The Miami Heat have played arguably the toughest schedule of any contender to start the NBA season.
Already 13 of their 21 games have been decided on the road, where they are 6-5 following Saturday’s important victory over the Chicago Bulls, an adversary they could meet when basketball matters most in April or May.
As mentioned on “Inside the NBA” by 4-time NBA champion and Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal – who won one of those rings in Miami – a team contending for a title should aim for .500 on the road, and defeat the opponents they’re supposed to beat at home.
So far, this Heat team has also done the latter, winning 6 of their 8 at the recently-named FTX Arena (say hello to the Crypto boom, everybody!) even after their loss last night to the Denver Nuggets without Jimmy Butler or Tyler Herro. Prior to that game, however, the Bulls became the latest top-tier squad Miami outplayed, joining the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks, East-leading (for now) Brooklyn Nets, and contending Utah Jazz to that list.
Outside of the Bay Area, Arizona, or Wisconsin, Miami can make a case as the most impressive team in the NBA.
It legitimately seemed that way when the Heat raced off to a 6-1 start, suffering their only loss when max-player signee Kyle Lowry sat against Indiana, but otherwise blowing out noteworthy opponents.
Since then, the flaws, like they do for any team, materialized.
Boston’s switch-heavy defense highlighted weaknesses in the Heat’s offense, including the lack of a consistent break-you-down paint penetrator. Lowry, while still crafty, doesn’t have the same explosive burst of speed which he utilized regularly to steer the Toronto Raptors’ offense.
While still a trusty playmaker (7.4APG), Lowry’s scoring, punctuated by his below-averaging shooting numbers (42% FG, 30% 3PT), has taken a slight dip. The good news for Miami is they haven’t needed much of it because of the contributions of the rest of the team, particularly from Butler and Herro.
Beating the Bulls in a game the Heat trailed by two possessions in the fourth quarter was even more significant because of Herro’s absence, having missed the contest due to an illness. The pre-season expectations for Tyler entering his third season were to simply out-perform his alright sophomore showing, but the needle’s been moved.
Following an offseason when adding muscle (working with renowned trainer Drew Hanlen) was the priority, Herro is now second in the Heat’s rank of scoring with 21.8 PPG. One can argue he is the team’s best shot-creator, and its most reliable shot-maker when accounting for shooting splits from long-range (39.8%), the mid-range (51.1%), and paint (41.7%) – he’s gotten better at his floater game – altogether.
He’s the early leading candidate for 6th Man of the Year. If he keeps playing at this high level, could an All-Star appearance be in store?
Butler remains the fulcrum. When, as they say, “s*** goes down,” it’s evident the team looks to him as its leader, and rightfully so. His 3-point shooting hasn’t improved much, but he’s been deadly from the mid-range (43.3%), post (51.9%), elbows (56.3%), and paint non-RA (46.9%), despite already dealing with an ankle injury — which for some reason gets him on the injury report at least once every season he’s been in Miami.
Butler’s defense still remains in the “best-of-the-best” category for a wing defender. In addition to the currently ranking second in steals (2.1), his cornerback-like talent for shadowing the other team’s best scorers and making it uncomfortable for them to, first, even get the ball, and then once they do, force them to a tough shot, are a microcosm of what Miami likes to do on defense as a team.
Take the Bulls win, for instance. Butler manned Zach LaVine, Chicago’s leading scorer, and ironically, the player he was traded for (in addition to other assets) when Jimmy was sent to Minnesota in 2017.
Zach entered the game averaging above 25 points per contest. He wound up with an inefficient 16 points on 6-of-16 shooting in 37 minutes, where he was a -4 on the scoreboard. Some of those baskets came in the final minutes when the Bulls played hurry up. The Heat threw double teams to make him more of a passer, but otherwise Butler was shadowing him to keep LaVine away from the spots where he likes to begin his moves.
The Heat are 11th in the league in FG% allowed (43.9%) and third in points allowed (103.3). Miami also leads the NBA with 34 offensive fouls taken, a number that’s far and away better than the second-ranked Timberwolves (20). Taking charges involves sacrificing one’s body to take on the full force of an attacking offensive player. This is the part where one screams, “#HeatCulture.”
Lowry leads them all with 10. He sometimes gets blown by against quicker point guards, but for the most part, his knowledge for defensive schemes, rotation timing, and timely steals give head coach Erik Spoelstra a dynamic PG point-of-attack defender he hasn’t had since the good days of Mario Chalmers (there were some bad days, too, lol.)
Depth was a concern for the Heat entering the season, but the contributions they’ve received have varied from different guys almost week-to-week.
After a trying shooting slump to start the season, Duncan Robinson, who signed a $90 million contract in the offseason, is still trying to re-discover his shooting mojo. It helps that he’s re-incorporated the dribble penetration, shorter jumpers, and layups when defenders overplay him off the catch to prevent the launch from deep from a career 41% 3-PT shooter.
The defensive issues, which also involve high fouls, will always remain, which is why it’s tough to play Robinson heavy minutes when the shot isn’t falling. On the flip side, the floor opens up for Miami’s offense, allowing Butler and Bam Adebayo to be at their best.
In his first year being paid as a max contract guy, Bam has shown flashes of improvement from last season, although not as incremental as some might have expected, given the history of All-Stars having career seasons following stints with Team USA.
Is he hurt? He’s been bothered by knee tendinitis, which cost him three games this season, then seemed to have minorly hurt his hand in the recent loss to Denver. The numbers remain consistent, although Adebayo hasn’t improved on the ball handling aspect of his game which, theoretically, should allow him to take advantage of his speed when going up against bigger centers. Ball security on drives, to keep it simple, needs improvement.
Bam is also the key when Miami goes up against switch-heavy teams, but his post control and decision making aren’t good enough for that to be a consistent mode of attack just yet. How well that improves could ultimately determine a series for the Heat in the playoffs.
His mid-range game looks the same and he’s still deadly as a dunker in the pick-and-roll when the defense overplays on the penetration, although Bam still has the habit of pump faking too much when there are sequences it would be better to go up and strong and get to the foul line, if not score over someone.
After saying on Media Day that he’d attempt more threes on average, he’s taken one all season.
He is still the heart and soul of the Heat defense. Outside of Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo, there’s no one better switching out on speedier guards/forwards while also trying to protect the paint. Adebayo leads the NBA in switches.
Bam’s ability to deter an opponent from penetrating, rebound the ball, bring it down the court, then set a screen leading to a dribble hand-off for a high-percentage look, remains one of Miami’s unique weapons. Spoelstra loves it almost as much as he loves to suddenly spring out zone defenses.
The Heat have the fourth highest net rating (+5.5) in the NBA but the highest in a tightly-competitive Eastern Conference. Brooklyn remains on top but isn’t invincible. The Washington Wizards and Bulls are refreshing stories but both would be underdogs in a series against a complete Miami squad.
The Bucks, who are on a 7-game winning streak since getting healthy, are rounding into shape. As defending champions of the NBA, they get the benefit of being the conference’s favorite when their lineup is complete.
Miami has two good things going for them:
First, the impressive play of Caleb Martin (a two-way contract guy!), Max Strus, and Gabe Vincent have been important as Heat starters have missed games due to injury. The Heat even use Martin as the 4 in funky line-ups that are efficient, per NBA stats. There’s a Lowry-VanVleet light going on with this older version of Kyle and Vincent, who are absolute menaces for opposing ball-handlers.
And when their shot is falling, it can turn the total course of the game. Just ask Benny the Bull.
The Heat can make a case their best is yet to come. The inefficiency on their shooting for a team with good shooters will logically progress to the mean, no matter how deflating Robinson’s shooting issues have seemed early this season. Unlike past years, Spo has a trustworthy back-up for Bam in Dewayne Dedmon. Their schedule will get easier, with more home games and against weaker teams.
They essentially already have a mid-season pick-up when Victor Oladipo returns to action.
Maybe Vic is no longer the max player he was in Indiana. But as the seventh or eighth man on a team which has already proven to be very good without him, he’s a luxury. Interesting, what he’s best at – penetrating the paint – would solve an issue. His defense could unlock versatile shutdown lineups for Spoelstra to tinker with.
With the way the aforementioned young trio are performing, can the case be made that the Heat might go 12-deep? Health could catapult or derail the rest of Miami’s campaign following the first quarter of the regular season. But the same can be said for any team in the NBA.
They haven’t been perfect or the best, although in terms of this current journey, so far, pretty good.