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Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis Sign with Heat!

Since the start of the Big Three era, Pat Riley has scrounged the bottom of the free agent barrel and picked up a slew of uninspiring big men in an attempt to fill a perceived hole in his team’s rotation.

The sad list includes Eddy Curry, Erick Dampier, Jamaal Magloire, Joel Anthony, Mickell Gladness, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. Even Udonis Haslem and Juwan Howard have been miscast in the role.

Not one has worked out nearly as well at center as Chris Bosh.

During its championship run, the Heat finally found a definitive solution to its problem at center: don’t play one at all. With Bosh starting at the 5, the Heat plowed through the Thunder en route to its first title of the Big Three era, as the unconventional lineups created mismatches on both ends of the floor.

Head coach Erik Spoelstra calls the approach ‘position-less’ basketball. The idea is to have as many versatile players on the court as possible, each capable of contributing to the offense and defending multiple positions. It’s a system predicated on floor spacing and ball movement. In many ways, the Heat is uniquely positioned to exploit such a strategy – few other teams can get away with playing multiple players out of position because they would get crushed on the boards. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are probably the best rebounders at their positions in the league; this keeps the Heat in the battle.

The Heat believe they have found a permanent formula in their ‘position-less’ basketball scheme. And so today, on the first day free agents are allowed to sign, the Heat avoided the temptation to sign yet another uninspiring center. Instead, the team made official the signings of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis!

It makes perfect sense. The Big Three need little else beyond just the floor space with which to maneuver.  And that’s exactly what they got.

Ray Allen is as automatic from downtown as any player in the league.

His résumé speaks for itself: 16 seasons, 1,148 regular season games and 128 playoff games. His 2,718 3-pointers are the most in NBA history. His 313 postseason 3-pointers rank second all time, just 7 behind Reggie Miller.

In 46 regular season games last season, he hit a career-best 45.3% of his attempts from beyond the arc. And that was with the Celtics, where he was tasked with generating his own offense. Unlike in Boston, however, the Heat doesn’t need Allen to create shots, just to knock down the wide-open ones that James and Wade create for him. That should make his life quite easy.

He doesn’t only provide premium shooting at the three-point line. He provides premium shooting at the free-throw line as well. He’s a career 89.4% at the charity stripe, and perhaps the long-awaited answer for the Heat in all manner of situations where clutch free throw shooting is required. No more misses in the last two minutes. Not with Allen on the line.

Allen is a wonderful luxury for the Heat. And it’s not just in the value he provides as a shooter, but also as an insurance policy against Wade. Wade’s balky left knee, which required surgery for patellar tendinitis in May of 2007 and a second surgery, an arthroscopic procedure, two days ago, has robbed him of his former athleticism as the years have marched on.

Relentless attacking of the rim has made Wade rich and famous and cemented his legacy as one of the game’s best ever, but it has taken its toll on his body. If he expects to continue to play at a high level in the years to come, some modifications will undoubtedly need to be made. Reduced playing time, increased scheduled days off, and a less consistent on-court product are all likely in the years ahead. Whether the result of a lack of health or declining athleticism, Wade will struggle at times in the biggest of moments in the years ahead. And so Ray Allen becomes a perfect complement.

Of course, there are some concerns.

In about two weeks, Allen will turn 37 years old. In NBA years, that’s ancient. With advanced age comes a greater propensity for injury, as it did last season. Fighting a gimpy right ankle throughout the postseason, Allen was subjected to a bench role for the first time in his career, and shot just 30.4% from downtown. He had surgery to remove bone spurs in the offseason. These are the types of injuries that a player in his prime can shake off, but are traditionally much harder for a player inching toward his forties.

His defense isn’t all that great either. Boston allowed 5.2 points per 100 possessions more with him on the court last season, and while that isn’t entirely connected just to him, he has undoubtedly lost a few steps over the years. Having LeBron and Wade around should spare him the tougher defensive match-ups, though, and he’s a solid team defender.

Allen now becomes the latest in a long line of players who have taken a substantial discount to join the Heat organization. He left a two-year, $12 million offer from the Celtics on the table to sign a deal with the Heat at approximately half the value — a $6.3 million deal over two seasons, the second of which is subject to a player option.

The contract does, however, come with some degree of risk for the Heat. Should Allen exercise his player option, the second season of his contract – which will pay him in excess of $3.2 million – will put added financial strain on a team already projected to be well in excess of next season’s tax threshold, when the league’s harsher tax penalties kick in. When including the new tax, Allen will likely cost the Heat between $9 million and $11 million in 2013-14. That’s a lot to spend on a luxury addition for a team already returning its entire championship core. But well worth it.

Expectations are lower for Rashard Lewis than for Allen. Lewis’ numbers in field-goal percentage (.385), 3-point percentage (.239) and scoring (7.8 PPG) this past season all were the second lowest of his career. Only his rookie season of 1998-99, when he appeared in 20 games, was less productive.

If things don’t work out with Lewis, the Heat waste nothing more than the two-year minimum salary contract — he, too, has a player option on the second — it took to acquire him (albeit the most expensive kind, given the multi-year contract to a 14-year veteran; consecutive one-year deals would have netted Lewis the same payout but produced savings for the Heat of nearly $3 million). He’s picking up another $13.8 million because the final year of his most recent contract — a $118 million, six-year pact — was bought out earlier this offseason by the Hornets, who acquired the Lewis in a trade with the Wizards.

If things do work out, however, the potential upside, particularly when accounting for the Heat’s relatively thin front line, could be significant. At 6-foot-10, Lewis possesses a long and wiry frame that will make him a nightly mismatch for defenders at either forward position. He is still one the league’s better 3-point threats when motivated. He’s a career 38.8% 3-point shooter who loves to hang out in the corners and use his length to shoot right over the top of his defender.

At 33 next month, it’s not clear what, if anything, he has left. He has undeniably lost a great deal of athleticism over the years. But there’s no motivation like being asked to contribute for the defending champions, particularly when those contributions require him to do exactly what he loves to do – knock down open jumpers. In his career, 1,690 and counting.

And so it all becomes more than just a bit exciting to imagine all the open jumpers that both Lewis and Allen will see in the Heat’s ‘position-less’ offense!

To appreciate Spoelstra’s intestinal fortitude in playing such a ‘position-less’ lineup, one must first understand Pat Riley’s (and by extension, the Heat’s) organizational logic. It takes a small catastrophe for Riley to change his much-famed culture that emphasizes continuity and a back-to-the-basics approach. Riley has always played traditional lineups featuring big men. Of course, he had the luxury of Kareem, Ewing, Mourning, and Shaq when he coached. Spoelstra has never had that luxury.

After toying with it in brief spurts over the course of two seasons, Spoelstra decided to go all-in with the ‘position-less’ approach during the 2012 NBA Finals last month. And boy did it ever work. Remember Mike Miller and Shane Battier’s three-point barrage? That all happened with LeBron James relentlessly attacking the rim and kicking out to his shooters once the defense was forced to collapse. When the Heat has three-point shooters flanking the Big Three, the dreaded pick-your-poison offense comes to life. It’s not everyday that you blow out a team like the Thunder with such ease.

It wasn’t a fluke.

Over the past two regular seasons, the Heat has scored an average of 127.8 points per 48 minutes in the 316 minutes played with two wing players next to the Big Three. Lineups that feature a wing and a center next to the Big Three? 103.8 points. That’s an average of 24.0 more points per game. That’s huge!

What about the defense? Who protects the rim? Who grabs the rebounds? The surprising revelation about this much more potent offensive lineup is that it doesn’t seem to affect the team’s defensive potency all that much. How many points do the Heat allow per 48 minutes when they play ‘position-less’ basketball? That’s 95.8. Lineups that feature a wing and a center next to the Big Three? 92.3 points.

The rest is basic math.

If you score 127.8 points and surrender 95.8, it translates to a 32-point margin of victory.

If you score 103.8 points and surrender 92.3, it translates to an 11-point margin of victory.

Over the past two playoff runs – where competition gets stronger, defenses get better, and scoring gets tougher – the disparity is even more dramatic:

In the 252 minutes played with two wing players next to the Big Three, the per-48 minute averages are as follows: 111.1 points scored and 91.7 points surrendered; that’s a 19.4-point average margin of victory.

In the 732 minutes played with a wing and a center on the floor alongside the Big Three, the per-48 minute averages are as follows: 89.2 scored and 87.4 point surrendered; an average margin of victory of just 1.8 points.

Small-ball works!

The statistically-inclined Heat organization is undoubtedly aware of the mismatches these lineups create. It’s why they have chosen not to tie themselves to convention. A ‘position-less’ lineup card might look strange, but it maximizes the Heat’s potential.

The disappearance of physically imposing, dominant big men across the league has prompted the transition. It has allowed the Heat to employ smaller players to handle positions usually reserved for bigger guys. Versatility has replaced size.

Simply put, there are not too many great centers out there. And thus, since the Heat is incapable of acquiring one of those elite seven-footers, why bother overpaying for a mediocre version who may provide some defensive value but not enough to fully compensate for his lack of offensive skill?

Sure, the Heat could certainly use another backup center to keep James and Bosh from burning out in their new frontcourt roles over the course of a largely meaningless but still very grueling 82-game regular season. And they will almost certainly target at least one more as the offseason progresses. But the Heat are seemingly headed in the direction of a versatile attack without a traditional center. It’s a direction built out of necessity. But that doesn’t mean it won’t work.

If past numbers are any indication, that direction is probably the right one.

And if it is the right one, then Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are both perfect complements.

Categories: Commentary Tags: ,
  1. Kevin
    July 12th, 2012 at 17:38 | #1

    Great post. Go Heat!

  2. February 8th, 2013 at 09:22 | #2

    With the off season additions of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, the Heat have signaled their commitment to the fluid, ‘position-less’ approach, marking a watershed moment in franchise history (such is the power of an NBA championship). The signings of Allen and Lewis would help any NBA team significantly, but perhaps no team more so than the Heat. Allen is unique in the same way Wade/Lebron are – he can play three positions on offense fairly well. The Heat’s rotation-heavy defense diminishes the importance of man-defense, so Allen’s height should allow him to guard multiple positions on defense as well. Both Spoelstra and Riley guaranteed Allen starter’s minutes in a substitute’s role (another change in team philosophy – the Heat never guarantee minutes before training camp). Pencil Allen in for about 30 minutes a game; some of which is going to come from Battier’s quota. The Heat will almost certainly close out games with Chalmers/Allen/Wade/LeBron/Bosh, presenting opponents with all sorts of headaches. If the lineup with Battier was efficient, this lineup will be several times more so considering the best shooter in the history of the game will be replacing Battier. Rashard Lewis, in his time with the Magic, showed his value as ‘stretch-four’, shooting at a highly efficient 40% clip from beyond the arc during the 2009-2010 season when the Magic made the Finals running an inside-out offense featuring Dwight at the pivot and four long-distance bombers (including Shard).

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