With so many of the NBA’s marquee superstars still sitting on the free agent market — everybody, it seems, waiting for somebody else to make the first move — news of a role player signing with a team can feel underwhelming and anticlimactic. The negotiations involving LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade are guaranteed to fundamentally transform the competitive foundation of the league for years to come.
But every superstar, no matter how bright they shine, needs a full and multi-dimensional cast of supporting players to surround them. The mega-moves that will — eventually — come will determine which teams are immediate title contenders. The supporting players that are being acquired in the meantime tend to have a big say in determining which contender will actually earn the championship.
On Monday the Miami Heat verbally agreed with Josh McRoberts, starting power forward on last year’s Charlotte Bobcats team, to a four-year/$23M contract. The contract came after reported competing bids between the Heat and McRoberts’ most recent employers in Charlotte. As Mark Evans reports at the Mid-Level Exceptional, McRoberts’ contract has the effect of capping Miami’s maximum 2014-15 payroll at $81M.
As basketball followers, our shared first thought upon hearing about McRoberts’ deal was, of course, “How will this affect the whole LeBron thing?” The thing about signing McRoberts is: it’s a good move for the Heat because they simply need players on their basketball team, whether they’re LeBron James or not.
At the present moment, the Heat have the following players under contract for 2014-15: Norris Cole, Justin Hamilton (of eight career games played), Shabazz Napier (I’m presuming that Miami’s first-round draft pick will, in fact, reach an agreement with the team), and that’s everybody. Oh, okay, so Udonis Haslem is expected to return to the team under a restructured contract. Even if all three members of The Big Three come back, that brings us to seven players and nothing at all resembling a competitive roster (editors’ note — don’t forget Danny Granger!).
Signing McRoberts was a wise move by the Heat because McRoberts is an intriguing compliment to the Big Three if they do return — and McRoberts is also a serviceable starter if the Heat find themselves with pockets empty. The Heat signed a good player, who can be used in flexible roles — a commodity that may not be available around the free agent market when LeBron and company put pen to paper.
Last season was the first season in McRoberts’ seven-year career that he played in a steady role for a good team. As recently as the early winter of 2013, McRoberts appeared to be another piece of second-round flotsam floating aimlessly around the league: at the time, McRoberts was playing for the 20-62 Orlando Magic, who couldn’t find space for him in their starting lineup. A trade deadline deal in February of 2013 saw McRoberts move to Charlotte, a move that would not truly pay dividends until fall of 2013, when the Bobcats began their regular season with new, defensive-minded head coach Steve Clifford and free agent big man Al Jefferson.
McRoberts appeared in 78 games in the Bobcats’ 43-39 campaign — not only was that a career high in games played, but he started all of the games as well, as power forward alongside Jefferson’s center (73 games, 73 starts). McRoberts compiled a career high in plenty of categories, but he really blew away his previous bests in terms of 3-point shooting. In McRoberts’ first six seasons in the league, he attempted 185 3-point shots, coming in clusters of a couple dozen per so each year. In 2013-14, McRoberts shot 291 3-pointers, making a respectable 36.1% of them. Through hard offseason work and a coach willing to experiment, McRoberts transformed himself from a tweener awkwardly straddling positions into a productive stretch four.
The concept of a stretch four — perfectly epitomized by Dirk Nowitzki, a tall power forward with impeccable outside range — will not always and forever be an automatic recipe for NBA success. But at this moment in the NBA, there are plenty of power forwards who patrol the key or even the midrange with muscular confidence, yet remain incapable of stepping out towards the 3-point line with anything other than trepidation.
McRoberts got plenty of his shots on slow-developing plays like the one below, when his man (in this case Carlos Boozer) only awkwardly stares at the capable shooter from down in a crouch. Even with the shot clock dwindling down to nil, Boozer is still reluctant to fully defend the 3-point shooter.
McRoberts’ newfound 3-point shot had a way of helping the Bobcats’ offensive scheme in ways that, as the ol’ saying goes, do not show up on the stat sheet. Jefferson, McRoberts’ frontcourt partner, has long been one of the most reliable and creative low post scorers in the league. Big Al is likely to find a way to score over just about any defender in a one-on-one situation.
If the power forward playing alongside Jefferson is also only comfortable in the area around the key, then it’s an easy decision for the opposing power forward to quickly help and double-team Jefferson. If the power forward playing alongside Jefferson clears way far away from the key but is not an outside shooting threat, then the opposing power forward will likely be given permission to drift away from his man and double-team Jefferson.
With his trustworthy 3-point shot, McRoberts would clear as far away from the posting-up Jefferson as possible — and the opposing power forward would have to clear out of the key along with him. With opposing power forwards far, far out on the perimeter in order to keep tabs on McRoberts, Jefferson always had space to move and create in the low post in a favorable one-on-one matchup:
The Miami Heat have evolved into a bit of an anomaly in that they are a center-less team. They don’t have a player who has remotely the same skill-set as a seven-footer like Jefferson, a low post-creator or rim patroller. Bosh is always described as a power forward, but he would often be the tallest Heat player on the floor, and would match up against opposing centers.
Like McRoberts, Bosh also added the 3-pointer to his game in 2013-14. After 302 3-point attempts in his ten previous NBA seasons, Bosh attempted 218 3-pointers this year, connecting at a 33.9% rate. With the other team’s center forced to monitor Bosh on the perimeter, the Heat wouldn’t clear out space for a post-up player — they would clear out space for a diving cutter.
In the image below, Marcin Gortat of the Washington Wizards has to venture way out to the free throw line just to keep tabs on Bosh. With the key vacated of big men, it’s wide open for LeBron to make a cut and score a supremely easy basket:
Although it won’t make the headlines if Bosh and/or Wade and/or LeBron return to Miami, these types of inventive plays are certainly a real and valuable benefit of McRoberts joining the squad.