“I’m really looking forward to the Hassan Whiteside jersey I’m going to have, and the first thing I’m going to do when I get it, is tackle the nearest person as a celebration.”
- The Prophet, Episode 4: Unpacking the Heat, Part 1
Yeah LeBron, that’s right – the Heat are back in the playoff picture, 4th seed, baby: represent the Via Ocho!
South Beach is back!
But this ain’t your grand-daddy’s Heat, no sir; it’s 2016 and the Heat are acceptable!
That’s right: acceptable!
Okay, let’s get real for a second: the fact that I had to create that image (which I did), means that it didn’t already exist. And it doesn’t exist because it’s not actually true.
It’s been a rough couple of years for Heat fans, and it might get rougher, depending on whether the news from Bosh’s camp is good news or bad news.
And if it’s bad, that’s real bad.
Yet, the Heat are 8-2 and have the third-best net rating in the league at +8.2 – that degree of deviation from expectation demands explanation.
The simplest explanation is addition by addition: The Heat signed Joe Johnson, who is averaging 15.5 points on 63.4 percent since arriving in Miami.
Yet another veteran who’s career is revitalized upon leaving the Nets. What a shocker.
The more nuanced (and persuasive) argument is that of addition by subtraction.
Dang, Deng! Back at it Again with the Productive Play!
Bosh’s absence has forced Luol Deng, formerly the starting 3, to shift down to the 4, which, in this era of basketball, is his natural position. At the 3 position, his middling speed and maneuverability limited him to putting up contested 3-pointers in the corner: wing defenders had no problem keeping up with him on cuts and off-ball movement during the first part of the season, and his finishing ability was limited due to congestion in the paint.
The proof is in the analytical pudding:
Bosh is typified as a stretch-four, but that’s not really true; in Toronto, he could play the 4, but the game was different then. In Miami, he was most effective as a center.
Speaking of center, Bosh’s predilection for the center position limited Whiteside’s upside in subtle ways. Despite ostensibly being a dominant defensive presence, Whiteside’s unimpressive on/off numbers were the topic of constant debate. But consider the defensive ramifications of Whiteside’s emergence: Whiteside’s production mandated a starting role and an increase in minutes, but when both Bosh and Whiteside were on the floor, Bosh’s lack of mobility made Whiteside’s presence a redundancy. With most of the minutes at 4 and 5 being occupied by the two star big-men, Deng was kept on the wing despite his age and injury history hampering his ability to perform that role effectively.
Before the season even began, I asserted that the Miami Heat would struggle to reach their ceiling unless the Whiteside-Dragic pick-and-roll was the focal point of their offense:
(Almighty Ballin’ throwback! Episode 4!)
Circumstance has forced Coach Spoelstra to stagger Wade and Dragic in line-ups. Udrih is gone, Johnson is gone, Chalmers is gone, and primary ball-handlers are in short supply. This was not always the case. In consecutive games against the Wizards (February 19th) and the Hawks (February 20th), the Heat posted convincing wins due to the improved play of Goran Dragic.
When Wade is the primary play-maker, Bosh/McRoberts should play center to clear the paint for him to drive – playing 2 bigs with limited mobility forces Wade into mid-range jumpers to avoid help-defenders in the paint. Like Ray Allen and Shane Battier in the Big-3 Miami of old, the presence of at least 2 knock-down 3-point shooters opens up the offense for Wade and Bosh to operate; and while Joe is no LeBron, he’ll do in a pinch. It may be the case that Whiteside’s newfound mid-range stroke allows the Heat to operate an effective horns-based set that provides adequate spacing, but that remains to be seen – either way, the defensive questions would remain.
With Dragic at the helm, Spoelstra should borrow a page from the Stan Van Gundy playbook and run Whiteside pick-and-rolls down the throat of the defense with 4-out 1-in sets.
Dragic is an All-Star if he’s the primary ball-handler; he didn’t work in Houston next to Kyle Lowry, and he didn’t work with Isaiah Thomas/Eric Bledsoe in Phoenix. With the arrival of Joe Johnson, Deng can play the 4 in 4-out lineups, which works wonders:
“Before the break, Dragic and Wade shared the court for 25 minutes per game. Since then, they are playing 20.1 minutes per game with each other.
Those five minutes with Wade have basically been switched to Deng. Since the break, no two Heat players share the court more than Dragic and Deng, who play 29 minutes per game together and are plus-9.1 in those stretches. That same pair before the break played an average of 25.5 minutes per game together and were a minus-0.4 points per game. That number, more than anything, represents the shift in Miami. Dragic–handling the ball and initiating the offense more often–and Deng–now playing as a stretch-4–are thriving.”
Winslow and Wade make it hard to space the floor effectively in a Whiteside pick-and-roll offense, but as long as Joe and Deng man the 3 and 4, it’s workable:
Rotations, Rotations, Rotations
The key to Miami’s offensive success is their potential dynamism: their offensive philosophy should shift dramatically depending on the on-court personnel. They’re full of talented and battle-tested veterans who, Spoelstra should be able to utilize in creative ways to keep the opposing team flustered and scrambling to adjust defensively.
Defensively, their best potential rotations will be built around Whiteside. Any shot taken within 12-14 feet of the basket will be contested by Whiteside, so on-ball wing-defenders should cover shooters close, understanding that Whiteside will respond accordingly, either by blocking the shot or by encouraging opposing teams to put up inefficient shots from mid-range to avoid him. Off-ball, defenders should slack off their man if he is a threat to cut to the basket while Whiteside is otherwise occupied. However, when covering long-distant threats, it’s best to just trust the system unless you’re Winslow and can dig on help-defense and force turnovers.
The Heat, like so many teams, are in a situation where their best line-ups aren’t necessarily those which have the most talented players. It feels wrong to bring Whiteside off the bench, but it would feel worse to bring Bosh, sitting on a new 5-year $118,705,300 contract, off the bench; but, ball don’t lie: In 339 minutes, the 5-man line-up of Dragic, Wade, Deng, Bosh, and Whiteside posts a dismal 0.3 net rating.
Ultimately, Spoestra needs to manage his rotations in such a way that gets his best players out for sizable portions of time while avoiding sets with conflicting or disadvantageous 5-man lineups.
“I’m taking the point of view that the Miami Heat are going to be the better team, and Lux is taking the opposite position for the Wizards. We made a friendly bet: if I win he’s going to have to get me a journeyman jersey of my favorite Heat player on this current team, which is Hassan Whiteside…. and Lux, I’m going to get him a Washington Wizards jersey player of his choice.”
- The Prophet, Episode 4: Unpacking Heat Pt.1
As of March 7th, the Miami Heat are 37-26 and riding a 5 game win-streak.
The Wizards are 30-32 and Bradley Beal is slated to miss a month after a sprained pelvis.
Wait, wait, wait:
That jersey is going to look good on my wall.