Masters of Unlocking

It’s tempting to heap a truck full of credit on Justise Winslow.

Through the rookie’s first 196 professional minutes, the Miami HEAT are outscoring opponents by 19.4 points per 100 possessions – a number which includes a defensive rating of 84.3 that would be, by a good margin, the best mark in the league. There have been flashes of a budding dynamic offensive player, but it’s the defense that is surpassing all but the most outlandish expectations.

“He’s confusing me,” Chris Bosh said. “You always want to be easy on the rooks and everything, but he’s raising the bar. With his maturity, ability and his knack to play defense, I’ve never seen anything like it as long as I’ve been in this league from a rookie.”

Winslow deserves the credit. We just can’t give him all of it.

The secret behind Winslow’s current status as a Plus-Minus Hero is that with the current rotation, his entrance into the game signals Miami’s shift to small, pace-and-space lineups. Against Toronto on Sunday, Winslow was the first sub after about five minutes of play. Instead of coming in for Dwyane Wade or Luol Deng as you might expect, Winslow pointed at Chris Bosh. Deng proceeded to slide down to the power forward spot – none of this is possible without his flexibility – defending Luis Scola. With Hassan Whiteside, Miami had engaged one of its one-big lineups.

Five minutes later, a mass substitution replaced the Whiteside-Deng frontcourt with Bosh and Josh McRoberts. Not exactly one-big, but still a smaller, flexible, spread lineup. For the rest of the half, and for much of the previous games, Miami’s lineups have followed a similar pattern.

With the exception of Paul George’s mid-range outburst last Friday, those lineups have been blitzing the league – in a bite-sized sample size, of course. In 224 minutes, one-big or Bosh-McRoberts lineups are +71 over opponents. Two of those lineups happen to be among the five most effective lineups in the league as of November 9 (minimum 30 minutes).

It’s not difficult to see why those lineups are having success. Spacing might be an elusive, something, to put your finger on, but you know it when it’s there and when it isn’t. When Spoelstra throws out a trio of wings with two bigs who can hit a three, the paint ends up looking like this:

And when those shooting bigs also happen to be extremely skilled with the ball in their hands, you can attack the defense from unexpected angles.

How does a Bosh-McRoberts pick-and-roll sound?

“There definitely is [better spacing],” Tyler Johnson said. “With Josh being able to knock down a three ball, and CB has proven that he can shoot the three ball. The spacing is a lot better. If the big wants to stay with the guard (on a pick-and-roll), it’s an easy throwback. If not, we have guys who can get into the paint.”

It’s working for Whiteside, too. When Whiteside is the only big on the floor the HEAT are scoring 121 points per 100, while giving up a solid 101. As the starting lineup works on figuring out its spacing, these smaller groupings have already found it.

“It’s going to happen as we play more games,” Bosh said. “The chemistry is going to work itself out. We’re going to see which combinations are doing what, which sets are really working for us and what works for us defensively.”

All that said, these lineups are working because of defense. Both of those primary small lineups featured above are defending at a rate that’s the equivalent of protecting the paint with space lasers. That’s unsustainable, but the fundamental pieces are there for long-term success. Both configurations are both pushing teams into bad shots and creating turnovers that turn into offense – such as Miami’s three-dunk bonanza late against the Raptors – largely because even with *smaller* lineups, the paint containment has been stout.

“The spacing is pretty good,” Bosh said. “That goes without saying. The defense is pretty good, that’s the most important part. You can have spacing and stink.”

Whether it’s Whiteside…

or Bosh…

Miami’s shift to conservative, drop-back style of pick-and-roll coverage, coupled with players fighting around picks, has them allowing the fifth-fewest shots in the paint per-game. That number is bolstered by the team’s generally slower pace to begin the year and it’s too early to parse through the more detailed numbers, but in general teams are shooting more between the three-point line and the rim. Just as planned.

The ultimate goal is still, clearly, to get a starting lineup that’s played less than 100 minutes together on track – though being -3.4 per 100 is hardly unworkable – but the HEAT are finding things that appear to work. That process is how you build a team.

So, praise Winslow for what he’s doing. It’s remarkable and without much fodder for comparison. But as impressive as his performance is, it’s only part of a whole. His most important role might not be as a defender or a playmaker, but as a Master of Unlocking. When Winslow is on the floor, the HEAT seem to know who they are.