Winning without stars not as simple as it looks

Published Apr. 12, 2012 11:14 p.m. EDT

A lockout-infused NBA season of stupendous incongruity has provided basketball observers with plenty of head-scratching issues.

For example, most of us are wondering when that sneaky UFO will come back and return the real Dwight Howard. The creepy Dwight replicant almost abducted Stan Van Gundy in front of several media witnesses.

Anyway, a few of you may have noticed our wacky season also has included extended absences from some of the league's greatest players. That's not exactly mind-blowing, but we've been provoked to wonder why some of the teams affected have managed to thrive while performing without a particular superstar.

Thanks to the timely grace of a national TV schedule, Thursday's Miami Heat-Chicago Bulls showdown offered two dandy examples of such overcoming-the-odds behavior. Let's start with the Bulls, who managed to rally against Miami and win in overtime without much assistance from 2011 league MVP Derrick Rose.

The Bulls scored a 12-2 knockout in OT with Rose sitting on the bench. On the night, he had no fouls, one field goal in 13 shots from the field and very few pain-free body parts. With Rose on the floor, Chicago was a hands-over-your-eyes minus-27.

But the Bulls — who have won 16 of the 23 games they've played without their superstar point guard — were able to prevail with situational defense and a bench whose go-to guy happens to the next open teammate. That's become pretty typical.

Their dates for the evening were playing as close as it gets to full strength at this time of the year, which — based on some easy-to-manipulate numbers — might not have been to Miami's benefit. How's that? Well, the Heat lineup included superstar Dwyane Wade, who's been unable to answer the bell in 11 games this season. Miami has won 10 of those.

To varying degrees, similar abnormalities have been springing up all over David Stern's league. The Atlanta Hawks have remained competitive while playing most of the season without Al Horford. The San Antonio Spurs refused to crumble during another injury interlude for Manu Ginobili. The Memphis Grizzlies didn't stagger as much as expected without Zach Randolph.

The New York Knicks rode Linsanity to temporary enlightenment with an offense that flowed and a defense that crowed when Amar'e Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony were gone. We even witnessed the Los Angeles Lakers winning in San Antonio without the rapid-fire stylings of Kobe Bryant.

Before we search for a common thread to pull our train along, let's coax some perspective from an assistant coach who works for an Eastern Conference team.

"Rubbish," he said.

Please know that our contributor was asked if some of the aforementioned superstar-free uprisings could be embraced as evidence that some of these teams may be better off without a big-ticket player or two. For the record, I wasn't buying it, either.
"But you really do have to give a lot of credit to the teams who have been able to win while shorthanded," the coach said. "That said, it's a lot easier to get away with playing without a star player during the regular season."

Please explain.

"Through scheme, ball movement, team defense and so forth, you can put another team on its heels if they're only going to see you for that one game," he said. "Without much practice, it's hard for shorthanded teams to put in anything tricky, but it's also hard for the opponent to prepare. In the postseason, on the other hand, a long series with a day or two or more between games allows coaches to be fully prepared for sets and coverages. That's where having elite talent — guys who can make plays despite going against defenders who know exactly what you're going to do — can make a big difference."

Got it. It's like the rebel fighters doing some damage in "Star Wars" but needing that crunch-time greatness from Luke Skywalker during the Darth Vader round. Translated to the NBA, this means that if the Lakers run into the Spurs next month, they'll be in much better shape than they were when Kobe was experiencing One Shinning Moment . . . right?

"Don't get too excited over that win," our coach said. "The Lakers really are trouble when they pound it inside without Kobe. But with the schedule, some teams just don't have it on certain nights. And don't forget that without Kobe, the Lakers were ripped by Phoenix and barely beat New Orleans. There's really no pat explanation for why some teams do well when a star is down. . . . I mean, you do see more ball and player movement, by necessity, when a star is out. That goes away somewhat in the playoffs when us coaches micromanage every possession. If a guy is out a long time, good teams eventually find a way. But you have to look at each situation by itself."

So let's go back to the Bulls, who have that 16-7 mark without Rose. Looking a bit more closely, we notice that only nine of those games were played outside Chicago. Only six of the 16 victories were scored against teams currently sitting on a playoff seed. The Heat check also tells us Miami's 10 wins without Wade include only three road triumphs. The one loss was administered by the Milwaukee Bucks in Miami on a night when the Heat were working the second of a back-to-back set.

Miami's home success includes two solid wins against the Philadelphia 76ers and one each against the Indiana Pacers and Lakers. Beyond geography, it's also no secret that playing without Wade provides more show-running opportunity for LeBron James and far more early-shot-clock touches for Chris Bosh. With Bosh fully engaged, Miami is no picnic regardless of venue.

But with LBJ still carrying the burden of late-game Finals proof, having Wade figures to be a big deal in the postseason.

What's happened in Atlanta, where Joe Johnson was a short-time goner during this season without Horford? That's not too tricky: Josh Smith happened.

The Spurs kept rolling without Ginobili because they've have a culture of scouting and player development that allows the coaching staff to plug in employees to fit their on-court system. And it should be noted that San Antonio's crucial-position continuity includes decent health at point guard (Tony Parker) and in the post (Tim Duncan).

Without Stoudemire, the Knicks have more room for Anthony to operate and a more committed defense from anyone taking Stoudemire's minutes.

And in Memphis, no post touches for Randolph translated to an All-Star appearance for center Marc Gasol.

If it makes you feel like the league hasn't gone entirely cuckoo, rest easy in the knowledge that the Minnesota Timberwolves have dropped like a stone since losing hotshot rookie Ricky Rubio.

But you probably don't need to know that the T-wolves' greatest post-Rubio issue is defense (dribble penetration is killing them). There's enough peculiar basketball going around without asking you to chew on that.