Christmas Day, Luol Deng and the Floppy Offense

Luol Deng
David Sherman
by Couper Moorhead

This game meant something to a lot of people. It might have meant something different to each individual, but no matter your level of investment The Return of LeBron James carried with it emotions and thoughts and feelings not normally associated with a regular season basketball game.

Special like this doesn’t come along too often, and you’ll remember little details and moments from Christmas Day years from now – details and moments that will be entered into your version of NBA lore. If you’re not holding on to bits and pieces of games like this, why watch?

At the height of grind and survive mode, the HEAT don’t have the same luxury as the rest of us. They can ill afford to dwell on single games lest they lose focus on the present. Winning is great, but figuring out new ways to squeak out enough points to give yourself a chance to win with the players you have available is what consumes Erik Spoelstra these days – not thinking about how great that one win was a few days, or a week, or eventually a month ago.

Adjustments are made daily. Some work. Some don’t. But they have to be made because you can’t expect every lineup to be able to run the exact system designed for a projected starting lineup that won’t see the floor this season.

One adjustment that has been working centers on Luol Deng, and it paid off against the Cleveland Cavaliers to the tune of 25 points and 8 assists.

Without getting too nitty gritty, floppy is a common NBA set which gives a player multiple options off of a variety of baseline screens. The HEAT went away from it once Spoelstra introduced the pace-and-space offense during the 2011-12 season, but it was always a part of their playbook. They would use it most notably when Dwyane Wade was running with units while both James and Chris Bosh rested. Remember those possessions where Wade would curl off some low picks and rise up for an elbow-jumper? That was floppy.

Part of the reason for going away from those sets is that the ball tends to stay in one place while things develop, but many team use floppy in one form or another because it’s a great way to get a shot. It might not always get the ball into the most efficient, All Layups and Threes, zone on the floor, but it gets you a shot. You just need a good off-ball player to run it for, hence Wade and occasionally Ray Allen being the primary recipients.

Now, with Chris Bosh missing seven-straight games, the HEAT are running more floppy with Deng – an offense he’s both familiar and comfortable with from his days with Tom Thibodeau in Chicago.

“I’ve been more involved with the offense,” Deng said of the recent stretch. “I think we’ve done a good job. And I said it from the start, we weren’t going to figure it out right away. Coach will see some things that work and are good for me and we’ll run more of it. There are some things that they ran in the past that are not going to work with us because it’s totally a different team.

“And I think we’re going to keep figuring it out as we go along, even when Bosh comes back.”

Examples have been popping up with increased regularity, in recent games against Boston and Philadelphia, but with Deng drawing full-time LeBron James duty the floppy dosage was upped.

We saw it early for jumpers.

And we saw it late as Deng assisted on two of the most important scores of the evening. First off a trap.

And second off a drive.

“I felt great the whole game,” Deng said. “I had good looks and we ran the floppy a little bit to get LeBron moving and I was able to find guys off from that.”

“Luol was fantastic, with his energy, his endurance,” Spoelstra added. “He got us into relief baskets on the offensive end. Either with his screens, coming off screens, and constant energy at the end of the possessions saved us or bailed us out.”

Think of this less as a paradigm shift and more as a necessary evolution of the pie chart. The core of pace and space is alive and well, it’ll just be different with Josh McRoberts out for the season. You’ll still see Deng setting screens and slipping into space – another Thibodeau staple during Deng’s tenure – for open looks. You’ll still see screens and re-screens and handoffs and spray passes. But personnel often dictates process, and Spoelstra has never been one to confine himself to a comfort zone.

“We’re all learning,” Spoelstra said earlier this week. “[Deng’s] learning our system…we’re learning how best to incorporate him.

“He’s a very unique player. He’s great at reading situations off the ball. He’s so active on his cuts and reading screens and all that. I think we’re getting progressively better as the season goes along.”

There’s no guarantee that it works. But if it works, it’ll stick. Deng is scoring about 17 points per 36 minutes on 50 percent shooting with Bosh out, which is about the same as what he was posting with Bosh in. In the midst of the current grind, that’s a success.

Everyone will remember this game because a fan base chose class and cheered a returning player, but a month from now we could be looking back on this period as the time Spoelstra dabbled with broader use of floppy – and trying to wear out James in the process – or for when Deng and the team began to find middle ground with a re-worked offensive plan.


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