If you adored Pat Riley’s old-fashioned New York Knicks or Miami Heat teams, then it wasn’t very difficult to become immediately infatuated with the 2021-22 Heat squad.
Behind Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, P.J. Tucker, Kyle Lowry, Markieff Morris and Udonis Haslem, the squad top-to-bottom was derived from the organization’s GUTS™ that bled toughness, breathed grit that consumed diligence for breakfast, lunch and dinner. No matter how the pie was sliced, the Heat were a tremendous pain in the butt to go up against each night, and you could never count them out, no matter who was on the floor.
Throughout his head coaching tenure, head coach Erik Spoelstra’s simultaneously acted as the grindstone to sharpen the (raw) tools (or, in this case, players) that Riley’s provided, while also posing as the Blacksmith responsible for constructing-and-meshing these groups together to masterfully coalesce their abilities on the court. And last year was an excellent example of that.
Even though it wasn’t always conducive to its success, Miami’s starting five was a reason why.
Among five-man groups that logged at least 500 possessions together, per Cleaning The Glass, the Heat starting five — composed of Lowry-Butler-Duncan Robinson-Tucker-Adebayo — ranked fourth in basketball in NET rating at plus-12.9. Its calling card came on the defensive end, holding opponents to 98.2 points per 100 possessions (93rd percentile) and a 48.0 effective field goal percentage.
Except that wasn’t their main starting lineup the entire season. The team was hit with injuries and COVID midway through. Then Robinson’s inconsistent shot and defensive struggles led to him falling out of the rotation all together, as they then leaned into a Lowry-Butler-Max Strus-Tucker-Adebayo quintet.
It took a slight step back defensively, but was much more efficient on the offensive end in a smaller sample; it posted 135.2 points per 100 possessions (98th percentile) — compared to the former’s 111.1 points — unearthing a plus-16.5 NET Rating over 105 regular season possessions. It broke down — figuratively and literally — in the postseason (plus-2.2 NET; 42nd percentile), however. And the rest was history.
Tucker’s departure to Philly stung, and as we all know, plenty of questions were raised about what the new group would look like.
A pair of spots were up for grabs, with Lowry, Butler and Adebayo locking up three of them. Tyler Herro was seen as the favorite at the starting 2-spot, competing with Victor Oladipo and Strus. If it wasn’t clear enough already, Miami inking Herro to a four-year, $120 million extension (that has the potential to grow to $130 million) screamed that Herro — the league’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year Award winner — wasn’t coming off the bench again this season.
That left just one available spot: The Tucker replacement. It was between Caleb Martin, Haywood Highsmith, Max Strus, Nikola Jovic and Omer Yurtseven — the former being the favorite. And in their final preseason game, Martin stamped his arrival.
Sure, it was a small sample galore. It’s reasonable to take it with a grain of salt. But for the first time all preseason, we saw a full “dress rehearsal” for what the Miami Heat rotation could look like for the upcoming season. It came against a slightly banged up and less motivated New Orleans Pelicans squad, but eye-candy was encouraging.
There’s reason to believe that Miami’s new starting lineup of Lowry-Herro-Butler-Martin-Adebayo carry more potential to outshine that of its predecessor and perhaps be one of the best in recent memory. Let’s break down some film on why.
To start with, Martin’s insertion into the lineup immediately felt present — on both ends of the floor.
To begin the game, Martin took the Zion Williamson assignment. Heading up on the opposing’s team most dynamic player is a challenge that Martin has been familiar with since arriving in Miami — but none as sturdy or as powerful as Williamson.
Nevertheless, on New Orleans’ second possession down the floor, Williamson tried to immediately attack the 6-foot-5, 205-pound Martin off-the-dribble with Herro stunting at the nail. Though Martin absorbed the contact, remained with Williamson through the step-thru and rejected his left-hand layup attempt.
While the burling Pelican forward was in his fourth preseason game after missing all of last year due to a foot injury, it was an ultra-impressive feat for Martin, who could’ve been easily knocked off his tracks. Instead, he re-directed Zion’s line-drive path and finished all the dirty work himself.
Very impressive to say the least. While that’s not always going to be the result of a Zion-Martin duel, holding his own is more than an encouraging sign, especially if he can do that consistently over a full-season; that was Tucker-esque.
The lineup potential arises here.
Both Herro and Martin’s insertion into the lineup preemptively allows opponents to place their worst defender on Martin. Consequently, Martin’s athleticism and playmaking are superior to that of Tucker or any of its other previous 4s, allowing him to knife through defenses with rim pressure that results in more paint touches and, most importantly, more points.
In the first clip, he blew by the slower-footed Williamson on the right wing, forcing Willy Hernangomez to help with Adebayo at the strongside dunker’s spot. Martin sees the rotation while Adebayo made himself perfectly available for the baseline dunk.
The second clip starts out with more of the same, though Martin’s controlled handle allows him to get deeper in the paint (notice he turned Williamson around?). Adebayo’s connective passing induces an open spot-up triple for Herro. The third one features Martin attacking from the left wing to an open paint cleared by Adebayo after Lowry’s cross screen. Though he still found himself surrounded by three Pelican players, but had the wherewithal to locate a cutting Butler, who found Herro for a corner 3-pointer.
While he was on the floor with Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo, Caleb Martin was the superior playmaker. You couldn’t ever say that about its 4s over the last couple of years, no matter who was plugged into these groupings (other than super small-ball Butler). Martin’s rim pressure boosts Miami’s offense ten-fold, even with two of its top players in Adebayo and Butler as non-shooters.
Especially with a full head of speed, Martin’s acceleration off the bounce is as good as anyone else on the roster. That’s a dimension Spoelstra hasn’t been able to wield at that position in quite some time (maybe ever?). It helps strain the back-line of defenses even more, thus loosening gaps and unzipping more spot-up opportunities from beyond the arc.
But that’s not the only difference.
I’ve belabored this point before, so I won’t try to re-hash it too much — but Martin spaces the floor from above-the-break. In fact, he placed in the 98th percentile in non-corner 3s (29/67; 43.3 3P%) last season, two years removed from knocking down nearly 60 percent of such non-garbage time attempts, per Cleaning The Glass.
While the clip above doesn’t represent its full potential, Miami could unearth its hand-off/split cut/double drag/Spain pick-and-roll sets with Martin ATB to manufacture offense with an array of outlets, regardless if he is working off the ball or not.
Now let’s factor in the addition of Herro.
The Heat could’ve desperately used his shot creation in the East Finals against the Celtics; Herro, hampered with a groin injury, played in just four games that series, averaging 9.3 points, 2.8 rebounds and 2.5 assists on poor efficiency, including zero points on two shots in an ill-fated Game 7, where he played only seven minutes. It would’ve helped if Butler wasn’t playing on one leg, or if Lowry wasn’t playing on one hamstring, too, but Herro’s production was sorely missed nonetheless.
He was third on the team in minutes last year, so he was familiar with playing against opposing bench units as well as the team’s starters. Though his immediate insertion injects an extra pep-in-the-step of a lineup that oftentimes felt clunky offensively.
As previously stated, Martin’s athleticism should help soften the loss of Tucker, but Herro’s ability to shot create can’t go unbeknownst.
One of Miami’s most intriguing two-man actions is between Herro and Adebayo — its two 25 or under stars. Adebayo is an excellent screen-and-roll threat, Herro has a tight-er handle (compared to when he entered the league), is an improving pick-and-roll playmaker and can attack any conservative screen coverage with his pull-up jumper — among other options.
In this clip above, he creates a two on one advantage with Adebayo ahead of the trailing McCollum, putting Hernangomez in a pickle. Murphy can’t stunt tightly enough from the corner with Lowry there; Butler’s positioning isn’t the most ideal, but his placement at the opposite dunker’s spot forces Herb Jones to remain close instead of having the free will to pinch if Butler (a poor 3PT shooter) was stationed at the corner.
In the clip above, Herro-Adebayo ran an empty corner pick-and-roll, though it flowed towards the middle of the floor, which made Herro read multiple different tag defenders. But as a result of Herro’s patience and eye-savviness, he’s still able to make the read to a lurking Butler that leads to New Orleans committing a foul.
We’ve seen glimpses of Herro taking the playmaking burden off Lowry and Butler last year. And that trend might sustain itself this upcoming season.
Miami’s thrown him in the fire before — specifically after his rookie season, and he struggled. But more reps over time has helped him adapt and make any necessary adjustments with how he attacks different (aggressive) coverages.
He’s still growing, but his handle and playmaking have flown under-the-radar. Herro’s play this preseason and towards the tailend last year (when he was healthy) showed that vociferously. He’s shown he’s ready to take that next step in that department — elevating Miami’s ceiling offensively.
Despite Strus and Robinson being completely different talents, perhaps the one similarity was their movement evoked top-tier spacing that opened up the offense. We’ll still see their impacts — perhaps together, at times — throughout the course of 48 minutes. But the Heat’s 22-year-old guard, for better or worse, will allow its other creators to operate off-the-ball. That’s critical in the long-run.
How Spoelstra used P.J. Tucker was vastly different than he’s been used.....ever? Defensively, we know what impact he made. Offensively, however, instead of deploying Tucker in the corner for the entirety of the shot clock on 80-90 percent of the possessions, Spoelstra allowed him to play freely as a screener, cutter, hand-off initiator and post-playmaker.
Martin can provide those things, but possesses a different level of athleticism and offensive skillset that can create gaps on- and off-the-ball that Tucker couldn’t, which accommodates the Lowry-Butler-Adebayo triumvirate seamlessly.
It’s not going to be a completely coherent fit right away — especially with Miami’s rugged schedule to start. All in all, this quintet played **checks notes** 17 minutes together last season. Yes....**checks notes a second and third time** that’s accurate.
Heck, who knows what the starting lineup even looks like after the All-Star break? Injuries happen, trades happen, roles shift. Its dress rehearsal against New Orleans last week, nor its regular season opener against the Chicago Bulls today won’t dictate how it will perform for an entire season — though the bread crumbs are there that it to flourish as much as any Heat starting five in recent memory for multiple different reasons.