“The main thing is always the main thing for us,” Spoelstra said of winning, borrowing an old Riley line.
Jackson went on to ask Spoelstra if player development, specifically youth development, was the priority:
“Not any more or less,” he said. “We are an organization that is committed to winning and an organization that’s always committed to development. And it’s not exclusive to young players. It has to be earned,” he said. “That makes it that much more valuable.”
The Miami Heat’s values as an organization have always been clear. Heat President Pat Riley, whose legacy will be defined by his fiercely competitive nature, has favored win-now moves his entire executive career. Erik Spoelstra has repeatedly fought the notion that the Heat should tank. Other Heat hires, from Juwan Howard on the coaching staff, to Alonzo Mourning and Shane Battier in the front office, signify the organization’s desire to uphold a winning standard. All three were indoctrinated in the Heat way as players. All three won championships with Miami.
It’s perhaps why the tanking discussion, as it pertains to the Heat, has always been futile. Surely they understand the math, the odds of it all. Surely they understand where franchise altering talent is most likely to be found. But sacrificing winning for anything, even the potential for more meaningful winning, is in their eyes an affront to the sanctity of winning.
At a time when there’s no shortage of floundering franchises and sheer incompetence, there can be something noble about the Heat’s belief system.
But the Heat are in year three of a largely unchanged roster. They sit at 24-27, with perhaps the toughest remaining strength of schedule. Their -0.6 point differential gives them a projected win total of 39-40 games. Less favorable projections, like those at FiveThirtyEight, have Miami finishing 36-46. Five of their next six opponents include Portland, Sacramento, Golden State, Denver and Philadelphia.
Even putting aside the implications of their draft position, it’s fair to have questions about where their focus should lie.
Over the last year, maybe the biggest point of contention among the Heat fanbase has been a perceived lack of commitment to youth development and playing time.
This has been addressed in some ways, be it organically (through player improvement) or inorganically (opportunity opened up by injuries). Josh Richardson is leading the Heat in minutes for the second year in a row. Justise Winslow has thrived while filling in at point guard.
But what about Bam Adebayo? The player who Pat Riley boldly proclaimed would have his jersey hanging in the rafters one day. The player who Alonzo Mourning said was “going to be the best in the Heat organization.”
Throughout his rookie season, Adebayo showed flashes of a tantalizing skillset. His lateral quickness on the defensive end left many envisioning a 6’10” big man guarding positions 1-5. His assist percentage was nearly in the 75th percentile for players classified as “bigs,” per Cleaning The Glass. Reports of a pre-draft work-out, where Adebayo drained 60 of 100 corner 3-pointers, along with a rookie season free throw percentage of 72%, served as encouraging signs for the development of a jump shot.
Adebayo hasn’t necessarily regressed from the benchmarks he set last year. In fact, he’s shown marginal improvements in many of these areas. But he is more than half-way through his second season, and there doesn’t seem to be a discernible role for him. His drives per game are slightly down from last season—an area you’d hope for an uptick in considering the mismatches his freight-train-like nature provides. He is shooting a solid 47% on long-midrange shots (shots outside 14 feet and inside the 3-point arc), but only on an incredibly small sample size of fifteen attempts, via Cleaning The Glass.
Whether these reservations are a result of coaching instructions or Adebayo’s unselfish nature, this might be the type of ground-level development the Heat need to prioritize. Sure, Adebayo bulldozing to the rim and tossing up more jumpers may result in Miami ceding possessions (and ultimately wins in the immediate term). But it might also be the type of freedom that could ironically lead to more wins later—something a stagnant Heat team is in dire need of.
To be clear, Adebayo’s minutes per game are slightly up from last season. He’s often Miami’s closing center in the fourth quarter. But the minutes can seem to have a superficiality to them—where Adebayo’s time on the floor is more about the avoidance of mistakes, than the potential for tangible contribution.
Spoelstra certainly has the unenviable responsibility of balancing personalities, rotations, and his own desire to win. There is an argument to be made that starting veterans like James Johnson and Hassan Whiteside (who deserves credit for quietly putting together a very solid 2-month stretch) provides you with some semblance of game-to-game consistency.
Though, the Heat know what they have in Whiteside, and considering last summer’s reports of their desire to trade him, they do not appear committed to him past his current deal.
Whiteside is likely to remain on the Heat roster after the trade deadline (the trade market for plodding centers does not seem too robust). It may also be a foregone conclusion that he picks up his $27 million dollar player option this summer.
Player development can be like walking a tightrope. Throw a player into the fire, and you may risk their confidence. Bring a player along too slowly, and you may be limiting their opportunities to improve. But Miami has a brutal upcoming six-game stretch and a remaining schedule that does not bode too well for their playoff aspirations.
So it may be time to ask: Is chasing immediate wins worth the cost of sacrificing opportunities for players such as Adebayo?