Miami Heat Following in Bulls’ Hoofprints?

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Yesterday, Henry Abbott at Truehoop posted this article pointing out just hold old, battered, and sluggish the reserves Pat Riley gathered to support the Miami Globetrotters really are. Illguaskas? Magloire? Arroyo? Jones? House? All aging or coming off injuries. None particularly fast at their positions.

Henry’s point was that the team’s stars are incredibly fast at their positions and offer a unique opportunity to produce a quick trapping defense and breaking offense. Hard to argue with that. But when I started really looking at this team’s make-up I found myself drawing comparisons to the winningest team of all time, the 1996 Chicago Bulls. Break it down 1 time:

Okay everybody... hands on hips and look bored... now!

The 72 win Bulls started three star players at the shooting guard, small forward, and power forward and brought a multifaceted, sweet-shooting white guy with floppy hair off the bench. They started a smart, defense first guard with limited range and had one undersized bench guard who couldn’t dribble against pressure or defend but shot the three like he had a laser guidance system build into his right hand. Their starting center was a bulky, immobile defensive stalwart, and their backup center was an even less mobile, veteran iceberg with a nice shooting touch. That sounds like a pretty decent description of what the Heat have going for them (and potentially holding them back.

1 to 1 (and sometimes 2 or 3) Comparison:

LeBron James = MegaUltraPippen; Superathlete point forward
Dwyane Wade = MicroJordan; High scoring do-it-all wing
Bosh+Haslem = Rodman+Kukoc; Duo of forwards that combine toughness & scoring
Miller = ShortyKukoc; Floorspacing / playmaking forward
Chambers = Harper; Short minute defense first yet versatile guard
House = Kerr; Spot shooting and hustle
Jones = Buschler; Spot shooting reserve forward
Anthony+Illgauskas+Magloire = Longley+Wennington+Parish; Physical bigs
Arojo ~ Brown; The reserve PGs are not similar. I apologize.

This game also works with the Don Nelson Milwaukee Bucks that featured Pressey, Moncrief, Cummings, Lister, Hodges, and Pierce.

Do you buy it? For the sake of continuing my train of thought, let’s assume you do. Come on! Pretty much you buy it. Some of it anyway. So the construction of the 2010 Heat at least cosmetically resembles the construction of the second Bulls dynasty. Granted we’ve got a situation where the more talented player is in the point forward role instead of the primary scorer role, and the rebounding / scoring distribution of the forwards projects to be more balanced, but basically the pieces are similar. Obviously, Spoelstra is a Riley disciple and not a Phil Jackson emulator, but maybe we can get a clue about how the team is likely to play from how their predecessors did it.

The Bulls of course ran the triangle offense, credited to assistant coach Tex Winter. The basic tenet of the triangle is that the offense runs through everyone with the ball entering one of three general post positions and players cutting and passing off of those spots. However, in a more specific way, what the Bulls ran was a strong side / weak side game where the ball was dumped into Jordan at the pinch post (elbow) or short corner (baseline). The defense reacted by sending help or not. Jordan reacted by attempting to score or by passing back out. When the ball did come back out, Pippen, Harper, et al had the chance to either swing another pass, shoot, or drive against the off balance defense. This worked. Really, really well.

Okay... arms in the air, on three everybody look drunk!

The Heat won’t quite be able to do that. Wade isn’t the post player that Jordan was. But they can isolate Wade and force defenses to decide if they want to help on him or not. If they don’t help he will do them harm. If they do help, he can make the easy pass and allow his talented new teammates to make plays. Very simple, very difficult to stop. There is a caveat here though. One of the reasons the Jordan isolation worked so well for that team was because it is so easy to get the ball to a guard in the mid to high post. It’s almost impossible to deny that entry pass. Then Jordan literally had to do nothing but jump and shoot. It was highly energy efficient and and a very easy way to get the defense to react. Wade will need more room to operate. If they decide to run things the other way and have LeBron be more of a playmaker in the Oscar mode than a game manager in the Pippen mode, James will also need more room to maneuver. Which is why Riley put such a premium on getting Mike Miller and Eddie House to space the floor.

So let’s scratch the late 90s Bulls and look at how the early 90s Bulls, who actually played with drive and kick wings and a shooting guard worked. Uh… Like I just said. Pippen brought the ball up, it moved around the triple post a little, Jordan caught the ball in attack position, drove towards the rim and either shot or passed. Or Pippen did if that was the better option. Their two most common assist passes were the excellent dump down look from the elbow to the block for an open Horace Grant (open because the entire back line of defense had to stop up as Mike or Pip got into attack mode in or near the lane) or a kick out to Paxson / BJ / Hodges for the jumper. This is in fact how the Heat are likely to play. This is the whole point of starting a shooting specialist (something the 96-98 Bulls didn’t bother with because of the aforementioned high-post Jordan strategy) on an athletic team. Assuming the Heat do in fact start Miller this strategy seems highly likely.

The Heat can start Miller in two different alinements. They could start him as the small forward with Wade and Chalmers at the guards, LeBron on the power forward, and Bosh at center. This might sound like an undersized unit, but Bosh has been playing center most of career, and LeBron is pretty much the same size as Karl Malone. So it could work, would be crazy fast, and basically guarantees mismatches all over the place. OR they can start Wade and Miller at the guards with LeBron in his accustomed small forward slot, Bosh at power forward and Joel Anthony at the center or Haslem at power forward and Bosh at center. Both of these lineups allow for the prospect of playing 91-93 Bulls basketball (and they could even use Chicago’s press on defense which would be a blast to watch with that team speed).

If they do choose to start a lineup without Miller, say Chalmers and Wade in the back court, James, Bosh, and Anthony up front, then they may have trouble. No one on that team is a deep shooting specialist, and nobody is a high efficiency high post scorer. The defenders can pack the paint and make the hard driving Wade and LeBron shoot from distance. The strategy involved in melding such similar players is definitely fascinating. I can’t wait for the season to get here! Come on October!

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