Wing matchup issues with Pacers loom

With less depth at wing, will the Heat be able to match up with Paul George and Lance Stephenson? AP Photo/Michael Conroy

Since the end of last season the Miami Heat have made four significant roster moves.

All of them have generally worked how the franchise had hoped for at this point. But they’ve also had an unintended consequence that may have opened a new Heat weakness, especially in how it relates to what seems like a destined matchup with the Indiana Pacers.

Since winning the title in June the Heat used the amnesty provision on Mike Miller to release him. They signed Michael Beasley and Greg Oden to minimum contracts. And they traded Joel Anthony and two draft picks for Toney Douglas.

Though Beasley has been up and down -- lately it’s been down, coach Erik Spoelstra has slashed his minutes -- he’s been a generally positive reclamation project at a terrific price. After methodical rehab, Oden has now played three games and has shown some moments that hint he could end up being an important piece later in the season, also at a great price.

The Miller and Anthony moves look to have saved the Heat more than $23 million combined this season. Depending on how things go next summer, those two moves could end up relieving the Heat of more than $40 million in salary and luxury taxes that can be spent elsewhere or just pocketed over a two-year span.

So what is the problem?

The issue is that these moves have weakened the Heat at a position where they used to be the deepest in the NBA: on the wing. And that issue could get prickly in a series with the Pacers.

This is not new information to the Heat. They have actively been on the lookout for help on the wing, especially for a defensive specialist, since December, calling around the league looking for a trade that worked. In the end, they fired likely their best trade package (Anthony and the draft picks) in a cash dump deal for Douglas, who is a third point guard and not a real option to defend opposing wings.

Last season the Heat were 11-2 when Dwyane Wade missed games, mostly because of knee problems. This season they have been even more proactive with protecting Wade’s knees, and he’s already missed 12 games. The Heat are just 6-6 in those games. The reason for the Pacers' four-game lead for the top seed in the East can be identified right there.

In part, this appears to be where the loss of Miller is felt. Though he’s hardly tearing it up with the Memphis Grizzlies this season -- he’s averaging 6.7 points and shooting a quality 42 percent from 3-point range -- Miller was a perfect fill-in for Wade and an option the Heat relied on in the playoffs. The Heat were 18-3 with Miller as a starter last season, including the postseason when he was inserted into the lineup when the Heat were down 2-1 in the Finals to the San Antonio Spurs.

Miller was effective not only as a shooter but also as a team defender because of his size and his knowledge of the Heat’s system.

“Last year when D-Wade was out, we had Mike Miller to step in and Mike Miller was in the system for a while so we could automatically fill that void,” LeBron James said on Tuesday. “Now when D-Wade is out, it's given more opportunities to guys who haven't been in the system as often as many years or as many situations as Mike Miller.”

Even when Wade is in, as he was in the playoffs last year, having Miller’s defense along with his outside shooting proved valuable. To replace his loss, the Heat signed Roger Mason Jr. While he’s had a few moments, Spoelstra has basically abandoned him as a choice. The other player on the roster who could be used there, James Jones, has been buried on the bench for two seasons now.

Instead, Spoelstra has basically started riding Ray Allen harder, increasing his minutes from last season and making him the fill-in starter for Wade. The result is Allen is having the worst shooting season of his career to this point. In fairness, he has time to turn it around. In equal fairness, adding to the workload of a 38-year-old isn’t always prudent.

Spoelstra has even been going the other way, giving more minutes to bigger players like Beasley, Rashard Lewis and, now, Oden. He’s even experimented playing two point guards with Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers together. These are moves meant to cover up the lack of depth at wing, which is exacerbated by Wade’s absences.

Often when considering the Heat-Pacers matchup, thoughts instantly go to the size disparity between the teams. Roy Hibbert has been a thorn for the Heat for the past two years and was the primary reason for signing Oden, who is clearly being groomed to deal with the Pacers' center. The David West versus Shane Battier matchup has turned into a full-scale sideshow, with Battier pulling every trick in the book to manage the size disadvantage and creating plenty of tension in the process as West has branded him a dirty player.

Indiana, however, is a more dynamic team this season and the surge on its roster mirrors where the Heat have seen slippage. No longer is Paul George the only major threat on the perimeter as Lance Stephenson has matured into a playmaking force that must be dealt with. While Danny Granger is predictably making a slow recovery after missing more than a full a season, he could be a factor by the playoffs as well.

It can be easy to default back to the 2012 playoffs when James and Wade destroyed the Pacers during that series, completely overwhelming a green George and an overmatched Granger. In two wins that series in Indianapolis, James and Wade combined to score 139 points in one of their signature performances as a Hall of Fame tandem.

Things are different now, and it’s already shown this season. The Heat have tried and failed to have James guard George for the entire game. It is too exhausting with everything the Heat ask James to do at the offensive end. They experimented with this option in the first game of the season against the Pacers and it failed miserably. James was gassed by the fourth quarter and it was scrapped for the second matchup.

The responsibility has fallen on Wade and Allen, whom the Heat used for much of their series against the Pacers last season, and the results have not been great. The biggest hole on George’s résumé is the dud he dropped in Game 7 against the Heat last season, when he shot 2-of-9 and scored seven points. In the other eight games George has played against the Heat in that playoff series and so far this season, he’s shooting 49 percent and averaging 22 points.

It is already alarming that the numbers show James is having his worst defensive season in years. Among individual player ratings, the Heat have been at their worst defensively when James has been on the floor this season, allowing 108 points per 100 possessions. But you don’t need the numbers: privately the Heat have seen James’ effort level decrease this season as he appears to conserve energy.

The expectation is James will pick that up as the games get more serious. But even if he’s at the top of his game, he will not be able to handle George full time until the final minutes. Spoelstra’s strategy has largely been to let James take George Hill on defense so he can save himself a little. That leaves George and Stephenson to Allen and Wade now, which is the bottom line to this entire point.

Allen has been miserable against the Pacers the last two seasons. In 12 games, he’s shooting a woeful 28 percent and averaging less than six points per game. This is undoubtedly because the Pacers' defense sticks to 3-point shooters and lets Hibbert deal with the traffic in the paint. But asking Allen to chase George for stretches isn’t helping, either.

Ultimately, how big of an issue will this be for the Heat? It’s impossible to say at the moment. It’s quite possible they will find a player between now and the playoffs who could give them a boost in this area, sort of like how they found Chris Andersen midseason last year. It’s possible that James’ defense will round into form and Wade’s knees will be feeling healthy, allowing for them to handle the defensive challenge as they have in the past.

“Our depth is a big part of who we are,” Spoelstra said. “On different nights guys have to step up and have full confidence.”

Spoelstra has reason to be confident -- his team has routinely responded over the last few years. But the reality is the depth is not what it was, and the challenge this season is shaping up to be different.