Throughout most of the 2010-11 and 2011-12 season, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was criticized for not attempting to fully utilize a small’ish lineup featuring wiry big man Chris Bosh at center. When Spoelstra did commit to such a starting unit, the Heat managed to drive and kick their way toward consecutive championships, showing no ill effects from the five-man unit outside of the usual hand wringing about raw rebounding totals.
Gunning for a third ring in a row, the team has recently been outed as a bit undersized, which is part of the reason why the rival Indiana Pacers doubled down and acquired center Andrew Bynum to pair with Roy Hibbert, an All-Star that gave the Heat fits in the playoffs last season. On national TV on Sunday, with the Heat coming off of five losses in six contests, coach Spoelstra inserted Greg Oden in his starting lineup to attempt to combat the all-world work of Houston Rocket center Dwight Howard. Oden’s impact wasn’t significant, he only played 13 minutes in total and the Heat pulled away as Greg sat out the entire fourth quarter, but the move into the starting lineup might be a lasting one.
Spoelstra discussed as much on Tuesday. From Ira Winderman at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel:
"I've stressed that to our team, that last year's blueprint was for last year," Spoelstra said, "and the more we tried to pigeonhole ourselves into that blueprint, we might not be opening ourselves up to a more successful or necessary blueprint for this year, as the competition has changed. As it's gotten better, our team, our personnel has gotten better. It always changes."
Spoelstra said with Bosh extending his range to the 3-point line this season, playing a true center in his starting lineup does not compromise the Heat's ability to space the floor for Dwyane Wade's lane cuts or LeBron's James' post-up play.
"We've actually worked on Greg's spacing quite a bit," Spoelstra said. "And there's some elements, because of his size, that he adds to our spacing, in a different way that we haven't had before.
"When you have a big body like that under the paint, you can't take a body off of him. It's the old Shaq effect."
In what probably came off to most as a bit of a humblebrag, Spoelstra compared his work station and various lineup scenarios as “like the character from Beautiful Mind,” which I suppose makes sense, but one should probably decline to directly align oneself with a mathematical genius, if at all possible. Spoelstra is a brilliant coach, though, and he went on to point out how much easier it is to weave someone like Oden into the starting lineup than it is to feature him as a “10th man.”
This is significant, because Greg Oden sopping up minutes at the outset of both halves gives the 2007 top overall pick a chance to buy into a routine, something to prepare for nightly (should his knees allow him to play on consecutive nights, which Spoelstra admits is no sure thing), and every bit of time that Chris Bosh spends away from the pivot will help the legs on his ridiculously accurate jumper. Especially as the team works through the daunting task of attempting to play deep into June for the fourth season in a row.
Oden’s per-minute stats in 2013-14 have taken a huge drop in comparison to his quite good, All-Star level per-minute stats he contributed in 82 injury-marred games with the Portland Trail Blazers from 2008 through 2010. His scoring and rebounding have dropped, he’s turning the ball over more, and both the box score and the eye test point out that Oden isn’t chasing nearly as many shots as he did while with the Trail Blazers. That’s likely by design, as the Heat don’t want their hoped-for interior savior to overuse those knees, and they also don’t want to put teams in the penalty by overreaching defensively.
With just a month to go in the season, Oden has played just 150 minutes this season as the Heat enter Tuesday night’s action. Though he did play some token exhibition season minutes, Oden didn’t make his debut as a member of the Miami Heat until the squad’s 38th game of the season, building up core strength while learning to trust the legs that failed him time after time in Portland.
Spoelstra is correct about Oden’s impact on both sides of the ball. Forcing an opponent to at least pay attention to a big body in the paint can’t help but aid in spacing offensively and enhance both rebounding and shot altering on the defensive end. Even if Oden turns into a longer version of Joel Anthony, just taking up space while others gobble up the rebounds, this could prove huge for a team that has been going small for nearly two years now.
And even in these initial stages, this is a huge boon to one of the better comeback stories we’ve seen the NBA churn out recently. For Greg Oden to be even on a roster this season is significant enough.
For him to be starting for the two-time defending champs? That’s a solid enough return, just to start. Pun intended.
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