Erik Spoelstra has three very easy decisions to make when he fills out his lineup card every game. It's something my grandmother couldn't mess up blindfolded. You start Chris Bosh, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Aside from that though, Spoelstra has a really itchy trigger finger when it comes to shuffling the two starters around his three All-Stars.
In the 2010-11 season, the Heat started Joel Anthony, Erick Dampier and Zydrunas Ilgauskas at center while Mario Chalmers, Carlos Arroyo and Mike Bibby lined up as point guards in Spoelstra's starting lineup roulette,
In 2011-12, although Chalmers cemented himself as the starting point guard, the Heat moved Chris Bosh to center and sat Anthony late in the year, moving Udonis Haslem into the starting unit for the first time since 2009, only to move him to the bench in favor of Shane Battier in the postseason.
Some of these moves had valid reasons. Others made no statistical difference. Either way, it can be debated that it doesn't really matter who starts next to Miami's big three, and what matters is who the majority of the minutes go to and what lineups fit best. After all, whoever starts the game doesn't necessarily end it.
This time around, Spoelstra has already made a change, replacing Battier in the starting unit with Haslem.
Let's consider how much this actually impacts the team and whether it was the right decision.
POWER FORWARD PRIMER: UDONIS HASLEM V. SHANE BATTER
Individual Comparison: Per 36 Minutes
Individual Comparison: Advanced
What does this say?
There are a few superficial observations we can take from this. Haslem and Shane offer different skill sets.
For one, Haslem gives Miami rebounding. He's one of the better rebounders in the league every season, and he's at it again this year. The perception is also that while Battier and Haslem are both very good defensive players, Battier simply cannot handle other power forwards consistently because of his size. It's easy to make that assumption, but the data we have available doesn't support that.
This is a small sample, but so far this season, Battier has only allowed four field goals on 24 attempts on opponents post-ups. Meanwhile Haslem has given up six field goals in the 14 times he has been posted up, according to Synergy Sports Data. Overall, Haslem is giving up 54 percent shooting while Battier is allowing 34 percent shooting (0.78 points per possession) to offensive players.
Haslem's defense won't stay this bad, but it also shows that Battier is on no way struggling down there.
Meanwhile, Battier is providing better offensive output with the only thing he does at this point in his career on the offenseive side of the floor: Shoot Three's. He's not really a power forward in the traditional sense. He's a shooting specialist who offers not much else.
Battier is taking 4.5 3-pointers a game (Out of 5.2 total attemtps!) and making two of them. That 44 percent shooting clip could be partially due to the shots he gets playing with Miami's great wing players, but it's also a regression he's been having since late last season after a terrible start to the year in 2011-12. Even if this mark slips some, which it likely will, Battier is still going to be a more efficient player than Haslem.
But comparing them individually only begins to set the table for this exercise.
This comparison means nothing without contextualizing it to which player is more valuable to the Heat, and hence, which one Spoelstra should play more.
Whose qualities are needed more?
Haslem's rebounding seems to be critical to a Miami team that is 22nd in the NBA in rebound differential.
Miami has been an outstanding rebounding team since the core of the team was constructed a few years ago, so this is odd.
On the other hand, Battier is a huge reason why Miami leads the league in 3-point shooting percentage, which gives the team the spacing it uses to be an offensive juggernaut.
The Heat have plenty of shooting, so in theory, they can shore up one end (rebounds) with a player in Haslem and sacrifice 3-pointers while maintaining a good performance from beyond the arc.
It's not that simple. Here is what the team splits tell us when Haslem and Battier are on the floor this season.
|On − Off||MIA||-2.5||+5.3||-7.8|
|On − Off||MIA||-0.1||-10.8||+10.7|
Taking on and off court splits do not tell us the entire story, but this is an alarming difference. Although Haslem has played with lineups on the second unit most of the year, this still represents a sizable difference. Battier's individual defense, which we cited earlier, seems to be translating to the team's performance, as Miami's so-far below average defense on the season has been quite good when he plays, while units that play with Haslem aren't very much. I fully expect Battier and Haslem's defensive performance to regress toward the middle and be close by season's end, although the statistics from 1/4 of the season cannot be ignored.
That leaves us with the offensive difference, which also correlates with the individual statistics the two players have put forth. Battier is a better offensive player at this stage in his career.
Haslem spends most of his time clunking 2-point jumpers these days (A far cry from what he used to be), while Battier is a 3-point sniper. He clearly has more value on this end, and in taking in Heat games, it is clear the offense is more dynamic when he is on the floor because of it.
If Haslem's superior rebounding isn't going to significantly alter the results, while Battier provides stout defense inside and is clearly a better offensive player, Spolestra probably should reconsider the minute allotment he currently has for the two regardless of who starts.
Since Haslem was moved the starting lineup five games ago, his minutes have barely gone up. Battier, however, is averaging just 22 minutes as a reserve in six games after he was logging 26.5 minutes as the starter.
Haslem certainly has a role, but the minute difference between the two should arguably be greater. Cumulative statistics like Wins Produced and Win Shares also favor Battier as the player whose production most summates to winning so far this season.
I suspect that one of the things that made Shane Battier a favorite of Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey when he acuired him from Memphis was that, at his best, his team's we're always significantly better on the floor with him on it. They always have, but he's had big years like this before, when his on and off court splits resemble those of a superstar.
Spoelstra is still playing Battier more minutes than Haslem, but he has decided to stick with Haslem as the starter for now. He certainly won't be shy to make a change in the future given recent history though, so if something close to what we've seen from both players continues into the season, Battier probably deserves the nod and more time on the floor.