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What the Miami Heat could learn about defense from the late Kobe Bryant

Zone defense helped the Heat in the front 41 games, but now Miami can’t hide their gaps on defense in the back 41 games.

NBA: Orlando Magic at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Lowe pointed out the Miami Heat hide poor defenders using zone defense, “[Tyler Herro is] a little flat-footed and upright on defense — prone to dustings….the Heat can hide him some in a zone. But opponents will likely hunt him some in the playoffs.”

Man-to-man defense isn’t glamorous and doesn’t fill up the stat sheet. True champions go beyond simple pride to obsession with never settling for second place. The incomprehensible passing of Kobe Bryant shocked the NBA and the world. He left a legacy of winning against the best: not once, but again and again.

Bryant didn’t suit up in Miami uniform. Yet Heat players could honor his spirit by respecting his ferocious work ethic. He took defense seriously, maybe even more so than offense. Many teams say they want to win a championship, but only one triumphs. Below is a video of Bryant explaining how his obsession with defense stopped Allen Iverson.

Who are the Heat’s best on-ball defenders? Using the eye test NBA All-Stars Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo come to mind, as well as Justise Winslow and Derrick Jones Jr. Another approach on strict man-to-man defense uses the Defense Dashboard numbers for Miami this season. Ranked by defender’s DFG% vs overall FG%, the DIFF% numbers are:

  • KZ Okpala -44.9, 0.0 - 44.9 on 2 DFGA
  • Dion Waiters -10.3, 33.3 - 43.6 on 6 DFGA
  • Derrick Jones Jr. -6.9, 38.1 - 45.1 on 307 DFGA
  • Justise Winslow -5.9, 38.7 - 44.6 on 119 DFGA
  • Jimmy Butler -4.8, 40.5 - 45.3 on 469 DFGA
  • Goran Dragic -3.8, 40.5 - 44.3 on 289 DFGA
  • Bam Adebayo -3.1, 43.8 - 46.9 on 628 DFGA
  • James Johnson -1.0, 43.7 - 44.7 on 119 DFGA
  • Duncan Robinson 0.5, 44.9 - 44.5 on 425 DFGA
  • Meyers Leonard 1.1, 50.0 - 48.9 on 392 DFGA
  • Tyler Herro 2.0, 45.3 - 43.2 on 400 DFGA
  • Kendrick Nunn 2.5, 46.7 - 44.1 on 478 DFGA
  • Kelly Olynyk 3.8, 49.7 - 45.9 on 334 DFGA
  • Chris Silva 5.1, 52.5 – 47.4 on 139 DFGA

The number for Okpala seems like a fluke since he’s regarded as a human traffic cone on defense. Lately though he’s pulling a Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn, who put in a season’s worth of G-League reps to prepare for the NBA. Two games ago Okpala had 3 steals and 8 boards to go along with 18 points. Last game he had 5 blocks, 3 steals, 7 boards, and 19 points.

Basketball analyst Don MacLean claims Okpala has “off the charts” handle. Video clips suggest Okpala is not afraid of contact, and actually seeks it by going right at his defender. If Adebayo’s progress was any indication, Okpala needs time before a breakout season happens.

Okpala hasn’t grasped team concepts on defense yet, but he’s getting more confident and active on that end as he gains experience. For now though Miami’s rotation players can’t always mask their defensive deficiencies using the zone, since NBA teams have caught on to the weak links in the chain.

The video above showed Bryant got dusted on defense. He didn’t quit. He got up Rocky-style and fought back. What happened to Kobe will never feel quite right. Carrying on the Mamba Mentality of not settling for second best could be one way to honor his spirit.

The second half of the season will reveal the difference between those who want to win and those who do win. Everyone wants the good life. Now we’ll see which Heat players put everything aside to win the prize only one team captures. Those were the moments Kobe Bryant lived for.