It was a mere footnote amid the Heat’s explosion from the perimeter Tuesday against San Antonio, but it’s worth sticking in our collective back pocket: LeBron James played power forward in small lineups last night for 7:52 seconds, nearly five minutes more per game than James has played that role on average so far this season.
A possibly related event: Mike Miller returned from his sports hernia, giving Miami three wing players (Miller, Shane Battier and James Jones) other than James with the size to defend opposing small forwards. Miami is down one superstar wing player in Dwyane Wade, but he is a pure shooting guard, even if his combination of strength, smarts and athleticism makes him capable of defending almost any small forward in a pinch.
The Heat’s offense reached another level last season with James at power forward, scoring a whopping 10 more points per 100 possessions on average than lineups with James at his traditional small forward spot – lineups that scored at an elite level to begin with. Miami’s defense slipped from elite to average with James at power forward, though the results here were all over the map, depending on which four teammates joined LeBron. The lone small lineup to get major minutes with Zydrunas Ilgauskas at center predictably hemorrhaged points, while such lineups featuring either Chris Bosh or Joel Anthony at center were alternatively stingy and sieve-like. That kind of inconsistency is both frustrating and encouraging.
This was a powerful weapon for coach Erik Spoelstra, and one he used to great effect against Boston and Philadelphia during the playoffs before personnel issues forced him to pocket it against Chicago and Dallas. And we hadn’t seen much of it this season before Tuesday night’s whipping of San Antonio. Entering that game, James had played just 5 percent of his minutes at power forward, per 82games.com, and no small lineup had logged more than six minutes and change together. James played nearly 15 percent of his minutes at power forward last season, according to 82games.com. The Heat had in fact been more likely to go “big,” with Battier as the nominal shooting guard aside from LeBron, two big men and a point guard.
Was Tuesday night an indication of what is to come? It’s too early to say, but Miller’s presence — and especially his elite rebounding — gives Spoelstra more flexibility to roll with smaller groups. Still, there are cautionary notes. The small lineup Spoelstra played the longest on Tuesday did not feature Miller, and the Spurs represent an ideal opponent against which a team can try out small lineups. The Heat went small, with Battier subbing in for Joel Anthony, at the precise moment in the first quarter when Gregg Popovich brought Matt Bonner in to play his perimeter-heavy version of power forward. A wing player can defend Bonner without risk and exploit him on offense, and Popovich indeed replaced Bonner with Richard Jefferson after just 1:04 to better match up against Miami’s speed.
Miami can’t use James’ versatility to dictate matchups like this against every team, and playing him at power forward can present size issues, hurt Miami on the glass and remove the advantage he has posting up smaller guys. But the benefits often outweigh the drawbacks, and it will be interesting to watch if Miami unleashes more of these super-speed lineups — especially once Wade gets healthy.