Think back 18 months or so. The Heat had wrapped up their offseason championship rally, and faced the task of filling out the roster around LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Mario Chalmers was already on board, and the Heat quickly moved to re-sign Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem and add Mike Miller. Those players made up the core of the team, not just for 2010-11, but going forward as well, as all but Chalmers were on multi-year deals.
But at that point, the Heat were also capped out. Any other players added to the roster were going to have to come on minimum salary deals, and so the Heat started signing players, with a disturbing trend developing quickly:
- July 17: signed Zydrunas Ilgauskas (age 35) to a one-year deal
- July 19: signed Jamaal Magloire (age 32) to a one-year deal
- July 19: signed James Jones (age 30) to a one-year deal
- July 20: signed Juwan Howard (age 37) to a one-year deal
- July 22: signed Carlos Arroyo (age 31) to a one-year deal
- July 29: signed Eddie House (age 32) to a two-year deal
- Oct. 23: signed Jerry Stackhouse (age 36) to a one-year deal
- Nov. 23: signed Erick Dampier (age 35) to a one-year deal
- March 2: signed Mike Bibby (age 32) to a one-year deal
Meanwhile, players like Kenny Hasbrouck, Patrick Beverley, Da'Sean Butler and Mickell Gladness were cut by the end of training camp. The only player who could have been reasonably classified as "young" on the Heat bench was second-round draft pick Dexter Pittman, who was more project than player at that point.
On some level, the Heat's roster strategy made sense. The expectation for the season was to win a championship, and each of the signed players provided something of a known quality. But they also came with a known ceiling. Anyone who'd watched the 2009-10 Cavaliers knew what Miami could expect from Zydrunas Ilgauskas, and it wasn't much. The same applied to Magloire, Howard, Dampier and the reanimated corpse of Jerry Stackhouse. Additionally, because everyone was on a one-year deal, there was little hope of bench continuity from 2010-11 to 2011-12.
As it turns out, that latter point worked to Miami's benefit. It became clear as the season went on that the over-the-hill gang strategy wasn't good for the team, either in 2010-11 or long-term.
So in 2011-12, the Heat reversed course. Gone were Ilgauskas (retired), Magloire (signed with Raptors), House (cut), Stackhouse (reanimated again on the Hawks bench for some reason), Dampier (unsigned) and Bibby (now with the Knicks, HA!). Jones, who proved useful, and Howard, who proved immortal, were kept around. Veterans Shane Battier and Eddy Curry were added, but filling out the 15-man roster are rookies Norris Cole, Terrel Harris and the aforementioned Gladness, who stuck out of camp this time.
Cole is a traditional rookie, drafted out of college and signed to a first-round pick rookie contract, and under team control for up to five seasons. But Harris and Gladness are a different story. They represent the kind of player the Heat ignored last season to their detriment: undrafted players who were missing something in their game coming out of college but who'd worked on their game in the NBA D-League and just needed a shot. According to all observers at the Heat's training camp, both of them worked incredibly hard to earn their roster spots, and the Heat rewarded tehm, rather than keep a retread like House and re-sign a veteran big man like Dampier.
So far, the move is paying off. Gladness has seen very limited minutes, but so have all the Heat centers, as Miami uses Haslem and Bosh in the middle as part of a more up-tempo offense. Harris had already been impressive in what little action he'd seen early in the season, but broke out in a big way with 14 rebounds, including seven on the offensive glass, in Miami's triple-overtime win against the Hawks.
While the triple-OT win probably said more about the Hawks than it did about the Heat, it's clearly the kind of game Miami couldn't have won with the roster it had last year. Imagine instead of Cole and Chalmers combining for 69 minutes, the Heat had Chalmers and Bibby (or, God forbid, Arroyo and Bibby). Which of the ancient bodies the Heat exhumed on a regular basis would have been able to step up and play the 44 minutes that Harris played? Even Battier, who played 49 minutes -- just two shy of his career high -- is a huge improvement over a 36-year-old Stackhouse or 35-year-old Dampier.
Last season, the Heat got exactly six 20-point games from players outside the Big 3 in 82 regular-season games (so 7% of games played produced a non-big-three 20-point performance). This year two members of the supporting cast, Cole and Chalmers, have already cracked 20, in just eight games played. That's 25%. On the rebounding end, the Heat got five 12+ rebound games from the "little 12" in 2010-11 (6%). This season? 3 in 8 games (37.5%). Simple math tells you this year's supporting cast better, and though small sample size plays a part, it's clear the Heat have a more energetic bench this year, once that's capable of exceeding expectations, rather than living down to them.
At the outset of this season, the NBA trumpeted that a record number of D-League alumni were on opening day NBA rosters, and that's not a meaningless statistic. Teams are starting to realize the value of filling out your bench with players with potential -- like Harris, Gladness or the Hawks' Ivan Johnson, who managed to become a cult hero in his 21 minutes of action Thursday night -- rather than tapped-out veterans. There's always a fear from coaches that these kind of players will make mistakes that come from inexperience, but older, near-washed-up players will make just as many mistakes from simply not being able to execute anymore. On the flip side, there's always the potential for young players, particularly those that have been working on improving their game in the D-League for two or three years, to surprise you.
This isn't just a bias found in coaches and GMs. This past summer's #NBARank project saw the incoming rookie class and barely known second-year players ranked far below their washed-up veteran counterparts (for one specific example, Cole was ranked 413th, while Bibby was 307th and House was 297th). This speaks to a natural human tendency to fear the unknown. We may know that Bibby is washed up, but at least we know his ceiling and floor. Cole, coming into the season, was an unknown quality at the NBA level. Sure, he could have been exactly what he is -- a dynamic scorer who gets a little too aggressive at times -- but he also could have been a complete disaster. We just don't know. As bad as Bibby is, he's safe. Cole was risky. But the word "risky" isn't a synonym for "bad".
There's always going to be a place in the NBA for a former star like Tracy McGrady to try and reclaim his glory -- and actually do a reasonable job of contibuting, like T-Mac has done -- but the league is clearly moving in a direction where younger players with D-League experience will be given chances, and that will only increase as more teams get directly involved with D-League ownerships and partnerships. And maybe eventually it'll mean players like Brandon Costner or Anthony Mason Jr. will get a spot on the Hawks bench instead of Zombie Stackhouse.