Essay: Udonis Haslem’s Unfamiliar Contribution
It was March’s first Friday night, and a somewhat unimportant contest between the Miami Heat and Utah Jazz had just ended. The game’s first 47:55 have since been thrown into a jumbled pile of endless shots, dribbles, screens, and gasping breaths that make up the NBA’s past, but that final five seconds has gone into a rarified vault; to a lot of people it’s a sequence that holds special meaning, capable of telling us more about the narrative in a larger sense than an entire game can.
Miami was on the road, but it didn’t matter. They were playing for their 10th straight win, crashing through all comers like a raw, young, unforgiving Mike Tyson. Still, they’re only human. With a trip further west towards Los Angeles to face the Lakers two days later, other goals were creeping into the back of their minds. And so, with 4.5 seconds remaining, the favored Heat trailed by a single point. Out of a time-out, the ball was inbounded to LeBron James, the world’s best player, and the game’s fate was placed in his wanting hands. His momentum already taking him towards the rim, James catches Shane Battier’s pass right outside the three-point line, and upon meeting Paul Millsap and Josh Howard’s soft zone pick and roll defense, chooses to dump the ball off to a popping, wide open Udonis Haslem—a man who is no stranger to bright lights and big moments. Haslem receives a perfect bounce pass with plenty of time to set his feet, square his shoulders, and launch what was once known as one of the surest shots in basketball. It’s off line. Miami loses. LeBron is the scapegoat.
At one point the starter for a championship winning team, Haslem is a humble man who appears to inhabit loyalty and honor, as well as an earnest understanding of what it means to be a team player. (In an overlooked move cloaked in the shadow of LeBron’s Decision, Haslem took a substantial pay cut in order to stay with the first and only team that gave him a key to the NBA’s unyielding door, despite the fact that it’d surely mean less playing time and less individual glory. How ironic.)
Overall, Miami’s supporting cast is less about support than it is letting scraps from the big three’s play-by-play successes fall from a table into their open mouths. But Haslem is different. His contributions are incalculable, crucial, and unseen. He gives his team trench warfare respectability.
In the game’s “aftermath”, commentators meaninglessly debated whether or not LeBron’s decision to pass up taking his team’s final shot was the correct move. Those who supported him summed up their rationalization by saying if Udonis Haslem couldn’t make that shot in his sleep, he wouldn’t be in the NBA. It’s his job to knock that down, and LeBron did what any high IQ player would have in that situation. Well, this season Haslem can’t make that shot in his sleep, and he can’t make it wide awake. His offense has taken a nosedive from the lofty heights of dependability to the shady gallows of impotence. But does that make him useless? Far from it.
Haslem is shooting 36.5% on jump shots this season. In 20 out of the 62 games he’s made an appearance, his True Shooting percentage dipped below 20%. In what’s probably the most shocking statistic currently showing his offensive demise, Haslem is shooting a paltry 25% from 10-15 feet, and every single make has been assisted. What was once his bread and butter has become a wasted possession. Logic would ensure that Miami’s notorious half court offense—dependent on spacing to create driving lanes—desperately needs capable shooters surrouding James and Dwyane Wade in order for the team to stretch the court on a consistent basis. Haslem, it appears, is unable to do that anymore. By simple deduction, this probably means his role will be lessened and his importance diminished.
But Haslem still brings so much else to a basketball team, and despite his shot’s general disappearance, he’s still managing to alter his own impact. In his last 10 games, he’s scoring 61.5% of his points in the paint, compared to just 41.3% for the entire season. Also in his last 10 games, his points off mid-range jumpers have dropped to 30.8% from his season’s 37%. Haslem is failing on his outside shot right now, but there are so many other areas where he’s able to contribute and help. He sets screens, he plays defense (currently allowing a close-fisted 25.6% in isolation situations), he grabs offensive rebounds, he leads the team in drawn charges, he has intuitive knowledge gained over years of grueling work and experience. He’s the Heat’s walking, talking “chip on our shoulder” piece.
There are so many ways to contribute on a basketball team, and Udonis Haslem’s entire career is proof that when your best ability fails, step up and find another way.