The experiment of starting the season earlier, in lieu of longer training camps and preseason schedules, officially added the first week of regular season games to the new development. Conditioning, injuries and preparation have been early themes guiding criticism of the change. The Miami Heat, renowned for their culture of extreme conditioning, have broke even in their first 4 games. Along with Jason Kidd and other coaches, Erik Spoelstra wasn’t in favor of shorter training camps, stressing how important the extra days are. The Heat haven’t dodged the strike to early-season health. Rodney McGruder was diagnosed with a stress fracture of his tibia during the preseason. Dion Waiters has continued to be bothered by an ailing ankle that ended his season prematurely last spring; he chose to avoid having surgery on it while he collected free agent contract offers this summer. Whether it is teeth, an eye, cracked ribs, whatever, Goran Dragic always seems to be rubbing dirt on an injury. Most importantly, however, Hassan Whiteside has missed 3 games, with a knee contusion, since the opening night loss to Orlando.
The injury isn’t expected to keep Whiteside out long, and playing him presents unique challenges for his own team, but the Heat are unmistakably thin at the center position beyond Whiteside. When he is locked-in, Whiteside is the necessary anchor of Miami’s defense, and the “vertical spacing” magnet that opens up the outer ranges of the floor for their offense. As the Heat’s front court has been converted into the cast of James Johnson, Jordan Mickey, Kelly Olynyk, Justise Winslow, and Bam Adebayo, Miami has had to find other ways to win. With roles and strategies adjusted, the last few games have offered a different glimpse of what Erik Spoelstra has marinating.
The limited stats of the first few games indicate a strong emphasis of metrically-sound shot selection, and shot prevention. The Heat have ranked near the top of the league in 3-point attempts, and held opponents near the bottom of the league in the same category. Regardless of if the Heat can reliably hit their 3-point looks, they are at least creating an efficiency advantage by trying to control the 3-point margin. Efforts to limit opponents’ 3-point attempts by funneling the ball over the top of ball-screens, using minimal help defense, and aggressively closing out to shooters typically opens up lanes to the basket, and the mid-range.
This emphasis wages a lot of responsibility on the big men to control these advantages as the player who was occupying the perimeter hustles back to the interior. If the big isn’t a satisfactory paint defender and rebounder, the strategy starts to give up the precious free throws and offensive rebounds that negate the advantage of controlling the 3-point line. The open wound in Miami’s front court rotation was obvious as they struggled to keep Atlanta’s and Indiana’s bigs off the boards. San Antonio went about the advantage in a different way by using their elite post-scoring to overpower the Heat big men in isolation.
GORAN DRAGIC, DION WAITERS AND JAMES JOHNSON
Without an identifiable superstar on the roster, or a particularly complicated system, Miami’s offensive strength comes from athleticism and effort; if the effort isn’t there, the half court version can quickly bog down. Dragic and Waiters represent the best shot-creators on the team, but how much their offense has struggled for long periods of the past couple games underscores the unreliable nature of these two being in that role.
Dion Waiters and Goran Dragic couldn’t have more different mentalities as players. Waiters’ career has survived due to his bravado, and last season was the ultimate payoff. He was reluctant to defer to the likes of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in his earlier stops, and the move to Miami only switched Waiters’ light from yellow to green. Critics of Miami dishing out the contract Waiters received, after a career year, point to the idea that Waiters will never re-create numbers he put up in only 46 games. This isn’t any new development for Waiters, but so far, while bothered by that ankle, he hasn’t been particularly good.
Dragic, on the other hand, rarely ever takes the game into his control, no matter how well he is scoring. Watching him take over games in EuroBasket make this matter feel like it has got to come from his understanding of his role on the team. For instance, in the San Antonio game, he made his first 5 shots, then only shot one more time in the half. As a leader of the team that has been there since his demanded trade out of Phoenix at the 2015 deadline, it has been disappointing when Dragic doesn’t take over as Miami sputters through lifeless possessions.
When the Heat can get stops, and especially when he is the one doing the rebounding, James Johnson catalyzes the much-needed transition possessions. In the same mold of Paul Pressey that Don Nelson described in his “Nellie Ball” piece for The Player’s Tribune, Johnson is a well-rounded forward that can lead a fast break like Draymond Green has done so successfully with Golden State. Whether it was the Spurs shooting the lights out, or giving up second-chance opportunities to the Hawks and Pacers, Miami was losing out on a critical component of their offense coming from transition. Johnson’s opportunities have varied game to game, and it seems like Spoelstra is still feeling out how to make the best use of JJ’s driving faculty, within the the rest of the offense. When the San Antonio game was mostly out of hand, Johnson got to run a lot of 4-5 and inverted pick-and-rolls.
He had struggled to find shots earlier in the game, but then got on a roll attacking a recovering LaMarcus Aldridge, or switched guard, on mad-dashes to the basket. The fear Whiteside strikes into attacking guards, and the likelihood he’ll punctuate a defensive possession with the rebound, should better establish James Johnson in transition. The force of Johnson-Whiteside pick-and-rolls will also be a challenging action to stop.
TYLER JOHNSON AND JOSH RICHARDSON
When thinking of the Heat going into the season, I expected they would rely on a physically exhausting defense as part of their reputation to out-work teams. Recognizing that this dogged crew of combo guards struggles to draw fouls was the thing I wasn’t accounting for. If Miami were to be more aggressive or physical on defense, they would be putting themselves at serious risk of surrendering a free throw advantage to their opponents; free throws are, of course, the most efficient shot in the game. Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson are remarkably similar players, and play a pivotal role in the fouling aspect of Heat games. Too small to guard the bigger wings of the league, Johnson and Richardson are best at staying in front of speedy guards, and are both surprisingly good shot blockers. Offensively, they are decent shooters, and capable transition athletes, but neither is a polished dribbler, passer or finisher. Add in a healed McGruder, and they have triple the ammo with the same function. If Richardson or Johnson, or Dragic and Waiters, had more craft or deception to their drives, they could afford to hedge their bets with more aggressive on-ball defense.
Spoelstra has remained committed to his rotation that brings Olynyk off the bench during the Whiteside injury. This is a suitable role for Olynyk not only because he is an underwhelming paint defender against starting centers, but he is also one of the only reliable creators for the Heat’s second unit. Handy dribble-handoffs, timely pops out beyond the 3-point line, and the occasional drive to keep the defense honest, boost the offensive production of Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington, and he is specifically a good fit with Justise Winslow’s limited range.
Olynyk finished a -2 in the Indiana game, but was a positive against Atlanta and San Antonio. The less Olynyk has to guard starting post players, the more I could see his average plus-minus climb towards double digits. Spoelstra did, however, start Olynyk at the 4, alongside Whiteside, in the loss to Orlando.
Until Spoelstra and his staff can get this team to the physical standard they need to win games, Miami is likely destined to be a streaky team. Last year, they averaged the most drives per game. Drives are fundamental to the offensive goal of Spoelstra’s system that creates open shots from repeated pick-and-rolls or dribble-handoffs moving the ball from side-to-side. For the same reasons they don’t want to rely on Dragic and Waiters being shot-creators, and for the conditioning it takes to defend without fouling, and run against opponents, the Heat need to be able to dictate games with supreme effort; doing so, would allow them to make up for their lack of skill and unreliable 3-point shooting. In all three of the Indiana, Atlanta and San Antonio games, Miami had a quarter in the second half in which they lost by double digits. San Antonio is a different class of team, but the effort was problematic against Indiana and Atlanta. The Heat surrendered solid first half leads when the Hawks and Pacers set the tone of the second half. Miami has to minimize the lapses in effort to the point they are ones constantly wearing opponents down.
The return of Whiteside will provide a big body for screen-setting, a lob target, his mostly trusty rim protection and rebounding, and hopefully not too many dedicated post-ups. All those attributes will make games comparably easier for the Heat, but they still need to reach a higher level of fitness and toughness to get back to the winning they enjoyed in the second half of last season. Ultimately, the level they defend at will probably be the single-most important factor that will determine their success. When they blistered opponents during the run they made last season, they were holding teams to a Defensive Rating of 101.4; which would have been good enough for the third best defense in the league. Not being able to keep up with his assignment, Dion Waiters has been a considerable weakness on that end. James Johnson, generally regarded as a very good defender, was a pushover for the reinvigorated LaMarcus Aldridge. Justise Winslow is still strides away from being an above average defender. It will take a consistent dedication and accountability, enforced by the captains of James Johnson, Dragic, and veteran Udonis Haslem, but also the coaching priorities of Spoelstra, to get back to where they were as a group. Tracking their defensive rating, with and without Whiteside, will be an important number this season as they fight for playoff positioning.
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