This is something I just kind of stumbled on this morning while reading a post from earlier this month about how Pat Riley said about how smallball is “who (the Heat) are, now.”
I, and others have written a lot about how the Heat’s lineup to finish the season, with Chris Bosh playing a combination 4/5 and LeBron James playing a combination 1/3/4/5 was indicative of how the league has developed more and more into a smallball league. And we’re seeing several teams this season playing faster and smaller. Boston was already playing Kevin Garnett at the 5 last year, Denver is talking about Danilo Gallinari at the 4, The Mavericks will likely have lineups with Dirk Nowitzki and Elton Brand as their 4-5 combo, and the Knicks have made noise about reserve lineups featuring Amar’e Stoudemire at the 5 and Carmelo Anthony at the 4.
Do the Heat represent some sort of illustration of how the league has shifted?
Maybe the better question is if Miami is a great example of how what matters is talent, and how that can make any system, even smallball, work.
The common joke response to “what did Miami do to make smallball work?” is “Have LeBron James” and while that can get annoying after a while, ignoring everything that Erik Spoelstra and company put into the structure of the offense, it does present a bigger part of the puzzle. James enables the Heat to be able to have success with his system. And while they may not have had success with the Triangle, or Princeton offense, or Seven Seconds or Less, they have made this one work, despite its limitations, because of the strength of their roster. Not every system would (or did) work for the Heat. See: 2011. But this one does.
And it opens up the idea that perhaps the secret to these super-teams lies in unconventional answers to traditional questions, even if they rely on some key cliches long-term. The Heat are still a defensive team first. The Nuggets brought in Iguodala to improve their defense. But the idea that speed can’t be successful when the playoffs come is being proven wrong with the caveat that you need to wreak havoc with stops and turnovers on defense first.
There’s not a great chance of success for teams who are not Miami to win with smallball. But in the long-term future of the NBA, it does show that if you get the right pieces, you can win it all with the kind of play that so often gets disregarded as “not playoff basketball.”