Tuesday, July 10, 2012

2 comments Versatility is Not a New Approach to Building a Team

Today, Ira Winderman asks the question of whether the Heat have built a new blueprint for future NBA teams by winning an NBA title with a versatile team. They have not built a new blueprint for the future, more than they have built a team which would take advantage of the versatility on the roster. I'm not sure the versatility the Heat showed in the playoffs is easy for other teams to replicate. Most NBA teams look for players that are versatile, that hasn't changed and will never change. That's why Magic Johnson was so great because he could play positions point guard through power forward (or even center in a pinch). Scottie Pippen could guard a point guard or a (smaller) power forward. Versatility is key to a team's success. Having the players and payroll structure the Heat have, they had the benefit of versatility and had to take advantage of this versatility to win games. Ira Winderman asks if other teams will try to replicate this success. The answer I give is teams were already trying to acquire versatile players for their roster. It's not an unconventional approach, it is an approach that requires the right type of players.

The NBA Finals are when the template going forward is set.

It's also when a team wins a title using one approach to basketball and less successful teams try to copy this approach. The template is only occasionally repeatable and changes what feels like every year. So the template to an NBA title is never set. Ever.

In recent years that generally has meant either you have to have a big man or you have to have a point guard.

Or you could be the 2011-12 Miami Heat.

If by saying "or you could be the 2011-12 Miami Heat" you mean "a team could have the best player in the NBA who is able to play point guard, shooting guard, small forward, and power forward thereby negating the need for a traditional point guard and his presence on the roster allows roster flexibility." Because that's what the Heat had.

Let's see other teams repeat this with great success. How about you have an All-Star power forward on the roster who is able to play center if necessary by dragging shot blocking centers who don't have much of an offensive game outside of the paint? Sounds great, but it only works well against teams who don't have a scoring threat the center position. How about finding the best player in the NBA who can play power forward and point guard. There's pretty just one of those.

See, the template can work well, but there are a ton of variables that decide the success of the template. Against Kevin Garnett or Roy Hibbert, the idea of Bosh at center didn't/doesn't work as well. Against Perkins/Ibaka? It works better.

Center? They played the season's closing stages without one, Chris Bosh ultimately manning the middle.

This isn't really new. Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett don't consider themselves centers and the Spurs and Boston won games this year with them at the center position. It's easy to have Bosh man the center position when the opposition doesn't have an offensively powerful center. Bosh can make the opposing center a liability on defense by pulling him out on the perimeter and doesn't have to worry as much about holding his own on defense.

Let's see how this strategy works if Bosh had to guard Duncan or Andrew Bynum.

Point guard? Well, you could call Mario Chalmers many things (and Lord knows most of the Heat players did in the midst of games, in most colorful terms), but true point guard is not one of them.

Again, this isn't a template the rest of the NBA can follow unless other NBA teams have found a way to clone LeBron James and his passing skills as a point forward. Both Wade and James can run the point. They are versatile and they aren't many guys like them. It's not a template any more than it shows how tough to defend the Heat can be.

you likely will hear a lot more of what already is emanating from those pre-draft war rooms, "Best player available."

Because that was the approach Pat Riley took in July 2010, when he famously paired LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, players with overlapping skill sets.

Bill Simmons column up where he explains Wade was at 70% during the Finals, which meant the skill sets of James/Wade didn't overlap as much and they weren't in each other's way at times. It makes a bit of sense. You can have players with overlapping skill sets as long as each player knows their role on the roster.

In the cookie-cutter world of center, power forward, small forward, shooting guard and point guard, the Heat rolled with a championship lineup so muddled that it was almost impossible to tell, well, who's on first.

This isn't a template though. The Heat were able to do this because of the matchup they had against the Thunder and because James is capable of guarding multiple positions at a high level. Every single team in the NBA wants to draft an elite player who can defend multiple positions. They don't come around very often.

The Heat had to role with this lineup because the payroll structure of the team was to where they couldn't go sign a "real" center or sign a "real" point guard. They had to go with the guys they had. There's a reason the Heat drafted Dexter Pittman, signed Eddy Curry and drafted Norris Cole. They wanted to find a fit for those positions. When those guys weren't the exact fit required in the NBA Finals, Spolestra and the Heat had to use the versatility of LeBron James to their advantage. The lineup was muddled out of necessity and because of the versatility of the roster.

For years, it had been so much about making pieces fit that the Thunder traded away part of their future for Kendrick Perkins,

Jeff Green wasn't part of the Thunder's future. There is a reason they traded him. The Thunder weren't looking for cookie-cutter players, but simply taking from their strength (scoring) to improve a weakness (play in the middle). I think if you could ask any Thunder fan or executive, they don't regret this trade.

even though Perkins hardly could find a place to fit in this championship series.

Let's remember we just found out Perkins was injured with a torn groin (or something similar that sounds equally as painful). Once the Heat moved to Bosh at center, it became a bad matchup for Perkins. So Perkins hardly finding a place to fit in one playoff series doesn't mean using a "real" center doesn't work as a way to win games, but it means the Heat were able to formulate a lineup which created matchup problems for Perkins.

It is why the Jordan Bulls never veered from the blueprints that force fed Bill Cartwright or Luc Longley into the mix.

That worked out pretty well for them, didn't it?

The Bulls needed a natural center in the lineup to play guys like Patrick Ewing. Horace Grant wasn't an effective center. Again, how did the Heat's muddled lineup work out against Kevin Garnett? Not that well if I recall and Hibbert gave them trouble (albeit without Bosh) in the round previous to that. For Bosh to play center, there has to be the right matchup for the Heat.

Why the Phil Jackson Lakers continually searched for answers at point guard, repeatedly settling for Derek Fisher.

That worked out pretty well for them, didn't it?

The Lakers didn't have a player who could bring the ball up the court and not dominate the ball. The Heat have Wade and James who are great passers and the Lakers didn't have that type of guy on the roster, so they had to have a natural point guard.

Because, as in baseball, the notion was you had to be strong up the middle.

Center and point guard.

And then this.

This is the exception, not the rule. Basketball hasn't changed drastically with the Heat winning the NBA Title.

And then Spoelstra deciding enough was enough, that after spending two years in search of a ring while cycling through the likes of Joel Anthony, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Erick Dampier and Ronny Turiaf, that Bosh, lean and lithe, was the best answer in the middle, if not the most muscled solution.

It worked well against the Thunder because they didn't have a strong offensive option in the middle. Ibaka can score, but he isn't strong offensively. Perkins is strong on the boards, but isn't an offensive threat. Not to mention, here is that name again, LeBron James can play power forward. This gave the Heat an option few other teams have and is why Bosh was successful at center.

Spoelstra decided that Chalmers was the best fit at point guard, even if not a fit at the position at all.

BECAUSE JAMES/WADE COULD ALSO PLAY POINT GUARD! It's not a revolution, but an exception to generally held rules. Chalmers could be a spot-up shooter and be aggressive on offense because he didn't have to worry about bringing the ball up the court and distributing. There still has to be a player on the court to bring the ball up the court.

If position mattered then the team that already had James, Wade, Mike Miller and James Jones would not have made Battier their prime offseason acquisition in the first place. But that's where all the free-agency money went.

Wrong. Miller and Jones are different players from Battier on the defensive side of the ball. Miller is in there for offense, while Battier's defensive versatility is what made his signing such a good move by the Heat. Position still mattered, which is why Jones didn't get many minutes during the Finals. Battier was versatile and was hitting his 3's, so that upped his value two-fold while on the court.

Battier from sixth man wingman to starting power forward.

Battier played power forward all through college. I realize it is college, but he has experience at the position and played the stretch-four position his entire senior year of college.

"Our versatility," Spoelstra explained, "while it may seem unconventional to some, we think it's one of our greatest strengths."

It is one of the Heat's strengths and is a unique strength that makes this "new" template very, very difficult to reproduce by other NBA teams. Not many teams have the ability to have such a versatile roster.

"When everybody notices where Shane Battier is when the ball is going in," Spoelstra said. "We notice everything else before that, his versatility. He allows us to play our roster the way we need to, and we weren't necessarily able to do that last year.

"And so now we're able to play LeBron at several different positions, and same with Dwyane, and he kind of ties that all together."

So I would love to have it explained to me how this is the new blueprint for NBA teams to follow. All a team needs to do is find three players who can play multiple positions on offense and defense at a high level. Easy enough, right?

In retrospect, the Heat were lucky (and good) that they got a Finals matchup which allowed them to keep their hottest shooters out on the floor. They were lucky in that the Thunder didn't have a big man who was an offensive threat, the Heat were good enough to have the versatility to take advantage of their strengths and those, and they were lucky these versatile players had a great NBA Finals series.

But Battier as power-forward glue guy?

Again, that's where the Heat, correctly, balked at getting caught up in delineations.

Again, this is the position Battier played through much of college. The NBA is different from college basketball, but Battier has guarded the power forward position before.

"I don't know," Spoelstra said. "We don't necessarily look at it that we're small. I know everybody calls it 'small ball.' We have two forwards, neither one of them is a power forward.

Arguable. LeBron is as big as a power forward and with his improved post up game he could pass as an NBA power forward.

The Thunder tried, and failed. The lane opened for LeBron. The perimeter opened for Battier, Chalmers, Miller and Jones. Perkins and Serge Ibaka no longer could simply stand tall in the paint, as they did against the Mavericks, Lakers and Spurs in the previous three rounds. Instead, they were sent in chase mode, unable to recover by the time LeBron was at the rim.

And that was a smart move by the Heat. This was a move that didn't work against the Pacers in the second round and didn't work against the Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. There isn't a blueprint that can be used. NBA teams have to adjust the matchups and strategy used depending on which opposing team they are going up against in a playoff series.

So other teams may not try to repeat what worked for the Heat this series. Depending on who (or if they even make it) the Heat play in the NBA Finals next year they may not even use this strategy of using James at power forward.

Granted, it is easier to play the versatility card when the versatility includes James, Wade and Bosh.

Apparently this isn't "granted" because Ira Winderman is acting as if the Heat have just revolutionized the NBA as a whole.

But Brooks had Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden and never quite was able to create similar chaos, save for dramatic rallies in the first two games of the Finals.

These guys aren't as versatile. Westbrook, Durant and Harden can play the different spot at their respective position (power/small forward, point/shooting guard), but they can't cross over positions. Harden could play some small forward, but Westbrook can't be a forward and Durant can't be a guard or a center. James can play shooting guard or power forward. Bosh can play power forward or center. This opens things open for flexibility in other roster spots. When James moves to power forward, that means Battier can play small forward and because Wade can play point guard Mike Miller can also be in the game. The Thunder didn't have this type of flexibility.

Has Pat Riley developed a better way?

No. He has not developed a better way. He has developed an exception to the usual way.

Or does he simply have better players?

He has better players who are more versatile. The blueprint the Heat have laid out is only able to be replicated if a team has a roster of versatile players and a matchup that allows a team to take advantage of this versatility. Most NBA teams don't have a roster of 2 or more players who can guard multiple positions and zero NBA teams have LeBron James.


rich said...

even though Perkins hardly could find a place to fit in this championship series.

And Jeff Green played all of 0 minutes last year recovering from heart surgery. I don't think he was going to add much to the Thunder.

It is why the Jordan Bulls never veered from the blueprints that force fed Bill Cartwright or Luc Longley into the mix.

Force fed? Seriously? They barely existed offensively, Cartwright never averaged double digits during the Bulls championship years. The only thing Cartwright and Longley did was be tall.

The Bulls needed a natural center in the lineup to play guys like Patrick Ewing.

And during the second three peat: Shaq.

Because, as in baseball, the notion was you had to be strong up the middle.

Yes because BJ Armstrong and Bill Cartwright were scaring the shit out of the NBA in the early 90s. The only reason Jordan and Pippen are HOFers is because Armstrong got double teamed anytime he touched the ball.

And wasn't it just the year before that the Heat lost to a team PGed by JJ Barea?

But Battier as power-forward glue guy?

He's 6'8" 220... that's not that undersized for a guy off the bench. Plus, he's always been a glue/defensive guy.

Or does he simply have better players?

Wasn't this the point in signing all three of them?

Bengoodfella said...

Rich, the Bulls used a three-headed monster (Perdue, Wennington, Longley) to match up against other team's centers. The Bulls didn't need to go away from this blueprint b/c it worked. Like you said, they didn't force feed them either.

I think this is a completely different series if the Thunder have a center that forced Bosh to play defense and exposed him for the natural power forward he is.

Battier is a glue guy. That's much of what he has always been. This hasn't changed nor will it ever change. There is a reason the Heat wanted him so badly in free agency, because he is a versatile player who is considered a good teammate. It was a good signing, but being a power forward glue guy is what Battier has done in his career before this year.

This whole "versatility" strategy isn't necessarily able to be reproduced if you don't have LeBron James and a beneficial matchup where Bosh can play center.