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Goran Dragic and the Bench Mafia: Miami’s group of prolific reserves

When the starters clock out it’s time for the Heat bench to put in work!

Detroit Pistons v Miami Heat Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

I spent a better part of my afternoon brainstorming an appropriate nickname for this group of Miami Heat reserves. Hey, it’s only a 10-game sample size but seems to me they have a nostalgic quality to them. A novelty even. Think, San Antonio bench cira 2012 staring Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and Manu Ginobili or the Bulls back ups in 2010 that featured Taj Gibson, Kyle Korver and CJ Watson, coined the “Bench Mob.”

After hours of pondering, I told myself not to overthink it. Pat Riley is known as the Godfather so naturally I settled on the “Bench Mafia.” Label them what you want, but one thing is for sure they deliver when their numbers are called.

The last time Miami began a season with this level of success they ended it by hoisting the Larry O’Brein trophy. That team did it with overwhelming star power but this chapter of Heat basketball has been penned by a host of different contributors and that will likely be the theme throughout this season. 8-3 is where the Heat currently sit, tied for the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference. A big part of their early-season success is the 4th ranked scoring bench in the NBA. Keeping pace with other elite teams in the conference will call for Miami to utilize its greatest attbiubute, depth.

Goran Dragic leads Miami’s potent list of reserves. With impressive play he’s emerged as a viable candidate for 6th man of the year. Dragic is shooting a career-best 44.3% from beyond the arc while pouring in 17 points and 6 assists per game. Though only ranked 5th in individual scoring off the bench, Dragic may have the most profound impact on his team during the minutes he plays. He’s often on the court to close out halves and at the end of close games. Head coach Erik Spolstera isn’t afraid to put the ball in his hands with the game on the line.

1. Lou Williams: 22ppg

2. Montrez Harrell: 20ppg

3. Devonte Graham: 18ppg

4. Spencer Dinwiddle: 17ppg

5. Goran Dragic: 17ppg

Prior to the season, moving a long-time starter like Dragic to the bench was no doubt a tough decision. Coming into 2019-2020 he had started 268 of the 282 regular-season games over the last four years in Miami, this while averaging over 32 minutes per contest. Thus far, Dragic has maintained his production in a limited role, scoring 27 points per 100 possession - just a tick below his All-Star season of 2017. Even though he’s a reserve, Miami is scoring 63% of their points when he is on the floor.

My estimation is that Dwyane Wade’s willingness to come off the bench last season inspired Dragic to embrace the role. A role many feel he’s tailor-made for and a sacrifice that likely hasn’t gone unnoticed by Heat youngsters. It’s an embodiment of the winning, team-first culture for Miami.

After Miami’s blowout win over Phoenix last week Erik Spoelstra said this about Goran. “It’s a great luxury for us to bring an All-Star talent like him, in his prime still, but off the bench.” He went on to say, “I don’t take that for granted and make sure that the team doesn’t take that for granted.

“Those young guys are playing, and you have an All-Star, proven, highly decorated player and winner in this league doing that. That’s a great sacrifice. That’s a great example for the young guys on our team.”

When asked about adjusting to the role of 6th man, Dragic explained, “We’re all competitors. Everybody wants to play a lot of minutes. But at the end of the day, I’m professional. I need to do my job and what’s best for the team. I went through conversations with Spo and other players, and there comes a point in your career that you need to make those decisions and accept it.”

In the final year of an $85 million contract, Dragic will be an unrestricted free agent this upcoming summer. It is certainly an important season for the veteran who has shown he still has great basketball left in him but is transitioning to the next stage of his career.

San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

The staple of a championship team is whether the bench can come in and not just maintain a lead but extend it. History is littered with great teams featuring once star-level players accepting a lesser assignment in the pursuit of team success. The most recent example of this would be Andre Iguodala, a multi-time All-Star accepting the role of 6th man in Golden State. Maybe, just maybe, Miami has found some of that magic in Dragic.

1. Los Angeles Clippers: 50.5ppg

2. Dallas Mavericks: 46.0ppg

3. San Antonio Spurs: 44.6ppg

4. Miami Heat: 44.6ppg

Of the top 5 scoring benches in the league Miami plays the least minutes on average while managing to produce efficiently. To this point, the Heat bench has the 2nd highest +/- of any back-up group.

What stands out the most when watching them is the execution and ball movement. Miami’s bench comes in and plays with a fluidity what rivals some starting line-ups. The depth allows Spoelstra to experiment with a number of different line-ups and tailor the rotation to the specific game plan. It also affords Miami the luxury of remaining extremely competitive when players miss games due to injury.

A few of the things I love most about watching this bench:

Goran Dragic’s inside-outside game

Kelly Olynyk DEEP pull-up triples

Chris Silva’s effort and energy

Duncan Robinson’s slashing

Tyler Herro’s quick hands

Miami is seeing value from each of its roster spots. As productive as this bench has been, it’s scary to think that we haven’t even seen this roster at full strength yet. Derrick Jones Jr. has only appeared in four games this season due to an ongoing hip issue and then, of course, there’s the issue of Dion Waiters.

Waiters has been suspended twice and is yet to see on-court action. Can Miami reintegrate him into the rotation or at the very least put him on display in hopes of his value as bargaining chip? The jury remains deadlocked on whether Waiters ever touches the court in a Heat uniform again. Either way the Heat have a $12 million asset in Waiters.

Contracts

Player 2019-2020 2020-2021 2021-2022 2022-2023 Signed Using
Player 2019-2020 2020-2021 2021-2022 2022-2023 Signed Using
Goran Dragic $19,217,900 Bird Rights
James Johnson $15,349,400 $16,047,100 Cap Space
Dion Waiters $12,100,000 $12,650,000 Cap Space
Kelly Olynyk $11,667,885 $12,198,243 Cap Space
Tyler Herro $3,640,200 $3,822,240 $4,004,280 $5,722,116 Draft Pick
Derrick Jones $1,645,357 Minimum Salary
Kendrick Nunn $1,416,852 $1,663,861
Duncan Robinson $1,416,852 $1,663,861
Kz Okpala $898,310 $1,517,981 $1,782,621 Mid-Level Exception
Chris Silva Two-way contract

Credit has to be given to the Miami’s scouting and talent development personnel. Consistently identifying players that can contribute to a winning culture isn’t easy. Through the plight of retooling, pillars of the organization stand rooted in the principles of excellence.

Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra waded through the post-LeBron wreckage to find themselves back on the right side of NBA competitive balance. And it took finding the right combination of starters and role players. Maybe, blessing them a nickname is slightly premature but one thing is for sure they’re well on their way to earning a moniker. I couldn’t resist the urge to coin this crew.

Michael Long covers the NBA for SBNation. Follow him on Twitter @michael.kawaida

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