Ever since their dramatic loss to the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA. A seven-game winning streak has allowed them to reel in the Indiana Pacers, who looked poised to run away with the Eastern Conference. Coming off three straight trips to the NBA Finals, many wondered whether Miami had the horses for another 82-game grind. Their current record (12-3) and point differential (+9.7) should answer that.
The win streak has coincided with a painful tweak Erik Spoelstra made to the rotation -- benching franchise stalwart Udonis Haslem. His jump-shooting and interior defense have been a crucial part of their team, but he has been trending downwards for awhile. His PER has dropped for four straight years, bottoming out at 6.6 through seven games. If early returns are any indication, he may have had a Kendrick Perkins-like drag on the Heat offense.
The statistics are eye-popping. The Heat have a net rating of -10.6 points per 100 possessions with Haslem and a net rating of +13.1 points per 100 possessions without him. That gives him a net rating of -23.9 on the season, which doesn’t even seem possible. There may be a ratchet effect going on -- Haslem is the most limited offensive player of all the Miami regulars. With five legitimate threats on the floor, the defense has to give up something.
Rashard Lewis and Michael Beasley have taken most of his minutes. Both were left for dead before coming to Miami, but they’ve been revitalized in the pace-and-space system. While Lewis is in his 16th season in the NBA, he’s still only 34. Guys with his skill-set -- tall players who can shoot and score -- can play well into their late thirties. Beasley, meanwhile, has found his niche in his 6th season in the league -- a gunner coming off the bench of a good team.
Along with Chris “Birdman” Anderson, Lewis and Beasley give Miami a ton of size and athleticism on their bench. They go 6’11, 6’10 and 6’8 and all have to be respected by the defense. Lewis averages five points a game on 43 percent shooting, Birdman averages seven points on 63 percent shooting and Beasley averages 10 points on 57 percent shooting. Line-ups with any combination of those three and either Dwyane Wade or LeBron James have done very well.
For Miami, it doesn’t matter whether it’s their first or second unit. They space the floor for all 48 minutes; they have 10 guys who can score, put the ball on the floor and pass. The ball moves around the court and finds the open man -- it’s the way basketball is meant to be played. Spoelstra runs a system that allows everyone to play in space and punishes defenses for sending help. It’s pretty much the exact opposition of the situation four years ago.
The Heat have what the San Antonio Spurs like to call “corporate knowledge.” Continuity is one of the most underrated components of building a basketball team -- when everyone is on the same page, it makes life a lot easier. When you have to incorporate multiple players into significant roles, there’s an adjustment process the entire team has to go through. Miami can just plug and play veterans into their system -- spread the floor, move the ball and play defense.
Like the Spurs, the Heat have taken the philosophy of spacing the floor to its logical conclusion. Those two teams put on an offensive clinic in the 2013 NBA Finals -- small-ball teams with only one big man who try to shoot as many corner 3’s as possible. They don’t need to run sets; they can get the majority of their offense out of the flow. Even an average player can look great in enough space; put LeBron in the same situation and there’s not much to be done.
It’s hard to beat the recruiting package Miami can put together. Come to South Beach and play for the two-time defending champions, where you get to be in an uptempo system next to one of the greatest players of all-time in the prime of his career. At this point, it really is like going on the tour with the Beatles. How many other teams’ role players get to be in national TV commercials? It’s no wonder guys are willing to take discounts to play there.
For a player in Lewis’ position, it’s not even a question. Lewis is a two-time All-Star who has made more than $155 million in his NBA career. He has started on a team that went to the NBA Finals and averaged more than 20 points a game in a season. He doesn’t need the money or the aggravation; he’s just hanging around because he enjoys playing basketball. If Miami wants a veteran in their early or mid 30’s, they are going to be able to sign them.
On the other end of the spectrum, Beasley represents hope for every talented young headcase in the league. After wearing out his welcome in Minnesota and Phoenix, Miami is his second third fourth chance to prove that he can be a professional. So far, he’s been proof that no player is irredeemable. After his PER declined in each of his first five seasons, he has a career-high 21.6 in 2013. Young guys bust out all the time; Miami has first dibs on them too.
Of course, their most interesting reclamation project of all has yet to see the floor. There’s no timetable for when Greg Oden could return, but if he can give the Heat anything in the playoffs, he could be the final piece of the puzzle. At 7’0 285, he has the size to match-up with Roy Hibbert and David West, which has always been the Achilles heel of the Heat. If Oden and Beasley played with the Big Three, Miami would have five Top 5 picks on the floor.
I just finished the "Game of Thrones" books, so pardon this analogy. South Beach is like King’s Landing -- a seat of power from which you can rule the realm. Install a legitimate King on the Iron Throne and you will always find players to wear your colors. Once you’re in a position like that, the last thing you want to do is start over somewhere else. Even if Miami falls short this year, there’s nowhere LeBron can go that will put him in a better position to get back.