Josh McRoberts is Keeping Miami Weird

As Comfort Level Grows, The Offense Gets New Wrinkles
Josh McRoberts
Barry Gossage
by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

Wins are important. Wins on the road against a potential playoff opponent after losing five of your previous six games are really important. We can talk all we want about the importance of process over the course of the season, but eventually you have to start putting victories on the board for that process to remain relevant. To most, the win in Phoenix is relevant because it was Miami’s best defensive game in a couple weeks – the Suns didn’t challenge them with the pass same as recent opponents, but you have to start somewhere – yet there were other, smaller developments taking place that might prove to have a similar impact.

Twenty games into the regular season, with the roster finally starting to get healthy, the HEAT started to get a little weird. And weird is so very, very good, and tough to defend.

By traditional standards, the HEAT are already a unique team. With their truly inverted offense, half of the team’s points in the paint and just about all of their post-ups come from guards and wings. If a big man isn’t diving or driving to the rim, his job is often to stay far, far away from the rim in order to clear the area for his teammates. Every day, this sort of roster makeup becomes a bit more normal, but few teams identify so strongly with that style. Miami identifies with weird, and they’re always open to more of it.

Josh McRoberts isn’t here to be normal, either. It’s taken some time, and will continue to take time, for him to get acclimated to everyone and for everyone to get acclimated to him. He isn’t a pick-and-pop, catch-and-shoot big you can just plug-and-play into just about any system. His skills require custom treatment, which means everyone around him has to learn something new.

What was new Tuesday evening, what we’re slowly seeing sprinkled in more and more as the comfort level rises, is McRoberts getting more and more of an opportunity to be a playmaker. Not just as a passer out of the high-post, but as something more like a true point-forward.

In the first quarter, after a traveling violation on Eric Bledsoe, the HEAT took the ball out of bounds in the backcourt. It’s usually such an insignificant action that you probably don’t even look at the court until the ball has crossed the mid-line. In this instance, however, the point guard inbounded the ball to a power forward.

There was no return pass.

We’ve seen this before when McRoberts grabs a rebound and brings the ball all the way up the floor. Both he and Chris Bosh have the green light to do so if they see the opportunity. But this was the first time we can remember the HEAT deliberately – they had a choice here, as it was off a dead ball – getting the ball to McRoberts to bring up and initiate half-court action.

The Suns weren’t pressuring the ball so this was probably a more casual affair than we’re making it out to be. Four minutes into the game, this wasn’t some big, super-secret master plan being put into action. But small things like this come from a certain comfort level. A point guard doesn’t just hand off ballhandling duties to a forward without a little familiarity and trust.

You might remember McRoberts’ pinpoint entry pass to Bosh in the first half – if you saw it, you remember it, as it was a thing of wonder – but do you remember how that play came to be? It began with McRoberts running a sort-of pick-and-roll in the corner with Dwyane Wade. Only, Wade was the one setting the screen.

Or what about that sweet backdoor look McRoberts had to Mario Chalmers? That started with McRoberts faking a handoff at the arc and pushing into the defense.

The patience you see on that last play, with the ball being held until the right cut was made, is part of what makes McRoberts so fascinating. He’s not just capable of making all the tough passes, with either hand. He has the vision to see the plays that should be made.

That’s been part of the learning process. In his first few weeks after missing almost all of training camp, it wasn’t uncommon to see McRoberts get the ball into the middle of the floor and have everyone stand staring at him. While the team may have been expecting him to try to score, you could sense McRoberts telepathically urging someone, anyone, to move towards the rim.

He doesn’t just want to put the ball where you are or where you think you’re going to be. He’s going to put the ball where he wants you to be.

These plays may or may not be called by Erik Spoelstra, and that’s fine either way. If these come from the sidelines, that means Spoelstra is getting more comfortable with running offense through McRoberts. If these are improvisational possessions, that means the players are getting more comfortable with making live reads alongside the flex four. Considering Spoelstra works on building those read-and-react habits daily in practice, we’re almost definitely seeing a mixture of both comfort levels improving.

Sometimes time and experience together is the only real solution to working things out. Now we’re a month into the season and McRoberts not only led the HEAT in assists during an important road win, but the team scored 10 points on six pick-and-rolls run by McRoberts as the ballhandler – a total which equaled his usage for the season coming into the game according to STATS LLC's player tracking cameras.

There won’t be a point where McRoberts is actually playing point forward full time. The team probably isn’t trying to turn him into the Chicago Bulls-era Ron Harper, and he admitted even in preseason that he needs to be more aggressive at times with the ball. They’re still discovering what they have and what they can do with what they have. But the HEAT are outscoring teams by more points with McRoberts on the floor than with any other player, and they’re also playing their best defense, by a significant margin, with him out there (per NBA.com).

The HEAT still need to reach a point with their defense where it is both consistent and reliable, but introducing new concepts into an offense that was already functioning at a reasonably high level will pay dividends as the season rolls along and scouting reports get thicker and more detailed.

There will be growing pains, but with Miami’s positionless lineups becoming more normal around the league, McRoberts is doing what he can to keep Miami weird. And weird often wins.

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