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Miami Heat’s new lineup seems here to stay

What Miami needs right now, it seems, is a change in the norm.

Sacramento Kings v Miami Heat Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

Erik Spoelstra is no stranger to tinkering with his team’s lineups late in a Miami Heat campaign.

A recent move that comes to mind and yielded success was when he inserted Goran Dragic in the starting unit over Kendrick Nunn for the 2020 NBA Playoffs in the bubble.

While that was partially influenced by Nunn’s regression in performance following the extended covid break, it was evident that Spo, as he usually does, trusted his gut, which at that point was to lean on the veteran leadership, experience, and scoring prowess of Dragic, who spent the regular season coming off the bench before starting the games that mattered most.

Dragic also had a very close relationship with Jimmy Butler, with the two often calling each other “brate” (brother).

Inserting Max Strus for Duncan Robinson might not lead to a similar uptick in scoring from an individual standpoint, but it might turn out as one of those marginal alterations in the rotation that could have a larger-scale impact for a Heat squad that has suffered offensive misgivings this season, especially as of late.

The first test run was encouraging, although it was against a non-playoff team without its best players in De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis. A four-game losing streak nonetheless was snapped and Miami is back on top of the Eastern Conference standings, with only a handful of games remaining on the schedule, mostly against playoff-caliber opposition.

The proof that this experiment has been agreed on internally and figures to stay was in the postgame statements of both head coach and star player, who less than a week after having the most heated in-game discussion between a player and head coach this NBA season has seen, were in harmony in terms of where they think lineup dynamics should be heading into the postseason.

“We made a few tweaks and got back to being who we are: guarding somebody, playing on the open floor, making shots, and sharing the ball with one another,” Butler said. “That’s the way we want to look and the way we want to play.”

“We felt,” Spoelstra explained, “that this time, to maximize the strengths of our most skilled and most talented players, we feel these moves made sense right now.”

In short, being inserted in the starting five was not just a birthday present for Strus, who can expect an actual present from Butler soon enough.

Duncan and Max’s roles are similar, and Butler agreed so himself. They’re both floor-spreaders for the team’s two best players in the starting lineup, Jimmy and Bam Adebayo. Neither Robinson nor Strus are solid defensive players. Both have proven to be occasionally streaky with their shooting, supposedly their best trait.

So, what’s the difference? Why does it seem like even this late in the season that having Strus in for Duncan makes a positive difference?

“It corrects a lot of our spacing,” Butler said, surprisingly.

“It lets everybody know where the ball has to go and where everybody’s supposed to be at on the floor and it just made everybody so much more comfortable just because everybody knew where they were going to be, where the ball was going to go, so there were no questions that needed to be asked.”

For context, the 5-man lineup of Butler, Adebayo, and Robinson with starters PJ Tucker and Kyle Lowry have outscored opponents by 108 points in the 423 minutes they’ve shared the floor together. Insert Strus over Duncan in that 5-man combo and the advantage is only 8 points in 26 minutes.

Is this just Spo spicing up the team’s unpredictability on offense to catch opponents off guard after the Heat was fazed by recent challenges?

Or given the small sample size, is he banking of the potential of what this lineup can possibly unlock, not just as a 5-man unit, but also for how it can shake up the rest of the rotation pattern?

The latter seems more logical.

“This wasn’t a one-move thing,” he clarified. “We were very disappointed about the last four games and this had been trending even before that while we were winning.”

“Our roster is deep and our roster checks a lot of different boxes which we feel you need in the Playoffs,” he later added.

Neither Victor Oladipo nor Markieff Morris played on Monday night, and whether or not they make it back to the rotation is another question that will surely require an answer soon enough.

Another unique move Spo made against the Sacramento Kings was to substitute Butler out of the game first from the starters for 6th Man of the Year favorite Tyler Herro. That staggers the minutes Jimmy shares with Adebayo – both of them aren’t floor spreaders – and allows Bam to play with breathing room in the paint.

Maybe it was because he was guarded by backups Metu and Jones, but Bam finished with 22 points on 10-16 shooting, registered a team-high +24, and grabbed 15 rebounds – the first time in the last 7 games he recorded more than 10 boards. It was his best performance in a while.

The 5-man lineup of Herro-Adebayo-Strus-Lowry-Tucker had played only 27 minutes together with a +/- of 7.

Using that combo could possibly give Adebayo the freedom to be more creative with his attacks while also paired with one of Miami’s best statistical duos.

According to NBA stats, in the 747 minutes Herro and Strus have been on the floor together, the Heat have outscored opponents by 168 points. In comparison, units with Herro and Robinson together have been outscored by 29 points in 755 minutes.

The eye test alone will show that Strus can offer more than Robinson. While Duncan is far and away the best dribble-hand-off partner for Adebayo, Miami’s opponents now have 3 years of game tape to prepare for it, thus it hasn’t been as effective this season like it was in the past.

Robinson hasn’t proven the ability to consistently counter the opposition when his initial goal to get free for a jumper is halted. This was one of his weaknesses before re-signing with Miami this past offseason and the fact that he hasn’t improved on it despite getting the $90M contract has disappointed certain Heat fans on social media.

Strus is shooting 39.6% from deep while Robinson is at 36.7%. Duncan is averaging a little below a point more than Max despite playing 3 more minutes per game. Strus is a better weapon in transition, has athleticism to penetrate when opponents close out on his shot, and can occasionally create opportunities out of thin air – something Robinson doesn’t show many glimpses of:

Additionally, Strus seems to have a tight relationship with Butler. That doesn’t always equate to better basketball production, but that closeness isn’t a variable to be ignored. Their chemistry looks good on and off the court.

“When we’re clicking, when we’re guarding, when we’re making shots, when we’re sharing the ball, then we’re going to be really tough to beat,” Jimmy said.

The move could also prove beneficial for Robinson. Getting open through a series of off-ball movements and dribble hand-offs are easier to execute against bench units that don’t include the team’s best defenders. Duncan played 25 minutes against Sacramento – right about the usual playing time he gets – and hit 5-of-8 from downtown.

As a floor-spreader in the starting unit, he’s a nice complementary piece. As a sniper off the bench, he can be deadlier.

The substitution pattern also allows Spoelstra to tinker more with Butler at the four, playing next to Dedmon, Herro, Robinson, and Gabe Vincent. All that spacing allows Jimmy to be at his best both as a scorer and distributor.

Butler led the Heat in both scoring and assists against the Kings.

Miami is now 9-2 when Strus starts and 5-1 when Robinson comes off the bench.

“We were out there playing hard, playing together,” Butler said. “It looked good because we were back to having fun.

“But like I would say, winning is the fun part.”

Spoelstra says the Heat will keep an “open mind” about rotations and starting lineups while Butler, who complimented Robinson for being a “pro,” agrees that Duncan has to “stay ready” in case a return to the old ways will be required.

“We’re in his corner and we’re going to need him.”

What Miami needs right now, it seems, is a change in the norm. They finally made the move and it seems here to stay.