Heat

Heat Have Fixable Issues Despite Uninspired Start

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Health-and-safety protocols, while necessary, have debilitated several teams in the early portion of the new season. The Miami Heat are no stranger to that, as they currently sit outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference with a 5-7 record.

Despite strong wins over New Orleans and Milwaukee, the team hasn’t exactly looked like the defending Eastern Conference champions. While they certainly have an absorbent amount of time to fix their issues, some issues seem significant to highlight in their early struggles.

Power-Forward Production Lacking

Losing Jae Crowder in free agency continues to haunt Miami’s power-forward production. Crowder was a critical piece to the deep playoff run, starting in all 21 games and averaging 12 points, five rebounds and two assists per game. Miami fans often remember his shooting struggles against the Celtics and Lakers, but forget that his hot shooting and elite defense on Giannis Antetokounmpo helped this team advance past the top-seeded Bucks.

Crowder was not re-signed largely due to his want for a multiple-year contract. With Pat Riley and Andy Elisburg focused on the “master plan” in 2021, this three-year deal wasn’t in the cards. Crowder is averaging a tick under 10 points per game in Phoenix– a key player in their hot start.

Crowder was a stretch four in Erik Spoelstra’s position-less basketball, but his toughness and defense made up for his 6’8 frame. In his absence, Miami has started four different players at the four: Kelly Olynyk, Meyers Leonard, Andre Iguodala and Maurice Harkless. Olynyk has performed the best of the bunch, averaging 10.9 points and 5.3 rebounds in his seven starts. However, his defense and rebounding haven’t allowed him to slow down opposing forwards.

The issue is similar for Leonard, while offensive production issues are more prominent for Iguodala and Harkless.

The Solution?

The solution to this issue might come to fruition until the trade deadline. Last year Miami sharpened their perimeter defense by acquiring Iguodala, Crowder and Solomon Hill for Justise Winslow at the deadline. I imagine something will replicate that this season, with Blake Griffin and P.J. Tucker being names rumored to be connected to the team. If no roster changes are made, however, the Heat still have a few options to work with.

While he hasn’t played much in the regular season, preseason breakout star KZ Okpala could be a candidate for more minutes. Okpala impressed in the preseason with his ability to defend and stretch the floor with consistent shooting. Sound familiar? It’s puzzling why Okpala hasn’t been able to break into the rotation after a solid preseason, but his time could be coming sooner rather than later if this position struggle persists.

With Jimmy Butler out due to the aforementioned COVID protocols, Okpala notched his first NBA start on Saturday against the Pistons and he did not disappoint. In a game with few bright spots, Okpala scored a season-high 16 points on 4-5 shooting from distance. He even had a highlight dunk and a isolation drive, beating Griffin off the dribble. His energy was a light of hope to fill the void in production at this position.

 

Another option is to continue the “power-forward-by-committee” strategy that Spoelstra has been employing on a game-to-game basis. It isn’t a coincidence that Olynyk and Leonard started against teams with taller front-courts, while Harkless and Iguodala started against smaller teams. Spoelstra is excellent at developing schemes per matchup, so it may be best to fill the position as needed based on who is starting on the opposing team.

Rebounding

Miami currently ranks 29th in rebounding at 42.1 per game. This team wasn’t constructed to be a top-tier rebounding team, but sitting in last place with 6.8 offensive rebounds per game is something to be concerned about. Miami’s rebounding struggles date back to last year with the departure of Hassan Whiteside. The fix here isn’t easy. The Heat run a position-less lineup consisting of one seven-footer on the roster.

The Heat showed that they could compete with heart over height before in last year’s playoffs, so it may be more of an effort thing as Jimmy Butler seems to think. It also might be a scheme fix. Leonard, Olynyk, Precious Achiuwa, or even Chris Silva could see more time to help on the boards. We could potentially see Miami sign a big-man free agent or pull off a deal at the deadline to add some size behind Bam Adebayo as well.

On Saturday, Detroit took 91 shots to Miami’s 67– an unacceptable margin. Miami will struggle to compete in any game with margins that wide. This was evident in a loss to a team that was last in the NBA in win percentage coming into that game. The team has looked sluggish and out of synch in their rebounding efforts. No rebounding will continue to haunt this team until it’s corrected.

Starting Point Guard

Tyler Herro started the first ten games of the season before missing the past two due to injury. He’s questionable to return tonight, but he has otherwise been often to a good start, averaging 17.6 points per game (2nd on the team). However, it is becoming evident that he is a natural two guard. Herro looks his best when he’s looking to score off ball screens or penetrating from isolation. While he has averaged 3.9 assists per game and had his moments as a creator for others, he should remain with his natural two-guard position.

Goran Dragic seems to be the natural fit here. The Dragon started every playoff game last season prior to his injury and led the team in scoring. However, it seems the Heat are playing the long game with the 34-year-old.

Kendrick Nunn started over Goran for a reason last year. That became evident with Dragic’s lights-out play in the postseason. Saving his legs for when it counts is a priority in Spoelstra’s scheme, so he will continue to give the Heat top-tier bench minutes. Dragic is averaging 15.2 points and team-high 5.3 assists off the bench this season.

Miami has a choice here. They can let Herro go through growing pains in learning the new position or have someone else start. Nunn, Avery Bradley and Gabe Vincent are the alternative options. Jimmy Butler could even potentially take over a point-guard role, as Butler too averages 5.3 assists per game and is the best playmaker on the roster. It is likely the Heat will roll with Herro at the point moving forward as Duncan Robinson has solidified his starting spot at the two. It is important to note that if Herro continues to improve, this will no longer be an issue.

Turnovers

The Heat rank last in turnovers committed per game at 17.3. Most of this issue lies in sloppy play and players learning new roles. Things should tighten up when the full rotation is back and players cement their roles, but sloppy play has been a detriment to this team especially in close games. Bam (3.6 per game), Dragic (3.0 per game) and Herro (2.8 per game) lead the team in turnovers.

Often, this team is over-passing. Passing up open shots for seemingly better ones, when that isn’t actually the case. Many of the team’s turnovers have come from lazy lob attempts to Adebayo or Achiuwa, which opposing defenses has easily seen through.

The large discrepancy of shot attempts between Miami and opponents comes from said turnovers and lack of rebounding. Much of this can be accredited to a young team with new parts, but it simply has been ugly basketball to watch with no discipline in holding on to the basketball. Coach Spo will need to sharpen this offense if a swing in team success is to occur.

Moving Forward

If all of these issues seem familiar, they should. Miami hasn’t had an elite power forward since Chris Bosh. Even he was used as a stretch five in Spoelstra’s system. Other than Goran, Miami hasn’t had an all-star point guard dating back to Tim Hardaway. Rebounding was an issue throughout the “Big 3” era, and prominently throughout Spoelstra’s tenure in Miami. Turnovers are part of the game, especially with young teams, but they add up quickly if not addressed.

It is important to note that Butler and Bradley have been unavailable for some time due to health-and-safety protocols. The team hasn’t been fully healthy since early January.

While all these issues are concerning, this isn’t the time to panic. Erik Spoelstra always seems to find a scheme to fit his team’s needs. Most recently, the zone defense used in the 2020 playoffs proved critical. And if the team cannot make it work, Andy Elisburg and Pat Riley always make the right call at the deadline to acquire the correct personnel. It is a long season ahead, but necessary adjustments are required if they are to be in store for another title run.

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About Conor Fagan

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