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Can the Miami Heat shock the world again?

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Comparing the 2021 and 2020 Heat playoff rotations.

Philadelphia 76ers v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

In the 2019-2020 season, the Miami Heat won 44 out of 73 games and finished as the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference. This season, the Heat won 40 out of 72 games and finished as the 6th seed in the Eastern conference. A quick glance at the team’s overall record this season compared to last would give off the impression that the team simply isn’t as good this year as they were last year. Many NBA and Heat fans alike had higher expectations of the team this season given last year’s inspiring NBA Finals run that took the league by storm. Contrary to popular belief, however, the 2021 Heat might be not only just as good as the 2020 Heat, but even better.

Let’s take a look at the development of some key Heat players this season and where they stand heading into the 2021 NBA Playoffs as opposed to last season.

NBA: Playoffs-Boston Celtics at Miami Heat Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jimmy Butler - It’s no secret that the Miami Heat’s postseason success will rely heavily on the shoulders of its leader, Jimmy Butler. Butler quietly had one of the best seasons of his entire career in the 2020-2021 season, averaging 21.5 points per game, 6.9 rebounds per game (career high), 7.1 assists per game (career high), and a league-leading 2.1 steals per game (career high) while shooting 49.7% from the field (career high) and 86.3% from the free throw line.

When he was sidelined for about three weeks early in the season due to covid, Miami fell into a deep hole with a 7-14 record and sat at 14th place in the Eastern conference. Since his return, the Heat went 33-18 and climbed all the way up to 6th in the East, per Heat reporter Will Manso. Although he likely will not win league MVP this season, there are clearly very little players as valuable to their franchise as Jimmy Butler is to the Heat, and he will look to carry this into playoffs.

Bam Adebayo - When the Miami Heat signed Bam Adebayo to a max contract extension in the 2020 offseason, they made it clear that Adebayo will become the franchise player of this team. This season, he responded with career highs in points per game, assists per game, and free throw percentage.

The most noticeable difference in his skillset this season, however, was the improved ability and confidence in his mid-range jumper. His mid-range shot percentage has increased each season of his career and his confidence in attempting these shots coupled with his vast improvement from the free throw line has taken his offensive arsenal to another level this year.

The next leap that he will need to take in his development is the mental leap. For the entirety of his career until last season, Adebayo was a backup center who was typically the third or fourth option on offense. He is now the first or second option offensively while anchoring the entire defense. Jimmy Butler has described Adebayo multiple times as the “heart and soul of this team” for this reason. Adebayo has an extremely selfless playstyle, evident by the fact that he ranks only behind Nikola Jokic in assists per game as a center. However, he has been criticized for being too selfless at times.

Due to Adebayo’s previous role with the Heat, knowing when to flip the switch and play more “selfishly” when needed is still a work in progress. He has shown flashes of it at many points, most notably when he was the best player in the series against the Boston Celtics in the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals.

If the Heat want to match last season’s postseason success, Adebayo will need to flip that mental switch more consistently and elevate himself to the franchise player he is now being paid to be.

Duncan Robinson - While Jimmy Butler & Bam Adebayo tend to soak up much of the attention for the Heat, Duncan Robinson is truly the unsung hero of the team’s offense. Last season, Robinson averaged 13.5 points per game on 47% shooting from the field and an absurd 44.6% from three with 8.3 three point attempts per game. This season, Robinson averaged 13.1 points per game on 43.9% shooting from the field and 40.8% from three with 8.5 three point attempts per game. If you were to compare these statistics without any context, you may be under the impression that Robinson regressed this season. However, the reality is quite different.

Last season was Robinson’s first year getting any meaningful minutes and he went ignored on most teams’ defensive scouting reports. However, after his historic three point shooting season last year and establishing himself firmly as one of the league’s elite sharpshooters, teams were able to develop defensive schemes to slow him down heading into this season. This is the reason that Robinson struggled from three for roughly the first half of this season. Teams started to “figure out” Robinson’s sweet spots and Miami’s patented Bam Adebayo-Duncan Robinson dribble handoff scheme became much more predictable. This explains Robinson’s significant drop-off in 3P% during the first half of the season.

However, as the season went on, Robinson began to develop counters in his offense to counteract his newfound defensive attention. Robinson became much more adept at driving, finishing through traffic, and surprising defenses with backdoor cuts and improved off-ball movement. This, in turn, led to better looks from the three point line than he had for the first part of the season and Robinson’s three point percentage improved drastically following the trade deadline. The fact that he was able to finish the season shooting above 40% from three in what has been considered a “down year” by many is a testament to how elite Robinson is and why simply comparing his percentages can be misleading.

Duncan Robinson is undoubtedly a far better player heading into the playoffs this year than he was last season and his growth will be pivotal for the Heat’s chances in making another run.

Tyler Herro - Another player that many fans around the league believe to have regressed this season is Tyler Herro. However, much like in the case of Duncan Robinson, it is extremely important to evaluate Herro’s season contextually. For the early part of the season, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had played Herro as the starting point guard. Most of this time overlapped with the rough stretch for Miami when covid protocols struck the team and sidelined several key players, including Jimmy Butler for about three weeks.

Herro being played in a new role without several key players to relieve him of defensive attention led to much of his early struggles, including poor shooting and an increased turnover rate. Spoelstra soon placed Herro back into the sixth-man role off the bench that Herro is more comfortable with, and Herro’s shooting numbers rounded back into form as the season went on and the team became healthier.

Last season, Herro averaged 13.5 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 2.2 assists while shooting 42.8% from the field with 1.6 turnovers per game. This season, Herro averaged 15.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.4 assists while shooting 43.9% from the field with 1.9 turnovers per game. Additionally, he played 30.3 minutes per game this year as opposed to 27.4 minutes per game last season. While his three point percentage is down from 38.9% last season to 36.0% this season, Herro made strides in his mid-range shooting, finishing around the rim, playmaking, and his overall decision making both on and off the ball.

Despite an increased role in the offense and his fair share of early season struggles due to a variety of reasons, Herro shot better from the floor overall and only marginally increased his turnovers this season. Contrary to what many around the league believe, Herro is a better player headed into this postseason than he was last season.

Kendrick Nunn - Perhaps the most unnoticed development of the Heat’s season was the resurgence of Kendrick Nunn. Just last year, Nunn finished second place in the Rookie of the Year voting to Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant. However, after being struck with covid during last season’s hiatus, Nunn struggled heavily in the bubble and was essentially out of the rotation during the 2020 NBA Playoffs.

Throughout much of this season, Nunn was in and out of the Heat lineup depending on other players’ availability and the trade that brought in Victor Oladipo. To Nunn’s credit, he stayed ready regardless and contributed to the Heat’s success every time his number was called upon. By the latter half of the season, Nunn established himself as the starting point guard and thrived in this role for the rest of the season. This season, Nunn posted averages of 14.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 2.6 assists while shooting 48.5% from the field, 93.3% from the free throw line, and 38.1% from three. The efficiency jumps out immediately, as his shooting percentages have skyrocketed this season despite not having a consistent role until the second half of the year.

Given the fact that Nunn was barely playing for the Heat at all in the playoffs last season and he is now an integral part of their success, the Heat are essentially getting a new player that they didn’t have in the playoffs last year to take pressure off of Butler and Adebayo. His ability to break down defenders off the dribble and his dramatically improved catch-and-shoot three will make Nunn an undoubted x factor for the Heat’s playoff success.

Goran Dragic - One of the biggest surprises of last season’s postseason run was Goran Dragic stepping up to be the leading scorer for the Heat for much of the playoffs. When Kendrick Nunn was no longer in the consistent guard rotation for Miami, Dragic was needed more than ever and he certainly delivered. This was likely attributed to the fact that Dragic was able to rest his legs for several months during the league’s hiatus. Dragic is a 35-year old NBA veteran and is one of the more experienced players on the Heat roster when it comes to performing in the postseason.

The biggest factor for Dragic is being able to stay healthy and fresh by the time the playoffs roll around, a goal that Spoelstra has kept in mind all season. Dragic has rarely played both sets of back-to-back games and will be entering the postseason with plenty of rest because Miami was able to avoid the play-in tournament. Additionally, the emergence of Kendrick Nunn as a vital part of the Heat guard rotation this year will take pressure off of Dragic. These are all great signs for Heat fans to feel optimistic about heading into the postseason, and the Heat themselves will hope Dragic is able to once again save his best for the upcoming playoff run.

Acquisitions - The Heat’s run in the second half of the season that turned their season around was largely due to the team finally gaining its best players back and being relatively healthy. However, what has gone largely under the radar were the mid-season acquisitions of Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon.

There has been a lot of discussion around how the loss of Jae Crowder in the offseason has hurt Miami. While Crowder was a critical piece of the Heat’s run against the Indiana Pacers and the Milwaukee Bucks last postseason, Ariza has seamlessly been able to perform in the same starting power forward role this season. While his three point shooting has not been as consistent as Crowder’s was for Miami last season, he provides more versatile defense in Miami’s switch-heavy defensive scheme while still being able to knock down the three pointer.

The acquisition of Dedmon is perhaps one of the bigger upgrades from this postseason rotation to last. As shown in the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakes and for much of the early half of this season as well, the Heat desperately lacked interior size and a serviceable big man to back up Adebayo off the bench. Dedmon has been able to provide that and more this season. He has provided much needed offensive rebounding and a paint presence off the bench that plagued Miami last year and will be even more heavily used in the playoffs than he was in the regular season as the rotations tighten.

The Miami Heat under Erik Spoelstra have always been greater than the sum of their parts. This is the case once again this season. It is a mistake to compare the regular season record from last season to this season and assume the Heat are a worse team. Most, if not all, of the Heat’s key players have vastly improved on both sides of the ball. The rotations will tighten in the playoffs and all aforementioned players will be integral forces in the playoffs in addition to Andre Iguodala and Nemanja Bjelica off of the Heat bench. The mid-season acquisitions of Trevor Ariza and Dewayne Dedmon have been complete game-changers for the Heat and that is not hyperbole. All in all, the Heat are undoubtedly a better, deeper team this season than last and they are more even more poised for a playoff run.

Just yesterday, Jimmy Butler said that he is “stupidly locked in” in an interview with Brendan Tobin. In a postgame interview with TNT last week after a win over the Philadelphia 76ers, Butler said “I like our chances against anybody...nobody intimidates us...i think it’s going to be difficult to beat us 4 times”. With a heavyweight rematch against the Milwaukee Bucks set to kick off on Saturday, now is the time for Butler to prove it once again.