For Erik Spoelstra, being uncomfortable isn’t a bad thing.
When the Heat coach gave his players a book a couple years ago - Fred Hassan’s Reinvent: A Leader’s Playbook to Serial Success – he offered a succinct synopsis to the Heat’s web site.
“It’s so much easier just to stay with what you know, stay with what you’re comfortable with and think that that’s enough,” Spoelstra said at the time. “To break through and improve you have to get into that discomfort zone.”
One of the hallmarks of this Heat regime, beyond strong player development and lots of winning, has been a willingness, almost an eagerness, to ask players to try doing something they haven’t done much before, if at all, in the NBA or elsewhere.
That happened a lot during the Big Three era, and it has continued this season, with James Johnson playing a ball-handling “point forward” role, at times, for the first time in his career, and 6-8 forward Okaro White asked to play center last week in the absence of backup center Willie Reed.
“Some players don't want to take on that kind of
challenge, or if they're not successful with it initially, they use it as an excuse,” Spoelstra said Thursday. “We like guys that take on different challenges and give us the versatility to compete, not worry about position and embracing new horizons.”
This decade alone, more than a dozen Heat players have been asked to play positions or roles that were at least somewhat outside their comfort zone, and the results have been consistently good.
Though LeBron James preferred small forward, the Heat’s metrics – and James’ statistics - were extraordinary during extended minutes at power forward. The Heat played some of its best ball when power forward Chris Bosh was shifted to center, a move that Bosh eventually embraced after initial reservations. The Heat often thrived when Shane Battier, a career small forward, played power forward.
Justise Winslow, as a rookie small forward, logged substantial minutes last season at power forward and guarded centers on multiple occasions.
“We've done it a lot here,” forward Udonis Haslem said. “We've definitely had guys out of their comfort zone that have had to buy in and sacrifice what they've been comfortable doing and what's made them successful throughout their career for the betterment of the team.
“It's not always been easy. It takes time, it takes work, it takes some frustrating moments to figure it out.”
Count Haslem among those players, too; at 6-8, he has spent large chunks of his career defending 7-foot centers.
Tyler Johnson, a natural shooting guard, is still working through the challenges of being a backup point guard, something he has done in three seasons here.
“I had played it before but playing it at the NBA level is such a different expectation,” he said. “You don’t have to necessarily be a floor general to play point guard in college. It's not as challenging as it is here to get guys in their spots.
“We don't really do plays here. We’ve got actions. It is definitely a challenge switching to point guard and getting other pro athletes where they are supposed to be.
James Johnson loves that the Heat has entrusted him with ball-handling responsibilities as a power forward, saying “no coach” had ever allowed him to do that before Spoelstra.
Because of that, “I feel more responsible for the losses and wins,” he said. “Trying to impact my will on the game makes it a little easier.”
White said it was no big deal playing center last week.
Whether “it’s LeBron playing four [power forward], or Justise playing the five [center] last year,… [or] James Johnson, it’s [players] being able to do multiple things,” White said. “Those are very valuable players to a team. It's better for you personally, better for the team” when you do that.
LEBRON, IRVING OUT
Already without injured forward Kevin Love, the Cavaliers held LeBron James and Kyrie Irving out of Saturday’s game against the Heat in order to rest them on a second night of a back-to-back set.
Asked about James’ reaction to not playing in a city where he played four years of his career, Cavaliers coach Tyron Lue said: “He understands the big picture of what we’re trying to accomplish and the guy has played so many minutes over the course of his career, he has to take some rest sometimes,” he said. “When I talk to our training staff, and they say it’s a game he should take off, that’s what we do. He understands that. As much as he doesn’t like, he has to deal with it.”
This was the fifth game the Cavaliers have played in Miami since James left the Heat to return to Cleveland and the second of those five that James missed. Miami entered Saturday 4-0 at home against the Cavaliers since James returned to Cleveland and having won 11 in a row at home overall in the series, Miami’s second-longest home winning streak against any team.