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Chris Andersen and The Rim Run Diary

by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

It’s easy to think about free agency on the largest possible scale. How can this team free enough cap space to sign a player to a max contract? How can that team convince an All-Star to sign a multi-year deal? Especially in Miami, where LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh all signed three years ago, it was simple enough to take the mindset that with the battle won, filling in the rest of the roster was gravy.

True, the core was formed when those three players committed to the HEAT. NBA history has proven that wins correlate most with the high-end talent. Get three of the best players in the league and you’ll do very well. But history has also shown that the teams that manage to sustain success are the ones that manage both the macro and the micro. Having Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili has been great for the San Antonio Spurs, but they keep winning every year because they find cost-effective players that fit with what the team is trying to do at the time – all while keeping the core together.

No three players will ever take every shot. No three players will defend the ball on every possession. No three players will each play 48 minutes per game on a regular basis. You need a team.

So when Chris Andersen was still sitting in free agency in mid-January, available for any team to sign, the HEAT saw an opportunity. They weren’t out there looking for a starting center to play 30 minutes every night. They wanted a piece that could fit into one of the league’s most hyper-aggressive defensive systems and possibly add a new offensive dimension to some bench units that – for the better part of two years – had yet to gel in their nightly four or five minutes stretches.

They wanted a backup big man that could play with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and the HEAT got just that.

We’ll start with the defense, but eventually we’re going to spend most of our time talking about Andersen’s offensive contributions – contributions that go beyond his four points per game. While Erik Spoelstra has praised Andersen’s basketball intelligence at every opportunity, there was a gradual assimilation process for Andersen to endure. As he worked on his conditioning through first one then two 10-day contracts, Andersen spent 45 minutes before or after every practice with assistant coaches going through the intricate situations Spoelstra’s system presents. Here is what we do on side pick-and-rolls, they would go over one day. Here is when you are the primary help defender, they would go over the next.

Much of this has been on-the-fly learning during the HEAT’s 26-game winning streak, but Spoelstra wouldn’t even let Andersen on the court until he knew all their calls on pick-and-rolls and had the legs to blitz ballhandlers. Gradually, he picked things up, and while Andersen still has uneven performances here and there, the two most-used lineups he is a part of – Ray Allen, Norris Cole and Shane Battier along with one of James or Wade – are defending at either an above-average or league-best rate.

That may not seem like much considering Andersen rarely reaches 20 minutes per game, but those lineups are used during times – late in the first quarter, early in the second and early in the fourth – when the HEAT had often been outscored over the past couple of seasons. Again, it isn’t perfect and those lineups are still performing better in second-half minutes than before the break, but the numbers imply that Andersen’s size and mobility, combined with him blocking shots at what would be a Top-10 rate if he had enough minutes to qualify, is becoming a stabilizing presence for one of the team’s regular-season* weaknesses.

*We use regular-season here because these issues become irrelevant in the playoffs once Spoelstra shortens the rotation, tinkers with his lineups and plays the All-Stars more each game.

Those bench lineups aren’t just defending better, they’re also outscoring opponents. And they’re doing so because they are scoring points. Lots and lots of points. In the 200 or so minutes that Andersen has shared the floor with Allen, Battier, Cole and either James or Wade the HEAT are scoring at a rate that would rank among the two best offenses in the league. Well that’s because those lineups feature LeBron James or Dwyane Wade next to two incredible shooters, you say. True, but they also feature a center that doesn’t shoot jumpers and a sophomore guard shooting less than 30 percent from three.

No, Andersen isn’t Chris Bosh spacing the floor from the wings and the elbows. But that doesn’t restrict him from having a positive impact on the offensive end. Now that James and Wade are starting to figure out their timing with Andersen, he’s starting to space the floor from the paint.

“He gives you that vertical spacing, which is unique,” Spoelstra said. “We have a lot of deep threat, horizontal spacing and now we’re playing with a lot more pace and space. But that’s something that we didn’t necessarily have with our fives. So it’s different. It makes the court bigger. It makes it bigger for your three-point shooters and for your attackers. He’s got a great knack for it. It’s an instinct that he has. He’s got good hands, good timing. Sometimes you can’t teach that.”

What Spoelstra means by vertical spacing is that because of Andersen’s athleticism defenders have to effectively put a body on him as the rolls into the paint rather than just playing the passing lanes. Many big men are only a threat to receive the ball below the rim, allowing defenders to simply crowd the paint without sinking all the way into the middle. But with Andersen defenders also have to worry about the pass flying over their heads, and the best way to consistently stop the lob is to prevent the big man from getting a clear path to the rim. So, opponents have to crash into the paint, one by one in a tag-team effort, and chuck Andersen off his path, or risk the dunk.

“Well when Birdman rolls to the rim,” Shane Battier said, “the defender has to play on him, and when that defender takes a step or two in the lane, that give our ball handlers more spacing because our shooters get extra space, that makes a lot of difference in a contested jump shot. That's the power of having a strong roller down the middle, it collapses a defense just like when LeBron drives to the basket.

That's why New York [with Tyson Chandler] is a really difficult offense to defend.”

If the defenders don’t chuck (slide over and knock him off his course or otherwise slow his roll), as Charlotte repeatedly left a free lane for Andersen on Sunday evening, then Miami’s playmakers take advantage. Not every time, but if you don’t alter – or properly execute – your coverage then they will find the holes.

For example, early in the fourth quarter after the HEAT had already taken a 20-point lead, James and Andersen had used a high pick-and-roll that resulted in Andersen running free to the rim as Bismack Biyombo focused on James. Notice how the floor is spaced, with the HEAT employing their typical formation with Allen and Battier in the corners:

If those corner defenders don’t have feet in the paint then the rim is effectively clear for a rim-running Andersen. James doesn’t attempt the pass and Allen ends up with a three on the wing, but this information comes in handy a possession later, when James turns the corner and sees the same wide-open space.

Even with Cole in the strongside corner, the defenders are playing the corners very tight and all James has to do is ensure Andersen will clear Gerald Henderson – pulled out by Battier on the wing – and tell him where to go by placing the ball in front of him.

On the very next possession, look at how the defenders have backed off the corners in order to help protect the paint:

The slight defensive shift doesn’t matter in this case, though James is forced to attempt a pocket-pass with a higher degree-of-difficulty in order to find Andersen:

Just a couple of rolls to the rim and Andersen has affected change in the defense. By simply being a threat to catch – it’s no small feat that Andersen can handle the passes that James and Wade send his way – and finish, Andersen can create opportunities for the shooters.

“If I make a couple of threes, or [Ray] makes a couple of threes,” Battier said, “we know that our defenders are going to stay on us a little bit more, and so he'll have a much wider lane to roll. He makes a couple of dunks and that lane opens up.”

Of course, in collapsing on Andersen – who has scored 52 points in the 35 possessions where he’s received the ball after running off a set-screen – the defenders risk giving two of the best corner-three shooters in the league open corner-threes, as Kyle Singler and Detroit demonstrated on Friday night:

No, Charlotte and Detroit are not the league’s premier defenses, but the idea remains the same no matter the opponent. Pressure the defense from the outside-in and the inside-out. Eventually, decisions will have to be made and one of Miami’s threats will be given an opportunity. And with how well the HEAT are spacing the floor this season, not to mention how talented James and Wade are at finding the open zones, those threats know exactly when they’ll get their chance.

“Spacing is just something that you feel and have a sense for, you know when it's good and you know when it's bad,” Battier said. “When we have bad spacing, you can almost feel claustrophobic a little bit. You can feel like you want to tell a teammate ‘Scoot over, scoot over. You're too close.’

“When you have good spacing, I just feel that I'm wide open. Especially [since] I know that I'm going to get a shot when LeBron or D. Wade has that first pick-and-roll. I know right away, based on where my defender is, I'm going to get the shot. I just get my hands ready, and that only comes from good spacing. From bad spacing you are not going to get a shot.”

That’s how well the HEAT are operating right now. The defense may wax and wane during the regular season, but if the floor is spaced there is always a shot to be found. Without much in the way of an in-game jumper Andersen can’t help manufacture spacing by standing still, but by simply setting screens, running to the rim and catching passes he’s helping Miami score efficiently at times when they've historically struggled.

The HEAT haven’t won 26 consecutive games because of Andersen, but he was never intended to have that type of impact. Small pieces are still important pieces, and that the HEAT procured a piece that fit out of thin air two months ago is a victory unto itself – the sort of victory the keeps a team winning.

Statistical support in this article provided by NBA.com and Synergy Sports.