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Miami Heat’s (Slightly Less) ‘Death-Ball’ Lineup

El Nuevo Herald/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

With the Golden State Warriors destroying everything put in front of them, the analysis of the team’s best lineup has been abundant. But the Warriors aren’t the only team capable of playing a lineup that causes havoc on the opposition, albeit to a lesser extent.

The Miami Heat’s starting lineup features Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside. The five seem to have a perfect mix of talented, veteran players (Dragic, Wade, Deng and Bosh) combined with an outstanding young big man capable of defending the rim (Whiteside). There is only one problem: This starting five hasn’t been the best lineup for the Heat.

Replacing the team’s highest paid player (Bosh) for rookie Justise Winslow has resulted in the second best 5-man unit, according to Basketball-Reference.com (among lineups that have played more than 50 minutes).

Fifty-five minutes and 115 possessions — or slightly more than one full game — isn’t enough to declare this unit as the second-best lineup in the league, but it’s certainly enough to time to determine what makes this unit so destructive.

These five have formed one of the best offenses among qualifiers, with an offensive rating of 114.5, but what makes this lineup so interesting is how they score their points.

Only 20 percent of the shots taken by the five are three-pointers, which is below the league average three-point rate of 27.9 percent. Not only is the unit not taking threes, but only 33 percent of the treys they are trying go in (the league average is 34.5 percent). Instead, the unit is thriving at the most efficient spot on the floor.

The Heat are taking 28.6 percent of their shots within three feet and hitting on 60.5 percent of those attempts. The specific five-man lineup is taking 38.1 percent of their shots within three feet and converting on 72.5 percent of those shots, per nbawowy.com. Extrapolating those numbers over 100 possessions would result in almost 13 more points for the five-man lineup compared to the Heat as a team.

One explanation for the lineup’s efficiency at the rim could be found in the pace. The Heat average about 94.8 possessions per 48 minutes, the 23rd slowest pace in the league. When the five players share the court, they push the pace averaging over 100 possessions per 48 minutes. Shots at the rim happen more frequently in transition due to the defense scrambling to get in position, and big men — who are normally the best rim protectors — are often the slowest players on the court.

Another explanation for the percentage at the rim is the players that make up this specific lineup. Dragic and Wade have always been among the best finishers at the rim at their positions, and Deng has finished 66.7 percent of his attempts within three feet. But the main reason the lineup has been efficient around the rim is Whiteside.

Whiteside can convert shots that most players in the league don’t have the athletic ability to, much like DeAndre Jordan, Tyson Chandler in his prime and Dwight Howard in the Orlando Magic days. Whiteside, combined with Dragic and Wade’s passing ability, is one of the reasons the unit averages over 1.5 assists for every turnover. Twelve of the 23 total assists have been converted by Whiteside, most of which end like this Dragic to Whiteside pick-and-roll.

Dragic-Whiteside PNR

Whiteside’s overall usage percentage is 22 percent, slightly above average. In the five-man unit, however, that number climbs to 28.3 percent, trailing only Wade’s 30 percent. This makes the lineup so efficient because the vast majority of Whiteside’s attempts come at the rim, and with Whiteside’s length and pogo stick jumping ability, most of those shots go in.

The five-man unit has thrived defensively, allowing only 80 points per 100 possessions. Look no further than last week’s triple-double (22 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks) for proof that Whiteside is a threat to block any weak attempt at the rim, along with most strong attempts. As a team, the Heat allow opponents to shoot 60.5 percent within three feet, but when these five players share the court, that number dips to just over 58 percent.

One way to attack a small-ball unit like this is to send more players to help grab offensive rebounds, but the Heat have held their own there as well. The lineup grabs 75.5 percent of the available defensive rebounds, a number only slightly below the league average of 75.9 percent.

The last thing the lineup does at a high level defensively is force turnovers. Wade has slipped some defensively, but he has always had the ability to get in passing lanes to force turnovers. In fact, the unit as a whole forces turnovers on 20 percent of the opponents’ possessions, a number that would rank higher than the league-leading Celtics’ 17.1 percentage.

While this unit has been a menace defensively, there are some signs that point to regression.

The mid-range shot is something that defenses are normally willing to give up instead of a shot at the rim or a three-pointer, but opponents are shooting only 22.2 percent from 10-15 feet (short mid-range) and 15.4 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line (long mid-range). Both percentages are far lower than what is to be expected, so while teams may never shoot the Heat out of games from the mid-range, they can certainly do more damage than they are currently doing.

Basketball-Reference.com’s strength of schedule rating (SOS) isn’t the perfect metric to determine how difficult a schedule the Heat have played — good teams tend to have a lower rating because they beat their opponents, which inherently lowers the opposition’s record — but it is a good place to start. By that metric, the Heat have had the ninth-easiest schedule.

The Heat have been impressive thus far, as their 9-4 record indicates, and this specific five-man lineup is one of the reasons for their early season success. While the lineup may slip a little on defense, it will be one that opposing coaches will have to try to stop, which has been difficult to do thus far.

All lineup data is from NBA.com’s lineup data and nbawowy.com

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