The Miami Heat and the Zen of Position-less Basketball

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One night last Spring Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had a feverish dream.  In it he was climbing up a mountain in search of the great guru… possessor of all basketball knowledge.  After what seemed like days of clawing his way upward, Spoelstra finally reached the top.  Sweat pouring down his face and heart-pounding, he stared at a magnificent light that shone in front of him like a blazing sun.  Suddenly, from within the light a booming voice came forth (that coincidentally sounded just like Pat Riley) and whispered thunderously… “go position-less, my son!”  With a jolt Spoelstra was awake and grabbing a pencil to frantically scribble down the plan of attack that would go on to win the Miami Heat the title last June and will allow them to rip up the league for the foreseeable future.  Okay, maybe that’s not exactly what happened but the end point is the same, the Heat have thrown traditional on-court roles aside and are instead using their versatile roster of uber-athletes and dead-eye shooters to throw other teams into an absolute tizzy.

Was it divine inspiration?  Was it a master stroke of strategy?  Spoelstra would say that it was a necessity given the nature of players that the Heat have on their team:  “We have to view this team in a different lens. When we try to think conventionally and put guys in certain boxes or positions, it really hamstrings us. Not only in terms of our flow but mentally, too. We developed that term [position-less] just for guys to understand our versatility and how we need to play.”  In practical terms, it means that the traditional names and numbers associated with positions on the court have been stricken from the Miami lexicon and the Xs and Os on the chalkboard now refer to players’ initials and specific positions on the court (one in the post, two on the wings and two in the corners).  That means that any player on the court could end up in any of those spots.   This demands that their roster not be filled with one trick ponies.  Very few teams in the league have a lineup capable of even trying this kind of thing but the Heat have been built to do it.  Lebron James explains it this way:  “All the versatility we have on our team allows Spoelstra to say that [the Heat are position-less]. If we had conventional guys, we wouldn’t be able to have a position-less team. We have ball-handlers; we have guys that set screens, that spot-up and shoot. Guys know their roles. That’s just the team we have.”

Playing the game this way allows Spoelstra to best utilize that talent available and also to minimize the liabilities that come with being thin at the point guard and center spots.  In fact, the position-less offense has made it very challenging for the Heat’s traditional centers to even get on the court, with Joel Anthony (former starter) and Josh Harrellson combining for a meager 8.3 minutes per game.  Instead, the biggest man on the floor is usually Chris Bosh.  Yes, the same Chris Bosh that whined and cried about having to play center in Toronto.  What has changed for him?  Journalist Tim Chisholm offers this explanation: “Having four perimeter players surrounding Bosh in the post made the Heat a fast, versatile and nearly unguardable machine that forced a lot of players, including Bosh, to play positions that they weren’t typically used to but roles that were nonetheless in their wheelhouse. The results were inarguably successful, which has led to a public about-face from Bosh as it pertains to playing a less desirable position.”  Now that the smell of titles are in the air and not the stench of defeat, Bosh is more than willing to go with this new approach.  “I have a very unique opportunity to do something very special for myself and my team,” he said. “I think all the time that you have to evolve and get better. This is me evolving as a player.”  In a league that is currently light on traditional centers, Bosh stands out as a prototypical ‘new’ center; a combo forward/center whose athleticism and talent compensate for his relative lack of size and a deep post game.

Lebron James is the real reason that the Heat can play position-less though.  James has spent most of his career slotted in as a small forward but has the playmaking skills of a guard and at 6’8” and 250 pounds can bang with the big boys.   His combination of size and talent has Hall-of-Famer Charles Barkley in awe and making a bold comparison:  ‘I thought I would never compare somebody to Michael Jordan. But this guy, LeBron James, he does everything well. Michael did everything well. LeBron James is just bigger, stronger, faster. That’s the only difference.’  After first trying to utilize James in a traditional role, Coach Spoelstra realized following their loss to Dallas in the 2011 finals that he had to throw the playbook aside and start from scratch.  “Thinking conventionally that first season with LeBron — that was my biggest regret as a coach,” he said. “I put LeBron in a box. And that’s the worst thing I could have done.”  Last year the team started moving towards playing ‘position-less’ and first dabbled with James at the power forward position after Bosh was out for a spell in March.  At that time Spoelstra sat James down over lunch and said “We need you to play like a big man.  Forget everything you know; you’re a 4 now.”  James responded by dropping 38 points, 11 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 steals on the Portland Trailblazers while being guarded by Marcus Camby, who is certainly no defensive slouch.  James is already a basketball rock star and according to led the league last year with a 30.8 player efficiency rating.  While playing at the 4 spot though, that number shot up to a ridiculous 37.1.  He was also playing the 4 for the Heat’s championship clinching game 5 when he went off for a triple double.   Spoelstra didn’t need any more convincing and this year the Heat are fully committed to playing position-less and matching Lebron up against the opposing team’s bigs.

Playing James in that role has a number of trickle-down effects on their starting line-up.  Specifically, Bosh moves to center and Shane Battier gets inserted at the small forward spot, where his 3-point shooting and defensive aptitude combine with his ability to guard power forwards and contribute without having to score to make him a perfect complement to the big 3 of James, Bosh and Dwayne Wade.  James’ shift moves center Joel Anthony to the sidelines and the primary contributors off the bench become Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Norris Cole and newcomers Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis.  Haslem is the only legit big among them and Cole the only point guard.  The remaining 3 are lethal outside shooters with combo skill sets.  The net impact is that by playing outside of traditional roles the Heat are able to put the most talent possible on the floor.  True, there is danger of being abused by other teams’ big men or having the middle challenged but the Heat are banking on their versatility, talent and team defense to mitigate those risks.  Whether they will be able to do that over the course of a full season and four playoff series is a question that won’t be answered until June.

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