Do the Heat need help at center?

Every time Miami plays Orlando, we’ll be reminded about this fact: the Magic have Dwight Howard and the Heat don’t.

But it goes deeper than that. The Heat’s hole at the 5 position seems more pronounced against Orlando since the Magic employ the best center in the game. Howard is well on his way to his third straight Defensive Player of the Year award, not to mention an average of 22.2 points and 13.5 rebounds per game.

And the Heat? Well, they feature a slew of serviceable centers in Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Joel Anthony and Erick Dampier, but they aren’t exactly powerhouses down low. Ilgauskas started out this season playing behind Anthony, but they switched spots ten games into the season and Spoelstra has played Ilgauskas in the starting unit ever since.

But the starter designation may be nothing more than a label. Spoelstra treats his center rotation not unlike a baseball manager treats his bullpen; he’ll choose his center depending on the matchup. This strategy works because the centers are distinctly specialized. If Spoelstra needs height and shooting, he’ll tab Ilgauskas. If he needs energy and basket protection, he’ll call on Anthony. If he needs someone to take up space down low and lay out some stiff screens, he’ll send Dampier onto the floor.

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Joel Anthony: Defensive savant?

On the surface, the Heat’s front line doesn’t appear to be all that intimidating because they don’t have a household name who anchors the paint. But their soft reputation doesn’t hold much water. In reality, teams have struggled mightily to score at the basket against the Heat. A typical team converts 63 percent of their field goals at the rim, but against the Heat frontcourt, that conversion rate plummets to just 58 percent. That’s the lowest opponent field goal percentage league-wide according to Hoopdata.com -- even lower than Orlando’s.

It goes without saying that the Heat’s big men have a lot to do with that. Dig deeper and we find more eye-opening nuggets. Guess which team leads the NBA in defending post-ups? According to video data from Synergy Sports Technology, it’s the Heat. Opponents shoot just 38.1 percent on post-ups against the Heat and score merely .74 points per post-up play, even if we include the trips to the charity stripe.

Don’t believe the data? Just watch how the Heat protect the basket; it’s never a one-on-one endeavor. Under Spoelstra’s defensive system, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are free to float in and out of the lane to disrupt the post. And they’re enabled with that roaming license because they can cover an enormous amount of ground with their speed and length. Their roving doesn’t spread the defense thin.

Furthermore, with the 6-foot-8, 260 pound James flanking Bosh, the Heat essentially deploy two power forwards on the court. So if you try to shoot over the 7-foot-3 Ilgauskas – which in and of itself is a tall task -- you better be prepared to shoot over Bosh and James as well.

And don’t be fooled by Anthony’s height either. The springy center may stand just 6-foot-9, but what you may not know is that he’s one of the best shot blockers in the NBA. In fact, he averages more blocks per minute than Howard himself. He moves laterally as well as he does vertically. He’s also a top-notch defender in the pick-and-roll, something that isn’t graded in the box score. For that, we’ll go to Synergy, which tells us that screeners shoot just 22 percent (15-for-68) after rolling to the basket against Anthony, which is the lowest conversion rate in the NBA for any individual defender. Even if we include the points accrued on trips to the foul line (which happens often with Anthony), he still ranks as one of the best defenders in the pick-and-roll. And in the NBA, pick-and-roll defense may be the most important skill for a big man on that end of the floor.

With that said, the Heat’s lack of production out of the center position can’t be ignored. Between Ilgauskas, Anthony, and Dampier, the Heat receive just 8.9 points per game from the center slot. That's by far the lowest scoring contribution in the league and nearly 3 points fewer than the 29th ranked Detroit Pistons according to numbers from hoopsstats.com. In fact, a Heat center has scored more than 10 points in a game just five times this season -- and they all came from Ilgauskas.

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Zydrunas Ilgauskas: The Heat's nominal starter at center

But with that said, is the scoring famine that big of an issue?

While it’s certainly a talking point, the magnitude of concern may be overstated. First, let’s consider the unique circumstances of this Heat team. Heading into the 2010-11 season, everyone wondered how LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were going to share the ball amongst each other. They each were the primary scoring option in their previous NBA lives. But that armchair discussion overlooked this critical factor: two other players had to play next to them as well.

So the centers aren’t putting up big point totals mostly because they aren’t getting the opportunities. And if you are going to steal shots from James, Wade and Bosh, you better make it worth it. As veterans, the centers understand their role and never hijack the offense. Ilguaskas will shoot a jumper after a pick-and-pop; Anthony will only shoot when the ball is served on a platter next to the rim, and Dampier, in the rare event he plays, will stick to putbacks. The Heat’s trio of centers don’t see a lot of shots -- their 7.4 attempts per game is the league’s lowest -- and that’s by design; Spoelstra wants the ball in the hands of his superstars.

Ultimately, the Heat are doing just fine without the luxury of a star center. While the casual fan calls them soft, the team’s stellar basket protection and post defense suggest otherwise. The real test will come during the playoffs, but up to this point, the Heat's committee of centers has demonstrated that the conventional wisdom isn’t really wisdom at all.