With So Many Light-Years to Go

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An underlying theme from my previous post on the workings of NBA leadership was this: The Miami Heat have the potential to re-write the book of basketball convention. Not only is the team talented enough to be tremendously successful according to conventional standards, but their makeup and synthesis are so tremendously unique that they could radically change the unwritten rules of the sport. Everything from the importance and function of the point guard to the means of acquiring talent to the superstar mentality is now up for debate, and those conversations could and should rage on well beyond the day when LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh’s time together in Miami comes to an end.

Among Miami’s more interesting potential contributions to the basketball discussion is an organizational change to one of the game’s most storied and emblematic plays: the last-second shot. Henry Abbott has explored the dynamics of the last-second shot on a number of occasions (with others such as Roland Beech and Kevin Pelton as integral parts of those discussions) on TrueHoop, with play-calling as a particular point of emphasis. Abbott explains:

In the big picture, maybe teams should re-think how they handle key possessions, because what’s happening now is less effective than how teams score at other times. A big part of that is that teams are very predictable. Almost every coach goes to their superstar in this situation, and knowing what’s going to happen gives the defense an advantage they don’t normally have.

…I am fascinated to know why defenses are so much more effective with the game on the line than at other times in the game. Half-court heaves are part of it, certainly. And rushed shots. And highly focused defense. And maybe referees tend to be cautious in those parts of the game, which could favor the defense.

But it also seems to me that with the game on the line the play-calling is extremely safe and formulaic. The normal notion of finding the open man is very constrained, and takes a back seat to the idea that stars are supposed to shoot at these times. (Remember the uproar a couple of years ago when LeBron James simply hit the open man?) Analysis would prove, I’m certain, that with the game on the line, teams use far less movement of players and the ball, and there is a lot more star vs. one or even two elite defenders (like Ray Allen last night).

Surely that’s part of it too, right? It’s like there’s some kind ethical code that under no circumstances can you dump it down to Kendrick Perkins with the game on the line. But if he’s wide open, maybe you should.

It’s a point that was well-worth a moment’s consideration before the stars aligned, but it’s an absolutely fascinating idea now that Miami’s roster is in place. If any team is really in a position to deviate from the late-game play-calling norm, wouldn’t it be Miami? They don’t just have a go-to guy. The Heat now have two of the best clutch performers in the game, one versatile power forward who has been a solid late-game option for his own team in the past, a gunner who hit 40% of his clutch (“4th quarter or overtime, less than 5 minutes left, neither team ahead by more than 5 points,” as defined by 82games.com) threes last season, a deceptively clutch forward with a reliable spot-up game, a shoot-first guard with a penchant for hitting big shots, and even a PG just two years removed from hitting one of the biggest shots in the history of the NCAA title game. The Heat aren’t just loaded with options. They have a veritable arsenal when it comes to endgame scoring.

Statistically speaking, James is not only Miami’s best player, but also their top performer in the clutch. LeBron averaged more points per minute in clutch situations than any other player last season, thanks to shooting 48.8% from the field while leading the league in free throw attempts per clutch minute. Wade’s ’09-’10 clutch numbers weren’t great, but the man essentially won the 2006 championship with his ability to score, create, and get to the line late in the game (plus, for what it’s worth, he was a much better clutch performer in ’08-’09).

With two remarkable clutch options, who do the Heat go to when they need a last-second bucket? The beauty of that question may be in the fact that there is no consistently correct answer. Opponents will no doubt be aware that James and Wade are the preferred options, but Erik Spoelstra has an opportunity to really push opposing defenses to their limits with the collection of talent laid before him. All it takes is an actual play. Not screening for LeBron so he can catch the ball 25 feet from the basket and go to work. Not just running a counter to get Wade open. I’m talking about a real NBA set, complete with off-ball action, staggered screens, three-point shooters who don’t have their feet nailed to the ground in the corner, and maybe even a slash to the basket. Feel free to gasp. Miami is set for incredible success this season not just because James, Wade, and Bosh are all immensely talented, but because of the way that talent will allow them to play off one another. Giving the ball to LeBron or Wade alone to isolate betrays the team’s most obvious strength, whereas operating in a more structured endgame offense would allow the Heat to be brutally effective down the stretch in close games.

It can work because Spoelstra has a ton of options. It’s not just LeBron and Wade, after all. The rest of the roster is perfectly capable of taking and making the big one.

Chris Bosh, though being a step removed from James and Wade in terms of sheer clutch scoring, is a key to unlocking the Heat’s late-game offensive potential. If Bosh slides over to center, opposing teams have to account for him but will likely be put at a disadvantage when they do. Bosh’s combination of size and shooting is what makes him such an interesting endgame option, as his ability to hit from mid-range and beyond forces opposing bigs to step out of the paint. Not only does that give James or Wade an excellent kick-out candidate, but it reduces the resistance that any penetrator with the ball will encounter at the rim from shot-blockers. Defending James or Wade on an isolation set is difficult enough, but throw in some additional player/ball movement and take away the possibility of help-side shot blocking from the 5, and that task grows exponentially more difficult.

Pan to Udonis Haslem, who is ready and waiting at the free throw line extended. Haslem may not be the most heralded late-game scorer, but last season his per minute clutch scoring (22.7 points per 48 clutch minutes) was right in line with that of Deron Williams and Paul Pierce. He was a top-15 clutch rebounder (15.0 per 48), ranking ahead of Pau Gasol, Chris Bosh, Andrew Bogut, Carlos Boozer, Nene, Marc Gasol, Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Brook Lopez, and so many others. And just to sweeten the pot, Haslem shot 52.9% from the field and 83% from the line during such situations while playing for the bundle of offensive misery known as the ’09-’10 Miami Heat. He’ll knock down the open shot — and trust me, with this team he’ll be open — hit the boards when there’s a few seconds to spare, and will give James and Wade all the room they need to run the offense on the strong side.

Chalmers seems to get by on a reputation more than anything, but luckily Eddie House has been a upper-tier clutch option in the past. In House’s last full year with a quality team (’08-’09 with Boston), his clutch scoring put him on par with Kevin Durant, Steve Nash, and Chauncey Billups. House also bested designated Celtic shooter Ray Allen in almost every relevant regard: clutch scoring output, clutch field goal percentage, clutch three-point percentage (57.1% to 37.5%), and even clutch assists. Mike Miller was also very effective from beyond the arc in the Wizards’ close games in ’09-’10, shooting an impressive 40.0% from three. Never is floor balance more essential than when a team needs but a single bucket to win, and the combination of House and Miller (with a dose of Chalmers now and again, if you’d like), along with Bosh and Haslem holding steady from mid-range, should give Miami’s clutch offense all the room it needs to breathe.

In almost every regard, the Miami Heat will not be like other basketball teams. So why should they be when it comes to their play-calling with the game on the line? Erik Spoelstra has all of these incredible scoring options laid out for him. No coach in recent memory has been more empowered to go away from the “Get X the ball and get out of the way,” endgame mantra. If there’s really a place where Spoelstra’s talents can stand out amidst the incredible star power on Miami’s roster, it’s there. If they win 73, it’ll be credited to James, Wade, and Bosh. If they win the title, the significance of free agency and Pat Riley’s savvy will be noted repeatedly, with Spoelstra as a footnote. Spoelstra and his staff will have a number of difficult tasks ahead of them from finding out ways to stay competitive at the 5 to keeping all of Miami’s mouths fed, but this is one arena where Miami’s head coach has the ability to be a bit of a revolutionary.

Seth Carstens