Coup's Notebook Vol. 2: Duncan Robinson Is Inevitable, What The Kyle Lowry Effect Really Looks Like, Switching Is Still The Thing But So Is Getting Switched

Duncan Robinson
by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

The Miami HEAT are 6-2 coming off a loss to the Boston Celtics and ahead of a matchup with the Utah Jazz, one of two No. 1 teams in the Western Conference and one of two teams in the league with a better Net Rating than Miami. Let's get into the notes from the first eight games, starting with a shooter who is shooting but not making, yet.

What’s Going On With Duncan Robinson?

Nothing, really. Well, something. But if you ask him, nothing.

“I just think playing with new personnel,” Robinson said last week when asked about adjustments he’s making. “Getting a feel, learning tendencies, that sort of stuff. Nothing glaring. We have a little more pace which is good. There’s nothing super different. A lot of it is just nuances, feel, getting connected that sort of thing.”

I’ll say this off the top. I do not care about Robinson’s shooting percentages. Not now. If this were his first full season and was shooting 33.3 percent from three, I’d have a few more questions, but the man is coming off two of the best – the best – volume shooting seasons of all-time. Seasons that put him, statistically, in the conversation with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. Robinson would have to be below league-average in January to register any legitimate concern, and even then I’d be more likely to believe he was playing through an injury than getting measurably worse as a shooter.

There has, however, been a bit of a role shift. While he’s shooting about the same number of shots – 17 deep attempts against Boston was a career-high – Erik Spoelstra’s adjusting of the team’s offensive sliders to increase post-ups and isolations in an attempt to go after more mismatches has directly led to fewer handoffs for the team, and Robinson directly.

Season over season, Robinson’s personal handoffs are down from 8.8 to 6.0 per 100 possessions, a decrease of about 31 percent. With Adebayo, his most common link for the past two seasons, those handoffs are down 7.9 to 3.9 per 100, over a 50 percent drop. Robinson is still running handoffs, but he’s getting them from Jimmy Butler and P.J. Tucker a little more often, while Kyle Lowry has taken over some of the usage with Adebayo.

It’s different, yes. But not necessarily worse. Because Robinson is flying off handoffs less, he’s also getting more catch-and-shoot opportunities, about three more per 100 possessions, and cleaner looks in general. Of the 169 players who took at least 200 threes last year, Robinson was No. 157 in three-point Shot Quality (49.1 expected effective field-goal percentage, per Second Spectrum). That’s a remarkable number given that all the players below him were high-usage shot-creators, among them Doncic, Harden, Lillard, Durant, Tatum, Curry, Mitchell and Randle. As far as spot-up shooters go, the only real comp around the league was Washington’s Davis Bertans.

This year, Robinson’s Shot Quality is 50.7, which puts him No. 138 of the 179 who have taken at least 20 threes (Tyler Herro is 171). Not a huge jump, just enough that he’s gone from taking literally the toughest shots in the league to just tough shots with some better opportunities mixed in.

It might take a little more adjustment from Robinson, who has since shrugged off comments about the new ball the league is using this year. The team is still reliant on Robinson’s presence on the floor, he’s just a bit more of a space-enabler for the new things they’re running than someone who has to carry the offense a turbo speed for long stretches.

It should all be for the better for what the team is trying to build, for the postseason. Spoelstra wants a diverse menu on offense, and Robinson can still do all the same things he did before even if the shots aren’t yet falling at the same rate. And the shots will fall, eventually. Robinson is too talented for them not to.

The Switch Life

Thursday’s loss to Boston looked a bit worse than it really was. Or maybe felt worse is the more operative phrase, given how dominant Miami looked in its 6-1 start to the season. The team was bound for some bad shooting luck given how jumpers, either mid-range or from three, were falling in the first two weeks. That’s all normal.

What is worth investigating is how Boston’s switching affected the offense overall. Not only were the Celtics switching just about everything that didn’t involve Robert Williams III, they were also sending consistently precise help on those switches so that even as Miami flattened out and had to attack one-on-one, they were still seeing extra defenders as they created a shot.

“They just took us out of some things and we jammed up some possessions and weren’t able to capitalize on what they were trying to do,” Spoelstra said.

The worst of it came in a nine-point, ten-turnover second quarter that will be one of the worst second quarters you’ll see all season. The last time Miami’s scored in single digits in the second was back in the mid 90’s. Not ideal, but it’s not likely to be that poor ever again.

Switching is the thing, though, and Boston’s strategy – which is their strategy every night – has an interesting relationship to the changes Miami has made this season. In the past, knowing that they didn’t want to flatten out and be forced into self-creation given their personnel, the HEAT would utilize all their movement to try and break the switching, catch teams in miscommunications and slow rotations and toss a wrench in their gears. Remember when Kelly Olynyk thwarted Boston a few years back with one fake dribble-handoff after another? That was all done against switching, and the failure to do so.

Now the HEAT are playing into mismatch hunting, or at least they have been so far. Post-ups and Isolations are up, as we’ve been over, and in a backwards sort of way that’s exactly what switching defenses want you to do. They want you to stop moving the ball and chase what appear to be advantages in one-on-one situations. Miami is already doing as their assist rate has dropped to begin the season.

It’s was working fine, mostly. Better than fine given Miami was temporarily the No. 1 offense. It just didn’t work last night as the HEAT produced just .47 points per possession in 18 isolations and .80 in 11 post-ups. Right now the HEAT have built more of their offense than usual around winning one-on-one matchups. When they don’t, they might have some nights like last night.

Note that winning the matchup doesn’t necessarily mean scoring out of it. Chasing mismatches doesn’t mean trying to be stagnant on purpose, and the HEAT still have off-ball movement happening. Boston just switched all of it.

Of the 13 handoffs Boston switched, Miami scored 0.50 points per possession. Of the 23 pick-and-rolls, just 0.69 per possession. All the turnovers factor into those numbers, where the HEAT were trying to use passing lanes that just weren’t there with the switches nullifying the advantages typically created by movement and screens.

None of this precludes the HEAT from having success against the switch. Again, in theory their new offensive focus should suit them better against switches especially in the postseason. They’ve already had plenty of success against the switching of Charlotte, Memphis and Brooklyn (to a degree, the Nets did jam them up some).

Put it all together and it was just a bad night with some bad shooting and tough, but helpful, film to watch afterwards. We’ll surely be revisiting switching down the line.

The Kyle Lowry Effect Is More Than Pace

Assuming you’ve been paying even a modicum of attention to the HEAT so far, you know Kyle Lowry has them running out in transition knowing that their point guard can make every pass (throw?) in the book. It’s been sweet chin music so far, but what does it actually translate to? The HEAT are No. 26 in pace, after all, and middle of the pack in transition frequency, so where are all those hit-ahead passes showing up?

Well, when Lowry is on the floor Miami’s pace rockets up to the second-fastest pace in the league (103.6 possessions per game). When he’s off the floor, they’re playing at a pace (95.5 possessions per game) that would be the slowest since the 2017-18 season.

Some of that can be a little deceiving since Pace factors in both sides of the floor and a good defense will often force longer possessions (and thus fewer overall) out of their opponent.

Then what about offense only? Same effect. The HEAT are No. 17 in the league at 14.6 seconds per offensive possession, per pbpstats.com. With Lowry on the court, that rate jumps to 14.0 seconds per possession, No. 8. With Lowry off, back to the slowest offense in the league.

All makes sense, right? We can boil it down even further into the minutiae, if you’re interested.

What are those hit-ahead passes? They lead to shots in the first six seconds of the shot clock. Not just any shots. Miami was incredibly adept at forcing pick-six turnovers last year, in large part thanks to Butler, so they had plenty of early makes. What separates The Lowry Effect is that he’s creating opportunities off makes and misses.

So how many shots (per 100 possessions, to adjust for overall pace) are the HEAT taking in the first six seconds off the shot clock off an opponent make or miss? That’s 9.7, No. 4 in the NBA. Last season it was 6.8, ranked No. 18. That’s the Lowry Effect, down to the decimal.

If it seemed like Boston had those passes scouted well on Thursday, they did. Miami had just five early hit-ahead passes, or 5.7 per 100 possessions.

“The league is constantly going to adjust,” Spoelstra said after the game. “It’s not like whatever we’re doing now is just going to be it for the rest of the season. You have to continue to adjust and do things sharper, do things with more purpose and intention.”

NBA Blitz 2022

There has been some apparent confusion over Miami’s defensive scheme, so let’s clear this up. They are not switching less than they did last year. In fact, they’re switching more than ever. After a switch-heavy game against Boston, the HEAT are switching around 26 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, No. 2 behind the Celtics. Last year they were at 22.6 per 100.

When the HEAT acquired Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker last offseason, it was clear they were going to lean right into the switching scheme they’ve been developing for the past two seasons since a 2020 trade-deadline deal for Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala. From that day on, through the Finals run and all of last season, this has been a switching team. With Lowry and Tucker both being incredibly adept at handling players larger than them in the post and Bam Adebayo’s perimeter switching being one of the best defensive weapons on the planet, this is who they are. They can be a little more selective with their switches and the intelligence on the floor will help them switch off the ball to avoid bad matchups, but the switch is still the thing.

So far this year, Miami is allowing just 0.78 points per 100 possessions when switching a pick-and-roll.

They’re good at what they do, and what they do isn’t particularly nice to other teams.

There are two things they aren’t doing anymore defensively. First, they’ve only played one single, lonely possession of zone defense. It won’t be a surprise if Spoelstra uses it again at some point, but it hasn’t been a regular occurrence.

Secondly, they’re blitzing ballhandlers far less than they used to. Leading the league with 9.25 blitzes per 100 a year ago as they dialed things back to 2012, they’re down to 3.5 per 100 (Rank 7). That number will likely climb as they face more of the Steph Curry, Damian Lillard and Trae Youngs of the league, against whom the blitz is sometimes your best and only option. For the moment, the team appears focused on keeping the ball in front and out of the paint.

Tidbits

-Duncan Robinson is one game away from tying his own franchise-best streak of 57 consecutive games with a made three. That means he is, you guessed it, two games away from setting a new team record.

-Erik Spoelstra is one win away from taking the No. 26 spot on the all-time coaching wins list for himself (he’s at 613 wins right now). The highest Spoelstra can realistically climb this season is passing Flip Saunders for No. 23 (654 wins). He’s a no-doubt Hall of Famer already, today, and whether or not he breaks the all-time wins record of 1335 by Don Nelson – likely to be broken and extended by Gregg Popovich this season – might only depend on how long Spoelstra intends to man the sideline.

-There were indeed “Let’s Go HEAT” chants the other night against Dallas. Normally that isn’t all that big of a deal considering how often it happens in Orlando or Atlanta or Brooklyn. But in Dallas, where these two teams have considerable history between them, it was an eye opener.

-Miami is No. 2 in Defensive Rating (trailing Golden State) and No. 5 in Offensive Rating. The Utah Jazz, today’s opponent, and the Golden State Warriors recently overtook them in overall Net Rating (still an absurd plus-12.5).

-Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo are No. 2 and No. 4 in Defensive Win Shares right now. It’s still too early in the season for that to mean much of anything, but I’m bringing it up because the question of credit is going to come up when it comes to awards season. Breaking down last season’s ballots for Defensive Player of the Year and All-Defensive Teams, there appeared to be something of a vote-splitting effect at play for Miami’s two leaders on that end. That could cost one of them a shot at the big award if voters can’t decide who gets the first, second, third, fourth or fifth place votes – in the same way that actors can miss out on an Oscar if multiple performers from the same movie are nominated in the same category.

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