The Inbounds: Chris Bosh and being what you’re not your way

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Chris Bosh has accepted that he has to play center for the Miami Heat. He doesn’t want to, it’s not what he has preferred, not from the moment he signed up for the Triad in South Beach. He likes his finesse game, feels that he’s better as a four, likes the freedom of power forward, and generally has turned his nose up at the idea of being the center. But last year, the Heat won the title with Bosh at center. Kind of.

Bosh played what you would call center because he was the fifth player on the floor and the tallest. He was the primary defender on the biggest player, and his game focused more on inside play. At the same time, though, Bosh was nailing threes and being used as the outlet valve on the drive-and-kick. Bosh tried to bulk up this summer, and then eventually abandoned that plan, and slimmed down even more. The compromise is clear. He’ll play center, but he’ll play it his way.

Bosh wants to be faster than the opposing center, and that’s something that he can rely on the rest of the offense to justify. The Heat rely on team defense to create turnovers and stops, then translate those to transition opportunities using their freakish athleticism. So though Bosh will be matched up against the biggest opponent a lot of the time, he’ll have help from swiping guards and forwards, and as we saw last season, LeBron James will even take some of the work, as he guarded Dwight Howard for stretches. Bosh gets the best of both worlds. He gets to get the pressure of playing five off his back while still essentially playing the four.

That’s kind of the secret to the Heat. Smallball is playing players smaller than traditionally accepted at various positions. What the Heat do is remove the five entirely. They don’t have a shot-blocker/rim-protector (who can catch, hi there Joel Anthony), so they just eliminated it. Their positional flexibility and athletic superiority gifts them the luxury of simply scrapping the positions all together. Their small forward plays point-center and their shooting guard plays point-forward. Their power forward plays power forward and calls it center, and their point guard plays shooting guard.

Say hello my old friend Mr. McCraig, with a leg for an arm, and an arm for a leg!”

Bosh gets to shoot threes, run the floor, play in the pick-and-pop. His compromise is crashing the glass and finishing on putbacks. Bosh’s struggles in out-boxing bigger opponents isn’t a major concern here, because the Heat are going to shoot a high percentage anyway. And his length makes up for his lack of bulk.

That may be what speaks the most to the changes in the NBA. It’s not about size, it’s not about bulk, it’s all about length. Anthony Davis is rail thin and will still be effective. Bosh is scrawny-strong, and can just reach over guys to finish plays. It’s maximizing the resources you have instead of trying to translate a player’s skill into a body type where his skills may not be so comfortable.

At its core, the combination of James, Wade , and Bosh was never perfect. You look at the new-look Lakers, and dynamic distributing point guard with efficient shooting stroke, plus high-usage sh0t-making shooting guard with exceptional skill plus dominant center with hyper-athleticism makes sense. That’s a combination that intuitively makes sense. Distributor plus scorer plus finisher. Passer plus shooter plus rebounder. That’s before you add Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace, but the effect is the same. The Heat, on the other hand, had a creating, scoring, all-around small forward, a scoring, gambling shooting guard, and a finesse power forward. The fit’s not obvious.

But the Heat made it work by having a translation of their skills. There’s not a lot of sacrifice that goes on with the stars in Miami, outside of Wade learning to play without the ball more. Bosh is doing what he’s always done, just in different times and in a different flow. The sacrifice comes at the defensive end and in pursuit of the team concept, which is strong and well-executed.

This may not be a career year for Bosh, and in truth, joining Miami hurt his personal star power more than anything. He’s the Ned of the 3 Amigos, the George Harrison to James and Wade’s John and Paul. But it affords him continued success, a smaller role in a bigger position, and the ability to win consistently. He’ll be as big a part of the Heat’s success as he’s ever been, and will continue to fit better into the offense. You can call him center, but he’s not genuinely a center. He’s just Chris Bosh, just as no position fits James. That may be the most impressive thing about the Heat. They never fit their guys into new roles, they just created a different team around individual identities.

And they’re still winning, like a Bosh.