Have 10 non-basketball fans face a lineup of the league’s tallest players—anyone 6’10” and over, let’s say—and tell them to choose the one they believe least likely to play in the NBA, nine of them would probably pick Chris “Birdman” Andersen.
Such is the perception when one assumes you’ve spent more hours in a tattoo parlor than on a basketball court.
True, Birdman’s has never been a graceful or glamorous game, despite the occasional hearkening to his avian nickname. His has an exclusively blue-collar basketball calling card—blocks and rebounds, rotations and protection, all orchestrated in a Technicolor blur.
He also happens to be one of the Miami Heat’s most important players.
Forget the career player efficiency rating (16.7) or rebounding rate (16.9), the 2.5 blocks per 36 minutes, even the career-high 66 percent field-goal percentage he’s registering this season.
Those numbers are nice in isolation, but they only scratch the surface of Birdman’s impact.
According to NBA.com, the Heat are registering their best defensive efficiency (100.6) with Andersen on the floor and their third lowest (104.3) with him on the bench.
Moreover, opposing teams register their second-lowest overall field-goal percentage (43 percent) with Andersen in the lineup.
And yet, of the six Heat lineups that have logged 50 or more minutes and are registering a positive net rating—that is, the difference between a team’s offensive and defensive efficiency—Andersen is only included in one: the seldom-used quintet of Andersen, LeBron James, Norris Cole, Michael Beasley and Ray Allen.
So what gives? If Andersen is so valuable, why is he not featured in more of the Heat’s most devastating lineups?
The short answer: Even though he averages just 19.5 minutes per game, Birdman is often most effective when plugged into Miami’s mercenary units. Indeed, of Miami’s top 10 lineups in net rating (that have registered at least 10 minutes), Andersen is featured in seven of them.
Despite his status as a role player, Andersen is still capable of the occasional monster game, as he reminded everyone Wednesday night against the Boston Celtics.
Indeed, Andersen’s breakout performance only exemplifies what’s been a stellar slate for the 12-year NBA veteran.
Chris Andersen is having the second-best season of any sub in Heat history... & he's closing in on Mourning's 2005-06.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) March 20, 2014
While worlds apart in talent and career stature, Alonzo Mourning and Birdman boast eerily similar stats—and roles—on their respective Heat teams (both of which wound up NBA champions, of course).
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But if Miami is banking on anything with Birdman, it’s what he brings to the table come playoff time. To wit: During last year’s postseason, Andersen tallied a player efficiency rating of 24.9, a true shooting percentage—which takes into account both free throws and three-point field goals—of 81.5 percent (think about that) and an overall defensive rating of 99.
When even as eminent a Heat figurehead as Pat Riley can be brought to reverence on your behalf, as Miami’s president did in a story by Reuters’ Frank Pingue last summer, you know you’re doing something right.
We are ecstatic that Chris Andersen has decided to stay with the Miami Heat. We would not have won the championship without him and we are looking forward to him having an even better season next year.
There’s a redemptive quality to Birdman’s story as well. Suspended for the better part of two seasons for violating the league’s substance abuse policy and embroiled in a bizarre Internet scam that nearly landed him in jail, Andersen survived both to become one of the league’s most colorful impresarios.
He might be one of the most fundamentally limited players in the game, but Birdman has found an ideal landing spot with the Heat, a team with the kind of talent and basketball intelligence tailor-made to get the most out of onetime afterthoughts.
The Day-Glo ink and Hell’s Angels hair might scream rough-and-tumble rebel. The basketball impact, however, couldn’t be more fundamental.
Advanced stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.