Erik Spoelstra has handled the Miami Heat with care throughout the season, keeping his eyes on the prize at the end of the playoffs. Spoelstra has rested his veterans whenever they've needed, most notably by holding Dwyane Wade to just 50 games thus far in the hope of keeping him fresh for the postseason. Miami knows it needs a healthy and productive Wade to win its third straight title. What's less obvious is that the Heat also need the role players around their three stars to step up as well, or Wade's health won't be Miami only issue.
LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Wade are the constants for Miami, but the role players around them might not be as productive as they were during Miami's last two title runs. Mike Miller was amnestied in the offseason, and returning players like Shane Battier and Ray Allen have seen their shooting percentages dip. Big man Udonis Haslem has been phased out to a degree. New pieces have found varied degrees of success.
Spoelstra has a stretch run to decide who can contribute. He can whittle down a rotation if he chooses, but this comes with risk as the season winds down.
There are fundamental differences to the Heat's approach in building around their stars than, say, the San Antonio Spurs. While San Antonio has filled the holes with younger diamonds in the rough -- Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, Cory Joseph -- Pat Riley and Miami have taken fliers on Greg Oden because of injury and Michael Beasley because of, well, you know. On top of it, they've brought on veterans like Allen and Battier, who are willing to play team ball but are struggling to produce.
A few questions about the non-Big Three need to be answered for the Heat to go for three straight titles.
No 3-point advantage
Here's a general rule about three-point shooting in the NBA: Good teams shoot better than their opponents. The league-best Spurs have the top three-point shooting percentage differential, hitting triples 4.2 percent better than opponents on the year. The Philadelphia 76ers, losers of 25 straight, shoot 6.8 percent worse than their opponents from deep.
Miami's a middle of the road three-point shooting team at 36.8 percent, and they aren't the best at stopping threes either, giving up 36.1 percent.
This comes a year after Miami was an elite three-point shooting team, hitting 39.6 percent last regular season and 38.1 percent on a postseason run to its second title in a row. Five players shot above 40 percent from deep last year. One of those players, Miller is gone -- so is his infamous shoeless game. James has fallen off a few percentage points, but the biggest drop-off has come from Battier and Allen.
Allen went from shooting 42 percent at three-point range last year to 37 percent in 2013-14.
Ray Allen's shot chart, 2012-13
Ray Allen shot chart, 2013-14
Battier has fallen off even more dramatically, from 43 percent in 2012-13 to 33 percent this season.
Shane Battier shot chart, 2012-13
Shane Battier shot chart, 2013-14
So will Battier and Allen recapture their form from last year if they're given more consistent roles and minutes, or are they in slumps in stay? Will the Heat have to rely on -- gulp -- Beasley, who leads Miami this year by hitting 42 percent (he's only taken 50 threes all year)?
And then it's a wonder which lineups can succeed in defending the three.
Defense, in general, has to be a concern, as well.
Will small-er ball be good to the Heat?
Over the last few years, Miami went away from Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem and have played more and more with Bosh and James as the big men. Haslem, a significant piece to the Heat's three title runs in the past decade, has seen his minutes fall from 24 minutes per game in 2011-12 to 19 minutes per game last year, to 12 minutes per game this season.
Center Chris Andersen has been a defensive rock the last few years, but the Heat's decision to bring in Greg Oden showed a self-consciousness about the roster's inability to play intimidating interior defense.
When the Heat won the 2012 title, Miami ranked fourth in the NBA in defensive ratings, giving up 100.2 points per 100 possessions, according to Basketball-Reference. That slipped last year and again this one, where Miami ranks 13th in the league at 106.1 points allowed per 100 possessions.
Miami is 20th in the NBA by giving up 50 percent shooting on two-point shots.
Andersen has slid into the majority of the big lineups, but Miami has still seen slips in rebounding percentages in each of the last two seasons. Of course, the offense made up for a defensive slip last year, but now that the shooting has come back down to earth, the room for error seems thin.
The worries over the role players could be resolved in the Heat's final 12 games of the year, but there's certainly more question marks this year than in the last two. For Miami, it will always come back to James, Bosh and Wade creating opportunities for their teammates.
Opportunity only goes so far if the role players aren't ready to take advantage.