We’ve reached the quarter mark of this 2019-20 season. One hour into a four hour flight. The team that plays in AmericanAirlines Arena, took off quickly winning five of their first six. But since, Miami has both risen to the level of its competition and be grounded by it.
On more than a few occasions, the Heat have overwhelmed oppositions with their depth. The loaded roster is a central factor in its division-leading 17-6 record. Of teams currently in playoff position, Miami ranks second in bench scoring. Seven different players average double-digits in scoring for the Heat.
However, with altitude comes pressure. Erik Spoelstra’s bunch have wavered under that pressure during a few concerning losses to star-studded opponents.
So, which is more exemplary of the team’s true identity? With this talent-ladened roster, are the Heat contenders or pretenders who remain one piece away from a real title run? Should fans temper expectations and view this season as a building year or could Miami soar above their projected ceiling? If they are to make that run, it will be with a big 15, not a big two or three.
Let’s discuss two separate cases for why the Heat should or should not trade for an additional star player. Miami’s encounters with the best in the East have produced a mixed bag of results. The team went to Milwaukee and pulled out a win against Giannis Antetokounmpo and company but also embarrassingly stumbled against the Philadelphia Sixers. Coming off his second triple-double of the season and fresh off being named NBA Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Jimmy Butler has establish he’s a top 10 player in the league.
Proof Miami should trade for a star:
12/4 vs Boston
After racing out to a 1st quarter lead on the road, Miami was eventually trampled by Boston. Jayson Tatum, Kemba Walker and Jaylen Brown combined for 78 of the Celtics’ 112 points. Jimmy Butler’s 37 points weren’t enough to keep the game competitive. Miami’s two rookie of the year candidates, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn went 5-for-19 from the field for just 13 points. The Heat led by double digits midway through the second quarter before the Celtics closed the half by scoring 26 of the final 33 points. Walker had nine of the points and Tatum eight in the spree over the final 7:09, including two shots from beyond the arc. Outside of Butler, Miami didn’t have anyone to stop the bleeding in crucial moments like this.
11/23 vs Philadelphia
Prior to visiting the Sixers, Miami was on a 5-game winning streak and flying high. They were quickly, and I mean quickly, pulled back down to earth in their blowout loss to Philadelphia. There was no answer for Joel Embiid in the low post and Tobias Harris locked up Kendrick Nunn, who went scoreless through nearly 44 minutes of play. It was a dud. The team looked flat and out of sync for much of the game. The stars of Philadelphia were just too much for Miami. Butler came out cold, missing four of his first five shots. His supporting cast combined for two baskets the entire 1st quarter. It seemed to be Butler or bust on this evening as well.
Proof Miami should trust its depth:
11/3 vs Houston
To date, this game has been a modicum of Miami’s tremendous defensive potential. The Heat held James Harden and Russell Westbrook to 9-25 from the field and 13 turnovers. Houston shot a lowly 39% from the field and 29% from three-point range. The Heat continue defending the arc at a supreme level, forcing opponents to shoot 31.6% — second worst in the NBA. Miami’s bench contributed 44 points in the victory, including 27 from Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro.
12/3 vs Toronto
Perhaps the most impressive win of the year came on foreign soil. The Heat went into Air Canada Center and handed the Raptors their first home loss. Jimmy Butler took over during the first two minutes of overtime. To cap a 22 point, 12 assist, 13 rebound triple double Butler stole a Pascal Siakam pass and raced to the other end for a dunk. The slam was his eighth point in just over a minute. Miami’s defense forced Toronto to miss all nine of its field goal attempts in overtime. Playing without Goran Dragic, Miami’s bench still managed to post 44 points. Bam Adebayo was the primary defender on emerging star Siakam, who looked incredibly uncomfortable all evening; but more on that later.
Does Miami already have its second star?
Sometimes what we’re searching for in life can be hiding right in front of us. If the NBA season ended today there is a good chance Bam Adebayo would be voted first-team All Defense. The Kentucky product takes pride in being able to defend all five positions. His ability to switch, close-out, rotate, recover, play off-the-ball, on-the-ball are all a sight to behold. He checks every box. NBA Math ranks Adebayo third, behind only Antetokounmpo and Andre Drummond in DPS or defensive points saved.
Through games on Dec. 5, here's how all #NBA juniors have fared in TPA during the 2019-20 season. pic.twitter.com/xLAyR6dGLx— NBA Math (@NBA_Math) December 6, 2019
Meyers Leonard said this about Adebayo, “He can stay in front of a guard. He can chase somebody like Joe Harris off a screen and get a good contest. He can guard in the post. He rebounds. I mean, he does it all. And he loves to win, he’s a great teammate and at the end of the day, we can really, really count on him to get a stop. Anywhere on the floor.”
He’s even hailing praise from some NBA legends, “This kid, Bam Adebayo, is a monster,’’ TNT’s Charles Barkley said during a recent “Inside the NBA” studio show.
To go along with his defense, Adebayo has developed into one of the league’s best playmaking bigs. He’s one of only three players averaging at least four assists to go along with 10 and a half boards. The others are Karl Anthony-Towns and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Are Miami’s young players ready for the bright lights?
On a couple instances Miami’s young guns have stalled in measuring-stick games. The Heat’s ceiling this season hinges in part of how quickly they can mature.
The way you win in this league is by capitalizing on cheap labor in the form of rookie contracts and team-friendly veteran deals. Miami has found some diamonds in the rough with Herro, Nunn and Duncan Robinson — but all have come up short in big games thus far. Against teams with winning records Herro is an average negative 4 plus/minus and Nunn is shooting 28% from the field. In the blowout loss to Philadelphia, Robinson failed to record a single field goal and in Los Angeles he made only one.
Miami’s most expendable players
Despite accounting for a combined $27 million of the Heat salary cap, nearly 20%, Dion Waiters and James Johnson have only played a total of 68 minutes this season. Thanks to the moxie and readiness of young players like Herro and Robinson, that lack of production hasn’t been glaring for Miami.
Johnson has been active for just six games so far while Waiters hasn’t seen the court at all. In the games JJ has played, he’s struggled to crack deep rotation. A quarter through the season it appears both Johnson and Waiters are expendable. Waiters looks to have a steep climb out of Spoelstra’s doghouse and may benefit from a fresh start. Johnson, who has a player option next season at $15 million, could be a very nice fit elsewhere for a team in need of bench depth. The Heat are a 1.8 +/- when Johnson is on the floor this year.
Derrick Jones Jr. would be a nice throw-in piece to facilitate a trade.
Possible trade targets for the Heat
DeMar DeRozan, a volume mid-range shooter who is also a poor defender, has been a name floating around the NBA twitter-sphere in connection with Miami. I’m actually a DeRozan fan but think the Heat should pass here.
Could he make you better? Maybe a little. But I’m not sure how willing DeRozan is to conform to Miami’s culture and team-first style of play. If this trade does happen, DeMar would give the Heat another proven, go-to scorer in high leverage moments.
Trade: Dion Waiters, James Johnson & a 2020 1st-round pick
Danilo Gallinari is another name that makes a ton of sense. He’s a 6’10” point-forward who can run the floor, knock down an open three-pointer, create his own shot and score in bunches. When he’s hot, he can scorch the earth. Gallinari fits in well with what the Heat do on offensive and is an improved defender. Gallinari would give Miami a tough, proven veteran who can post monster scoring nights on occasion. He also bolsters Miami’s 38.7% three-point shooting clip, 3rd best in the league.
Trade: Kelly Olynk, Derrick Jones, Dion Waiters & 2022 2nd-round pick
D’Angelo Russell is averaging 23 points and 6 assists in Golden State. Injuries to the Warriors key players have opened up a window for Russell to display his electrifying brand of basketball. Analysts have hypothesized for months that Golden State’s eventual plan was to trade Russell for parts to compensate for the loss of Durant to the Nets. Russell would give Miami a player who can completely take over games offensively.
Trade: Justise Winslow, Kendrick Nunn, Dion Waiters & a 2020 1st-round pick
Blake Griffin isn’t the high-flyer he once was but the 6-time All-Star is still incredibly skilled and crafty with the ball in his hands. The former slam dunk champion has reshaped his game after suffering a host of injuries in the last few seasons. Griffin can give Miami a point-forward presence the team could run offense through for stretches. The 30-year-old remains capable of showing flashes of brilliance that made him a household name.
Then again, his $75 million price tag over the next two season may be too hefty a bill. Detroit may want to jump start its rebuild and get out from under the next two years of Griffin’s salary. So, if the deal is sweetened with a 1st-round pick I would pull the trigger.
Trade: Goran Dragic & James Johnson (MIA gets 2020 1st-round pick from DET)
Draymond Green has a personality tailor-made for the Heat style of play. He’s built a reputation as one of the toughest players in the league - one of the loudest too. Although he’s looked pedestrian in 14 games this season with an all new cast around him, Green still has championship experience. Bite to back up his bark. Some are convinced the 29-year-old’s athleticism is in decline but I feel the reward may be worth the risk for Miami. He pairs perfectly with Jimmy Butler.
Trade: Can’t be traded until days before deadline due to extension
It might not be fair to render a final determination on this debate just yet as Miami continues to have injury concerns. Justise Winslow, Butler and Dragic alone have all missed a considerable amount of time this season due to injury. The lack of playing time as a unit makes it difficult to conclude where this team stands when the dust settles.
It’s important to note that trading for a star-caliber player now would mean compromising financial flexibility in the future. Something team president Pat Riley may be reluctant to do given reports he plans to chase Antetokounmpo in the summer of 2021. The best option is probably getting a high-price player on a one-year rental while giving up players who are on expiring contracts or don’t have multiple years left at a bargain.
Riley has a choice to make as this season grows older: trust in the depth he built or leverage it to improve the top-end of the roster.
Michael Kawaida covers the NBA for SBNation, follow him on Twitter @michael_kawaida