Miami's New Flex-Four
Those pulling for the Miami HEAT during last season’s NBA Finals probably don’t have the fondest memories of Boris Diaw. While Kawhi Leonard took home the Finals MVP award and the Tim Duncan-Tony Parker combo was as good as ever, through those five games the Spurs were only outscored when either Boris Diaw or Manu Ginobili took a seat on the bench. Unlike Ginobili, Diaw wasn’t anywhere close to averaging double digits in scoring, but dust the series for fingerprints and you’ll find that Diaw had his hands on just about every aspect of every game.
Four months later, the specifics of that series don’t matter as much with the context of Miami’s team having so dramatically shifted. But any team in the league can watch film of those games and pull out a universal truth – it sure would be nice to have a player like Boris Diaw.
Problem is, there’s never more than a handful of players in the league at the same time who can guard either frontcourt position while offering impact passing, shooting and scoring from anywhere on the floor as necessary. In a league becoming increasingly full of stretch-fours, the flex-four is still a luxury few teams can boast, and even fewer can properly take advantage of.
Despite having only a single 2,000-plus minute season under his belt Josh McRoberts has a chance to follow in the tradition of flex-fours like Diaw, Lamar Odom, Toni Kukoc and Detlef Schrempf and become one of the most versatile players in the league. And that would make him one of the most crucial players to the HEAT’s success in 2014-15.
For the moment, at least, that may be a bit of a surprise.
Growing up in Carmel, Indiana, McRoberts credits the growth of his game to having coaches who were willing to be creative and give players the opportunity to develop skills beyond what their height may dictate – a quality which would be important years after McRoberts caught the eye of Mike Krzyzewski.
“I was always pretty tall, but I always played against older kids,” McRoberts said. “Growing up, I was around good coaches, good people that gave me an opportunity. They didn’t pigeon hole me, saying ‘Oh, you’re tall, go down to the block. Don’t work on anything else.’
“So I had a chance to play facing the basket when I was playing against older kids growing up. I think every big guy growing up wants to be a guard and all I did was play basketball. I think that kind of helped me.”
Drafted out of Duke after two seasons by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2007, McRoberts was traded to Indiana a year later in what was effectively a draft-day trade. A couple seasons later, after a promising final season with the Pacers, he found his way to the Los Angeles Lakers as a free-agent before being moved to Orlando in the Dwight Howard deal the following summer. Within six months, McRoberts was again on the move, this time headed to what was at the time an 11-win Charlotte Bobcats team.
Not the most auspicious beginning to an NBA career.
Then the Bobcats hired Steve Clifford to be their head coach –along with signing a defense-attracting Al Jefferson – and everything changed for McRoberts. Having spent five seasons with Stan Van Gundy in Orlando, where skilled forwards such as Hedo Turkoglu and Rashard Lewis shined, Clifford was acutely aware of how to take advantage of players who, as some refer to them, are guards in forward bodies. Lacking a true playmaking wing, Clifford was willing to get a little weird and turned to the 6-foot-10 McRoberts as an offensive facilitator who just happened to start at power forward and shoot a bunch of threes.
“He was the right coach for me,” McRoberts said. “I feel kind of disrespected when people say it’s a breakout year for me because I was just never given an opportunity before that. Whenever I’ve been given an opportunity, I feel like I’ve had success in whatever role is asked of me. I’ll be forever grateful to Cliff for giving me an opportunity last year and we were able to put together a good season as a team.”
What Clifford saw in McRoberts wasn’t going to stay a secret for very long. McRoberts had been in the league for six prior seasons, but last year was almost a rookie season for him as the rest of the league got a chance to see McRoberts in a new system, as effectively a new player.
“He finally got a chance to play a style of basketball that fits his skillset, and it’s very unique,” Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s hard to put him in a box.”
For a coach coming off a stretch of four straight trips to the NBA Finals and two championships playing versatile, positionless basketball, that unique skillset presented an opportunity when McRoberts became a free agent during the offseason.
“I think the game has changed a little bit and what coaches are willing to think outside the box and play different ways,” McRoberts said.
“People saw how to use me last year. I think I can get better obviously, but I kind of found what type of player I could be. And with the way that the HEAT play and I play, Spo’s style really fits my style. Just from talking to him, I think we see the game similarly and I’m looking forward to playing for him.”
While McRoberts may be a bit of an unknown to fans as the season gets underway, they’ll want to get familiar with the player who might represent Miami’s best chance at becoming a Top-10 offense. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade will still use the majority of possessions, as you might expect, but the HEAT aren’t the only team with a pair of proven scorers. There aren’t many players like Diaw or McRoberts in the league, and that makes the teams lucky enough to have them different.
There will be plenty of time to get into the on-court specifics once the players actually get on the court. Right now the season is all potential. A big part of living up to that potential will be how much Miami gets out of the combination of having a flex-four in McRoberts and two of the best off-ball wings in the league in Deng and Wade. There’s beautiful basketball to be found on Miami’s roster – the HEAT are just going to have to get a little weird to find it. But in a pick-and-roll, copycat league, weird is good.