It’s difficult to reflect on the Miami Heat’s offseason activity and presume they’ll remain the same type of championship contenders they were last NBA season.
And for good reason. Outside of drafting Serbian Nikola Jovic, the reigning #1-seed in the Eastern Conference didn’t make other significant additions, but suffered the loss of PJ Tucker, a grizzled veteran who was key for head coach Erik Spoelstra on both sides of the floor, especially in the postseason.
Yet Miami isn’t panicking. Just because they’re coming back with largely the same squad, it doesn’t mean their next itinerary can’t have a say on how this new NBA season plays out. It’s going to be tricky – magnified by the strengthening of their conference rivals – but there’s a path through internal development.
Aside from successfully signing or trading for a superstar-level talent, a major leap by a player in the team from good to great is the fastest way to accelerate a franchise on the road to contention. The proof is in the two greatest NBA dynasties of the 21st century – Tim Duncan’s San Antonio Spurs and Steph Curry’s Golden State Warriors – who were consistently elite partly because of their teams’ ability to develop players they drafted.
Miami hasn’t achieved similar success to the two aforementioned franchises in the last 22 years, but they’re close: three championships won, three more NBA Finals appearances, and a handful of other playoff victories. Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, and Chris Bosh were acquired. Dwyane Wade was homegrown.
Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro want to join that list of champions.
At this point, we know how brilliant Butler is. As far as “players who are good enough to be the best player on a championship team but just don’t have the hardware yet” lists go, Jimmy leads it. He’s a top-10 player in the NBA.
The onus now falls on Bam and Tyler to take the wheel in a bigger scale, especially as Butler gets older.
There is “no pressure,” as Adebayo explained on Heat media day for the 2022-2023 NBA season. “But it is a big deal to me to come back better, more consistent, and just be a better player.”
There were mostly highlights and a few questionable moments (uhm, Kyle? Pat? Everything all good here?) from Media Day. One of the encouraging signs was the ambition Bam and Tyler vocalized when it was time for them to answer questions from the press following what some would call “disappointing” playoff performances.
For starters, the NBA’s reigning 6th Man of the Year sang a different tune when queried on a starting role, suggesting that he’d be willing to do “whatever Erik Spoelstra and the organization want [him] to do.” At Miami’s end-of-the-playoffs presser, Herro suggested he had earned the right to be a starter with his play.
“Obviously,” he added, “I have my personal goals but at the end of the day the team is always over what I want to do as an individual player,” he now said.
One of the news bits that has gone under-the-radar (in classic Heat fashion) during the offseason was how one of the league’s rising offensive stars and his team didn’t come to terms on a contract extension. It’s furthermore significant because of the reports that Herro was in trade deals as Miami sought Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell.
Herro insisted he’s focusing on basketball as his agent and the team work together on the future. An extension could still be announced before the Heat tip-off against Chicago three weeks from now, although there are no verified reports of such specific progress.
So, the question now falls to basketball. Since his magnificent performance as a rookie in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, Tyler has struggled in Miami’s last two postseasons in spite of the leaps he’s made a respected player in the league.
Injuries have something to do with that, though as LeBron said in his media presser for the Los Angeles Lakers, availability is what’s most important in today’s NBA. Tyler wasn’t available for the conclusion of the Eastern Conference Finals, where Miami, as they painfully remember, came within one shot of a second Finals appearance in three years.
Herro spent another offseason strengthening his body, looking noticeably toned, as this could be the fundamental key for his improvement on both sides of the court and more importantly, his durability.
“Obviously getting stronger and being better on the defensive end. That’s something we continue to work on every day,” he elaborated.
It’s worth noting this was an area team president Pat Riley previously pointed as a developmental key for the former Wildcat. Herro believes he’ll transition into a better defender as he ages in the NBA – he’s only 22-years-old – while maintaining his productivity on the scoreboard.
“My offensive skill-set is one of the best in the league so just to be able to build on that and continue to be more efficient and get to my spots, get to the free throw line, just find different ways to score, and be efficient about it.”
There’s little doubt Herro is on an upward trajectory towards becoming one of the best second or third-tier scorers in the league, and he seems to have the confidence of an elite scorer. Some refinement in his shot diet could unlock better efficiency and catapult him to the All-Star selection he desires (he feels he should have made it in 2022).
RJ Barrett's extension: $30M/year for 4. Sets the market for Herro?— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) August 30, 2022
Tyler's #s last season:
41.5% FG, 9% FT freq, 0.88 PPP as PNR handler (32.8% frequency)
31.1% FG, 9.3% FT freq, 0,78 PPP on isos (9.3% frequency
49.7% FG, 1.23 PPP, 93.2 percentile on spot-ups (15% frequency) pic.twitter.com/EyHdhGqaGB
If Herro wins the starting spot in training camp he’ll likely patrol the first unit with Butler, Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, and one of Max Strus, Caleb Martin, or, yes, Omer Yurtseven. This comes as a change of role, a common theme in his Heat career.
Tyler explained it well – coming off the bench prior, he got to lead his own unit. That meant ball control and usage. That won’t be as often the case next to the A-teamers.
“Just playing off Jimmy and Bam in the first unit and [becoming] more of a catch-and-shoot guy, or being able to attack off the catch instead or off the dribble,” he explained.
“I think it will be an adjustment for me but it’s stuff I’ve been working on all summer.”
Theoretically, Herro should thrive as a kick-out option when Butler and Adebayo attack the paint, although the 3-man line-up data on NBA.com shows when on the court, that trio only outscored opponents by 0.8 points in nearly 12 minutes per game last season. That sample size would increase if Herro does start.
That 2-man data is somewhat better: line-ups with Herro and Butler outscored opponents by a little over 2 points in 19.4 minutes per contest while line-ups with Herro and Adebayo outscored opponents by 4.2 points in nearly 19 minutes per game. The latter have built symmetry on the court, particularly in pick-and-roll, while also correspondingly accepting the added responsibilities of being young vets on a squad with championship aspirations.
“I think it starts with me and Tyler as being the young guys in the group… the young veterans,” Adebayo quipped.
“And then it goes to Gabe, Max, Duncan, and Omer, and then you have Jimmy and Kyle as the weight of this thing; [guys] who hold the weight. But, I feel like it starts with me and Tyler getting off to a good year, good start to the season, and setting the tone.”
If Herro’s shot diet is to seek effectivity, the focus for Bam will be on volume. Riley established the benchmark by recommending at the end of last season that Adebayo take at least 15 shots per game. Wise Man Riles had a good reason:
Pat Riley mentioned having a conversation with Spoelstra about getting Bam up to 15 FGA/game next season. Based on my 3AM computation, Bam averaged 24.8 PPG on 56% FG + 11.8 RPG in 19 regular season games last season where he had at least 15 FGA. (Miami: 11-8 record). pic.twitter.com/WHyLdIxWGW— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) June 6, 2022
Bam was straightforward, with a bit of a smirk, when asked if he will increase his shot attempts: “Yeah.”
When asked to go further, he used 18 as a good base for how often he would look to score. The data looks promising:
This was Bam's full answer on getting up more shots this coming season, including the goal to hit close to 18 FGA.— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) September 26, 2022
The Heat went 4-4 in the '21-22 regular season when Bam took at least 18 FGA. He averaged 26.3PPG on 54% shooting.
Playoffs: Heat 1-1; Bam: 26PPG, 63%. pic.twitter.com/ZNprDEiqOV
With that added responsibility will come certain tasks. Adebayo is already one hell of a player. If the Heat kept him off the table in a hypothetical trade for Durant, it’s understandable. Bam is only 25, still a few years from entering his prime, and even if his version now is what you get for the next 7-8 years (assuming good health), that’s a perennial Defensive of the Year contender who can put up 20 and 10 on efficiency with the added bonus of unique playmaking at his size.
If Adebayo can work on a few more aspects, such as refining his jumper, expanding his range, bullying smaller defenders in the post, and taking players off the dribble, his ceiling is a perennial MVP candidate. Of course, that’s a lot of ifs, but now is a great time to begin trying.
When I think of Bam's ceiling I look back to that dominant game vs SA (36-7-4-2-2-66%). Face-up drives, jumpers, playmaking, shut-down D, the whole package. For all the talk on Miami's lack of moves, BAM IS THE KEY to goals. The potential is there. Time to manifest it. >15FGA. pic.twitter.com/dTw5MYl4Tt— Naveen Ganglani (@naveenganglani) September 17, 2022
“Me and Bam, everyone knows how hard we work and the time we put in so I’m excited to see how much better in the jump we take,” said Herro, who also added: “I love getting Bam the ball.”
There were stretches last season when it looked like the future was taking place in the present as Herro and Adebayo led the Heat to wins during a remarkable regular season. Despite injuries, covid-related missed games, personal-related absences, and a competitive conference, they earned homecourt advantage in the east. The two young studs had a lot to say in that process.
Ultimately that advantage didn’t pay off. Perhaps if Herro was available, or Bam was more aggressive from the start of the series, or Lowry wasn’t dinged up, or, heck, if Strus stayed inbounds, then the Heat would have challenged the Warriors in the finals.
There are few guarantees in sports. Outcomes aren’t always controllable, if ever. But the really good ones put themselves in the best position to capitalize on the opportunity they have at hand and are aware that said opportunities don’t come often.
Butler was sensational the last time Miami was within grasp of a title. But to win it all, the Heat will need both Adebayo and Herro to match their superstar’s bravado. They didn’t, at least not consistently enough, and that’s why the final image of the last season was one of Adebayo ripping his jersey in frustration.
“Every year is a new stepping stone for you to get better and we [don’t have] a lot of shots at this, so we need to hurry up and get us one,” Bam said, seriousness in tone, before saying “so I can have a pool party” with a playful smile.
Tucker is gone. At least for now, no savior is coming via trade or free agency.
So, for Bam and Tyler, it’s their time to take the reins.