HEAT Starting Outside the Box

Erik Spoelstra doesn't want to confine his team to conventional wisdom with this season's lineups
David Dow

When a team wins an NBA Championship, there generally isn’t going to be too many questions surrounding the team during the offseason. When that team then adds talented veterans without losing a single player from its core, there’s going to be even less to talk about.

So when the Miami HEAT signed Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis in July after beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals two weeks before, all while keeping the rest of the core intact, there wasn’t much left regarding the actual basketball. In terms of big questions, all we had was the starting lineup.

Would it be the LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Mario Chalmers and Joel Anthony lineup that started the majority of the regular season?

Would it be the lineup that swapped out Anthony for Udonis Haslem as the team entered the playoffs against the New York Knicks?

Could Shane Battier join the starting lineup in place of Haslem, moving Bosh to center and making Battier and James the de-facto power forwards? Or would it be something we haven’t seen before, with Allen or Lewis having their names called out before the opening tip?

There were solid arguments to be made for any of them. Some lineups might space the floor better, some might feature better pick-and-roll defense, some might have more utility being introduced later in the season before teams could build scouting reports, while others might just help keep guys healthier by holding them in their natural positions.

Problem is, there were two inherent flaws deep in the core of those discussions, one a definite, one more of an interesting possibility.

Firstly, we were still trying to slot players into traditional positions. Forget about that.

“I don’t like calling our guys a position,” Spoelstra said. “I know that’s probably going to become a catchphrase, but I don’t like to use the term center position with Chris, I don’t use power forward with LeBron, I just changed his position on the fly.

“For me to properly communicate that to them, I wanted to get that thought out of their mind. They don’t need to think about conventional boxes. We’re just putting players out there. I happen to call it positionless, just to give them an image so they can wrap their arms around it. I could care less if people think it’s a trend around the league.”

This is hardly new, as it is the same philosophy Spoelstra detailed during the playoffs last season – and one that has been gaining steam around the league for years. It serves more as an important reminder. Bosh might start alongside Haslem, Anthony or Battier, but that doesn’t make him the center any more than it makes James the power forward. Conversely, in more traditional lineups, that doesn’t exactly mean Bosh is the four and James is the three, either.

Spoelstra is simply looking for the best combinations of skills to put out on the court. That may change nothing but the semantic side of any discussion, but once you start changing the words you’re using, you also start slowly changing the way you think.

“We don’t want to be restricted by conventional wisdom,” Spoelstra said.

Let’s go with that for a moment – and this isn’t too out of context, as that quote was Spoelstra talking about the team’s versatility. Isn’t the conventional wisdom that a team should have a set starting lineup for most of the regular season, barring injury?

Maybe that’s not the way it needs to be. Maybe having a set starting lineup is one of those things that’s always been done, but for which there isn’t exactly an empirical truth. Maybe we should stop thinking about who is going to start, and more along the lines of which lineups are more appropriate to start against each team in the league. After all, that’s how Miami approached the playoffs.

Here’s Spoelstra talking about Anthony – who has apparently had a fantastic pre-camp – playing just two minutes in the Finals after being a regular part of the rotation:

“It just happened to be that series. That’s what makes this group special. One opponent might be different than another opponent. We made those necessary adjustments on the fly.”

Translate that mindset to the regular season, one with more days off between games and more time to prepare. What if there were an A, B and C lineup? Start Battier against the Celtics, then Haslem against the 76ers and Allen against the Thunder. Play the opponent, not the tradition.

I’ll be flexible. I’m not concerned about it now,” Spoelstra said, again offering up a helpful reminder not to expect starting lineup news anytime soon.

“That falls into the positionless category. We’ll get five players out there. We’re not going to restrict them to a box of position or starter or not. We’re competing to win. Guys have signed up for these roles. We’re going to use the players how we think we can best ourselves a chance to win.”

Of course, this is where we get into Caveat City with this hypothetical – remember, this is all just guesswork. While much of this was due to injury and a couple of shooting slumps, the team did have a better offensive rating after the first quarter in every series until the Finals. Players like to have a routine. They like to know when they are going to be in the game and for how long on a night-to-night basis. They like consistency because it helps them prepare both their bodies and minds. Mess with their rhythm too much and you can see diminishing returns no matter how ideal the opening matchups are.

A starting lineup doesn’t just affect the opening quarter, either. What choices you make to open a game has a ripple effect throughout the rest of your roster. Each lineup would need a separate rotation, and a rotation is always a delicate thing to properly manage.

But what if the game preparation was immaculate? What if everyone bought in to a fluid rotation the same way they did during the playoffs? What if every lineup was ready to start every night, the same way players are ready for different lineups to be used off the bench, depending on the opponent.

What if Spoelstra simply used what he felt was the best combination of players on any given night? In theory, would that be best for the team?

It might be, it might not be – it might even be possible, just not necessary for the regular season – but if Spoelstra doesn’t want his players thinking inside of conventional boxes, why should we?