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Should Norris Cole Be Starting for the Heat Instead of Mario Chalmers?

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Cole has outplayed Chalmers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Is it time to hand him the keys?

The legend of the Miami Heat of the last four seasons has been all about the Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. Since the trio got together in the summer of 2010 (whether you like the way they did it or not), they have flat out owned the East, going a decisive 47-15 (75.8% winning percentage) in Eastern Conference Playoff games. They’ve won two titles and might very well be on their way to a three-peat, as our algorithms have them at 87.2% odds to close out the Pacers and earn a fourth-straight Finals berth, with a 37.6% to win it all (now the highest odds of the four remaining teams).

While the Heat likely don’t win those previous titles without their prize steads, there probably wouldn’t have been any parades in Miami without certain role players stepping up either. Shane Battier’s three-point barrage buried the Thunder in 2012, while Mike Miller’s sharpshooting made a huge impact on both the 2012 and 2013 title runs. It’s hard to imagine a second ring for the King without likely first-ballot Hall of Famer Ray Allen’s late-game heroics in Game 6 of last year’s Finals against the Spurs, nor without the solid defensive minutes of one Chris “Birdman” Andersen (who is well on his way to having a huge impact again this year).

Perhaps lost in all of this, as it almost always has been, is the Heat’s point guard play. Mario Chalmers has been the starting point guard for the vast majority of the Big Three era (he’s started every game he’s been available the last three seasons), and has done just well enough that his job has rarely been questioned. Some people have clamored for a better ball handler to run the Miami offense, but Chalmers is a relatively cheap plus defender and James and Wade run the show more often than not anyway. Other than occasionally getting yelled at (or getting made fun of for getting yelled at), Chalmers has been more or less what the Heat have needed him to be.

That much was still true, at least, through most of the 2013-14 season and the first two rounds of this year’s playoffs. The Heat have gone 11-2 so far this postseason and have rarely looked like anything less than a title contender once again with Chalmers at the helm. The thing is, with San Antonio or Oklahoma City looming (either of which would almost certainly represent the Heat’s biggest challenge yet this postseason), the Heat could possibly be doing better things with their point guard minutes.

Third-year point guard Norris Cole has been outplaying Chalmers on both sides of the ball in the Eastern Conference Finals, and might be hitting his stride at exactly the right time. With the Heat getting set for more fierce competition, it might be time for Coach Erik Spoelstra to consider a change at the starting point guard position.

The Numbers Take a Ride on the Cole Train

Both Chalmers and Cole have had modest and relatively even stat lines throughout the playoffs and the difference in their impact even in this series against the Pacers isn’t overly obvious at first glance of the raw averages.

Chalmers vs. Cole in 4 Games Against Indiana (Basic Stats)

PlayerMINFG%3P%FT%PTSASTTOVSTL
Chalmers24.747.4%42.9%50.0%5.53.02.00.5
Cole24.752.9%57.1%83.3%6.82.00.30.8

It’s hard to get on a soap box and declare one point guard a starter over another when neither player is scoring 7.0 points per game, nor handing out more than 3.0 assists, but hear me out. Given, the shooting percentages and turnover numbers stand out, but where the raw stats are relatively quiet, the advanced ones are loud and abundantly clear.

Chalmers vs. Cole in 4 Games Against Indiana (Advanced Stats)

Player+/- on+/- offNet Rtg OnNet Rtg OffeFG%AST/TO
Chalmers-10.720.1-12.324.055.3%1.5
Cole13.6-5.717.3-7.964.7%8.0

Despite the fact that Chalmers starts with three of the best basketball players in the world on a team that has a +17 point differential in this series after four games, the Heat are a -10.7 when he’s on the floor. Cole, playing the same number of minutes as Chalmers in this series (98 apiece), has him beat in on/off-court plus-minus, net rating (points per 100 possessions minus points allowed per 100 possessions), effective field goal percentage (weighted two and threes) and assist-to-turnover ratio.

Cole’s offensive rating (points per 100 possessions) is a robust 119.5 and easily trumps Chalmer’s 99.1. On the other side of the ball, Cole’s defensive rating (points allowed per 100 possessions) of 102.3 once again tops Chalmers, who is at 111.4 for the series. Offensive and defensive ratings are obviously highly contingent on team performance, but one would expect Chalmers to have that advantage as he plays more time with the Big Three.

To that end, Cole has been more effective than Chalmers when on the floor with them as well. Just take a look at the Heat’s performance when the Big Three is paired with each point guard in this series.

Big 3 and Chalmers vs. Big 3 and Cole in 4 Games Against Indiana

CombinationMIN+/-Off RtgDef RtgNet RtgeFG%
Big 3 and Chalmers67-2697.4123.3-25.952.0%
Big 3 and Cole22+16145.189.1+56.058.1%

Considering how important the Big Three is to the success of the Heat, it would be hard to believe that they’d be winning this series if you just looked at the numbers of the trio when it’s playing with Mario Chalmers (the most used four-man combination by the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals). Sub in Norris Cole and it makes a world of difference. The swing in net rating, raw plus-minus, and effective field goal percentage is eye-popping, even in a relatively small sample.

Furthermore, a change from Chalmers to Cole with the Big Three has meant an improvement in assist-to-turnover ratio from 1.5 to 3.7 and rebound percentage from 40.4% to 64.9%. Cole’s obviously not the only one responsible for the jumps in assists and rebounds, but he’s fostering ball movement and defending well enough on the ball and around the perimeter to allow others to stay in position and clean the boards.

Going Forward

So, what does it all mean? With an eye on the future, the decision to go with one point guard over the other could have a huge impact. Chalmers is reaching the end of his contract and becoming an unrestricted free agent this summer, while Cole still has another year and a qualifying offer remaining on his deal (or subsequently restricted free agency if it’s not picked up). Chalmers is making $4 million this year and could be looking for a raise going into his prime at age 28, while Cole is still affordable at a little over $2 million this year and just past $3 million in the following year’s qualifying offer.

The Heat will be due for a reload after this season’s conclusion, especially if they manage to retain the services of the Big Three of James, Wade, and Bosh another season after their early termination options or even two years if they opt in to their 2015-16 player options. A lot of the team’s vets are nearing retirement or, at the very least, are declining in their usefulness. The Heat might need a hot youth injection if they wish to stay competitive over the next few years.

Norris Cole might be the best place to start. He has proven in spurts that he can be just as useful as Mario Chalmers and, in this series, has shown us that his ceiling is perhaps even higher. The Heat don’t need a traditional point guard to dominate the ball or contribute much in scoring, but Cole’s offensive skill set is at least equal to Chalmers and his defense might already be superior. One might even be able to assume some foreshadowing to a change in the starting lineup taken from the fact that Cole has played more minutes than Chalmers in each of the last three games (all Heat wins).

Besides, it’s not like Spoelstra has been shy about making changes to his starting lineups in the past. To wit, Battier, Udonis Haslem, and Rashard Lewis have all gotten starts at power forward during the current Playoff run and Birdman certainly deserves to when he gets healthy as well.

The Heat making the change from Super Mario to the Cole Train now could be an improvement in the short term and set the stage for the future in the process. That might be what it takes if they want to keep competing for not two, not three, not four. . .

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