Playing big while going small: The effectiveness of the Miami Heat's stingy guards

With the ever-growing need for firepower in the NBA, the Miami Heat found a way to bolster their offense while still maintaining their defensive fortitude — by using its guards.

Shooting or defense? That is often the dilemma in today’s NBA. In Miami, the Heat were unwilling to give up either. And they used their slew of guards to fill in the gaps.

When opposing teams go small with shooting forwards at center, a paint-patrolling rim protector can be sapped of his super powers: rim protection/paint control; and it can accentuate his weaknesses: guarding smaller, skilled players far from the comfort of the paint. Still, if a team elects to go with a smaller, more agile center to guard opposing shooting forwards, then you might compromise rim protection. So, pick your poison.

Ostensibly, Miami had found a way to avoid choosing between the two — by using its defensive-minded guards.

It was no secret Miami’s maestro Erik Spoelstra wasn’t afraid to go small; after all, his guards logged the third-most minutes in the league, and they ranked No. 6 in defensive efficiency, according to 

There were 20 guards in the NBA who defend at least 2.5 shots inside six feet, according to Four of them are on the Heat, and no other team has more than two. Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson, Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic are those four.

Three of Miami’s defensive quartet held their opponents to a lower average field goal percentage (not Dragic) — Richardson and Waiters being the standouts. Inside six feet, the only “guard” who affects their opponents’ field goal percentage more than Richardson and Waiters is Giannis Antetokounmpo, who is 6-11 with a 7-foot wingspan and has logged 31-percent of his minutes at power forward, according to

The defended field goal percentage statistic can often allow “noise” into the numbers. So, a figure that reinforces Miami stingy guards is the NBA’s defensive impact statistic. It measure rim protection — or being within five feet of the basket and within five feet of the offensive player shooting the ball. There were 38 guards who defended at least two of these field goal attempts every game, according to Miami has five of them. No other team has more than three. That other team is — wait for it — the Bucks, featuring Antetokounmpo and a 6-foot-8 Khris Middleton, some of the biggest, longest guards in the game.

At 6-foot-6 with a 6-10 wingspan, Richardson is Miami’s biggest, longest guard. It’s heart over height for Miami’s guard corps. Regardless, out of the 38 guards who defend the rim at least two times per game, Waiters and Richardson are ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in defended field goal percentage, allowing 43.1 and 45 percent shooting, respectively.

It’s no wonder that the Heatles’ guards registered nearly 30 percent of the team’s blocks. Apt switching and feverish hounding will do that.

Through 82 games and a near playoff berth — that’s an under exaggeration! — Miami showed that you could indeed play big even when you go small.

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