Lineup primer: Inside the five-man units that could decide the 2014 NBA Finals
It is an oft (and conveniently) overlooked truth that NBA games are won not by players, but by lineups. The power of the individual may be greater in basketball than in any other major team sport, but by extension so, too, is the specific influence of each of the other nine players on the floor. All involved are interconnected by their skill sets, their placement, their size, their basketball IQ, their roles, their athleticism and every conceivable variable in between. To substitute any one player with another has the potential to shift the entire dynamic of a given situation, making every moment of every game the product of something far more complex.
When Dwyane Wade slices his way to the rim, he's able to do so because his teammates have enough pull on their defenders to clear the lane. When Kawhi Leonard pressures LeBron James on the perimeter, he plays him a certain way knowing that Tim Duncan lurks in the paint. Those qualities and expectations are then folded into the strategies of both teams and the lineup decisions therein. This game is a constant churn of call and response, read and react. On a structural level, the very combinations of players used are a huge part of that.
Below we examine the upcoming NBA Finals between the Heat and Spurs through that slightly wider lens. These lineups -- whether in their success or failure, presence or absence -- could determine this year's champion.
While the Shane Battier version of this unit saw more playing time in the regular season than any other Heat lineup, the Rashard Lewis variation has come on remarkably strong in the playoffs. The Lewis-infused lineup -- after playing only occasionally in the opening rounds -- logged a Heat-high 55 minutes in the Eastern Conference finals and clobbered the Pacers by a margin of 29.2 points per 100 possessions in the process. The recency of that dominance positions Lewis as the likely starter against the Spurs, though the guiding principles in play are very much the same for both of these interchangeable parts: Maximize the compounding influence of Miami's three stars, spread the floor as best as possible and scramble defensively to cover ground while forcing turnovers.
James and Wade typically thrive when flanked by shooters, and Lewis fills that prescription having knocked in nine of his last 16 (56.3 percent) three-point attempts in the Eastern Conference finals. Battier, by comparison, is coming off of a relatively quiet series that saw him shoot 60 percent from deep in fairly limited minutes. That Lewis, like Battier, is also a smart, feisty defender against bigger forwards gives Miami options whether San Antonio decides to run big or small -- an important flexibility that will help the Heat's first unit contend from opening tip. It would be a genuine surprise if Erik Spoelstra were to reverse course and again start Haslem; that "bigger" spacing-challenged starting lineup was an absolute disaster in the first three games of last year's Finals, scoring at a rate of 84 points per 100 possessions.
Miami's team defense isn't (and wasn't) consistently stout enough to overcome that kind of deficit on a nightly basis. After three games Spoelstra removed Haslem for Mike Miller, a mercy killing for a well-intended starting lineup that just didn't work in this particular context. With Miller now gone and Lewis and Battier the Heat's most comparable marksmen, this reworked group extends the strategic bent of the 2013 Finals as well as can be done under the circumstances. There is reason for worry in that attempt at stasis through lesser shooters, no matter how well these lineups have fared to this point. Lewis and Battier both are prone to cold spells, and at various points this season have fallen out of their mix with their stumbles in accuracy. Whether those two can convert shots when called upon and defend as well as the Heat need is, despite all of the star power in this series, a potential sticking point in Miami's pursuit of a third straight title.
Over the course of their four seasons together, James and Wade have refined their on-court synergy to meet championship standards. There remains something incredibly potent, though, in those lineups that eschew Wade and surround James with lethal three-point shooters at every position. The results are daunting: 117.9 points per 100 possessions throughout the regular season and even more ridiculous marks for similar lineups during last year's Finals. Even elite defenses like San Antonio's aren't equipped to handle this kind of structure, in part because Miami surrounds James with players capable of both sniping from distance or flooring the ball under pressure.
Of these four complementary players, only Battier is somewhat suspect in counter-driving against a hard close out, and even then the 12-year veteran is sharp enough to make the right play and reset the offense. Otherwise, all three of Chalmers, Allen and Bosh can make things happen when the defense bites hard on their potential shot attempt. Bosh's speed relative to his size makes him a tough cover in those situations. Chalmers, for all his generalized inconsistency, is a very crafty dribble-driver capable of slithering his way into a reverse layup. Allen, too, seems slightly more effective off the dribble this season as compared to last. What makes this group so brutally effective, though, is the way that collective shooting ability intersects with smart off-ball movement and patient passing. The ball flies around the court while a stretched-out defense flails in recovery. Open jumpers are inevitable. Free throws tend to pile up as desperate defenders are sold easily on ball fakes. There's room to run multiple, layered pick-and-rolls without delay -- an crucial quality in matching up against a Spurs defense skilled in taking away the initial option.
The tradeoff, naturally, is a certain degree of defensive stability. Wade might not be a lockdown defender at this stage in his career but he's still significantly better than Allen on balance. Coupled with the fact that Battier and James have consistently played about a half-step slower on defense this season and things can get a bit dicey on that end. All evidence still points to a relatively huge efficiency margin overall, though the defensive limitations of a lineup like this one could be more damaging with some matchup prodding by San Antonio.
Dwyane Wade • Chris Andersen • Ray Allen • Shane Battier • Mario Chalmers/Norris Cole
I'll go out on a limb with a prediction: James will not play every second of the NBA Finals. As such, the Heat have to be prepared to carry those sporadic minutes without their best player on the floor, as has been the case in the season and postseason. It's difficult to sift through the garbage time to determine how the Heat fare without James on the whole, those these particular lineups have managed to keep their head above water.
Part of the reason: This group (and the Cole variant especially) has done a terrific job of creating turnovers. That both saves this bunch from having to play fuller defensive possessions and helps facilitate what is, generally speaking, a rudimentary offense. No lineup of this type generates all that many assists on a regular basis and yet solid one-on-one play (particularly from Wade), conservative shot selection and key transition opportunities pave the way for offensive efficiency. The Heat aren't exactly themselves without LeBron, but they've shown in select lineups this season that they can hold ground or do even better against opposing second units. San Antonio's reserves will test that claim over the next seven games, provided James actually does take a breather at some point.
Tiago Splitter's lacking performance in the 2013 Finals was a point with considerable narrative traction, though it's important we don't mistake specific failings for general ones. Yes, Splitter was a mess offensively, incapable of scoring over smaller defenders and a non-factor on the glass. Yet this traditional starting lineup was a defensive monster through the first four games of the Finals, in which it held the world-beating Heat offense to just 73.9 points per 100 possessions. Splitter wasn't dominant in the way that we expect a skilled center to be when faced with small ball, though overall he helped the Spurs' starters to win their minutes by a substantial margin.
That he was ultimately removed from the starting lineup in favor of more capable offensive players was a tribute to the Heat's defensive pressure, though we have reason to believe Splitter might be more viable this time around. For one: Splitter is an altogether better player than he was a season ago, and doesn't get as frazzled when confronted with pressure on the ball. Additionally, Miami's own defensive letdowns have been both more frequent and more pronounced than last season. There are incredibly few teams capable of strangling offenses like the full-throttle Heat, though to this point we've only seen Miami hit that level against the iffy offenses in Charlotte, Brooklyn and Indiana. San Antonio plays an entirely different game, which ultimately serves Splitter well in terms of catching the ball in advantageous situations.
He may not end up starting in this series, though I think the possibility of San Antonio rolling out bigger lineups is more realistic than 2013 retrospectives (and, separately, those swayed by the Western Conference finals) would suggest. Miami shot just 11.1 percent from long range against the Splitter-bolstered starters a year ago and just 57.1 percent in the restricted area. If San Antonio can use Splitter to tap back into that kind of defensive imposition without crumbling on offense, the Spurs could potentially bring about a quicker-than-expected end to this series.
On the other hand, Boris Diaw allows the Spurs to play big and small simultaneously. He started both regular-season games against the Heat for just this reason; he has the size and post fluency to punish smaller defenders, the playmaking and handle to help break down Miami's pressure defense and the flexibility in coverage to perform adequately in most any individual assignment. It was by his rotation influence that San Antonio was able to eventually overwhelm Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals, both due to his ability to space the floor from the perimeter and exploit defensive inattention closer in.
There is a cost in relying too much on Diaw, however, and it may well undercut the Spurs' otherwise terrific team defense. All considered, Diaw is a pretty smart one-on-one defender -- he's more mobile than he looks and instinctive when it comes to beating opponents to a particular spot. He's also strong and burly enough to stand up to a player like James in the post, relieving Leonard from the trouble for minutes at a time. When it comes to maintaining the responsibilities of help defense, however, Diaw comes up a bit lacking; his presence on the floor regularly correlates to a significant dip in defensive performance (the margin was roughly 10 points per 100 possessions in the regular season), a trend magnified by just how stellar Splitter is in terms of rotating over to wall off the rim. One would think that the four-man combination of Diaw, Duncan, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard would give the Spurs a great, versatile lineup base for this series. That four-man group, however, was the only such lineup for the Spurs to register a negative net rating (-7.2 points) in over 100 minutes played. Even in the postseason, where Diaw has generally been brilliant, that foursome has been outscored by 2.8 points per 100 possessions -- a troubling mark given that San Antonio is blasting opponents by 10.1 possessions on average.
Diaw still should and will play significant minutes, though I can't help but wonder: Does San Antonio, as the team with better defensive faculties in this series, really want to get into a scoring contest with Miami?
Tony Parker • Tim Duncan • Kawhi Leonard • Danny Green • Manu Ginobili
This was the only Spurs lineup that made an appearance in every single game of the 2013 Finals. It's easy to see why; with Miami leaning even more towards small-ball as the series progressed and Splitter marginalized accordingly, San Antonio matched up directly by playing Duncan as a lone big with four perimeter players. That lineup essentially broke even through 64 minutes of action, though it likely would have done better had Ginobili been on top of his game.
That could prove to be an important point of differentiation between this year's Finals and last, both within the context of this lineup's performance and more broadly. By the end of that fateful 2013 series, Ginobili was shaken by the Heat defense and wholly unable to ground his playmaking. Ginobili committed 12 turnovers in Games 6 and 7 losses alone while going just 2-of-5 from the field for nine points in the former. Miami has been a troublesome matchup for Manu even beyond the confines of that series, though he enters this year's rematch fresh off a dynamite showing against the Thunder (15.2 points and 3.7 assists in just 22.8 minutes per game) and surely inspired by the potential for validation. Should Manu keep at a level within these small lineups, San Antonio has a legitimate chance of beating Miami at its own game: Spread the court, cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.
Statistical support provided by NBA.com.
Photo credit: Noah Graham, Andrew D. Bernstein, Kevin C. Cox, Mike Ehrmann, and Frederic J. Brown/NBAE via Getty Images.
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