On the HEAT's Opening Night Starting Lineup

Erik Spoelstra will soon decide on his starters, but it doesn't really make a difference.
Photo Credit: Issac Baldizon

If there’s one thing you could expect from Erik Spoelstra last season, it’s that when the Miami HEAT’s starting lineup was in question, you weren't going to find out about it until 45 minutes before the opening tip. While there is a myriad of reasons for this – if you and your team know the plan, why tell anyone else until you have to – this practice led some to believe that Spoelstra was making last-minute decisions.

What that false idea took away from, and what often isn’t considered when we imagine coaches filling out their lineup cards, is just how much work goes into creating that perfect starting combination.

Consider your Friday afternoon, Monday morning or whatever time of the week you set aside to review your schedule, whether you do it yourself or you are lucky enough to have someone do it for you. You can’t schedule two meetings at the same time, so you have to make decisions. One meeting might be with a smaller group of people, with a topic that can be resolved within an hour. Another might involve an entire department, with many co-workers and employees waiting to receive instructions. Whichever you choose to take first, that decision affects the rest of the week, both for you and the people who work around you. And higher up you rise in the ranks, the larger the pool grows of people affected by simple scheduling. When you’re the boss, few choices exist in a vacuum.

Starting lineups function the same way. The group that is on the floor at the beginning of the game is only going to be together for about eight minutes in the first quarter and eight minutes in the third, leaving a coach with 32 minutes worth of game time left to figure out based on those five names he filled in on the lineup card.

We have evidence that these two players play well with these three starters, so they need to come in around that four-minute mark.

But we don’t want one of those three starters playing that many minutes, so he has to come out two minutes later.

Then the rest of the starters have to come out at the end of the first quarter. We can insert the first two starters that came out in the first, but the numbers don’t support playing that lineup for very long, so we swap out one sub for another.

But one of those bench players is a great shooter and really helps the spacing, and if we insert our starters again soon, he’s only getting eight minutes in the entire half.

And I still have two players that need to get 15-to-20 minutes that haven’t been in the game yet.

You can see where things get complicated.

That’s where the work comes in. Every coach has their own system. Some might boot up Excel and create a cheat sheet with ideal rotations mapped out for an entire game, with contingencies based on foul trouble. Some might hash things out by hand on a legal pad, while others might have an assistant coach dedicated entirely to keeping the rotation on plan. Either way, someone has to sit down and do the math. And when you’re Spoelstra, handed a brand-new team in year one and progressively trying new combinations through the playoffs in year two, all while accounting for injuries, that’s a lot of math.

“The last two years, I’ve had to spend a great deal of time scribbling out rotations, virtually every game,” Spoelstra said.

Often with rotations mapped out right down the half-minute.

“I think to help myself organize and to give some consistency and clarity to the guys. The first year in particular I did that.”

Things are a little different these days, with the previous two years giving Spoelstra a great idea of what works. As with anything, the more practice you have at making tough decisions, the easier it will be in the future to digest the information of the moment and manifest a solution. But above all, Spoelstra has a rare NBA luxury, one that doesn’t always come for a team coming off a championship.

No ego.

“By the time we got to the playoffs, everybody understood that everything was on the table, and whatever was best for the team,” Spoelstra said.

“Now, I think we have a better feel for what we’ll do. And again, what we do at the beginning of the season isn’t necessarily in cement. I think this group is pretty mature, to understand that and what’s best for the team.”

We still don’t know if the fifth starter will be Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem or another dark horse candidate, but it ultimately doesn’t matter all that much. While the HEAT are given credit for figuring out how effective their smaller lineups are over the course of last season’s playoffs, what the team actually figured out was how to adjust on the fly and accept the best role for the team. All the tantalizing lineup possibilities in the world don’t matter much if you don’t have a team willing to be flexible and switch things up on the fly depending on what is more suitable for a given matchup.

Battier was and is still the key to all of this, capable of swapping between defending threes and fours with LeBron James on one end and spreading the floor on the other. Without him, the HEAT would have been a significantly different team last season, but he also took a beating spending half his games relentlessly fronting Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce and Kevin Durant and the other half boxing out power forwards in the paint. It’s logical that Miami might not want to subject Battier to that for a full season when they’re always mindful of being healthy for the playoffs – the primary argument for starting Haslem – but Battier, for his part, would be on board.

“You can do anything,” Battier said. “There’s nothing you can’t do in this world. I can’t fly, but anything short of that is fair game. Its basketball, I’ll figure it out. I’ve never met a challenge in my career that I haven’t overcome yet, except for gravity. So just give me time and some experience and I’ll figure it out.”

But again, whether Battier starts or not is a non-issue. Spoelstra’s lineups are a known quantity now – even with Ray Allen on board, he slots into most lineups as a positive fairly easily – and he’s going to get them on the floor, when appropriate, for enough time, whether it’s in the first or second quarter.

In other words, as Battier says, he will probably slot in as a power forward just about the same number of minutes a game whether he starts there or not.

“I would assume so,” Battier said. “I don’t really know how our rotations are going to go to be honest with you. We haven’t really seen it with all our healthy players yet. I don’t think it’ll be anything outside of the box or crazy.

“I don’t think I’m going to play heavy minutes anyways. I think it will be very similar to last year. Especially once we get healthy, we got a lot of players. I don’t see myself playing more than 24 [minutes].”

Remember this when Spoelstra turns in his card 45 minutes before Miami’s opener against the Boston Celtics. Starting one lineup over another doesn’t have to be an indictment of one style or another. There’s work, there’s a process, behind all of it. Every choice has its consequences, but when an entire team buys into something years in the making, it’s making ripples, not waves, that a coach has to concern himself with.

Statistics courtesy NBA.com