The Miami HEAT are 4-4 with a Net Rating of -2.1, No. 18 in the NBA. After opening their current road trip with a clutch-qualifying victory in Memphis, the HEAT still have eight of their next nine games on the road. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.
As silly as it can be to be thinking about end-of-season awards in November, fact is those narratives begin building steam now whether anyone likes it or not and as far as all that goes, Bam Adebayo couldn’t have scripted a much better opening stanza for yet another run at Defensive Player of the Year.
We’re only eight games in, so apply caveats galore, but the HEAT have been 11.8 points per possession better with Adebayo on the court than off. That’s one of the largest differentials in the league, standard fare for Adebayo. He’s defended 24 isolations and allowed 0.21 points-per, the best mark in the league. Again, par for the course. He remains Top 10 in switches, as usual, and when the ballhandler doesn’t pass out of those switches Adebayo has allowed just 0.43 points per. What’s new this season is that Adebayo has also been an elite rim protector – typically an area where he has suffered, in a narrative sense, up against more traditional centers who rack up blocks – allowing 37.5 percent shooting at the rim, tops in the league among those defending at least four shots a night. With Adebayo on the court, teams are taking 5.4 percent fewer shots in the restricted area, same as Victor Wembanyama, and though that’s half the rate of a Joel Embiid or Rudy Gobert, teams are also taking fewer threes when Adebayo plays, something that does not apply to the aforementioned seven footers.
Put it all together, Adebayo has been great at all the things he’s always been great at – including having one of the most diverse coverage arsenals in the league, which began last season when the team no longer had the personnel to switch everything one-through-five – while also being great at the things he was typically just good at. He’s doing everything he needs to do to give himself a chance, and he’s doing it while raising his nightly usage rate near 30 percent.
That is, however, not what we’re here to talk about. In all the conversation about Defensive Player of the Year over the past four seasons, it’s become a bit of an afterthought that Adebayo has also been named All-Defensive Second Team – largely due to positional restraints – in all four years. While that may be frustrating for those hoping Adebayo will finally get the main award, those selections might inform us on an entirely different conversation.
How close is Adebayo to being a Hall of Famer?
Let’s say for the sake of argument that Adebayo makes another All-Defensive team this season, regardless of how Defensive Player turns out. That would make him one of 46 players in the history of the league with five All-Defense selections. Of those 46, including Adebayo, 26 have already been inducted into the Hall of Fame. That leaves us with 20 to account for. Of that group, a small handful was never named to an All-Star team, so we’ll remove those.
Of the remaining group, the following are active or recently active players that should be shoo-ins for Springfield, with their All-Defensive appearances in parenthesis: Chris Paul (9), Kawhi Leonard (7), LeBron James (6), Giannis Antetokounmpo (5) and Dwight Howard (5).
Now we’re down to the following players with at least five All-Defense appearances, including Adebayo’s theoretical fifth, and one All-Star appearance.
Norm Van Lier
We’ll talk about Butler another day, but as a five-time All-NBA guy with all his postseason success he’s probably on the right track. Holiday has a chance, especially if he wins another ring. Van Lier and Silas were multi-time All-Stars in the 1970’s, with Van Lier’s career ending at 31 and Silas never shouldering a huge offensive burden. Eaton was a shotblocking monster who did very little offensively. Robertson’s usage rate topped out at 24 when he was 25 years old and trended downward from there, and he played in 13 postseason games. Blaylock, a six-foot point guard, never carried very high usage, either, and only made one All-Star team. Roundfield played 40 postseason games and never advanced past the second round.
That leaves us with Gobert and Adebayo. Gobert is a bit of a lightning rod, but he’s a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and four-time All-NBA, so there’s a conversation to be had there. But he’s also another example of a player who never carried a major offensive burden.
Here’s the kicker with Adebayo. At 25 years old, he’s played in 69 postseason games, starting 64 of those. He’s made three Conference Finals as a Top Two player, making the NBA Finals twice. He’s in the midst of his third-straight season with a usage rate over 25 – probably a better measure than just saying he’s scoring a certain amount per game, given the massive pace disparity with older seasons – and he’s essentially never missed any significant time outside of a thumb injury that kept him out of December in 2021. He also has an Olympic Gold Medal to his name, which matters for the Hall of Fame, and presumably will have a chance at another. Again, he’s 25.
Is Adebayo a lock? Hardly. If his career ended today he doesn’t get in. But we’re talking about someone who has significant postseason success as a top player on his own team, has won internationally, is already a four-time All-Defensive selection and has two All-Star appearances. Granted much of the above conversation is predicated on him being All-Defense again this season, at minimum. Barring injury, there’s a pretty good chance of that happening. Realistically, how many All-Star, All-Defense or Gold Medals on his resume, combined, would it take to punch his ticket, much less additional postseason wins or taking home the Defensive Player of the Year trophy?
He’s probably much closer than anyone would think as he plays out just his seventh season, all because of what most consider consolation prizes in his quest for the trophy he’s made it known that he has eyes for.
One of the more interesting early storylines of the season had been Miami’s offensive issues (96.5 Offensive Rating) in fourth quarters. It was too early for anything close to definitive analysis on what was causing those issues, but an early theory was that with Adebayo and Tyler Herro again expanding their offensive responsibilities there was a bit of a feeling out process, alongside Jimmy Butler, going on with the late-game package when it came to who should have the ball when and where.
For example, here are Herro and Adebayo’s combined usage numbers over the past five seasons:
2022-23: 50.8 (Herro’s first season as starter)
“That’ll be part of it,” Erik Spoelstra said after beating the Lakers at home. “Give us enough time, that Big 3 is going to be a problem. They’re already working diligently to figure this out. They complement each other, which is great. The most important thing is this year it’s really clicking for them to understand that they’re the key to this team. We have so many x-factors on this team, guys who can really make a difference, but those three guys, their collaboration, their competitive will, they’re going to be the reason for our ultimate success.”
We’ll have to pause that line of thinking after Herro sprained his ankle in Memphis and will be out for at least the next two weeks. Instead, it’s all about where the offense goes in the short term.
There are two operative questions here. First, who soaks up the usage – who gets all those shots? And second, where are they specifically going to find threes?
To the first question, there isn’t anyone on the team whose usage is suddenly going to climb into the high 20’s. There’s no Herro-esque microwave scorer waiting in the wings who Spoelstra is going to dump a ton of ballhandling and shot creation responsibility on. Kyle Lowry is the most obvious answer simply because he’s done it before and it’s easier to scale up your volume when you can create your own shot off the dribble, but even in his prime years Lowry’s usage was only in the mid 20’s and he’s been far more selective during his HEAT tenure. Lowry was a major part of Miami successfully treading water when Adebayo missed a month two seasons ago – his usage was only 21.6.
Realistically, we’re looking at a little bit more across the roster. Maybe a few more post touches for Jaime Jaquez Jr. Josh Richardson can soak up a few more pick-and-rolls. Duncan Robinson can run more handoffs with Adebayo, who may bring the ball up a little more. Butler, obviously, can carry a huge offensive burden when he finds the moment right, as he does every postseason. Herro’s off the bounce efficiency isn’t something they can easily replace, but the offense already has enough variety that it’ll only take twisting and turning a few dials to find a comfortable place for everyone.
The second question is the more interesting one largely because even with Herro, taking the second-most threes on the team per 100 possessions behind Robinson, they weren’t taking many shots behind the arc – just 34.3 percent of their total offense. While the HEAT have never been a team to apply consistent rim pressure, this year they were taking a ton of non-rim two pointers – equally in the mid-range and upper paint – while not converting at a particularly high rate, and they were shooting well from three while generating them at relatively low volume.
This season, Miami simply doesn’t have as many high-volume (per possession) shooters on the roster that can scale their attempts up or down as necessary. There was Herro and Robinson each taking at least six threes per game, then nobody else over five other than Kevin Love. Lowry can supplement there, as he did in making 4-of-7 against Memphis on Wednesday, but the rest of the rotation, Jaquez Jr. and Haywood Highsmith, are catch-and-shoot guys relying on the offense to create looks. Richardson can work off the dribble, but he’s typically been more comfortable working into the mid-range. When and if the offense is working great, as it has many times in the first three quarters, Butler and Adebayo can generate spot-up looks. It just remains to be seen where the threes come from on those nights when matchups and schemes demand even more pulls.
Is this all a problem? Not necessarily. It’s still too early to say what is what when percentages need time to normalize. But you can run into a math problem eventually, where your two pointers just aren’t producing as much expected value, over the course of a long season, as the threes another team is earning.
The offense hadn’t fully taken shape even with Herro in these early days. Now without him, even if Lowry and Butler dial things up, that shape might remain blurry for a little while longer.
Jaime Jaquez Jr. continues to be one of the brighter spots in the early going, showing in a different way each game how he belongs with the veteran group around him. One night it may be him creating out of the post, another it’s him coming up with stops and steals against elite offensive players, and against Memphis it was a last-minute corner three to ice the game in the face of a Grizzlies comeback.
There isn’t anything statistically that will blow your mind just yet, but you only have to keep your eye on Jaquez Jr. for a little while for it to become eminently clear that he has advanced basketball sense.
Take this cut against Memphis for example.
Notebook 58: Jaime Ghost Cut
With Santi Aldama cheating into the paint as he anticipated his help rotation, Jaquez Jr. could have easily stayed in the corner and waited for the inevitable kickout pass. Instead he times his ghost cut with goldilocks precision, not too early, not too late, just right as Robinson gets going downhill. Nobody on Memphis ever saw him coming.
Outside of Adebayo, Butler and Thomas Robinson – most big-men catches are logged as cuts by Synergy Sports – Jaquez Jr. leads the rest of the team with his seven cuts this season, and it’s those cuts which will help keep him on the court as his shooting (25 percent from three so far) develops to the extent that it needs to, given he’s only attempted 20 threes total in his career.
As for the defense that has garnered some attention of late, we don’t want to overstate things. Just as we would discuss with Strus in the past, Miami defenders who aren’t Adebayo or Butler operate within a very specific ruleset. When they’re being targeted by an elite offensive player, there is prescribed and designed help coming their way. Attackers only have so many avenues for approach in the paint before a kickout pass becomes the right play as the walls close in. But just as we said with Strus before, there’s a value in being able to push players into the help, and value in quick hands which can capitalize on small windows.
“I just try to stay in front, not try to get blown by,” Jaquez Jr. says. “I know where my help is, so I try to send them to where my help is.”
That said, Jaquez Jr. has defended 23 isolations this season and allowed just 0.56 points-per, according to Second Spectrum. That won’t sustain. It wouldn’t for anyone. But it’s an encouraging start. Being a capable system defender this early in a career, alongside the mistakes of youth, is a good indicator of positive value on the defensive end somewhere down the line.
-For the moment, the HEAT’s Offensive Rebounding rate is as low as it has been (25.4 percent) since the 2020-21 season after peaking in 2021-22 when they had P.J. Tucker consistently crashing from the corner. Spoelstra tends to dial his team’s crashes up and down depending on his roster, and with the transition defense off to a slow start as tracked by Cleaning The Glass, it tracks that they would focus on cleaning up the open floor before finding their comfort zone hunting second possessions. Just worth keeping in mind that winning the possession battle and taking more shots than their opponent was often the difference in tight games last year.
-Miami has only used 62 possessions of zone defense so far, but they’ve allowed 1.11 points per possession in that look thus far – on the high end for early in the season, when most teams haven’t spent much time preparing for zone. Vincent and Caleb Martin were fixtures at the top of the zone, dropping back into it from their full-court press, and now with Vincent gone and Martin currently out with a knee injury, along with a new backup center in Bryant, you would imagine there is a feeling out process in the HEAT’s secondary look that hasn’t taken place in a few seasons.
-After averaging 47.3 drives per 100 possessions last season, Miami is down a little to 43.1. This is still probably skewed by all the drop coverage they faced in the first week, but its part of the equation discussed earlier when it comes to finding more threes. Drives collapse the defense, and a bent defense creates spot-up threes.
-Miami was No. 2 in passes per 100 possession last season. That number is down a bit to 300, which would have still been Top 10.
-Adebayo’s free-throw rate – free-throws per field-goals attempted – currently sits at .509, highest of his career since his first. You’re not always going to take 12 free-throws in the fourth quarter as he did against Memphis, but he’s not that far off from where he was two seasons ago at .466.
-Miami has played five clutch games so far and there are quite a few teams up at six, with the Warriors leading the way at seven. They’ve also played three games decided by five points or less, with the Lakers leading the league at six. Not quite the record-setting pace of last season, but that could change in a week.
-Haywood Highsmith has only played 93 minutes so far, but Miami is +20.9 points per 100 better with him on the floor, which would be the best differential on the team. The starting lineup with Highsmith is +13.4 per 100. He continues to be a more important player than most on a national level probably realize, and has opened the year 8-of-16 from three.
-For those of you reading this on Saturday, Jimmy Butler is not with the team in Atlanta due to personal family reasons. He may rejoin the team in San Antonio on Sunday.