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Bam: Plus One

As Miami shifts away from Bam Adebayo's premier defensive coverage, he remains the same destructive force. It just looks a little different.

“It’s a mind game.”

Midway through the first quarter of an early March evening in Dallas, Luka Doncic runs a high pick-and-roll with Derrick Lively II. As Jaime Jaquez Jr. is hit with contact, Bam Adebayo hedges out onto Doncic to momentarily prevent any downhill momentum. By the time Jaquez Jr. recovers to Doncic and releases Adebayo, the pass is already sailing into the heart of the defense to a rolling Lively. Kickout. Swing pass. Tim Hardaway Jr. drains a catch-and-shoot three.

A quarter later, Adebayo is in the same situation. His defender on the ball gets hit with a screen and Doncic is turning the corner. But this time one of the league’s best at stopping the ball before it becomes a threat – with a switch, show or blitz – changes it up.

He retreats.

Over the previous two seasons, nobody switched, showed or blitzed a pick-and-roll as many times as Adebayo, his 1,444 instances of using those coverages miles ahead of the No. 2 player, Nic Claxton, at 1,191. He’s made his reputation as one of the league’s most versatile defenders, but as Miami’s roster has morphed he’s had to adapt along with it, adding a layer to his versatility that tends to be reserved for taller, longer, more traditional centers.

As Adebayo drops back, Doncic sees his opportunity to lob it up to Daniel Gafford over the 6-foot-9 defender. Rather than stopping to contain the ball, which would only be natural against the league’s leading scorer, Adebayo just keeps dropping, rising to tip the pass in front of the rim. It’s the opposite of the style of defense he’s known for, but it gets the stop, one skirmish won in the battlefield of the mind.

Bam Plus One: Drop On Luka

“I’m not the tallest. I’m not the most athletic. It’s a mind game, playing cat and mouse, trying to get somebody off center,” Adebayo says. “It’s understanding that certain guys don’t like that coverage, certain guys don’t like you playing off like that. You get a feel for that, you play a mind game with them. Certain guys, you know they want to throw lobs so you make them throw it and you get back and deflect it. Now he’s thinking about it.”

Another quarter passes and Adebayo and Doncic reengage. Adebayo kicks things off with another drop, but a possession later he hits the big red button and switches out. Doncic, one of the smartest players in the league, immediately recognizes the opportunity that other teams – notably Devin Booker and the Phoenix Suns – began to exploit last season. Doncic takes the switch, swings the ball to Kyrie Irving and backs up. Doncic is trapped on an island with Adebayo, but the island is adrift, away from the play.

Bam Plus One: Switch On Luka

Such is the tale of how the league has adapted not only to Adebayo, but to the HEAT’s changing roster, one that has lost much of its switchable talent over the past two seasons. Adebayo may be one of the two or three best switch defenders the league has ever seen – immediately after the possession above, Doncic takes the switch again and tries a stepback three over Adebayo which clangs off the rim – but to accommodate a team lacking in one-on-one, guard-your-yard defenders he’s had to sideline his all-timer strengths and shift gears into a coverage played by most of the league’s traditional, seven-foot rim-protecting centers.

And he’s remained just as destructive a defense force as ever.

We all love Keanu Reeves. You’re well within your right not to, of course, but that’s your mistake to make.

In 1991, Reeves was one of the brightest young stars in Hollywood. Having already broken out with River’s Edge and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, 1991 was the year his name set a course for the top of the marquee and promotional posters alike as he hit all three quadrants, comedy with a Bill and Ted sequel, drama in My Own Private Idaho and of course action with Point Break. It was time to see if he could really do it all.

Turns out, he couldn’t. Reeves then took roles in two period pieces, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula and Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing, which meant accent work and recitation of Shakespearian dialogue. Neither performance worked as Reeves explored territories outside of his skillset. He got back on track a year later with Speed and, of course, The Matrix in 1999, but movies are forever and that odd little stretch remains. You aren’t going to find much in the way of period pieces on the rest of his ledger.

Adebayo might have been able to play Johnathon Harker or Don John, metaphorically speaking. This is the season he’s proven, beyond a shadow of an iambic pentameter doubt, that there is nothing he can’t do. Erik Spoelstra has asked him to play against type and he’s answered the call.

The Miami HEAT were never a team to switch many pick-and-rolls, famously blitzing during the LeBron James era long after most of the league had left that coverage behind. With the explosion of three-point shooting and spacing soon after, league offense evolved to a point where Miami also had to leave the blitz behind as they moved to the drop coverage that quickly became the most traditional coverage going. It wasn’t until Adebayo became the full-time starter in 2019-20, coinciding with the arrival of Jimmy Butler, that Erik Spoelstra began to incorporate switching into their base scheme. By 2021-22, with ultra-versatile P.J. Tucker in tow, Miami led the league in switching, using it 28.8 times per 100 possessions. The HEAT finished No. 4 in Defensive Rating that season – zone helped them out when Adebayo missed a month with a thumb injury – their ability to invoke maximum stoppage carrying them to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

At the start of last season, having lost Tucker in free agency, Miami was still committed to switching, employing that coverage 25 times per 100 possessions through the end of December. By that point, teams were scheming against it, either taking it to the extreme like Doncic in the possession above, playing four-on-four once Adebayo targeted their best scorer, or taking the switch down to the corner and forcing Adebayo to help off a shooter from the weakside. While it wasn’t all new, Miami’s second, third, fourth and fifth best defenders weren’t as equipped to handle the second, third, fourth and fifth best scorers on the other side once an opponent opted to trade queens on the hardwood chessboard.

“Teams started to scheme a little bit on that, to try and get him away from the basket,” Spoelstra says. “Not every team, but we started to see it a little more. That made us think a little more, if it was the best move for us just to switch.”

Slowly they began dropping the switches and asking Adebayo to drop. By January they were down to 21 switches per 100. By March it was down to 18. In the playoffs it was 16, Adebayo’s individual switch rate falling all the way from 12 to five per 100.

“Our personnel was a little bit different than the year before,” Spoelstra says. “We felt that we had to play a little bit more base coverage and also keep [Adebayo] around the basket more often, if we could control that. Let him protect the rim, let him communicate the defense as he sees it from a different angle and then also help us finish our defense better, be in better rebounding position. Where we wouldn’t always have him 23 feet out.”

Over the course of a few months, the primary weapon in Miami’s defensive arsenal became a change-of-pace tool, a condiment rather than a protein. Adebayo is switching fewer than five pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions this season, drop taking over at 19 per, more than double the rate of two seasons ago.

It wasn’t exactly undiscovered territory for Adebayo, who had played more traditional coverages as Hassan Whiteside’s backup his first two seasons because that was how the team was setup at the time. It was, however, a shift away from exactly the style of defense Adebayo had built his reputation on. Switching had been his identity, one which carried with it a ton of team success, and now he was being asked to adopt an identity typically employed, at higher volume, for those of more titanic proportions.

Was a single complaint ever lobbed the head coach’s way? “Definitely not from [Adebayo],” Spoelstra said.

In all the same ways Adebayo has found ways to improve 10 percent offensively each season, adding skills, adapting to coverage, addressing his weaknesses, this was just another opportunity.

“It’s more of a challenge to see how I can be better than others in certain coverages,” Adebayo said. “Coach says, ‘We’re going to play more in drop.’ Then my thing is, ‘How can I be the best drop defender?’” I simplify it for myself, I make it into a competitive game. I know it sounds like mental warfare between me and Spo but I feel like it’s just a healthy challenge for me.”

It’s a challenge that’s been met, and then some.

Of the 34 players who have defended at least 500 pick-and-rolls in drop coverage this season – per Second Spectrum tracking data – Adebayo is No. 23 at 1.03 points-allowed-per, dead even with last season’s Defensive Player of the Year Jaren Jackson Jr. That doesn’t sound all that great off the top, but there are layers to this. When taking out assist opportunities and looking only at sequences where the ballhandler shoots, draws a foul or commits a turnover, Adebayo is allowing 0.91 per possession, sandwiched between Victor Wembanyama and Brook Lopez in the standings. Does taking away assists mean we’re hiding all the lobs Adebayo is giving up? He’s only allowed eight all season. The vast majority of damage done against Adebayo’s drop come on plays where the ballhandler passes to someone other than the player who set the screen – 1.28 points-per when that happens, last place among the 20 players with at least 250 reps – meaning teams are trying to scheme Adebayo just as they would when he was switching, call him up, get off the ball and find a way around rather than through. He can’t stop you if he’s not there.

“Every time Bam switched out on us it wasn’t going to be easy, you got to move the ball,” says Terry Rozier, speaking to his experience on the other side of things with Charlotte. “You probably could run it out, get the switch and then swing it around and try to get the mismatch with the big and the guard. That could be part of the reason [teams still run actions at him]. But I know one thing, it ain’t easy for no guard in this league to attack Bam.”

While not an elite rim protector, his defensive percentages in the restricted area hovering around league average this season, Adebayo is making traditional coverages work as an elite rim deterrent. Miami allows the fewest rim attempts in the league and 4.3 percent fewer with Adebayo on the floor – not to mention 3.5 percent fewer corner threes, the greatest differential of any player – a split which is neck-and-neck for No. 2 with Rudy Gobert. Miami’s scheme, one of the most aggressive in the league, plays a major role, all those arms and hands shrinking into driving lanes, but scheme alone accomplishes nothing and Adebayo typically gets less help than his teammates by design. Both Adebayo and the 7-foot-1 Gobert allow the same volume of combined rim and three-point frequency (about 22 percent of actions defended results in those attempts).

Just as there aren’t many players who can switch onto three, four or five ballhandlers in a single possession, there are just as few who can drop back into the paint, stop the ball and recover out to the arc or do the inverse, deter a deadly pull-up shooter and still push the action away from the rim. You can count on one hand the players who can do both.

Bam Plus One: Drop Coverage

“He can do a drop where it’s not just a full drop where guys can come at him downhill,” Spoelstra says. “He can make it look like it’s a little bit more of an aggressive coverage. That’s all necessary now with the way basketball is played.”

Is drop Adebayo’s best coverage? Hardly. Playing out of it so often is him being willing to be “vulnerable to the competition” as Spoelstra put it recently when describing Adebayo’s willingness to take on the Nikola Jokic full time even if doesn’t always cast him in a flattering light. The drop remains but one part of the package – 53.5 percent of his coverages have been drop, a career high and just three percentage points behind Gobert, where common comparison Draymond Green never topped 40 percent – and of the 33 players who have defended at least 1,000 screens in any coverage, Adebayo moves all the way up to No. 5 at 0.96 points allowed per action, his 0.83 mark when the ballhandler attacks in a dead heat with Gobert.

It's not that Adebayo has been the best drop player in the league, it’s that he’s remained one of the best pick-and-roll defenders in the league despite shifting to a coverage that should be the antithesis of his skillset. And that’s on top of him remaining a Top 5 isolation defender, 0.79 points-allowed-per against ballhandlers, No. 5 of 77 qualified players. Of the 136 isolations he’s defended this season, he’s only allowed seven rim attempts. Not to mention he’s allowing less than a point-per-possession in both closeout and drive situations, as the tracking data goes, Top 10 in each category.

“To be able to do drop, switch, trap and zone all in the same game and have the best numbers in all of those coverages, and one-on-one, that’s not normal,” Spoelstra says.

Adebayo’s wild card in the Defensive Player of the Year race is that he’s had to hold Miami’s defense – Top 10 and the equivalent of No. 2 in Defensive Rating when Adebayo is on the floor – together and keep it on the tracks like Spider-Man after fighting Doc Ock atop the elevated train. Miami is one of only four teams with just a single player over +1.0 in Defensive EPM (via dunksandthrees.com), and the other three are No. 20 (Chicago), 22 (San Antonio) and 28 (Charlotte) on the leaderboards. Miami has used a franchise-record 35 starting lineups, Adebayo’s two most used five-man lineups have combined for 194 minutes compared to 500+ for other Defensive Player of the Year favorites (some of whom have as many as five teammates over 1.0 in Def EPM) and he only has one defensive pick-and-roll combination (Caleb Martin) with whom he’s defended at least 200 screens this season. It’s one thing to change your primary coverage to accommodate an evolving roster, another entirely to not know who on that roster will be playing with you on any given night.

Your mileage may vary on On/Off numbers in general, but Miami’s halfcourt defense is 9.3 points per 100 better with Adebayo playing, per cleaningtheglass.com, double that of the other awards favorites and hot on the heels of the No. 1 big man in that differential, Brook Lopez at 9.6. Those differentials aren’t everything but lineups don’t exist in a vacuum, either. You’re playing with many of the same players who are also on the court when you aren’t, and fact of the matter is Miami’s halfcourt defense is the equivalent of No. 2 in the league with him, No. 27 without him, a similar effect occurring if you swap over to tracking data and isolate man-to-man possessions. Then in the zone, which Adebayo frequently captains from the backline, Miami is the equivalent to the No. 1 halfcourt defense with him in the zone, No. 30 without him.

If that’s not impact then the word has lost all meaning.

This could all be much more dramatic. Being the guy who shows up and does his job, no matter how much the job description changes, is a little boring. There’s no comeback story. No redemption arc. Adebayo and Spoelstra aren’t at odds, the player who could be fighting with his coach to stay in the style that doesn't play to his strengths instead adopting, in his words, an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude. Stories aren’t written about Godzilla so much as they’re written around him. A force a nature just is.

Besides, when the playoffs come around and everything slows down, the switch will always be there when it’s needed. Adebayo, Miami’s walking Room of Requirement, makes it all possible.