Have Miami Heat Found Their Best Group of Role Players Yet?

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 21, 2013

May 8, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat point guard Norris Cole (30) congratulates shooting guard Ray Allen (34) after his basket against the Chicago Bulls during the first half in game two of the second round of the 2013 NBA Playoffs against the Miami Heat at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports
Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat crushed the Orlando Magic, 120-92, Wednesday night, and their vastly improved reserves were the driving force behind the comfortable win.

Well, LeBron James (perhaps you've heard of him) played pretty well, too. His 21 points, seven assists and six rebounds in 29 easy, breezy minutes certainly helped. But the most intriguing trend in Miami these days is that way the team's role players have been responsible for such a large share of the team's recent success.

In a season where the Heat need to do everything they can to preserve their superstar core, the sudden spike in bench play is providing a much-needed boost.

The Threes!

MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 19: Dwyane Wade #3, LeBron James #6, and Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat smile while on the bench during the game against the Atlanta Hawks on November 19, 2013 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressl
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

James Jones got the start in place of a resting Dwyane Wade, and the Miami product made the most of his opportunity. He scored 17 points on just eight shots, knocking down five of seven from long range in 20 highly effective minutes.

Per the Associated Press (via ESPN), head coach Erik Spoelstra had high praise for Jones' effort:

"We have a lot of professionals in that locker room. But JJ probably could write the textbook on professionalism, keeping yourself ready, embracing a role and playing that role arguably as well as anybody in this league."

Jones wasn't alone, though. Norris Cole hopped off the bench to hit all three of his long-range attempts, and both Ray Allen and Shane Battier made two of three from beyond the arc.

All told, Miami shot 62.5 percent from three-point land (15-of-24), and that included James and Chris Bosh going a combined 1-of-4 from that distance. Basically, the Heat's role players shot the team to victory.

Nothing is more important to the Heat's offense than good spacing. When James has the ball on the wing or in the post, he has the ability to hit teammates via passing angles that don't exist for most distributors. James' length, height and ability to anticipate defensive rotations allow him to find shooters all over the floor.

But if those shooters aren't knocking down the attempts James creates for them, defenses can collapse on LBJ, forcing him to surrender the ball to the nearest available outlet instead of the most dangerous open shooter.

Should the Heat's role players continue burying triples at such a high rate, it would render James and Miami's offense almost impossible to contain.

Becoming a Trend

The terrific showing by Miami's reserves against the Magic wasn't an isolated incident, either. In fact, big nights from role players are becoming the norm for the Heat.

As a general rule, James, Wade and Bosh are going to be reliably productive on most nights. But getting consistent contributions from players besides the Big Three will go a long way toward allowing the Heat to avoid some of the midseason swoons they've been subject to in recent years.

Ray Allen had 17 of the Heat reserves' 45 points on Tuesday against the Atlanta Hawks, and no fewer than four Miami backups scored at least nine points against the Charlotte Bobcats over the weekend.

As is the case with any early-season trend, time will tell whether or not the Heat's recent bench explosion is sustainable. But it's hard to get past the obvious that Spoelstra has a deeper pool of talent to draw upon.

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 20: James Jones #22 of the Miami Heat shoots a foul shot against the Orlando Magic during the game on November 20, 2013 at Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading a
Fernando Medina/Getty Images

Everybody's Chipping In

What's particularly encouraging about the Heat's effort against the Magic—and the role players' general improvement this year—is that the contributions are coming from everywhere.

In Wednesday's win over Orlando, Rashard Lewis actually got a few touches in the post that opened up opportunities for Norris Cole. Chris Andersen snatched four offensive rebounds, and, brace yourselves, Michael Beasley continued his shocking trend of actually playing defense.

That tweet came during the game against the Hawks, but, incredibly, Beasley was just as good against the Magic. He scored 14 points, secured seven rebounds, and blocked a shot.

His help rotations on defense have been better than they've been at any point in his career, which is remarkable considering the aggressiveness and quickness necessary to play in the Heat's trap-heavy scheme.

I'm not sure I'm ready to live in a world where we praise Beasley's shot selection and defense. Yet, here we are.

Best Yet?

The LeBron James-era Heat have never relied heavily on its bench. But as the team's stars continue to age, reserves are only becoming more important.

Good thing this is the most productive bench the Heat have ever had. Check out the breakdown via Hoopsstats.com:

Note, too, that those numbers don't include the 45 points and 62.5 percent shooting from long range that the Heat bench posted against Orlando.

If you wanted to be pessimistic, you could point to the fact that Andersen, Allen and Battier are all candidates to suffer age-related declines at some point this year. But right now, this is the best collection of reserves the Heat have ever had. And it's not particularly close.

The Cure-All

When the 2013-14 season began, there were really just two major threats to a potential Miami three-peat: an injury to any member of the Big Three, and the danger of a championship hangover.

Miami Heat Bench Production

With role players providing energy and production on a consistent basis, both of those concerns are substantially reduced.

Injury risks plummet when backups prove capable of getting the job done. Based on the past three games, each of which has been marked by reserves actually expanding late leads, it's safe to assume that Spoelstra can rest a bit easier when he gives guys like Wade and Bosh nights off.

More nights off for big names means less chance of injury and fresher legs down the stretch.

Plus, the fact that the backups are clearly playing like they've got something to prove indicates that the Heat haven't lost any of the edge that helped them win a pair of titles.

Keep in mind that Miami still isn't getting anything from Greg Oden and is still working Beasley into the mix. With Cole also showing major signs of growth—especially as a spot-up shooter—it's actually possible that the bench could get even better.

Everybody knows that the Heat will go only as far as their stars take them. But it sure makes things easier when the subs allow those stars to spend the fourth quarter kicking back on the bench.


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