Place yourself back in October of 2021 before the NBA season started. If someone from the future told you that the Miami Heat trio of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Kyle Lowry would only play 14 of the first 41 games together, what would you have predicted the Heat’s record would be?
Whatever you would have predicted, you would be wrong. As it currently stands, the Heat hold a record of 27-16 and sit at 3rd place in the Eastern Conference. They are just one game out of the top seed in the East despite 18 missed games from Jimmy Butler, 25 missed games from Bam Adebayo, and several missed games from every other rotation player. To top it all off, the Heat have also played the most number of road games (25 out of 43) in the NBA through the halfway mark of this season.
Despite this, the Miami Heat are on pace for their first 50+ win season since the Big 3 Era and are the only team in the entire NBA who post a top-6 rating both in offensive and defensive efficiency.
The Heat have gone 14-8 in the last 20 games that Bam Adebayo has missed since tearing his UCL in his right thumb in a game against the Denver Nuggets. Jimmy Butler has missed the majority of those games due to a tailbone injury and an ankle injury but the Heat have still managed to go 11-4 in games where neither Adebayo nor Butler have played. These have included wins over quality teams such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Chicago Bulls, Philadelphia 76ers, and Phoenix Suns.
So how have they managed to not just survive, but thrive in the absence of their two biggest stars?
Last season, the Heat had an abysmal record of 7-13 in games that Jimmy Butler missed. While Adebayo took massive offensive steps last year, the Heat only went as far as Butler could carry them. If Butler did not play, or if he did play and didn’t put up his usual heroic performance, the Heat simply could not win games. Coming off of an extremely short offseason following the NBA Bubble, this was just not a recipe for success and was something the Heat looked to remedy by going all in for Kyle Lowry.
Lowry deserves his due respect because this move has turned out to pay dividends and then some. His 8.6 assists per game ranks 5th in the NBA and his veteran leadership and experience have kept the Heat afloat throughout this stretch. The job he has done at keeping Miami near the top of the conference with his playmaking, defense, shooting, rim pressure, and overall scoring when needed cannot be overstated. The Miami Heat have played more undrafted players this season than any other team, and Lowry has still found a way to get each of them to carve out a unique role in the offense.
The biggest misconception about Tyler Herro’s career is that he had a magical performance in the NBA Bubble and then had a “down year” last season. Herro’s statistics across the board, including his field goal percentage, increased from Year 1 to Year 2 despite facing more defensive attention and without having a real offseason to improve after the bubble. While the Heat certainly had an overall disappointing and bitter end to last season, Herro was the subject of unfair criticism for the entirety of his 2020-2021 campaign .
Sure enough, after having his first full offseason to work on his skillset, Herro’s game has taken a leap this year. He is putting up averages of 20.7 points per game (career high), 5.1 rebounds per game (career high), and 4.1 assists per game (career high) on a team contending for the top spot in the conference. Even more impressive than his statistical improvement is the manner in which he has gotten there. While he has had his shooting slumps throughout the year with increased defensive attention on him due to the absences of Butler/Adebayo, Herro has learned how to impact the game positively through his playmaking chops and defensive reads.
He is far and away the favorite to run away with the NBA’s 6 Man of the Year award and his case will only get stronger as the Heat get healthier and he has more freedom to grow.
Unexpected Players Stepping Up
Heading into the season, one of the biggest criticisms surrounding the Heat was their lack of bench depth. Many were concerned that if the Heat were to face any significant injuries to Butler, Adebayo, or Lowry, their lack of bench production outside of Tyler Herro would be exposed. Unfortunately for Miami, the need for depth off of the bench became essential very quickly. Fortunately for Miami, however, is that it turns out they had much more than they realized.
The Heat scouting department is notorious for finding gems off of the undrafted free agency market and turning them into solid rotation players, and it appears that they have struck gold again.
The production that they have gotten off the bench from the likes of Max Strus, Gabe Vincent, Omer Yurtseven, and Caleb Martin is something that even the Heat could not have seen coming. The rotation has gotten so thin that even Udonis Haslem has been asked to step in to play key minutes at various points of the season (with all due respect to the King of Miami).
Each of these players have been forced to play vital roles in the Heat rotation and have been tasked with more heavy lifting than they may not have expected themselves coming into the season. As it turns out, the Miami depth which once seemed like a valid concern has now turned into perhaps their greatest strength.
Ultimately it’s up to the Heat players to execute on the court, but none of what Miami does is possible without the mastermind behind it all, Coach Erik Spoelstra. Spoelstra has long been regarded as one of, if not the, best coaches in the league. And yet, somehow he still remains criminally underrated (doesn’t have a single Coach of the Year award to his name but that’s another article for another day).
His ability to maximize any roster available to him is second to none and he has proved this time and time again.
Coach Spo has had several outstanding coaching seasons to his name. His championship runs in the Big 3 Era, his seasons keeping the Heat competitive without any all-stars in the post-Wade era, and his recent run to the finals in the 2019-2020 season are some that come to mind immediately. Despite his long list of highlights, this season just might be the best showcasing of coaching in his career to date given the expectations and the success he’s seen so far.
To put it in perspective, there is a chance that neither Jimmy Butler nor Bam Adebayo will make an all-star team this season due to having missed such a big portion of the year. And as amazing have Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro have been for Miami, it is likely that neither of them will make an all-star team either due to the fact that the guard position in the East is simply just too talented and they.
In other words, by the time the all-star break rolls around, Coach Spo just may have coached this Heat team to the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference without any all-star players this season.
The Heat have certainly faced their fair share of adversity this season, but this adversity has turned out to be a blessing in disguise and has shown what Heat Culture is about. While many teams could have folded under the circumstances that Miami has been forced to deal with this season, the Heat have responded stronger than even the most optimistic of fans could hope for and brighter days lie ahead.
They will enter the second half of this NBA season one game out of the top of the East without heavy minutes logged by their top two stars. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Victor Oladipo, and Markieff Morris (hopefully) will return fresher and more motivated than ever. The Heat have become one of the deepest teams in the league seemingly out of nowhere. They will play the majority of their remaining games at home. And when all else fails, they have the best coach in the game running the show.
In the wise words of ESPN analyst Kendrick Perkins, “them goons from Dade County” are back.