In July, the Heat pulled off the biggest coup in basketball history, persuading LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join Dwyane Wade. Now comes the hard part: creating an offensive system that works for the benefit of them all
This is an article from the Oct. 25, 2010 issue
The tease continued last week in New Orleans. Side by side for the national anthem stood LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in matching black warmup suits, but when the last note sounded, they kept them on. They chatted and chuckled on the outskirts of the Heat huddle during each timeout but remained on the bench nursing minor injuries while the ball was in play. After the opening 197 seconds of the preseason, when Wade suffered a strained right hamstring, the consummation of the pair's long-anticipated partnership with Chris Bosh has been postponed indefinitely—perhaps until opening night, on the parquet floor of the Eastern Conference champion Celtics.
Last summer's most persistent question—will the three biggest free agents play together?—was answered by James in a July 8 live infomercial that in 60 minutes deeply depleted seven years of brand equity. But the practical question remains unanswered: How will they play together? Each has grown up as the face of his franchise (small forward James of the Cavaliers, power forward Bosh of the Raptors, shooting guard Wade of the Heat), which left them feeling empowered enough to thumb a collective nose at NBA tradition and pull off their megamerger. They each wore white to the wedding and danced together onstage in July for 13,000 guests at the reception in Miami, and that was the fun part. Now comes the grind, the details, the tricky task of making their union work for everyone.
Who will be assigned to which chores, and will everyone be happy with his assignment? Miami is supposed to contend instantly for the championship, but it won't happen without intricate planning. "Now they have to be fit in," says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who owns four championship rings and, like commissioner David Stern, called Heat president Pat Riley with congratulations for his free-agent coup. "The coaching staff has to try to get it done, and the players have to have enough character to allow it to happen. Whether they will or not is another question, because it's damn difficult. But they're in the ball game, there's no doubt about it."
How does a team establish its identity? In the NFL, offensive coordinators are hired and fired, and styles of play come and go. But staffs are smaller in the NBA, where the style of play is micromanaged by the coach.
"Every coach has a vision of how offense should be played," says Celtics coach Doc Rivers. "But then you have the second problem: Does your personnel fit with your principles? And if it doesn't, then you have to have a talk with yourself." Rookie coach Monty Williams of the Hornets is already holding such conversations each day as he shuffles through his thick book of plays and feels overwhelmed. "I see if I want to put that in or this in," he says, "but I don't want to overload guys with too much stuff."
Most of the best coaches tend to develop one system, then adapt the talent to fit it. Jerry Sloan established his pick-and-roll offense through John Stockton and Karl Malone and has maintained it for 23 seasons, enabling the Jazz to select players who were well-suited to that style. The same has been true of Popovich, who has blended in dozens of role players to complement his championship core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili. Phil Jackson has deployed the triangle offense to space the floor around Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant for a record 11 titles.
By contrast, the defining quality of Riley's three decades as a championship coach and executive has been ideological flexibility. In the 1980s he won four rings as the coach of Magic Johnson's fast-breaking Showtime Lakers. In 1994 he coached the Knicks to the Finals with a half-court style based on Patrick Ewing's post presence and muscular defense. In 2006 he liberated Wade to dribble-drive around Shaq down low as the Heat snatched the title from the Mavericks. "What separates Pat is he's such a great motivator and teacher along with being flexible enough to put his players in position to succeed," says Wake Forest coach Jeff Bzdelik, who was advance scout and assistant coach for Riley's Heat teams from 1995 through 2001. "One thing NBA coaches do that college coaches don't do as much is to adapt, because in the NBA a G.M. can come to you and say I just traded so-and-so for so-and-so, which means you have to take your old offense and scrap it because it's not going to work for the new guy."
Now Riley's coaching protégé, 39-year-old Erik Spoelstra, must take a trio of exquisite and sometimes overlapping talents and design an attack that reflects a creative—and winning—touch. The limits of the 94-foot court and the ever-thickening NBA rule book don't enable much in the way of revolutionary scheming. Mostly there's tinkering on the fringes. For instance, the corner three-pointer became a more prominent weapon after statistical analysis, which more teams are relying on, indicated it was one of the most efficient shots in the game. Another innovation of the last decade was Mike D'Antoni's relatively simple idea of having his Suns wings run straight to the corners instead of crisscrossing in transition. "That opened the lane for Steve Nash as the point guard and took advantage of the three-point shot," says Trail Blazers assistant G.M. Bill Branch, a former advance scout. "You've always seen the Jazz crossing their runners, and they still do, but fewer teams are doing that, and more teams are running to the corners to emulate what Mike did in Phoenix."
The Heat is trying to emulate the instant success enjoyed by the 2007--08 Celtics, who won a championship in their first season after uniting team captain Paul Pierce with Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett. Rivers spent that initial summer persuading his Big Three to accept new roles while he modified his playbook to create three-pointers for Allen. Yet the resulting offensive style remained true to Rivers's ideal that players should move without the ball and that the ball should move from side to side. He had established the groundwork when he arrived in '04--05 by demanding that Pierce learn to give up the ball and have faith that it would come back to find him in better position to score or set up a teammate. "Earlier in Paul's career, when the ball touched his hands, that was it—it stopped—and he had to take tough shots to win for his team," says Rivers. "So I already had a guy who had bought into it, and Paul was able to tell Kevin and Ray, 'I know it will be difficult, but it will work.'"
Along the same line, Spoelstra has been leaning on Wade and forward Udonis Haslem, who came to the team together as rookies in 2003--04, to serve as "caretakers of the Miami Heat philosophy" of creating offense from a foundation of lockdown defense. "They've been like additional assistant coaches," says Spoelstra. "While we're teaching, they're helping echo things we feel are important."
But Spoelstra is also asking Wade to accept a new role by playing off the ball more than any time since his rookie year. It's impossible to divorce the X's and O's from the personalities of the players: The most ingenious strategy won't work if they aren't committed to their assignments. The Celtics insist that they won in '08 because their elder stars had fulfilled their individual goals and were willing to meet the larger needs of the team. "I look back on my years in Milwaukee—would we have been willing to do it?" says Allen, who was unable to reach the Finals while sharing the ball for four seasons with fellow stars Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson. "Would we have listened to each other as much as we do now [in Boston]?"
So what will Miami run? For starters, look for it to simply run; rival scouts, coaches and executives expect to see James and Wade creating turnovers that lead to easy baskets, though one advance scout wonders if their defensive aggression may backfire against disciplined opponents like the Celtics and the Lakers. "Coming off their time together with the  Olympic team, you've seen LeBron and D-Wade play defense from behind a lot more—they'll come from behind a guy to block the shot or steal the ball," the scout says. "That turns into steals and monster dunks for them at the other end, but the good teams will be able to take advantage of that gambling defense."
Goal No. 1 for opponents will be to prevent turnovers and keep the Heat out of the open floor, though an emphasis on getting back in transition will cede defensive rebounds to Miami's big men. The Heat players will push the ball relentlessly, and if they can't finish with an intimidating dunk, then they'll flow into their "continuity" offense, which is based on pick-and-rolls and the playmaking abilities of James and Wade to read the defense and create on the fly. To maximize their talents, they must learn to create less off the dribble and more with the pass.
"Stopping both Wade and LeBron is going to be very difficult," says one scout. "One of the hardest things to do is come from the help position and close out on a guy who's a driver. If you're closing out on either LeBron or Wade, you don't have much of a chance. So what you have to do defensively is to keep the ball from changing sides, to try to force them to stay on one side of the floor so you don't have to recover so far. You don't want to have your defense overloading on one side, and now you're having to close out on the other side. Because let's say you do get over there to close out—all they have to do is make another pass, and now they've got you. There's no way you're going to be able to recover yet again."
James was known to be frustrated by the stodgy offensive style in Cleveland—to which he contributed by pounding the ball as the shot clock dwindled—but there should be few such complaints in Miami. Spoelstra updated Riley's playbook two years ago by installing what is known as "Sacramento" action around the elbow (made famous more than a decade ago by former Kings coach Rick Adelman with big men Chris Webber and Vlade Divac), which should make use of James's and Bosh's talents as passers from the high post. One set from Miami's "Punch" series—tipped off by Spoelstra's punching his palm—calls for the ball to switch from the left side of the floor to James in the right frontcourt, where he runs a give-and-go with Bosh while circling around him to receive a pass on the right block. Spoelstra hasn't changed terminology because neither he nor Riley has worried about keeping secrets from opposing defenses, in the belief that the Heat's execution will outflank the defense.
Miami's free-flowing offense will create nightmares early in the shot clock as unsettled defenses struggle to match up with the three stars alongside the array of shooters—including Mike Miller, James Jones, Eddie House and 7'3" Zydrunas Ilgauskas—who have been ordered by Spoelstra to fire when open. And they will be open, with all of the attention that James and Wade will draw. "They have two of the most dynamic pick-and-roll players to ever play together," says former NBA coach and current ESPN commentator Jeff Van Gundy. "The untold story is that they've put together a team that's going to get fouled as much as any team ever. Wade, James and Bosh live at the free throw line, and that's an asset defensively because it cuts down on the opportunities the other team has to run, which enables Miami to play in the half-court defensively."
Look for the 6'8" James to serve as a quasi--point guard, with the 6'4" Wade on the wing as the main finisher and the 6'11" Bosh emerging as Miami's version of Robert Parish as the No. 3 option—though Bosh figures to attack primarily from the elbow, and Parish scored inside for the Celtics' championship teams of the 1980s. Bosh hopes to establish his niche as a defensive anchor. "That's really all I care about going into the games," he says. "I have to adapt, and it's really testing my will as a basketball player, because you're going to make a lot of mistakes in new situations."
The Magic, Celtics and Lakers all figure to try to pound the ball inside to slow down Miami while hoping that James, Wade and Bosh never develop a flow—that instead they take turns offensively in order to keep their scoring numbers up. "All three of us know whenever we get the ball there are going to be multiple eyes looking at us, and we have to make the right play at that moment," says James. "We're not going to see many one-on-one coverages because they'll double the basketball. But we know we're going to get more easy looks because we all can create for each other."
Who is going to take the last shot? "It's about who is going to make the right play," responds James. "I've always been a guy, even when I was in Cleveland, who has made the right play. Sometimes we lost the game, and sometimes we won the game, but I always tried to make the right play. It's not always about scoring or making the game-winner. It's about putting your teammates in position to succeed."
The Heat stars are approaching their peak years—Wade is the oldest, at 28; Bosh is 26; and James is 25—and the early returns on their partnership are promising, even though their preseason ailments (James has a tight hamstring) have prevented them from building on-court chemistry. "It's still a work in progress, because sometimes we bump into each other and go to the wrong place," says Ilgauskas, who followed James from Cleveland to Miami. "But as we figure it all out, it will work beautifully. When it clicks it looks very good."
Opponents have taken notice. "I've watched their preseason games, and I've been interested to see what types of actions they're going to run," says Chris Paul, the Hornets' All-Star guard. "They've got some nice stuff—some back screens for 'Bron, putting him in posts and pindowns. Those are going to be tough to defend against those guys."
Will the ball keep moving as promised? The answer won't be known until the later rounds of the playoffs next spring, after they've spent a season together and only the contenders are standing in their way. By then no one will be focusing on LeBron's decision or complaints of player collusion. Style will give way to substance, and all that will matter is whether Miami's Big Three made it work.
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