Masters of Unlocking Part Deux

With Kelly Olynyk Paired Alongside Bam Adebayo, The HEAT May Have Found Both Their Starting Lineup And Their Rotation. In A Weird Season Offering Little In The Way Of Stability, That Matters More Than Usual.
Miami's Starting Lineup
by Couper Moorhead

The fifth man always ends up mattering a disproportionate amount. Rarely ones to touch the ball a ton, relative to your workhorses, but the fate of any particular lineup often comes down to the last player written on the whiteboard.

Back when the HEAT ran out the mega-talents of Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh, things didn’t quite start to sing until Shane Battier was added in Year Two. He might take two shots in a quarter, but by simply spacing from the corner and defending the other team’s best wing, Battier clicked everything into place. Once Battier was added to the starting lineup full-time, the HEAT touched an offensive ceiling few teams have even had the gall to reach for.

You don’t always have that perfect fifth guy sitting on the bench. In six games, Erik Spoelstra shuffled through six opening lineups. Only the sixth, with Kelly Olynyk at the four spot, has gained any traction, appearing in Monday’s win over Oklahoma City and Wednesday’s narrow loss to Boston. We’ll talk about that group, and why it has a chance to stick for a while, in a moment.

It has always been popular for coaches to downplay the importance of who stands on the floor for the opening tip. There are a variety of reasons for them doing so – getting players to move away from thinking a starting spot as some sort of status symbol or achievement in itself for one – but the end commentary always belies the fact that starting lineups do matter quite a bit.

The starting lineup matters, a lot, not because it makes anyone look cool, but because the rotation matters. Sure, no group is going to ever match the impact on winning of your closing squad, but if your rotation isn’t right you might not get a chance to close at all. Good teams, teams that are taken seriously in the playoffs, map out and optimize every minute.

So while Spoelstra may say, like most coaches, “I think the starting lineup is so overstated in so many ways.” It should be instructive that his next sentence is, “The more important thing is for us to build a consistency to how we want to play.”

It’s always easier to have a consistent identity with a consistent rotation. Though they’ve started the season 3-4, the HEAT seem to be finding both.

The benefits of Olynyk are plain to the eye. Just look at this spacing.

Starting Lineup Spacing 1

Or this.

Starting Lineup Spacing 2

You put three high-level shooters on the floor with Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo and you’re going to find offense. The entire league just watched the HEAT shoot their way to the Finals. Nobody wants to leave Duncan Robinson or Tyler Herro, and Olynyk is a career 37 percent three-point shooter who has become progressively more mobile and hair-triggered the more time he has spent in Miami. If you empty out a corner with those three spacing wide, Butler and Adebayo suddenly have the environment to do this.

“We’re slashers, we want to pass, we want to get our teammates involved,” Adebayo said. “Having an extra shooter, that’s what that does.

“It puts us in position to be aggressive.”

“Me, Tyler and Duncan are spacing the floor and letting them do their thing,” says Olynyk.

In their minuscule 35 minutes, those five are scoring 121.7 points per 100 possessions. That’s some premium-cut gabagool. Particularly useful with the team’s overall offense sitting down at No. 24 in the league. You figure the efficiency will come down some given they’re shooting 46.7 percent from deep, but there’s little reason they can’t match the 116.4 Offensive Rating the starters posted last year with Kendrick Nunn and Meyers Leonard. Adebayo and Butler with shooters is a formula that works on paper and in practice.

Defense is the question. Last season the HEAT danced a delicate line bouncing between high-powered and lockdown groupings, and those choices only became more magnified in the postseason. But the concern of the moment is the regular season, and last year’s starters made it work with an offense-oriented group that still managed to register a Defensive Rating of 103.1. Some nights, with some matchups, you give them a little more leeway. Others, you pivot. Sometimes the key to having one of the best starting groups in the league is knowing when you’re putting them at a disadvantage.

They can make it work again, because they know how they want to defend. Switch a ton. Stunt at the ballhandler. Don’t leave anyone on an island in a poor matchup. Above all else, protect the rim. It may not always be perfect, but executing a plan goes a long way.

Make it look a little like this. In particular, watch Butler linger on the left side of the paint and in potential help position just long enough to gum up the offense.

Brown stops on a dime and makes the jumper, but that matchup and the resulting shot is a fine outcome.

All that help does lead to quite a few opponent threes, but that doesn’t carry the stigma it may have in the past. Many of the league’s top defenses these days are constructed around protecting the rim and forcing opponents into jumpers. So while Miami is currently No. 28 in opponent three-point rate, the tradeoff is that they’re No. 2 in the frequency of rim attempts allowed.

That’s what the HEAT are probably going to be on defense, at least in current form. Almost the same as a season ago, even if the shooting percentages in those locations vary some. There does come a point where it becomes unpalatable, and the current starters are allowing 116.9 points per 100 possessions. Neither Butler nor Spoelstra feels the team has found its footing.

“We’re not playing the type of basketball we say that we are,” Butler said. “I don’t think any lineup [Spoelstra has] put out there has done that. Rotation or not, we ain’t done that yet.

“We know our identity,” Spoelstra said before the loss to Boston. “It’s early right now. We’ve done it at times, we’ve struggled at times. The next thing for us is to find a level of consistency.”

At least they’ve found some stability to help guide them toward that consistency. With the starters remaining constant for consecutive games, so has the rotation. The same nine players garnering the bulk of the minutes, the starters bleeding into a bench unit led by Goran Dragic and his pick-and-roll chemistry with Precious Achiuwa complemented by the defensive talents of Avery Bradley and Andre Iguodala. In a year that has started weird with no normalcy in sight, comfort may be the requisite MacGuffin around which the rest of Miami’s 2021 story settles in.

“The consistency of the nine or ten guys that were playing at this point in the season, I think guys are pretty comfortable with that,” Spoelstra said.

Everything probably feels a bit better if Miami completes its comeback bid against Boston and sits 4-3. It’s tough to escape the shadow of such an incredible run still so fresh in mind. But as much as homecourt advantage would be nice in a postseason where it likely matters again, this might not be the season to fret too much about record. There will be losses that don’t mean much in the bigger ‘Can We Win The Big One’ picture. Same for wins. Getting to the second season healthy, and playing to your intended identity, may be what takes precedence. If you find a rotation that can shuttle you through the morass, roll with it. Change may hit you in the jaw whether you invite it or not.

“This is a unique year,” Robinson said. “Guys are going to be in and out of the lineup. We expect the expected. That’s what we say. We expect things to change. Could be completely different moving forward, who knows.

“We’re going to have to develop a certain level of consistency regardless of who’s in and out of the lineup.”

For now, maybe it’s just fine to let the team make sense of things while they have the opportunity. If change is going to find you on that road eventually, whether walking or running, then turn the key while you can. At least then you’ll know what works.

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