If you aren’t sure of what to make of the Heat, who stand just 10–11 a quarter of the way through this NBA campaign, don’t worry. Really, none of us do at this point.
Over their last 16 games, the Heat—coming off a run to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals—have lost two straight, then won two straight, then lost two straight, only to win three straight, then lose four straight. At the moment, they’re in the midst of a three-game winning streak as they prepare to square off with the red-hot Celtics—the club that knocked them out to reach the Finals last season—twice in Boston before heading to Memphis to play the Grizzlies next week.
It’s hard to know what—or even who—you’ll get from this Miami team from one night to the next. Lineups are constantly in flux, as they’ve been the second-most banged-up unit in the NBA, with Heat players having missed a combined 76 games to this point in the season, per Spotrac.
The absence of Jimmy Butler in particular has been costly for them, with Miami looking great offensively when Butler is on the floor (119.9 points per 100 possessions, per Cleaning the Glass) but dreadful with him off it (103 points, a rate that’d rank dead last on a team scale).
Aside from Butler, who’s missed the last six games and counting, Tyler Herro, a starter for the first time this season, recently returned from missing eight contests. Duncan Robinson has been out lately with an ankle injury. And after being brought back following a late-season return in 2021–22, guard Victor Oladipo has yet to play this season as he deals with a left-knee issue.
The nonstop injuries have left the team incredibly thin, perhaps most clearly in a brutal one-point overtime loss this month in Washington in which the Heat had just seven players available. Thirty-six-year-old Kyle Lowry, fifth in the NBA with 763 minutes logged so far, played 51 minutes that night alone. All told, five of the seven guys who played that night—Caleb Martin, Max Strus, Haywood Highsmith, Orlando Robinson and Jamal Cain—were undrafted.
But unfortunately for the Heat, grit and hard work, which have been defining hallmarks for the club throughout the Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra era, aren’t always enough to eke out wins in the talent-filled NBA. Especially when a handful of absences—including the loss of P.J. Tucker, who departed for Philly—leaves you without much of a recognizable identity from night to night.
The result has often been frustration. Before Sunday’s victory in Atlanta, the Heat had dropped seven in a row on the road. (As an aside: Did you notice that two other conference finalists— defending champion Golden State and Dallas—have even worse marks on the road than Miami’s 2–7, at 2–9 and 1–7, respectively?) That included the first 0–4 road trip in Spoelstra’s coaching career. Miami’s been close to breaking through in a number of its contests, and is tied for the league lead in clutch games—a whopping 15 so far—that have been decided in the final five minutes. The “we need a basket” moments are where Butler and Herro’s absences are felt most. Butler’s played in nine of those close games, while Herro’s played in seven.
This isn’t to suggest the team is completely without its bright spots so far. If Butler’s missed games have created something of an offensive power vacuum, it’s allowed more opportunity for Bam Adebayo to be far more aggressive, logging a usage rate of almost 30% the past five games as he seeks to pull up for those short-range jumpers from just inside the paint. (In his last two contests, Adebayo averaged 35 points and 10 rebounds on 66.7% shooting.)
The defense, which at times lacks muscle beneath the free throw line without Tucker and with Adebayo often playing up higher due to switches and the team’s use of zone, has crept back inside the league’s top 10 in efficiency and sends opponents to the line at the NBA’s lowest rate. Interestingly, the club’s man defense has been brutal along the arc and at the rim; only Sacramento has hemorrhaged more points per possession in that alignment. But the Heat deploy a zone defense an astounding 30% of the time—nearly twice as often as any other team in the league, and they’re on pace to set a tracking-era record, per Synergy Sports—that’s been highly effective, limiting opponents to a 47.2% effective field goal rate on the season.
“That’s what we pride ourselves on. We’re slowly getting there,” Spoelstra said of the defense earlier in the month. “We’re not where we want to be defensively. But we understand at least what our identity has to be.”
Playoff seeding often seems like an afterthought for this club, and perhaps rightfully so, as the Heat were a No. 1 seed last season and also managed to reach the Finals as a fifth seed back in 2020. Spoelstra seems to know that other dynamics matter more when it comes to preparing for the postseason. Specifically, some of the team’s players—namely Martin and Strus, who’ve made their bones primarily as perimeter shooters—have put the ball on the floor and handled it more frequently this season to keep defenses a bit more honest when it counts.
That experimentation may come at a slight regular-season cost. The Heat, for instance, were one of the league’s 10 most efficient teams in handoff situations last season but currently rank in the bottom 10 in that regard with Robinson and Butler sidelined. At the same time, the effort to quietly expand the offensive games of the role players is a smart one and could pay real dividends. Hell, Martin alone is already reaping those benefits and has notched 20 points or more in each of his last three contests, all of which he’s shot well over 50%.
The results certainly haven’t been pretty for this Miami team. But if the players who’ve had to hold down the fort can grow from the time they’ve been forced to play without Butler and other weapons, it could make for a slightly more well-rounded club as the postseason draws closer.
Meat and potatoes: Good reads from SI and elsewhere this past week
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