5 Miami Heat Players Take Their Shots at Cracking Championship Rotation
It wasn't exactly the same every night.
After all, over the course of the 27 contests, from Feb. 3 in Toronto through March 25 in Orlando, there were occasional absences. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade each missed two games. Udonis Haslem, Ray Allen and Shane Battier each missed one.
But for the most part, Erik Spoelstra just kept rolling out the same rotation.
Bosh, Haslem, Wade, Mario Chalmers and LeBron James to start.
Allen, Battier, Norris Cole and Chris Andersen in reserve.
And time after time, it came through, until Miami had the NBA's second-longest winning streak of all time.
All nine of those players return for the 2013-14 season, most of them in better condition than the last time around. The one man who deserved more burn, Mike Miller, is now with the Memphis Grizzlies. And Greg Oden, the former No. 1 overall pick, won't be ready to contribute until after the new year, if then.
With all of that said, you might assume the minutes would be fairly set.
Why alter a strategy that didn't fail a single time during a seven-week stretch?
Still, there remains a chance for someone else to sneak in.
What would need to occur?
1. Michael Beasley
What must happen: Growth as a man, and in his game.
For all of the public concern about his off-court maturity, that's not the most likely obstacle to Beasley contributing to the Heat in his second go-around. It's more of a basketball thing. Simply, the Heat don't necessarily need the one thing he's proven he can do: score. Miami already has enough trouble finding shots for Chris Bosh, who is a far more efficient offensive player.
The encouraging sign is that Beasley appears to understand this. He has repeatedly spoken of how he needs to "find a niche that hasn't been filled," how he needs to keep the ball moving on offense, how he needs to defend and rebound. (His rebounding rate dropped from 7.8 per 36 minutes during his previous two seasons in Miami to 6.5 over his three seasons away, according to the stats at Basketball-Reference.com).
Yes, Beasley needs to stay clean on the streets. But he needs to get dirty on the court.
If he does, his talent might finally take over, and he might get to provide some scoring punch to the second unit, with two of the Big Three sitting.
What must happen: Lift in his legs.
It's amazing what comes out after.
Throughout last season, his first with the Heat, Lewis assured everyone that he felt much better physically than in the two previous seasons when he pushed himself to play, "because I was making so much money." During this camp, however, he is admitting that he never got totally right after offseason OssaTron treatments for both quad tendons.
"It was a six-month process of healing," Lewis said.
He shot 38.9 percent from behind the arc, but he was a marginal contributor otherwise.
Well, the 34-year-old is dunking in practice, which impressed LeBron James enough that James compared him to the Kansas City Chiefs.
"He's got more wins than he had all of last year," James said.
"This is the best I've felt the last three years," Lewis said.
Lewis believes his improved health will help him get to the rim more often and make him a more accurate shooter.
"But my main focus is on the defensive end of the court, boxing out, rebounding, rotating, helping on the pick-and-roll," Lewis said. "Defense is going to help get a few minutes, because we have our scorers."
That may sound strange coming from a guy who averaged at least 16.8 points in eight straight seasons and has earned more than $150 million in his career. Strange, but correct.
3. Roger Mason Jr.
What must happen: Make the team, then keep making an impression.
There's been a lot of enthusiasm about Mason's assimilation so far, largely because he's a friendly new face on a team of old hands.
But even as the guard has received the endorsement of several veterans, from LeBron James to Mario Chalmers to Ray Allen—with the latter helping convince him to join the Heat—Mason still has a contract that the Heat don't need to guarantee until January. And if he makes the squad, along with Beasley, that wouldn't leave the Heat with a developmental spot for any of the prospects they will tutoring and monitoring at their Sioux Falls affiliate.
Even Spoelstra, after revealing that he's been trying to get Mason for several years, tapped the brakes some.
"It remains to be seen what direction we'll go with that," Spoelstra said of the final spot, noting that sometimes younger players have an easier time accepting small roles.
Still, it's possible that Mason, a veteran of nine NBA years plus two overseas, could slip into something bigger.
Mason certainly sees that possibility. That's why, after flirting with the Bulls and Thunder, both of whom told him to wait for their guaranteed offers, he took a non-guaranteed shot with the Heat.
"I saw an opportunity with Miller being gone, as somebody who can come in and be a shooter for these guys, and that was very appealing for me," said Mason, who has shot 39.9 percent from three-point range the past two seasons.
Another possible opening: Spoelstra, preferring to acclimate Allen to a full-time reserve role, started Miller in the injured or resting Wade's place 17 times last season.
"So there's gonna be times when I could be plugged into that starting role," Mason said. "There are going to be times that I could be in a suit. Spo was very upfront with that. I have a lot of confidence in my game, and I'm a pro, so whatever these guys need me to do, I'll stay in my lane."
If he finds a way to stay on the team, he just might help it.
4. James Jones
What must happen: Wade on the mend, or Battier off the mark.
Sometimes, Jones' good friend Miller appeared to be a crash-test dummy.
Jones and Miller had another name for Miller's role last season: "Test car."
From zero to the starting lineup.
Miller handled it as well as he could, often learning minutes before a game that he'd be filling in for Wade. He was 15-2 as a starter.
That emergency responsibility previously fell to Jones. Now that Miller's gone, it might again.
Jones isn't especially concerned if it doesn't.
"Of course, I'd love to say that I'm looking forward to the opportunity; hopefully there will be an opportunity," Jones said. "But I'm at peace. I've gotten away from letting that weigh on my mind. We're so loaded. I just try to come out every day and compete with these guys and help them get better."
Jones, for his part, believes they've helped him.
"It's been tough, I'm not going to lie," said Jones, whose minutes have dropped from 19.1 to 13.1 to 5.8 the past three seasons, and his games from 81 to 51 to 38. "But it's been good for me. Without being able to withstand that mentally, I still wouldn't be here. And I wouldn't be at the point where I feel I am now, where I've gotten better. Quietly, no one wants to say it, but you compete with three Hall of Famers every day; you have no choice but to get better. I'm chomping at the bit for an opportunity to play, but in the interest of winning, whatever's best for the squad."
And if Battier goes through the sort of prolonged slump he did early in the 2011-12 season or late in the 2012-13 one, it might be best for the Heat to have Jones (a career 39.9 percent three-point shooter) out there spreading the floor.
5. Joel Anthony
What must happen: Birdman crashes to Earth.
There's plenty of talk about Oden, and whether he'll ever be close to what he was, when he was drafted No. 1 overall in 2007.
But there's another question that hasn't been posed: How long can Chris Andersen be what he was, just last season?
Andersen was a revelation, providing consistent energy on both ends, giving James and Wade a finishing option that they had lacked with the Heat's recent parade of part-time bigs. Now Andersen comes back after losing 10 pounds, and he gets to go through a full training camp.
Still, he's 35, he's had a history of bad knees, and he's hardly an elite post defender.
All of that might open the door for Anthony, the former starter whose contract (especially the $3.8 million player option for the 2014-15 season) is the one Miami would most like to move.
Everyone knows his limitations at this stage, including his shaky hands, but the Heat also know the ways he can help: by setting screens, blitzing the pick-and-roll and protecting the rim. And he showed in the preseason opener that he hasn't lost his touch with any of that.
Now, if only if he wouldn't lose his grip on the ball...
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand.
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