Heat

Heat’s Guard Room Gradually Becoming Great

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As recent NBA history has shown, quality guard play is very important to becoming a true contender. 

The Golden State Warriors became a dynasty with the backcourt of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. The Boston Celtics made the Finals with the first guard to win Defensive Player of the Year in the 21st century. The Milwaukee Bucks made the leaps to championship status with their upgrade to Jrue Holiday. The Phoenix Suns became a top-end team when they added Chris Paul to Devin Booker.

To put this simply, quality guards are critical major components of championship teams.

HISTORICALLY

For the Miami Heat, the guard room has been a complicated part of the roster over the Jimmy Butler era. 

In Butler’s first season in South Florida, the guard room was fairly shallow. Kendrick Nunn started next to Duncan Robinson for the entirety of the regular season, but when the bubble playoffs came around, Goran Dragic took the starting-point-guard reigns from Nunn. Dragic was essential for the Finals run. Tyler Herro came off the bench, and his 37-point bubble game will never be forgotten.

In the next season, the guard room undoubtedly regressed. Dragic started showing signs of older age. Herro didn’t take the expected sophomore leap after his bubble run. Nunn and Robinson remained solid role players. Acquiring Avery Bradley did not work out. Victor Oladipo played four games before injury. In the minutes he received, Gabe Vincent was not great. This disappointment culminated in the urgent desire to acquire seek improved guard(s) in the offseason.

And that they did.

Kyle Lowry signed to large deal (that seems too large now). He was very good in the regular season but performed poorly in the playoffs due to injury. Herro genuinely took the step, as he won Sixth Man of the Year; regardless, he struggled in the playoffs. Vincent, along with Max Strus, absolutely broke out. After getting a large contract, Robinson shot underwhelmingly. Oladipo came back strong when given sufficient playing time. 

That’s a lot of bodies for the upcoming season. That is six players who really deserve minutes, and it could be a tight squeeze. Head Coach Erik Spoelstra undeniably stands as one of the best coaches in the league. He’s certainly on a shortlist of coaches that will be able to navigate this issue.

CURRENTLY

This doesn’t mean that this task is easy for Coach Spo, however. Therefore, the question of how this guard room will currently operate is undoubtedly an interesting one.

At Pat Riley’s end-of-season press conference, he talked about the importance of Lowry getting in shape.

Well, Lowry seems to have really gotten into elite shape, and that’s a very promising sign.

For the final two months of the regular season, Lowry averaged 14.2 points and 6.5 assists per game on 68.3 TS%. He was just ridiculously good for the Heat, but injuries killed it, as he scored 7.8 points per game in the playoffs on a terrible 41.2 TS%. This in-shape Lowry should strive to average something around 14 and 8 on something around 60 TS%. The key is maintaining that play for the post-season.

Herro needs to take another step. After speaking out on his desire to start this coming season, Riley said he still needs to earn it.

Regardless, Herro should look to take his 20.7 points per game on 56.1 TS% to somewhere around 23 points and 58 TS%. This is, of course, he is a member of the Miami Heat next season (more on this later). The Heat need a true shot creator and shot maker (especially for the playoffs), and Herro has shown flashes of really being that guy. He needs to put it together and look to improve on the defensive side of the court; this will help him stay on the court rather than consistently being hunted.

Vincent’s regular-season averages of 8.7 points and 3.1 assists per game absolutely do not do justice to how good he is. He was one of the league’s best backup point guards last season and was a great Lowry replacement when Lowry was injured during the regular season. He absolutely needs minutes every game and is a clear staple of this team’s rotation despite not being as much of a household name as the other players in this guard room.

Strus’ breakout was akin to Vincent’s: unexpected. He took Robinson’s starting role towards the end of the season and never gave it back. Truthfully, he could be losing it next season though; Herro could steal it or Riley and company could catch a whale from Utah. He’s a lights-out shooter with flashes of improvement in areas like shot creation and defense. He, too, seems like a lock for the rotation.

Robinson had a down season, to put it simply. For the first three months, he only shot 35.2% from three after shooting 42.7% over the two prior seasons. The way Robinson shot this season seems like it cannot happen again. Shooting high from three wasn’t the fluke; shooting low from three was. Robinson is likely to bounce back, and it seems difficult to stash someone to warm the bench when they have the ability to shoot 40% from three.

And we arrive to Oladipo, perhaps the most intriguing of these players. The Heat brought him back on a 1+1 player option. There was heavy speculation that Oladipo was going to leave in free agency, but bringing him back shows his value. He was an amazing defender in the Celtics series, and a full offseason should help get his offensive juices back. He showed the ability to put pressure on defenses by getting downhill; now, being more efficient and straight-up better is the goal.

WHAT THIS MEANS

So, what does this mean for the Heat? Well, it’s complicated.

There’s so much talent in this room, and the front office knows it. Strus, Robinson and Oladipo all have the ability to downsize to play the small forward, sure. However, it probably isn’t something that the Heat want to do to often. 

Having to fit all of these players in the rotation means that Caleb Martin and Haywood Highsmith will likely find more of their minutes at the power forward than what is likely preferred.

The starting lineup could go a lot of ways with this six. It feels like Lowry will absolutely be starting, but the starting two could go in a variety of ways. With Vincent appearing to be a lock to be the backup one, it seems like Herro, Strus or Oladipo all could start at the two. Herro could genuinely take that next step and that spot. Strus could simply retain it— he was the starter on a team that found itself one shot away from the Finals. Oladipo could provide shades of his former self with a true offseason to get back to form.

It’s really captivating.

Robinson obviously seems like the odd one out. It’s hard not to forget that he played the least of these six in the playoffs. The Heat could approach it like they did in the playoffs with Robinson playing merely spot minutes behind the other five. But considering what has happened in the last three-to-four months, it seems unlikely that these six all remain on the roster, especially after the trade deadline next season.

Reason number one: The Heat were one game from the Finals, but — and this is a big but — Jimmy Butler had to have an all-time level playoff run. The team still needs upgrades to put the team over the top.

Reason number two: Contractually, a deal for an upgrade makes sense. Robinson’s contract and Herro’s value with picks could be intriguing (though it’s not enough for Donovan Mitchell).

Vincent and Strus become free agents next season. If the team cannot clear cap space, it seems like one of them will be walking. These two feel safe to stay on the team, however, because they are both on minimum contracts despite being key role players.

Oladipo has a no-trade clause in his contract, which makes him safe for the next season. In case of a trade that involves anyone else in this guard room, Dipo serves as somewhat of a safety valve— a player with known talent with tremendous upside.

The Heat re-signed him for a reason.

The guard room’s complexities have been over-shadowed with the search for a long-term big-man fit next to Bam Adebayo. This search for “the guy” next to Adebayo has extended for years to this point.

This, certainly, is still under way.

About Charlie Spungin

Twitter: @CharlieS3_

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