Addressing The Heat’s Need for Floor Spacing

Long since departed were the glory days of the Big Three era, the thrill of competing deep into June, the sparkle from all the championship rings, as the 2014-15 Miami Heat staggered to the finish of a brutal season replete with injuries, exhaustion and ineffectiveness.

Despite competing in the dismal day-off-is-a-game-won Eastern Conference, the journey from LeBron’s departure to lottery arrival took just one excruciating season. It was a season paved with crushing injuries. Yet even with the season-ending meniscus tear to Josh McRoberts in November, the season-ending pulmonary embolism of Chris Bosh in February, the nicks and bruises that limited what was left of the battered rotation in the months that followed, and the 30 starting lineups head coach Erik Spoelstra was forced to utilize as a result, the Heat still managed to grossly underachieve along the way to its first pre-playoff exit since 2008.

There were plenty of issues that caused this spectacular underachievement, but perhaps the most enduring was the Heat’s inability to consistently score the basketball. It’s an issue which needs to be addressed this summer. It’s an issue which requires a multi-dimensional approach, to include both personnel and system changes.

The Heat have already secured a promising start to its rebuilding process. They’ve addressed, and rather emphatically, the two positions – point guard and center – which have troubled them most in recent years. The foundation of the Heat’s future championship aspirations rests largely on the shoulders of point guard Goran Dragic and center Hassan Whiteside. 

Dragic loves to attack the basket. He’s an aggressive guard who keeps defenders backpedalling as he slashes to the rim. He has excellent body control and does a tremendous job of slipping past defenders and finishing through contact. He is the only guard in the NBA to have shot better than 50 percent from the field in each of the last two seasons. If the defense collapses to stop him, he is just as likely to hit his corner three-point shooters as he is his roll-man on the pick-and-roll or his big man down low.

Whiteside has become the poster child of a fan base seeking out hope for the future. He has rewarded us all with boundless energy, youthful exuberance, and quick ascent. In his limited time last season, Whiteside rampaged through the NBA with reckless abandon, utilizing his massive 7-foot-7-inch wingspan to throw down monstrous alley-oop dunks, snatch rebounds out of the sky from high above the rim, swat basketballs as Godzilla would planes, and generally wreak havoc on both ends of the floor.

Dragic and Whiteside figure to become focal points of the Heat offense for years to come. They figure to be highly successful in plying their trade, but only if they have the floor space with which to do so. Whiteside needs it to maneuver freely down low. Dragic needs it to create clear driving lanes for himself and open looks for others.

Floor-spacing is a critical determinant of success in today’s NBA. The best teams have it. The not so good ones don’t.

Take a look at the two best teams in each conference from last season. In the west, the Golden State Warriors may have the best three-point shooting backcourt in NBA history. The San Antonio Spurs may have the best floor spacing in NBA history. In the east, the Cleveland Cavaliers always have at least three three-point shooters hovering around LeBron James. And the Atlanta Hawks typically have four or even five such shooters on the court.

Those four teams: each among the top five in three-point shooting last season. The Heat? 24th!

The Heat desperately need players who can knock down open outside shots when Dragic and Whiteside collapse the defense. Chris Bosh is an ideal fit in such an approach. But Luol Deng isn’t. And neither is Dwyane Wade.

For as talented as a projected Dragic-Wade-Deng-Bosh-Whiteside starting rotation could be, it is not all that difficult to imagine why they might continue to struggle.

Dragic figures to be that rare point guard the Heat has long-since coveted, one who can break down a defense and create opportunities for himself and open looks for others. But when he collapses the defense and kicks the ball out, Wade’s effectiveness wanes. Wade has two primary options if he receives the ball on the perimeter against a collapsed defense, each as cornea-etching as the other: penetrate right back into the teeth of the collapsed defense, or take the open jump shot.

The former forces Wade to wade through numerous defenders all standing in close proximity and all directly in his way, which causes turnovers. Wade’s giveaways soared to 3.4 per game last season.

The latter forces Wade to hoist up jump shots. He took 775 of them last season, converting just 300. That’s a dismal 38.7 percent. And the percentages dropped as he moved further back. He converted just 28.4 percent of his 102 three-point attempts. These are hardly respectable metrics for a shooting guard who will be forced to cede increasing control over the offense in the year(s) ahead.

Wade’s inability to leverage the space created by Dragic produces ripple effects through the Heat offense. It robs the team of perhaps the single most valuable shot on the floor, the open three-pointer. It destroys the team’s floor spacing. It drains the shot clock. It causes turnovers. It is an issue that cannot be solved with added chemistry or a full training camp.

Wade has repeatedly proven that, in shorter bursts, he can still perform at an elite level despite diminishing athleticism, but perhaps not so much when paired alongside Dragic.

The statistics bear that out.

Wade played 555 minutes with Dragic last season. In those 555 minutes, he scored 23.3 points per 35-minutes on just 42.2 percent shooting, while the Heat limped to a minus-28 scoring margin. But in the 320 minutes that Dragic was on the bench, Wade scored 24.9 points per 35-minutes on 48.2 percent shooting, while leading the Heat to a plus-24 scoring margin (despite the fact that the Heat did not have a viable point guard alternative to Dragic).

In the 555 minutes Dragic played with Wade, he scored just 14.6 points per 35-minutes on 50.0 percent shooting, while the Heat limped to a minus-28 scoring margin. In the 351 minutes that Wade was on the bench, Dragic scored 20.0 points per 35-minutes on 50.3 percent shooting, while the Heat produced a significantly better minus-4 scoring margin (despite the fact that the Heat did not have a viable shooting guard alternative to Wade).

Wade seems to perform better without Dragic, Dragic seems to perform better without Wade, and the Heat seems to perform better when the two are staggered. Staggering the two for a substantial period of time, however, would effectively mean designating Wade a bench player. And while doing so could produce some substantial long-term benefits for Wade – reducing his minutes, improving his health, and potentially extending his career – stripping the face of the franchise of his starting position is no easy task.

It would also presuppose that the Heat can find a player – be it in internally, in free agency or via the draft – who is more ideally suited to play alongside either player in the backcourt, one who can not only defend at a high level but also do the one thing the Heat offense desperately needs: knock down open three-point shots with a high degree of proficiency.

The Heat’s best internal option to address those needs is their raw but outstanding young prospect Tyler Johnson. Johnson is short (6-foot-3) and slight (190 pounds), and at times offensively miscast by the Heat as a point guard, but he makes up for it with his outstanding toughness, freakish athleticism and promising outside shooting. He’ll throw down a highlight-reel dunk just as easily as he’ll swish a three-pointer when his feet are set. The Heat are ideally positioned to keep him on the roster for many years to come. Still, it’s difficult to envision him as a primary long-term solution.

The best free agent options will price way out of the Heat’s range. The Heat will have access to their $3.4 million taxpayer mid-level exception but, given cost considerations for next season, are unlikely to use it. They also need to be mindful of their summer of 2016 plans, when the salary cap is projected to rise higher than helium-sucking angels on the strength of the league’s massive new national TV rights deals, for which they are ideally set up at present, pending the outcomes of Dragic, Wade and Deng during free agency next month. The Heat simply can’t, and won’t, risk spending long-term dollars on anything but a perfect long-term solution. Which almost surely means that any improvements made during the Heat’s 2015 free agency period to come will be limited to a couple of single-season minimum salary signings, where the Heat could make a run at less accurate and more flawed options – among them Dragic’s former teammate Gerald Green – if they too don’t price out of range. Still, these would be imperfect short-term solutions.

The upcoming NBA draft may provide the best hope for a long-term solution. While there may be players in the draft who might have bigger overall impacts, no one player has a skill more tailor-made for his team than would be Kentucky shooting guard Devin Booker’s elite three-point shooting for the Heat with its No. 10 pick. Booker is, quite simply, the best three-point shooter in the draft. His tremendous mechanics and his quick, smooth and high release suggest it will transition well to the pro game. But he’s also a deceptive athlete and a solid defender. He helped his draft stock during agility testing in the combine, coming away with the fastest lane agility score of any player in attendance. Part of Booker’s intrigue is in his ability to be a two-way player. Another part is his age. Booker is the youngest player to register for the draft (he won’t turn 19 years old until Oct. 30), a fact that belies his maturity.

Booker figures to develop into that type of player the Heat have long-since coveted: the type of player whose passion it is to hunt three-point shots and, with his deadly precision, strike fear into the heart of his opponents in a way that would create space for his teammates.

That an 18-year-old Booker could take the place of Wade in the Heat’s starting lineup (let alone crack the rotation), at least to start the season, is simply not realistic. But it isn’t all that difficult to project as the season progresses, and certainly not in the years that follow.

It’s isn’t all that difficult to imagine the potential that could be unlocked with the perfect symmetry of an inside-outside backcourt combination of Dragic and Booker along with the perfect symmetry of an inside-outside frontcourt combination of Whiteside and Bosh, particularly when considering the Heat could potentially have tons of cap space with which to search for a long-term solution at small forward in the summer of 2016.

Such perfect symmetry would, in turn, allow the Heat to revamp its antiquated offense that relies upon a Wade-centric, ball-dominant mentality and more toward a spread offensive scheme that leverages the shooting proficiency of Booker and Bosh to create maximum floor spacing for Dragic and Whiteside.

By starting Whiteside on the block, Booker and Deng (or, better still, Green, if the Heat is able to sign him, or Johnson, in small-ball rotations) in opposite corners of the court, Bosh at the wing, and Dragic initiating the offense from the opposite wing, the Heat would create maximum horizontal and vertical floor spacing, from which multiple simplified but more effective offensive sets can be initiated.

Penetration: With maximum floor spacing, Dragic (and Wade) should have plenty of room into which to challenge the defense. He loves to attack the basket. He is among the game’s best in finishing at the rim. And if the defense collapses to stop him, Whiteside would represent a huge target for a lob or dump off down low and three shooters should all be standing in positions on the court where they have a high proficiency in knocking down an open shot on a kick out to the perimeter. And if by chance any shooter to whom the ball is kicked out does not find himself open against a scrambling defense, he need only to rotate the ball along the perimeter (or down low) until it lands in the hands of someone who is.

Pick-and-Roll: With maximum floor spacing, a Dragic (and Wade)-Whiteside pick-and-roll combination could well become amongst the best, and most thrilling, in the whole of the NBA. By virtue Whiteside’s supreme length and Dragic’s (and Wade’s) attacking prowess, a properly set screen (which remains a challenge for Whiteside at present) should consistently create an advantage for one or both players as they roll to the basket. And if the Heat’s three shooters stay engaged, their defenders could be tasked with the near impossible decision as to whether or not to collapse to try to help stop it.

Pick-and-Pop: Bosh is perhaps the most ideal pick-and-pop big man in the league today. He is an elite shooter for his position who has begun to expand his repertoire behind the three-point line. He has an effective array of subtle moves and pump fakes to draw contact, and can attack the rim if his defender overplays. He may no longer be a daunting inside presence, but he does not need to be. His value at the offensive end will come in spacing the floor, a skill which tends to evolve gracefully with age.

Post Play: Whiteside’s offensive repertoire remains underdeveloped, but it’s oozing with potential. He shot a stunning 62.8 percent from the floor last season. In limited bursts, he showed an array of low post moves which, along with his massive 7-foot, 7-inch wingspan, allow him to get high-quality shots off against a lone defender just about any time he wants. Leveraging and expanding his low-post arsenal will undoubtedly be a learning process, as will his ability to pass out of the inevitable double-teams it will bring (he recorded just six assists all of last season), but it has the potential to make him an elite low-post scorer in time.

The Heat has secured themselves one of the league’s best attacking point guards in Dragic, and one of the league’s best finishing centers in Whiteside. The key for Pat Riley and crew now is to find them the floor space with which to operate. Booker and Bosh represent ideal candidates in such an approach for the Heat, who figure to have plenty of cap space with which to find a long-term solution at small forward in the summer of 2016. If the Riley does so, and if Spoelstra implements an offensive system designed to capitalize on those talents, the Heat could find themselves amongst the NBA’s elite in the years ahead.

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