Jesse D. Garrabrant/Fernando Medina
The New HEAT
The Miami HEAT are now without the services of the best basketball player in the world. But it’s not the end of the world, either.
It’s the start of something new. Something that might not look too different from what you’re used to.
You can’t replace LeBron James. Short of rapidly accelerating cloning technology, there’s isn’t an avenue in existence which can lead you to the same combination of size, skill, intelligence and athleticism in today’s game. But being competitive isn’t exclusive to the team which has that one player. Where the HEAT once had the use of a very particular, highly efficient set of skills, they now have vacant possessions to fill. And they can fill them within the context of the same offensive system Erik Spoelstra has employed over the past three seasons.
So, in lieu of replacing one player with an individual, you replace those possessions in the aggregate.
That means more pick-and-rolls for Miami’s trio of point guards. Not 10 more for each, but three or four apiece. A few more elbow touches for Chris Bosh, and more catches in space early in the shot clock. A few more post-ups for Dwyane Wade, as his usage percentage will likely tick above 30 percent again for the first time in two years, and more pick-and-rolls sprinkled throughout. And, of course, new possessions for a pair of additions that figure to feature heavily in the rotation.
Ghost Cuts Redux
There aren’t many wing players in the league who can claim to be near Wade’s level when it comes to moving without the ball, but Luol Deng is among those precious few. Like Wade, Deng isn’t a pure spot-up shooter – he typically doesn’t tilt the defense in his direction just by standing near the three-point line. But, also like Wade, Deng makes up for his lack of perimeter pull by being a consistent threat to disappear as soon as his defender looks in the direction of the ball.
You look, Deng is there. You look away, Deng is cutting right behind you for a dunk. And since he understands the angles of the court, he’s smart enough to pause mid-movement in order to preserve the passing window.
The offense won’t often run directly through Deng – he’s never use more than a quarter of his team’s offensive possessions while on the floor – but for everything that Spoelstra asks of his offensive players, Deng can contribute in every area. He can post up, fill space, get in the right spots, finish with a soft touch around the rim, create a mid-range shot in case of emergency and, most importantly, the ball isn’t going to stick in his hands. With a fewer automatic drive-and-kick actions available to Miami, ball movement is going to be crucial for generating enough efficiency to sustain close to a Top 10 offense.
But it all works because Deng – who the HEAT will likely ask to work on his corner three in order to use him as a stretch-four – can buoy his varied skillset with movement. Movement through which Deng can complement any offensive action.
And movement that can create shots, especially when you have willing big men passers, without Deng ever having to put the ball on the floor.
Too many players in the major leagues make their moves without purpose, going through the motions of whatever set may be called. That’s not the sort of player Deng is. Whether he’s getting catches on the move or not, he’ll absorb attention whenever he probes the seams of the defense. On a team without skilled passers, that talent can go to waste. On a team featuring a 6-foot-10 forward with the tools of a point guard, Deng should fit right in.
The Tall Man
Quick, name the most important offensive player on the Charlotte Bobcats last season. No, it wasn’t Al Jefferson. It wasn’t Kemba Walker, either. No Charlotte player caused more of an offensive drop-off when he took a seat on the bench than Josh McRoberts.
McRoberts was crucial to Charlotte’s success last season because he is an enabler – a package of height and skills that opens up dozens of possibilities for those around him. It’s one thing to be able to shoot from a frontcourt position, but being able to both space and create is a combination that tends to translate to winning basketball. No matter where he is on the floor, McRoberts is a true triple threat. And that takes pressure off his guards to do all the heavy lifting.
The HEAT love their corner threes, and McRoberts is one of the few big men in the league who can consistently create those shots.
There’s a small caveat we should make here. While he had previously shown an ability to stretch the floor, McRoberts only has one full season as a true high-volume three-point shooter (36.1 percent last year on 3.7 attempts per game). The good news is that big men rarely lose range once they establish the ability, so while the percentages may fluctuate the HEAT’s intent to use McRoberts as a stretch forward means his role won’t be all that different from his impact season in Charlotte – a season in which McRoberts had a statistical profile which, for his size, compares favorably to that of Kevin Love and Orlando Magic-era Hedo Turkoglu.
It may take time for some to catch on, but McRoberts will be one of the most important players in Miami this season. That impact may not show up in the box score, but you’ll see it on the court, in form and function.
Wings who can post, cut and play inside. Bigs who can pass, shoot and attack in space. Rebounding responsibility spread throughout the lineup. Are things starting to sound familiar?
Spoelstra has often said that his is an inverted offense, with the conventional definition of an inside-out game flipped around, and though the names and roles may change, the philosophy should stay the same. McRoberts will spread the floor with Chris Bosh, either across from one another or with Chris Andersen, in order to give Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and the three-headed guard trio of Mario Chalmers-Norris Cole-Shabazz Napier space to operate. Not to mention giving Danny Granger room to shoot. In turn, those guards will have to pull the defense back toward the interior in order to give McRoberts and Bosh space to play with.
The ideas are all the same. Wade and Bosh will be the featured scorers – while we aren’t digging into the returning players as much, this pair is obviously central to all plans – but the team isn’t going to revert to being a one-and-done pick-and-roll offense. It’s expecting too much to think the HEAT will approach the league-record for effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the value of three-pointers) for a third-consecutive season. But the HEAT don’t have to be an overwhelming force in order to compete. Their attack may not be the platonic ideal for professional offense every single night of the season, but it will be their offense through and through.
As long as health is on their side, a goal of having a Top 10 offense is plenty realistic. And that’s more than enough for the sort of basketball played in May.
As long as the defense is up to par.
It’s no secret that the HEAT dealt with a good amount of defensive slippage last season. Injuries, inconsistent lineups and the weight of deep playoff runs year-after-year played their part, but whatever the cause may have been Miami finished outside of the Top 10 defenses for the first time since Spoelstra’s first year as head coach in 2008-09. Now with fewer offensive luxuries, an inconsistent defense isn’t going to cut it. From top-to-bottom, there will have to be a re-commitment on that end of the floor – something that has to come from the staff which designs and teaches the scheme to the players who have to execute it.
That’s hardly news to anyone involved, and the HEAT still have guards capable of forcing turnovers, wings with the length to contain the league’s best scorers and versatile big men who can stop the ball at two feet out or 20. In theory, that’s enough for a Top 10 defense. At least.
You can’t say much more than that in the first week of August. While they search for a little more depth in the free-agent market, the HEAT have pieces which fit what they want to do. The team that went to four-straight NBA Finals and won back-to-back championships was great, but it’s gone now.
It’s time for something new. It just might look familiar.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com and STATS LLC