The Miami Heat have quietly ridden a four-game winning streak and emerged as the best team in the Eastern Conference (10-3).
But thanks to a sprained MCL in Shane Battier's right knee, which Batter confirmed to ESPN's Michael Wallace, coach Erik Spoelstra is forced to adjust a starting five that had been intact for 10 of the team's first 13 games.
Battier started just 10 of Miami's 66 regular season games in 2011-12, before entrenching himself in the starting lineup for the Heat's championship run. While he likely won't be facing an Alex Smith-type situation (the oft-discussed San Francisco 49ers' quarterback who lost his starting job to second-year player Colin Kaepernick as Smith recovered from a concussion), Spoelstra does have some intriguing options to hold Battier's vacated spot.
The forward's move in to Miami's starting five largely coincided with reigning MVP LeBron James' move to the post. With an increase in offensive touches close to the basket, James responded with a career-high field goal percentage (53.1) in 2011-12. He has matched that figure through this season's first 13 games.
With that in mind, a few logical Battier replacements move to the front of the pack. Forwards Rashard Lewis (53.6 three-point percentage) and Mike Miller (41.7) are both the kind of perimeter threats that can space the floor so James can continue his dominance at the basket.
But asking the 33-year-old Lewis or the 32-year-old Miller to take on starter minutes (neither have averaged more than 15.6 per game) might not be what Spoelstra has in mind this early in the season.
So where else can he turn?
Perhaps this is an opportunity to attack the team's rebounding struggles. With a rebounding differential of minus-1.07, Miami could turn to either of a couple bigs who have started for the Heat in the past.
If this is more in line with Spoelstra's thinking, then the first player that comes to mind is Udonis Haslem. At 6'8", 230 lbs., Haslem could provide this starting group with another presence on the glass. But he'll also bring some offense with him (52.3 field-goal percentage), and his jump in minutes would be smaller than either that of Lewis or Miller.
If Spoelstra wants to go really big, he may turn to former starting center Joel Anthony. Although he's appeared in nine games, Anthony has been relegated to garbage time in 2012-13. He doesn't have the offensive game of Haslem (and certainly not that of Lewis or Miller), but he would give Miami an intimidating presence at the rim. Despite seeing just 4.7 minutes per game, Anthony's 0.7 blocks per game nearly matches that of Miami's leader, Chris Bosh (1.3 blocks per game).
Chances are, Spoelstra will opt for marginal increases in the playing time of Lewis, Miller and Haslem. With the relative lack of severity in Battier's injury, Spoelstra won't want to overhaul his offensive system for what may amount to just a few a games missed. Any uptick in rebounds that a larger lineup would bring would not overcome the drop in production from moving James back away from the basket.
Miami has enough shooters and plays good enough team defense that Battier's absence may actually go unnoticed. But that doesn't mean that Spoelstra (along with the rest of the team) will not welcome him with open arms back in to the starting five when he's healthy.
All statistics used in this article are accurate as of 11/25/2012.
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