Solving The Puzzle: How Will Spoelstra Deploy All His New Pieces?

Insight7 years ago6 min readChristian Hernandez

Writer’s Note: Before I begin, I want to thank the guys at Miami Heat Beat for giving me the chance to contribute to probably the best Heat blog I’ve found on these here internets.

My goal is simple: provide quality analysis through a healthy balance of advanced statistics and the infamous “eye test”, which I like to capture through the use of GIFs and Vines. Stats can be a powerful tool, but need to be used correctly and with the right context.

You can make an argument that Kristaps Porzingis is a better player than Justise Winslow because he’s putting up more PPG and RPG, in the same way you can argue that Chris Broussard has better insights than Dan Le Batard because he has more followers on Twitter. Just because what you say is true, it doesn’t make your point right.

This Heat team, going into this season, had more questions than just about any other squad in the NBA. This was due to the catastrophic nature of last season, the injury/age concerns surrounding the team and the overall makeover that was done to the roster.

Michael Beasley, Henry “You’ll always be Bill” Walker, Danny Granger, Justin Hamilton, Shawne Williams… these were guys that all played 280-plus minutes last year. And these are all guys that are out of the league.

Following the additions of Gerald Green, A’mare Stoudamire and Justise Winslow, along with the return of Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts, there has been a wide range of opinion on the Heat’s chances to compete.

Does Spoelstra follow the trend happening across the NBA — a trend he helped champion with the 2010-14 Heat — of playing small ball, or do you go against the grain with larger lineups?

Some talking heads have them competing with the Cavs for the East while some analytics-driven projections aren’t sure if they can even make the playoffs. So, the emerging question facing this team is what identity will they have?

Erik Spoelstra has an interesting opportunity with this roster, and it’s because he has actual depth. Does Spoelstra follow the trend happening across the NBA — a trend he helped champion with the 2010-14 Heat — of playing small ball, or do you go against the grain with larger lineups, taking advantage of guys like Bosh and McRoberts.

In theory, lineups with McRoberts, Bosh and Whiteside sound plausible because of Bosh’s shooting ability along with McRoberts’ ability to create. However, it’s hard to judge the early returns because McRoberts is just not playing well. He’s really struggling to find his role, as he seems too keen on looking to create for others while not being assertive enough when given space.

Obviously, it is still early in the season, but the idea of going big is largely dependent on McRoberts being useful, which has not happened as of yet.

On the flip side, early returns of the Heat going small are not just good, they are dominant. Rookie Justise Winslow is a force to be reckoned with. He is a teenager in a grown man’s body playing grown man defense to the point that you cannot take him off the floor. Four games into his NBA career and Winslow is the clear sixth man on a contender. Mario Chalmers has been a pleasant surprise (to the point that trade rumors are already circulating) and Tyler Johnson, after being held out with a DNP-CD and a 1-minute stint  during the first two games, has exploded since the Heat’s tremendous comeback against the Rockets. Johnson is a guy I’ve been advocating for since his emergence last season, and it seems like he’s only improving as his confidence grows.

Four games into his NBA career and Winslow is the clear sixth man on a contender.

The biggest factor that will play into how small the Heat can go will rely on none other than Mr. Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside’s incredible size and presence down low can mask the most glaring flaw with playing small — and that is the possibility of getting beat up on the glass. During the second half against the Rockets, Spoelstra went with Chalmers, Johnson, Wade, Winslow, Whiteside for seven glorious minutes. That lineup flourished with an astounding, yet unsustainable 144.9 net rating, because it was stifling defensively (40.3 defensive rating). Here’s an example of the kind of pressure these kinds of lineups can put on an offense. 4 Guard Defense Every single player on the court had a positive defensive impact on the play, and that is the blueprint the Heat have had ever since Pat Riley arrived. We know Wade and Chalmers have the capability to play well defensively while they don’t show it all the time. We know that Johnson brings tremendous amounts of energy to the game. What we didn’t know is that not only is Winslow a freak athlete, but he’s already one of the smartest defenders on the team. After sending much of the Houston game dealing with Harden’s isolation-heavy game, he had to switch gears to chase Atlanta’s Kyle Korver around the court, preventing catch and shoot opportunities. 

Watching Winslow stick to Korver like white on rice was a thing of beauty, even if the rest of his game against Atlanta was a struggle. He is capable of guarding 1-4 (hell, maybe even the 5) and that gives you the kind of flexibility that any coach dreams of.

These small lineups also tend to produce something that Miami has been lacking in to start this season, and that is forcing turnovers.

The Chalmers-Johnson-Wade-Winslow-Whiteside lineup flourished because it doubled the Heat’s forced turnover rate and that lead to fastbreak opportunities, on top of the general confidence a disruptive defense can give a team.

I suspect that we will see lineups big and small throughout the year, as Spoelstra will be free to mix and match thanks to the quality of depth The Godfather has provided him with. It seems clear, though, that going small gives Miami the ability to re-establish the identity that was lost following LeBron’s unexpected departure: An identity of relentless defense.