In the wake of LeBron James’ devastating departure, the Miami Heat had little choice but to retain Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade—to guarantee Erik Spoelstra’s “pace-and-space” philosophy remained as close to intact as possible.
Ironically, Miami’s subsequent free-agent moves may have made Spoelstra’s small-ball system, rather than his stars, the team’s most indispensable commodity.
With the NBA moving evermore steadily toward a overwhelmingly perimeter orientation, the Heat’s offseason was as much about internal continuity as it was heeding the league’s prevailing strategy.
In a recent column, Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel underscored precisely this point:
If Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts are your starting power players, and with Pat Riley already talking about Granger getting time in the power rotation, that again appears to be the direction.
Of course small ball is mostly an approach on one side of the ball. The reality is the Heat will face legitimate challenges against legitimate beef, be it Joakim Noah, Al Jefferson, Brook Lopez, Andre Drummond or Roy Hibbert in the East. As was the case previously, there are no easy answers there.
Between the patchwork frontcourt and the loss of James’ peerless playmaking, the Heat have no choice but to live and die by Spoelstra’s “pace-and-space” approach, first adopted after an impromptu visit with former University of Oregon head football and current Philadelphia Eagles skipper Chip Kelly.
As ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh writes, Spoelstra was enamored by the idea of turning a “collection of world-class athletes into a merciless scoring machine."
Hyperbolic though that might sound, the results weren’t that far off, with the Heat finishing in the top six in overall offensive efficiency in each of the last three seasons.
James’ departure is all but certain to derail Miami’s status as one of the NBA’s most punishingly potent attacks. But that doesn’t mean the Heat can’t catch the Eastern Conference by surprise.
Indeed, one of the more underrated stories of this summer’s free-agency period was how Pat Riley—doubtless jaded over losing the game’s principal chess piece—managed to cobble together a more-than-passable board formation.
Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts? These are far from NBA also-rans.
Danny Granger, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem: a trio of eminently serviceable veterans, even if their best days are behind them.
Shabazz Napier and Khem Birch? A pair of rookies with enough palpable promise to instill within Heat fans hope for what’s to come.
Most of them fit—in theory, anyway—Spoelstra’s pace-and-space mold, albeit to varying degrees. In Deng, you have a more-than-passable LeBron analog, while McRoberts offers a better, more versatile version of Rashard Lewis. Granger gives you a classic stretch 4. Napier, meanwhile, is Norris Cole with the potential for something more.
More importantly, the man tasked with running Spoelstra’s show—the always polarizing Mario Chalmers—seems more determined than anyone to prove Miami’s offensive success was more about gestalt than any single god of the hardwood:
"I feel like I've finally got a chance to shine, show my real game," Chalmers recently told Bleacher Report’s Ethan Skolnick. "Me, CB, D-Wade and the rest of the guys, we're going to pick it up, we're still going to play Miami Heat basketball, and we're still gonna be a competitor."
Playing in a historically weak Eastern Conference will only help Miami’s cause. Beyond the Chicago Bulls and James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, the East remains very much a hodgepodge of hopeful upstarts and tenuous talents. What few teams can claim to have, however, is a skipper of Spoelstra’s cut and caliber.
And while the 43-year-old coach seems committed to transposing his offensive template on this year’s jarringly disparate talent, the other side of the ball could find Spoelstra scaling back his traditionally cavalier approach. From AllUCanHeat.com’s Wes Goldberg:
The last thing you will see change is the ‘gambling’ the Heat official talked about. Heat players were trained to jump passing lanes and try to get out in fearsome transition. Without James, now, the Heat won’t be as inclined to get on the fast break.
That Miami’s defense was so often the catalyst for its offense is, of course, a conundrum worth considering. Forced to rely more on wile and patience than opportunistic lane hawking, Spoelstra and Co. are almost certain to see fewer possessions at the other end of the floor.
So while the “space” in Spoelstra’s system should remain the offensive mantra, Miami’s more conservative approach on defense might result in a somewhat slower overall pace.
This will be nothing new for players like McRoberts and Deng, embedded as they’ve been the past few years with some of the East’s slowest teams (McRoberts' Charlotte Hornets finished 21st in the league in pace last season, while Deng's former team, the Chicago Bulls, have consistently ranked at or near the bottom in that category).
Similarly, you’d be hard pressed to find a duo more suited to multiple styles than Bosh and Wade, who both labored under similarly deliberate systems before joining forces with James in Miami four years ago.
As with any team undergoing a monumental roster overhaul, the Heat are bound to endure their fair share of growing pains. Whether their on-the-job-learning proves fruitful or fitful depends heavily on Spoelstra’s ability to recognize what system specifics are worth salvaging and which must be tossed by the wayside.
Still, the stratagems Spoelstra nurtured over the past three years have undoubtedly proven a strategic sword worth living by. Even if losing the player who wielded it best means possibly dying by it as well.