Before the Miami Heat's decision to move with Shane Battier in its starting lineup in the 2012 playoffs, Udonis Haslem was freshly cemented as the power forward in a new lineup with Chris Bosh at center.
An injury to Bosh and some experiments with smaller lineups later, Haslem was back on the bench in a diminished role. The veteran averaged 20 minutes per game in the postseason, the lowest since his rookie year.
The further the Heat went from their prototypical backup power foward, the more dynamic they became offensively, which presents a perplexity for the Heat this season. The dilemma is magnified because Haslem is a fan favorite, and a favorite by a Heat organization that values his intangibles and defense.
Haslem is under contract for three more seasons, with a player option in 2014-15, but is he already an afterthought in the rotation?
To get clarity on the issue, let's look at what Haslem does well and where he helps Miami, as well as his season-long offensive funk in 2011-12.
First of all, he remains a valuable asset defensively and is a good rebounder. Haslem averaged 10.6 rebounds per 36 minutes last season with a 17.7 Total Rebound Percentage, which represents an estimate of the available rebounds a player grabbed while on the floor.
He's as good as he's ever been as a rebounder, as both of those numbers are the second highest of his career. For his production in the context of the entire league, his TRB% was 15th best in the NBA, in the ballpark of Tyson Chandler, Roy Hibbert, Blake Griffin, Joakim Noah and Tim Duncan. The Heat are a very good rebounding team, and Haslem is a big part of that.
Defensively, Haslem remains a good defender who the Heat value for his mobility and smarts in a defensive scheme that stresses switches often and traps on pick-and-rolls.
According to My Synergy Sports data, Haslem allowed a 36.5 field goal percentage against, good for 57th in the league, allowing just 0.76 points per possession. He remains a stout post defender, a place where Miami isn't particularly beefy. The team splits indicate that Haslem helps the team when he's on the floor as well.
Haslem's consistency on the defensive side of the floor and on the glass are constants, but for an already limited offensive player, Haslem's awful offensive production last season was what probably made it difficult to play him late in the campaign.
This is where the issue lies. Although the team's best lineups during the season featured LeBron James at small forward, his late season play at power forward, at least offensively, allowed the Heat to play it's deep core of perimeter options and surround him with floor-spacing shooters as he operated close to the hoop.
Haslem isn't exactly an offensive weapon. So he's just not going to find the floor much in this scenario. Besides occasional cuts and pick-and-rolls, Haslem's only useful offensive attribute is his jump shot, which disappeared last year. This was covered by local media as well, with many blaming a glitch in his mechanics and rust from an injury riddled 2010-11 season.
Let's look at the numbers, courtesy of Hoop Data (Click to enlarge).
As you can see, Haslem was always reliable from long two-point distance. From the 16-to-23 foot area of the floor, Haslem hadn't shot below 45 percent since 2008. For most NBA players, the long-two is a low efficiency shot, but for Haslem it was a quality look, particularly off of pick-and-pops with Dwyane Wade.
His jumper also failed him miserably from 10-to-15 all year long.
If there is anything encouraging from this, it's that last season can be looked at as an outlier and a regression to the mean can be realistically projected going forward. Than again, Haslem is 32 years old, and if this drop-off in efficiency has anything to do with his foot injury two years ago, the decline might be permanent.
But that's not likely because if Haslem is going to play great defense and rebound the way he did last year, it suggests he is fully healthy and mobile. For me, this has to be an issue that Haslem resolves with an offseason of work and repetition to get his jumpshot close to what it's been before, in terms of timing.
Since a jumpshot doesn't really rely on athletic ability, it's realistic to think that regardless of the decline his age suggests he is in for, he should be able to knock down wide open mid-range shots off of passes from James and Wade.
Now, Haslem's days of playing 30 minutes a game are over, and that's the reality of the current Heat roster as constructed. And there will be lineups in certain matchups where he just won't play much at all.
But if he can hit his jumper again with regularity, he can still factor into 20-25 minutes a night. Otherwise, the need for shooting around the Heat's stars may force him to more time on the bench, permanently, in spite of the strengths he still offers.