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Look Out, NBA: Miami’s Bench Has Never Been Better

Erik Spoelstra is boring holes through me as he answers my question on whether his Miami Heat are missing anything when Michael Beasley, the team’s newcomer that was sitting out Saturday night’s win over the Cleveland Cavaliers, isn’t available.

Adamantly, he speaks highly of his bench, specifically the volume of talent, saying, “Depth’s one of our biggest strengths on this roster, so we don’t like to use excuses.”

No, excuses have never been a viable option for Spoelstra or anybody on this Heat team. Since signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to team up alongside Dwyane Wade, Miami has been expected to do no less than win at every opportunity and every juncture of the season, eventually ending in a championship.

Not even when the Heat boasted a bench with Eddie House and Juwan Howard receiving significant minutes, in the NBA Finals no less, were excuses remotely acceptable.

As a result of their loss in the 2011 Finals, Miami has since made it a purpose to upgrade their supporting cast, easing the burden off the shoulders of the Big Three and bringing in guys who emitted confidence and had ice flowing through their veins.

[RELATED: The 15 Biggest Surprises Of The NBA Season So Far]

Since losing to Dallas, the Heat has added on Chris Andersen, Norris Cole, Rashard Lewis, Ray Allen, Shane Battier and Michael Beasley, or basically every player that you see playing rotation minutes off the Miami bench.

We learn from our mistakes, and the Heat endured that life lesson when they lost three consecutive times to end the ’11 Finals, each as painful and lasting as the next. Once the season ended, though, the front office recognized what needed to be done: Turning a Big Three into a team.

“It’s just an opportunity for another guy to step in and help us win,” says Spoelstra, a two-time champion head coach.

The Heat entered this season with the deepest bench, by far, in the Big Three era. Despite the loss of Mike Miller, the additions of Beasley, Roger Mason Jr. and Greg Oden quelled any lingering thoughts of the sharpshooter.

Miami can not only boast having the deepest bench in franchise history, but arguably in the league. With an offense centered around spacing the floor, the myriad of shooters the Heat has added (Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, and, since two years ago, Norris Cole) have flourished. Cole, specifically, has been at the forefront of this improved bench. Since shooting below 40 percent from the field and below 30 percent from beyond the arc in his rookie season, Cole has evolved into a third-year guard that can be relied on at any given situation on either side of the ball.

Against Cleveland, he helped hold All-Star Kyrie Irving to 10 points after scoring nine within the first four minutes of the game. By the end of the night, Irving was 6-for-16 from the floor and was a non-factor in a tightly-contested fourth quarter, mainly because Norris was locked on him defensively.

It certainly isn’t the first time Norris has had defensive success against Kyrie:

Talking to Norris would lead you to believe he’s a seasoned veteran, with the way he speaks of efficiency and focusing on all aspects of his game. It’s so jarring that he comes across as a mouthpiece for one of the numerous 30-somethings that inhabit this Heat roster, which is the oldest in the league.

“I work on my complete game, but shooting was definitely something I wanted to focus on,” he says. “Coming out of college, I was a guy known for putting the ball in the basket and I wanted to continue doing that, but you have to be efficient at doing that.”

“The only way to be efficient, scoring and making plays, is to consistently be in the gym shooting so that when you’re open, you’re going to knock down shots, so it doesn’t take you five shots to make one. I think our team, we’re very efficient and I’ve learned that from the vets. To be an efficient shooter, you don’t need a lot of shots. You just have to make open shots, and that comes with repetition.”

Cole finished with a .3 plus/minus rating last year, and boasted a net rating, a player’s disparity between offensive and defensive rating, of only 3.1, the worst among Heat rotation players.

It’s a completely different story this year, though, as Cole actually leads the team in both plus/minus rating and net rating, each by comfortable margins. He’s also shooting career-highs from the field (46 percent) and three-point arc (40 percent). As a result, Cole is earning five more minutes per game than he had the previous two years.

Keep reading to hear how effective the Cole/Chalmers backcourt has been together…

Cole is so confident that he’s now often sharing a backcourt with fellow point guard, Mario Chalmers. After playing only 45 minutes together all of last season, they have already shared the court for 58 minutes this season, posting a plus/minus rating of 35.3.

Apparently, the combination of the two happened by accident, courtesy of Spoelstra experimenting with lineups. Before their win over Utah last night, Spo said, “Sometimes games and circumstance reveal different lineups. That’s why we don’t try to predetermine it, we spend a lot of time going through rotations and what we think may work, but that’s one that happened.

“It’s (the Cole-Chalmers backcourt) been effective this year from time to time, so I don’t have any problem going to it.”

Want to hear about a two-man lineup on the Heat that’s played at least 50 minutes together with a superior plus/minus rating? You won’t find it. It doesn’t exist.

Cole isn’t the only bench player who has been flourishing this year, though. Michael Beasley is also drawing attention for the complete change-of-direction he’s taken not only since departing from the Heat in the summer of 2010, but from as recently as this summer.

Beasley was at the lowest point of his career not too long ago. After another arrest for marijuana possession, the Phoenix Suns, who endured an extremely inconsistent Beasley the previous year, waived him, giving the former No. 2 overall pick $7 million to take his talents elsewhere.

Offers were limited for Beasley. Like anybody who suddenly realizes they have nowhere else to go, he returned home, signing a non-guaranteed deal with the Heat, the team who drafted him in 2008.

Because of that, even before playing a game, Beasley had already showcased the unselfishness and motivation necessary to become a significant component of the Heat.

From training camp hopeful to certified rotation player, Beasley, like Cole, is deserving of future recognition for the league’s Most Improved Player. A few months removed from posting negative offensive win shares with the Suns and a career-low PER of 10.8, Beasley has become the definition of efficiency.

The hard work is paying off. In 14 games this season, Beasley has already earned more offensive win shares this year than he had in the entirety of his career. His PER of 22.1 would also be a career-high if the season ended today, as would the staggering 55 percent he’s shooting from the field and the equally impressive 50 percent he’s converting from beyond the arc.

His plus/minus rating of 9.9 is second among Heat players who consistently earn rotation minutes.

“He’s very athletic,” says Norris. “He has elite-level athleticism. He scores points easy, that’s his gift. He can put the ball in the basket. Defensively, he’s also made great efforts in improving a lot.”

Going into this season, would you have ever assumed Michael Beasley would be the player leading the Heat in defensive rating? The 97.5 points per 100 possessions the Heat give up when Beasley is on the floor is the best of any player.

It’s a matter of effort, buying into the system, and having veteran influences around that are constantly in his ear. With staunch defenders in LeBron James and Udonis Haslem, on top of what the coaching staff is already telling him, transferring their influence, Beasley has become the untapped source of athleticism and offense the team has craved for off the bench.

Naturally, the bench is also leading this team from a defensive standpoint, with Beasley, Lewis, Allen, Andersen and Cole all giving up less than 100 points per 100 possessions when they’re on the floor.

The entire bench as a whole has featured significant improvement from the year before. So much so, in fact, that it’s startling.

Here’s the top five players who earn consistent minutes, in plus/minus rating:

Norris Cole: plus-11.7
Michael Beasley: plus-9.9
Shane Battier: plus-9.7
Ray Allen: plus-9.2
Chris Andersen: plus-9.1

The four other Heat starters rank sixth, eighth, ninth and tenth.

It hasn’t always been like this. In fact, you may recall the comparisons the Heat were drawing to LeBron’s former Cleveland teams during their postseason run last year, as a result of the increased reliance and burden being put on James’ shoulders.

The Heat starters were clearly the reason why the team was winning games last year, with the top five in plus/minus rating being, respectively, Mario Chalmers, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem.

Battier and Andersen, in a small sample size, boasted solid ratings, but, as stated before, Cole was on the nearly in the negatives. Rashard Lewis, in fact, had a negative plus/minus rating in 55 games.

Cole has his reasons for the sudden turnaround.

“Another year of us playing together,” he says. “Getting familiar with each other, experience… you can’t replace that. Our energy offensively and defensively and being consistent through the early parts of the season. Adding Beasley adds another dynamic scorer to that mix, another athlete to the mix. A combination of experience plus the addition of him, I think that’s the reason we’ve been so consistent.”

Keep reading to see how much this boost has improved the situation for Wade and James…

Experience is a common theme in Miami. Take LeBron James and Dwyane Wade’s acclimation in their first year together. The two players — with similar playing styles — were taking turns on offense, rather than working off of each other because of how difficult it was to coexist. If you only recently started watching this team, you’d be flabbergasted to know they started out the new era 9-8, scoring eight first-quarter points in a season-opening loss to Boston.

Contrary to popular belief, however, it takes more than a few All-Stars to win. (Cut to fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Brooklyn Nets nodding.)

The bench is playing spectacularly, which is resulting in something that will help a Miami team that limped into the Finals the past two years: A decrease in minutes.

LeBron James (35.6 MPG) and Chris Bosh (28.6) are both averaging career-lows in minutes. Dwyane Wade isn’t too far behind, averaging the second-lowest minute total in his career. This is significant. Miami’s postseason run this year could be its most enduring with an improved Indiana Pacers anxiously awaiting a conference finals rematch. If there were any indicators in the team’s first matchup, a 90-84 comeback win by Indiana, or even last year’s series, it’s that Miami will need to have its best on the court, healthy and with energy to spare.

Mario Chalmers says the bench’s improvement is making the starters comfortable, especially when exiting the game with leads. To Chalmers, this is the deepest bench the Heat has had since he arrived in 2008.

“We don’t lose a beat when our bench comes in,” Chalmers says. “They make it a lot easier. It gives us a lot of rest. It’s good when you can go out with the same lead and come back in and the second unit either boosts the lead or keeps it the same.”

During Miami’s stretch of 10 consecutive wins earlier this season, there was a three game-stretch where the bench actually built leads in the fourth quarter of games that were still competitive, doing so while each member of the Big Three rode the bench for the entirety of the final frame.

The Heat bench scored, respectively, 43 against Charlotte, 45 against Atlanta and 49 against Orlando. The 49 points against the Magic was a season-high before a 52-point effort against the Detroit Pistons.

Prior to this season, that was an inconceivable thought. Previous hopes for the Heat bench were limited to begging they would hold the lead or keeping the deficit manageable long enough for LeBron or Dwyane to return and save the team. That’s no longer the case. As the franchise preached throughout their 2006 championship run, “15 Strong” is a necessity to win the biggest games, because where are the Heat without Norris Cole’s boost in Game 4 of the 2012 NBA Finals? Or Udonis Haslem’s dual 8-of-9 shooting performances against the Pacers last year?

More notably and memorably, where are the Heat without Ray Allen?

This is the first year Miami can honestly say they have an entire roster that contributes, with the current exception of Greg Oden. The ideal result is getting enough from their bench that LeBron and Dwyane will be healthy for the playoffs.

With what we’ve seen so far, that shouldn’t be as much of a problem as in previous seasons. Boasting a bench that could be an East playoff team, Miami has somehow become a scarier team than either of the previous squads that went on to win titles.

Can Miami still win a title if the bench doesn’t significantly contribute?

Follow John on Twitter at @JFriel1990.

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