The Miami Heat are basketball’s most successful anomaly. Void of fearsome rim protection and top-notch rebounding—two ingredients that are normal necessities for any title-contending team—the Heat instead have LeBron James, the closest thing to basketball perfection we’ve seen in nearly 25 years.
James allows the Heat to scheme differently than every other team in the league. They can go small with him at power forward and play super fast on both ends. They can also go big and play him on the wing with two other rangy frontcourt players (likely Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem) who help space the floor and compete on the glass.
The Heat is all about pressure. They blitz pick-and-rolls and harass ball-handlers on the perimeter. On offense, they turn the rock into a bolt of lightning, spreading it around until an open shot is created.
What’s one way they’re still like every other team? Some of Miami’s five-man units are more effective than others. Here are their five best, in order by how effective they can potentially be regardless of the opposition.
This unit has logged only four minutes all year, so statistics are meaningless regarding its inclusion on this list. Let's instead take a look at why Heat coach Erik Spoelstra should consider utilizing it more.
We'll start at point guard, where Norris Cole has quietly rounded himself into form as one of the league's most competent backup point guards. Cole's especially great on the defensive end, harassing his man up and down the floor, staying within a few feet whenever he has the ball, rarely getting beat off the dribble.
On offense, he's become a dependable spot up shooter, making 46.7 percent of his corner threes on 15 attempts, per NBA.com/Stats. He can get to the basket and run successful side pick-and-rolls with any of the other four guys in this unit, creating chaos for any defense that has to decide whether they want to switch, hedge or trap.
It's tough to imagine this unit getting bullied on the glass, too. Despite losing his spot in the rotation to Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem's on-court purpose at this point is to knock down wide open baseline jumpers and muck things up on the boards. In limited minutes, he can still do both.
Having him paired with Cole makes for a gritty duo that will take care of all of the dirty work while Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James handle the more consequential duties.
The 33-year-old James Jones is still in the NBA because his one skill is too valuable to pass up. Jones might be the best three-point shooter on the Miami Heat, a team that also boasts Ray Allen, Norris Cole, Roger Mason Jr., Mario Chalmers, LeBron James, Shane Battier and Rashard Lewis.
That's unspeakably impressive. As an offensive weapon, Jones fits like a final puzzle piece when placed on the court with James, the game's best playmaker. Defenses are petrified of free runs at the rim, but they also don't want to over help and leave someone like Jones wide open in the corner.
For him, that shot is a layup. (A career 40 percent shooter from behind the arc, this season he's making 50 percent of his threes on 18 total attempts.)
Having Jones on the court opens things up for everybody else, but on the defensive end, he's a major liability. He doesn't move well laterally, isn't very athletic and opposing players who meet him in the paint breathe a small sigh of relief when they realize he isn't Wade, James or even Battier.
For those keeping track at home, this unit is gorgeous on the offensive end, but it leaves a bit to be desired on defense. In 40 minutes, it's averaging 119.5 points per 100 possessions, a number that stands miles ahead of the league's first place offense. Defensively, it's far from a train wreck, but stretch it out for longer periods and teams will relentlessly look to isolate Jones.
The Miami Heat average 96 possessions per 48 minutes, making them the league's 18th fastest team, per NBA.com/Stats. Here's to speculating that this group would be much faster.
As fun as it'd be to see Miami put arguably its five most athletic players on the floor at once, Erik Spoelstra has played this unit a grand total of one minute this season.
Size is obviously a deterring factor. Chris Andersen and LeBron James can hold their own in the frontcourt (even though lineups featuring those two have struggled defensively), but putting Dwyane Wade at small forward and having both point guards play together can be troublesome.
Defense may be a problem, but in short bursts, why not give it a try? Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers have logged 46 minutes together thus far, and units that hold those two have outscored opponents by an impossibly magnificent 29 points per 100 possessions.
Those two—along with Dwyane Wade and James—are more than capable of doing serious damage on pick-and-roll action. Pairing any of the four with Andersen (who is scoring on 94.4 percent of plays where he's the roll man, according to mySynergySports) creates drive and kick opportunities that'll have even the smartest defense struggling to find an answer.
Miami's starting lineup is a vicious force on both ends of the court, with two Hall of Famers (LeBron James and Dwyane Wade), a perennial All-Star who could someday join them in Springfield (Chris Bosh), a point guard who regularly executes Miami's defensive scheme to near perfection (Chalmers) and a Swiss army knife splotch of glue who makes everything easier for everyone else (Battier).
According to NBA.com/Stats, this group is outscoring opponents by 9.1 points per 100 possessions, which is super impressive considering they're usually up against other starting fives who are the best an opponent has to offer.
This is also the most commonly used five-man grouping Erik Spoelstra has deployed thus far, playing 100 total minutes in 10 games this season. What makes them so reliable is how they play defense. The intense athleticism provided by James and Wade allows Miami to exploit unparalleled aggression on the perimeter.
They trap pick-and-rolls, especially with Bosh, leaving themselves vulnerable in the paint and at the rim. But Wade and James are quick and strong enough to rotate from the weak side, meet rollings bigs or penetrate guards at the apex and come away with a block or steal.
When you boil it down, this unit is simply better than whichever five players the opposition wants to run on the floor. With two years of various playoff battles that culminated in back-to-back championships, everyone in this unit knows each other's tendencies. That's petrifying for everybody else.
Serving as a playground for LeBron James and all his grand ability, this lineup is perhaps the most difficult to defend in all of basketball.
It's James surrounded by three of the other four starters, but instead of Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen is suited up on the wing. Why is this important? As we saw throughout last year's postseason, James works beautifully when surrounded by players who can shoot.
It gives him space to drive, pass and create offense from post-ups and in pick-and-rolls. Allen happens to be the most prolific three-point shooter in NBA history, so there's no surprise that their pairing is a fruitful one.
As of December 10, Allen is making 38 percent of his threes, 2.1 percent below his career average.
Elsewhere, we have Chris Bosh defending the opposing team's tallest player, grabbing rebounds (when he can), protecting the rim, trapping pick-and-rolls and spacing the floor with his deadly mid-range jump shot.
The presence of Shane Battier is also key, not only as another three-point threat but as someone who's super smart on the defensive end. Battier does a fantastic job denying post entry passes, which allows him to defend larger forwards down low, giving James a break.
This unit is small but incredibly quick, and what makes it work is James, who couldn't ask for a more complimentary supporting cast. Erik Spoelstra loves it too, using it in 14 games this season while no other five-man unit has taken the floor in more than 10, according to NBA.com/Stats.
This unit is more deadly on offense while it still maintains defensive ferocity, allowing 92.1 points per 100 possessions (the exact same figure put up by the regular starting lineup).
This group can be found in every other NBA coach's darkest nightmare.
Michael Pina has bylines at Bleacher Report, Red94, CelticsHub, The Classical, Sports On Earth and Boston Magazine. Follow him here.