To fully appreciate the conversation about what the Miami Heat's best and worst starting lineup is, there first needs to be a little bit of context. Because the question we face today is how the small-ball approach that seemingly propelled Miami to another level late last year has doomed it into the sixteenth-ranked defense thus far this year?
Sure, you can dismiss the argument fairly quickly and say that the Heat's ineffectiveness on the defensive end has more to do with where we are in the season rather than, say, their size.
But let me play devil's advocate for a moment. Let's say the only real difference between last year's Heat team and the one that lost to the Mavericks two seasons ago was LeBron James, Both squads made it as far as the NBA Finals, after all. Meanwhile, small ball only looked so effective last year because the Heat were playing against a team in the NBA Finals that had the equivalent of two Joel Anthonys (Ibaka and Perkins) in their starting lineup.
Furthermore, adding a little more fuel to that point is the Heat's recent decision to replace Shane Battier with Udonis Haslem—an acknowledgement that maybe shooting isn't as important as size after all.
And now, for the arbiter of truth. (The following stats were provided via 82games.com.)
Based on a measurement which takes into account minutes played, offensive and defensive efficiency, plus/minus differential and winning percentage, the best lineup featured Mario Chalmers, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Shane Battier and Chris Bosh.
You may recognize this as the lineup we have been used to seeing most of the season.
Contrarily, the worst lineup featured Norris Cole, Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Udonis Haslem and Chris Bosh.
Here's where things get interesting, though. If you look at the plus/minus rating column of each unit as well as its win percentage, two of the three best five-man units for the Miami Heat don't include Dwyane Wade in the starting lineup.
As far as defensive efficiency, the best starting lineup was Norris Cole, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, LeBron James and Udonis Haslem. On the other end of the court, the best offensive lineup featured Chalmers, Wade, Allen, James and Bosh.
Finally, the last statistical note worth mentioning is that the Heat's current starting lineup, which features Udonis Haslem instead of Battier, is actually on the lower end of the totem pole, with only a .40 win percentage in the five games it was measured in.
Taking all of this information into account, here are some explanations which aim to make sense of the aforementioned data:
1. This team was built around the strengths of Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
Before you say duh, consider that the worst lineup featured Chris Bosh in the lineup at a position he thrived in during the finals last year and virtually all of November this season.
Comparatively, all of the Heat's most effective lineups had one thing in common: at least three above-average shooters surrounding LeBron James and/or Dwyane Wade.
Lastly, when you compare the Heat's box score in their closeout loss in the 2011 NBA Finals to the box score in their closeout win during last year's Finals, the biggest difference you'll notice is in three-point percentage.
Case in point: When there are outside shooters surrounding Wade and James, teams are less inclined to pack the paint, which is the area of space where the Heat's two superstars operate at their best.
2. Haslem's addition in the starting lineup has more to do with preserving Battier for the playoffs more than anything else.
Look, I'm not blind to the fact that most of the games the Heat gave Haslem heavy minutes in were against elite teams with elite big men like Memphis and the Clippers.Thus, the team's win percentage with him among its five-man starting unit is a bit skewed.
But if you look at his stat line over the past few seasons, he has declined in nearly every category.
Here's the real dagger though. Five of the Heat's most efficient five-man units on the offensive end feature LeBron James at the power forward position.
So unless you want to argue that Udonis Haslem deserves to start at center over Chris Bosh, expect to see Battier on the floor once these games really start to matter.
3. The skill set of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade is a bit too close for comfort.
Even the most diehard Heat fan will admit that Dwyane Wade isn't the same player now that he was when he lead us to a championship in 2006.
But to support the notion that he is a shell of what he once was is simply ridiculous. And the stats back it up.
The fact that two of the three most effective lineups for the Miami Heat don't include Dwyane Wade lends further insight as to why he decided to take a step back so LeBron could lead this team.
It's because they both need to have the ball in their hands to be at their best.
You saw it on Tuesday against the T-Wolves. When Wade was lighting it up on the court to close off with an 18-point first half, LeBron finished with eight points.
In the second half, LeBron then scored 14 points, while Wade stayed quiet with six.
And this dynamic has happened in more games than we realize. In fact, I'd go so far as to say it characterized the team in the first season of Miami Thrice.
It's also probably why Dwyane Wade publicly decided to take a step back last season so that LeBron could have as few distractions in the playoffs as possible, the least of which needed to be adjusting to Wade's style of play.
So let me leave you with this: Isn't it interesting that all the questions about Dwyane Wade started coming around shortly after he gave LeBron the keys to the franchise car?
Food for thought, huh?
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