The logic is deceptively simple: If the Miami Heat is to run its offense through LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, why not take a traditional point guard out of the equation? That sentiment has existed since "The Decision," but Heat coach Erik Spoelstra never really acted on it until earlier this month. Unable to live with rookie Norris Cole's slumping shooting any longer, Spoelstra made James his backup point guard during the second half of a 98-93 win over the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Before that game, James had played about 60 minutes at the point this season, mostly when Chalmers was unavailable. Since then, James has played at least 10 minutes of point guard in each game save Friday's win at Charlotte, when Wade sat out and Cole played extended minutes. Spoelstra made extended use of the configuration during last Thursday's showdown with the Chicago Bulls, playing James at the point in place of Chalmers for much of the fourth quarter and all of overtime. That game showed a second benefit to using James at the point--taking advantage of his ability to defend opposing point guards while getting a bigger defender on the floor instead of Chalmers.
During the game, TNT analyst Steve Kerr expressed the fear that James has a tendency to grow passive when playing the point, favoring his responsibility for initiating the offense over looking for his own shot. That notion was reinforced when James went scoreless in the extra session, attempting just two shots from the field. However, it doesn't seem to hold up in general over the tiny sample size (145 minutes) James has played at the point this season. According to NBA.com/Stats, James has averaged 30.6 points per 40 minutes as a point guard, up slightly from the 28.4 he averages overall.
The stronger effect is at the team level. Entering Sunday's win at New York, BasketballValue.com's lineup data showed Miami averaging a robust 121.1 points per 100 possessions with James at point guard, up from 108.6 when he plays other positions. The Heat's Defensive Rating is slightly better with James at the point, too, going from 100.2 to 98.6. As a result, Miami was outscoring opponents by 22.6 points per 100 possessions without a true point guard. That figure went down slightly on Sunday, when the Heat was +3 in the 15 minutes James ran the point in an eight-point win.
Despite that difference, James' position doesn't seem to have much impact on his own statistics. The biggest difference is his turnover rate, with turnovers accounting for 15.1 percent of the plays he uses at the point compared to 13.1 percent overall. That makes sense, given how much more ballhandling James is doing, but surprisingly he gets no more assists as a point guard than he does on the wing.
In part because of the turnovers, James uses a higher percentage of Miami's plays at point guard--35.6 percent, up from 31.6 percent, which already ranks third in the league. Only Kobe Bryant (36.1 percent) exceeds James' usage at point guard. Yet James is slightly more efficient as a scorer, posting a .625 True Shooting Percentage at the point.
If James remains equally effective at point guard, expect to see more of the lineup because of the way it benefits Spoelstra's rotation. Cole was never as effective as he seemed to national audiences who saw him knock down a bunch of shots early in the season, but he's been positively dreadful since the All-Star break. Over a span of 23 games, Cole is shooting just 29.8 percent from the field, putting him below the Tskitishvili Line.
The Heat has been 9.1 points worse per 100 possessions with Cole on the floor this season, so putting him on the bench would be a huge benefit no matter who replaced him. Fortunately for Miami, Spoelstra has plenty of extra wings to pick from for those minutes. A healthy Mike Miller has benefited from the extra playing time, while James Jones is now back in the rotation after seeing sparing action. The additional two shooters help space the floor for the Heat.
Keeping James in the backup role looks like a no-brainer for Spoelstra. The real question, as the playoffs approach, is how often Miami might bench Chalmers in favor of the wing-heavy lineup. That figures to depend on matchups. Chicago offers the most obvious potential advantage since the Heat will want James on a healthy Derrick Rose much of the time. The Celtics are the other possible playoff opponent that could force Miami to cross-match with James on Rajon Rondo. Since Boston has so much talent on the perimeter, Shane Battier may be a preferable option to Chalmers down the stretch.
By contrast, the Heat generally matched up better with the Knicks when Chalmers was on the floor because James was better utilized defending Carmelo Anthony. How much Miami uses James at the point during a likely first-round matchup could depend on whether New York goes to its own big lineup with Iman Shumpert playing point guard or finishes games with point guard Baron Davis on the floor.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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