Just seven months after the 2019-20 postseason concluded (let’s skip over the ending to that), the NBA Playoffs are back!
The Miami Heat, slated as the No. 6 seed, will be squaring off with the three-seeded Milwaukee Bucks — a rematch of last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, where the Heat ended the Bucks’ season in five games.
It goes without saying, but Jimmy Butler had an outstanding postseason. Despite missing a cluster of games throughout the first half of this season due to an ankle injury and then contracting COVID-19, he followed his remarkable performance in the NBA bubble with arguably the best year of his career in this 72-game truncated season.
In 52 games, Butler averaged 21.5 points — the third-best mark of his 10-year career — on a career-best 60.7 true shooting percentage. He also averaged career-bests in rebounds (6.9), assists (7.1), steals (2.1 spg, leading the NBA), player efficiency rating (26.9), box plus-minus (7.5) and win shares per 48 minutes (.255), among other statistics. Miami’s worst kept secret was that it was 7-13 in contests where Butler didn’t play and 33-19 in games he did play. That’s indicative of his overall value and impact when he’s on the floor.
Butler’s “sidekick”, Bam Adebayo, also had the best year of his career. The fourth-year center upped his efficiency in nearly every area inside the arc, while boasting career bests in scoring (18.7 ppg), assists (5.4 apg) and steals (1.2 spg).
Those two aforementioned stars are the engines to Miami’s postseason success. Who else could that bill?
The list isn’t large. In the previous nine seasons where Erik Spoelstra’s squads have made the postseason, here’s how many players have played 15-plus or more minutes per game:
- 2008-09: 7
- 2009-10: 9
- 2010-11: 8
- 2011-12: 8
- 2012-13: 9
- 2013-14: 8
- 2015-16: 7
- 2017-18: 10
- 2019-20: 9
Since Spoelstra trims his rotations to no more than ten players — a common practice among NBA coaches — I dwindled the list down to just four potential candidates that could be amongst Miami’s most important playoff players, not including Adebayo or Butler.
All in all, each of the playoff rotation players are important to increase a team’s ceiling. It’s not super uncommon to win postseason games because of the performances from the bench unit, although success at the top is paramount.
With discussing the justification of my rankings of this list, just because Player A is ranked higher than Player B does not mean Player A is better than Player B. That’s not how this works. I attempted to factor in all-around contributions and their roles with the team in 2020-21, as well as past postseason success (which can vary year-to-year).
Without further ado, let’s get into it!
4. Duncan Robinson:
2020-21 Stats (72 games, all starts):
- 13.1 PPG
- 3.5 RPG
- 1.8 APG
- 43.9/40.8/82.7 shooting splits (FG%/3PT%/FT%)
- 62.8 true shooting percentage (TS%)
Skinny: I won’t spoil who I didn’t select, but the fourth-spot was a very tough decision. Given Miami’s over-reliance on the deep ball—attempting over 43 percent of its shots from 3-point range—and Robinson’s importance to that offensive philosophy, he earns a spot on my list. Miami’s fortunes have oftentimes rested on their 3-point shooting, with Robinson at the centerpiece of that equation. Despite the slow start, Robinson is still, and will continue to be at the top of every scouting report imaginable. The sharpshooter recently rekindled his deadly shooting stroke—netting 44.8 percent of his 8.5 3-point attempts since the March 25th trade deadline compared to just 38.2 percent beforehand. I’m assuming some mad scientist is crunching the numbers right this second, but Robinson might have more gravitational pull than Jupiter; the amount of attention he attracts is vital for the other four Heat players to operate. Robinson’s becoming more creative on how to get open with his non-stop movement around dribble handoffs, plus a hodge podge of pin downs, staggered screens and split actions. He’s taking advantage of over-aggressive defenses — opening up more alleyways for basket cuts, thus generating open opportunities for other Heat players by virtue of him putting stress on defenses. Robinson has also become more willing to create off-the-dribble and converted on 48 of his 61 rim attempts, per Cleaning the Glass. For Miami to go far, it’s imperative that Robinson’s shooting, as well as his improved playmaking and defensive capabilities, carry over.
3. Kendrick Nunn:
2020-21 Stats (56 games, 44 starts):
- 14.6 PPG
- 3.2 RPG
- 2.6 APG
- 478.5/38.1/93.3 shooting splits
- 59.6 TS%
Skinny: You could make the argument that Nunn has been Miami’s third-best player behind Butler and Adebayo this season. In his last 13 games—dating back to April 19—he averaged 18.5 points on 55.2 percent shooting, including 41.2 percent from 3-point range on fairly high volume (6.5 3-point attempts per game). In Butler’s absence against the Bucks on Saturday, Nunn was by far Miami’s best player — tallying 31 points on 13-of-18 shooting (4-of-5 from deep) despite the 14-point road loss. The 6-foot-3 guard poses as a tertiary three-level scoring threat and can knife through any defense. He’s also shown flashes in shot creating not only for himself, but for others as well. Questions will arise if Nunn can sustain this level of play throughout the postseason. If he does, it increases Miami’s ceiling ten-fold. Recall that he didn’t receive ample opportunity to contribute in their NBA Finals run because of rocky play, reduced role, and his own battle with COVID-19. That’s not the case this time around. With Milwaukee more willing to switch this year after adamantly sticking to the deep drop, Nunn could see a bevy of possessions against Jrue Holiday, one of the league’s most well-respected guard defenders. How he fares against Holiday could determine the team’s success throughout the first round.
2. Dewayne Dedmon:
2020-21 Stats (16 games):
- 7.1 PPG
- 5.4 RPG
- 70.8 field goal percentage
- 74.1 free throw percentage
- 73.5 TS%
Skinny: Miami lacked any semblance of a true backup 5 prior to Dedmon’s arrival. He’s bridged the non-Adebayo minutes spectacularly. Per Cleaning the Glass, which weaves out garbage time minutes, lineups with Dedmon and without Adebayo are a plus-16.5 points per 100 possessions; his on-off splits suggest that Miami is 18 points per 100 possessions better when he’s on the floor — the second-highest mark in the league among players who have logged at least 200 minutes (small sample, I know). That’s in uncharted territory, though his production has accrued with just 16 contests under his belt. He tallied 19.4 points, 14.7 rebounds (!!!), 1.5 steals and one block per 36 minutes. As Spoelstra’s commented before, Dedmon will “empty the tank” each time he steps onto the hardwood. You couldn’t ask for much more from a player who went nearly 400 days without appearing in an NBA game.
1. Goran Dragic:
2020-21 Stats (50 games, 11 starts):
- 13.4 PPG
- 3.4 RPG
- 4.4 APG
- 43.2/37.3/82.8 shooting splits
- 55.2 TS%
Skinny: Is it crazy to have a sixth-man at the top of this list? If so, I’ll revert to the classic basketball cliché of “It’s not about who starts, it’s about who finishes.” I’d be remised to mention that it’s a phrase that I, too, believe and preach to my fellow basketball peers. Anyways, Dragic was arguably the Heat’s third-most important player in last year’s playoff run. He can change the course of any series with his on-court savviness and his pristine touch around the rim and on his high-arching jumpers. Though the 35-year-old has underwent a roller coaster season, he is playing some of his best basketball of the season at the right time—scoring 15 or more points in seven of his last nine games on 43.1 percent shooting from beyond the arc. If Spoelstra elects to keep Dragic out of the starting five, he will lead a bench unit that’s struggled to generate points with ideal efficiency for the majority of the season. The Heat’s bench averaged just 34.4 points on 44.2 percent shooting in the regular season, both placing amongst the bottom-third in the Association. In Miami’s final 16 games—going 12-4—the bench tallied 36.7 points (17th) on 47.2 percent shooting (11th). Dragic, as well as second-year guard Tyler Herro, will be integral pieces of that come playoff time.
Who do you think are the most important players to the Heat’s playoff success, and why? Comment below.