do a lot of exchanging and switching spots anyways. Just keeping the defense moving. So it’s not a standstill spot.”

But when they have a chance to set up, Jones remarked that Battier – a career 40 percent shooter from the corners – will be given preference to his corner of choice.

“Shane’s favorite spot is the corner,” Jones said. “If we had to kind of predetermine spacing we always we get Shane a corner because at the end of the day we’re all capable of making shots, but we all want to make sure that we give each other a chance to make the higher percentage shots.”

Another reason a spread offense such as this won’t be used in too many situations is that it tends to produce somewhat one-dimensional offense. As well as things are spaced out, the ball still rests primarily in James’ hands and the defense is able to focus on him. Defenders have to choose whether to help on the pick-and-roll action or commit to the shooter, but they’ll still have a moment to think about it.

“We’re trying to space the floor for the pick-and-roll, for the guy who has the ball and the guy who’s rolling,” Miller said. “It makes the defenders make a decision. Do you help out on the guy coming off the pick-and-roll or chuck the roller or do you stay at home? That’s the decision they have to make, and if they chuck it’s our job to make it and if they don’t chuck it’s their job to make plays.”

The other side is that because no position is clearly defined, defenders aren’t always where they are used to being. Matchups get wonky and as you’ll see in the next possession, you can get your usual help defender, like Brandon Bass, on the perimeter playing a shooter like Battier while Rajon Rondo gets stuck inside on the baseline as the primary help defender when James gets Kevin Garnett on the switch.

It’s still an isolation, still not offense you want to run for an entire game – though Miami’s corner sets and staggered-screen formations for shooters would certainly work with this configuration – but as with the James and Dwyane Wade pick-and-roll, there are situations, whether due to clock considerations or the defense interrupting more timing-based sets, where that type of offense is both healthy and effective.

Speaking of the James-Wade pick-and-roll, imagine that with this lineup. Run James at the opposing center for a few minutes, with the floor spaced this well, and you can dictate both that action and your opponents lineups. Or use Bosh and Wade with this group running that pick-and-roll, when all Wade needs to do is split the defense or Bosh can slip the screen and dive right to the rim.

It’s all a fantasy, for now, but the theory sounds good.

“No doubt,” Wade said. “You’ve got those guys and you’ve got to make a decision. Do you pack the paint on me and LeBron or do you stay home with the shooters?”

Wade hasn’t had a chance to play with a lineup quite like this yet – though we shouldn’t discount the spacing provided by Mario Chalmers, either – but seeing it certainly piqued his interest. The playoffs might be less than three weeks away, but it’s still a perfect time to experiment.

“Whenever you have Mike and JJ and Shane, guys who can spread the floor and knock it down shots, you want them on the court. For players like myself and LeBron, we want them on the court as much as possible. So, these last however many games we’ve got, is a time where we get to see what guys can really help us at and spacing.

“In the playoffs everyone gets tighter and closer and we want to see who can be out there to help us get just a little bit more spacing. Obviously we understand certain guys that can shoot, but we haven’t played together. I think it’s going to be good these last couple of days to try some different lineups out and see how it works.”