It began with Steph Curry.
In the early stages of his rookie season, Bam Adebayo wasn’t playing all that much. A few spot starts here filling in for injured starters, a handful of games with single-digit minutes there. In nine of his first 19 games, he was active and available and didn’t even step on the court.
A performance against Cleveland at the end of his first November raised an eyebrow or two, not because he shot 7-of-7 from the field but because LeBron James tried to work him on a switch and wound up with nothing but a hoisted fadeaway. Two games later, the real magic happened. The Warriors were in town – the Kevin Durant iteration of the Warriors that may be the best team ever assembled – and they crushed the HEAT, 123-95. Nobody in Miami would remember the score. All anyone wanted to talk about was one possession. Curry drew Adebayo on a switch. He dribbled this way. He dribbled that way. He put on all the moves, and as each one failed a murmur grew in the crowd.
All Curry could do was give up the ball. Adebayo’s reputation had a foundation.
Like a great shooter who still gets a little too much space from his defender, that budding reputation didn’t have enough of a resumé to come with respect – for lack of a better word. Over and over again, guards and wings would pull Adebayo out of a pick-and-roll. Over and over again, they would try him. In their eyes, they would see an advantage the same as any other center.
Over and over, players had to learn their lesson. Adebayo is not, and never was, a mismatch. It didn’t matter if you were an All-Star or not.
Now in his sixth season, with three consecutive Second Team All-Defense placements and multiple deep playoff runs on the books, it seems the entire league has finally caught on to Adebayo’s curriculum.
“Obviously, dudes have pride so they’re going to try it,” Adebayo says. “But more often than not, dudes don’t go at me no more. I feel like I’ve earned that respect from everybody in the league, all 30 teams.”
In Adebayo’s first year, he defended 3.2 isolations per 100 possessions according to Second Spectrum. As his role grew – he wasn’t the full-time starter until Jimmy Butler joined the team in 2019 – and Erik Spoelstra built his defensive system around Adebayo’s switching talents, so did that number. Over the past three seasons, Adebayo faced 5.1 isolations per 100. Nobody dealt with more sheer volume, as Adebayo defended 793 such possessions, nor did anyone do it better, with Adebayo’s 0.81 points-allowed per-isolation standing No. 1 among the 67 who faced at least 400.
Adebayo not only had a case as the best and most versatile one-on-one defender in the league, he was also tested more often than anyone else. We aren’t talking just about switches here, which he and the HEAT have been among the league leaders in. Isolations aren’t logged unless a player actively tries to attack the matchup.
Through 14 games this season, care to guess how many isolations Adebayo has defended?
And that's including assist opportunities. Without those, you can halve that number. Less than one per game. After peaking at 5.8 isolations per 100 last season, that number is down to 1.8. Teams are finally, the running theory goes, aggressively avoiding him.
“I’m sure they probably are,” Spoelstra says. “That’s irresponsible if you’re not going through the scouting report. If you’re just going into a game and going through your normal stuff and he ends up on a guy who has an opportunity to make a play and you’re not really giving it a lot of thought, that’s probably not responsible. That’s the ultimate respect. It’s like those great defensive backs or a linebacker. You’re going somewhere else.
“That’s been a hard-earned reputation.”
There is a percentage of this Adebayo Avoidance Protocol that has to do with Spoelstra moving the dials on his defensive coverages, but we’ll get to that in a minute. First, how are teams doing it? This isn’t some small sample size glitch. It’s not a mistake. It’s something the team is feeling in real time. A clear evasive tactic.
“That’s what I would try to do,” Butler says. “I think that’s what they’re doing.”
Teams have seen enough film to know that standing your ground against Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees isn’t often a sound strategy for reaching the end credits.
What Phoenix did earlier this week is something that started happening more often as the previous season wore on. Devin Booker would draw Adebayo on a switch and, upon seeing his new matchup, immediately get off the ball. He wouldn’t just pass off and reset and signal to initiate another trigger. Booker would retreat to another planet from his teammates like he just pulled a heist on Aldhani. In effect, Booker would turn Miami’s defense into a temporary box-and-one, taking his own team’s best playmaker – in a game without Chris Paul – and his opponent’s best defender out of the fight to let Phoenix play four-on-four.
Who is this a win for? From the Suns’ perspective, Deandre Ayton represents the clear and present danger when you can pull the opposing center out of the paint. Teams come into games against Miami knowing the HEAT are running smaller lineups. With the right spacing a four-on-four situation means a cleaner entry pass to their interior threat.
For Miami, it’s simple. The best scorer on the other team is out of the play.
“It’s still not easy, but that’s a better option to go ahead and ice a guy like [Booker] out so he doesn’t get going,” Caleb Martin said. “Anytime you can get the ball out of his hands and make other people do the work, that’s always a plus.”
“I feel like Booker is that bloodline,” Adebayo says of his fellow Kentucky alum. “If Book is willing to go sit in the corner and not fight for the ball, and they have to play four-on-four without [him] . . . I feel that’s a battle you won.”
Phoenix was on the winning side of that equation more often than not, scoring 114.7 points per 100 possessions against Miami when Adebayo was on the court – still the lowest Defensive Rating for any HEAT player that night, as has become typical – as they found non-Booker points in those four-on-four skirmishes. But they’re not the only team employing this strategy. Here’s Damian Lillard doing the exact same thing earlier in the homestand. That time, Portland wasn’t targeting a height-advantage in the middle of the floor. They were simply going away from Adebayo.
Situations like these don’t happen on every possession, but they’re also just one of the ways teams are taking a sharp right turn at the possibility of Adebayo being involved in a one-on-one. The other way isn’t complicated. Just don’t call up Adebayo’s man for a screen.
Here are two freeze-frames from an early game against Boston – a team that has been ahead of the curve for years when it comes to respecting Adebayo’s on-ball skills, using just 2.4 isolations per 100 in the Eastern Conference Finals last year. Without Robert Williams, the Celtics were playing mostly small lineups. Adebayo is defending Al Horford, as you would expect. But where is Horford?
“They put me in the short corner when it’s possible,” Adebayo said. “But I still get to be low man so I’m still in the play. They can’t do anything where I can’t impact the game on that end.”
We know this is on the scouting report because we can quantify it. Horford typically sets 22.8 picks per 100 possessions. With Adebayo on him in that game, that number dropped to 14.5. Ayton’s screens dropped from 65 per 100 to 55 with Adebayo on him. Nikola Vucevic from 40 to 24.6 per 100. Jusuf Nurkic. Draymond Green. Myles Turner. Mason Plumlee. Pascal Siakam. All their screen rates dropped when Adebayo is attached to the play.
We also know this is happening because, amusingly, you can see teams micro-managing the situation in real time. Watch here as Ayton instinctively goes to screen for Booker before reminding himself to take Adebayo down to the dunker spot.
Or these two plays, with Lillard waving Nurkic off on one and Josh Hart telling Jerami Grant to get Adebayo out of the action on another.
Finally, there’s the nasty little subject of transition. While Miami has cleaned up its effectiveness defending in the open floor, the top-three frequency at which teams are acquiring fast-break opportunities against them – especially off rebounds – is leading to regular cross matches. If Adebayo has to pick up a shooter in transition there may not be an opportunity all possession to get him back into the action. Smart teams don’t afford him chances to scram-switch on the backline if they can help it.
Of course teams aren’t doing all this just to do it. There’s a purpose, and that’s to call for screens elsewhere to try and draw out more favorable matchups with small-small screens. And as teams have altered their approach to Miami’s anchor, Spoelstra has had to make changes on the HEAT’s side of things.
“We want to continue to be able to maximize his strengths as teams now are trying to maximize going away from his strengths,” Spoelstra said after beating Charlotte.
“That’s basically been the gameplan probably since the last third of last season and into this season, that’s why we’ve probably had to adjust some things,” he added after beating Phoenix.
The changes haven’t been so dramatic as Spoelstra implementing an entirely new system. The HEAT still know who they are and what they want to prioritize. They pinch off driving lanes. They limit paint touches. They give up threes at cost in order to accomplish their goals. And yes, they still switch plenty. Only three teams, Brooklyn, Boston and Orlando, are switching more than Miami this season. Only two players, Nic Claxton and Wendell Carter Jr., have switched more screens than Adebayo. But both the team and Adebayo are down about five switches per 100 possessions from last season, and it’s in that decrease where we’re seeing variations on the menu for Team Kitchen Sink.
There’s more drop coverage, especially of late. Adebayo played drop plenty – about 15 screens per 100 possessions – back in the 2019-20 season when starting alongside Meyers Leonard. He’s been well above that lately, if slightly lower on the season. Even their drop, traditionally as conservative as you can play a screen-roll, has that HEAT edge to it with how they’ll stunt a third player in to get the attacker to pick up the ball.
“We’re trying new schemes with him, keeping him on bigs,” Strus said. “He’s done a great job with it. He likes to switch, we all like him to switch, but we’re trying to make him do different things and it’s been helping our defense. Allowing our guards to be even more physical on the ball and allowing him to keep him matchup and he’s been exceptional.”
There’s also more zone, something he’s also done in the past – one of Spoelstra’s first forays into zone was with Adebayo and Josh Richardson coming off the bench – but not as much recently. Last year Miami played just 4.7 percent of their possessions in zone with Adebayo on the floor. Now that percentage is up to 15.3 as Miami is on pace to play more zone than any team in the past 10 years.
“It’s such a different coverage for me now because since my second year in the league I’ve been switching,” Adebayo said.
“Zone keeps him away from isolations and guarding certain guys and certain positions,” Caleb Martin said. “I know Bam wants to take that challenge and guard everybody every single time but it’s also good for us when we keep him fresh in those type of scenarios.”
In the past zone helped to buy them time while Adebayo rested. The proverbial change of pace. Now it’s fully integrated into the 48-minute arsenal. Adebayo is the pace setter.
Both coverages accomplish similar goals. They keep Miami’s more vulnerable defenders away from bad matchups. They keep Adebayo in the fray, preventing teams from moving him around the chess board of their own accord. As he stays home he can better aid the rebounding effort. Each night, something different is required. Adebayo has some wiggle room to make calls on the fly.
“He’s an absolute swiss army knife defensively,” Spoelstra says. “We can literally do whatever scheme, pick-and-roll wise or man-to-man, zone or switch. Everything. If you’re in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, you should be able to do all of those things. I don’t think all the guys in the conversation can do all of those things. This team is a little bit different so we have to do some different things but you have to have a guy like Bam that can be an anchor and have that absolute versatility – where we can adjust and tweak things as the season goes on based on what we need to do and what’s working for us, not necessarily what we planned on doing.”
Miami isn’t asking Adebayo to do anything he hasn’t done before, but he is being asked to throw less triple-digit gas and instead lean on his most diverse pitch mix in years.
“We’re doing a lot of different things this year,” Kyle Lowry said. “It’s incredible to watch a guy like that be able to adapt and adjust and take pride in not being a certain kind of one-way player on the defensive end. He can switch, he can drop, he can show, he can do all the things.”
It’s working, too. And then some. With Adebayo on the court Miami has a Defensive Rating of 106.6 – that would rank No. 2 in the league. Among all players who have played at least 250 minutes, no center has a better Defensive Rating differential than Adebayo’s plus-16.3. The defensive rebounding has fluctuated between above average and excellent when Adebayo plays, and he leads the lead in defensive box outs. It doesn’t always look as clean as last season when Miami’s switching would suck the air out of opponent possessions and have them staring down the end of the shot clock. This year it’s been function over form, diversity over specialization.
“We’ve been trying to just throw curveballs at people and keep them guessing,” Gabe Vincent said.
There are some drawbacks. Adebayo is many things, but he isn’t a wild-eyed, eight-foot-tall maniac asking attackers if they’ve paid their dues in the restricted area. He’s defending 3.7 shots at the rim per game – so are Martin and Lowry – and he’s allowing 67.3 shooting at the cup after 64.1 percent last season. Teams rarely get half-court rim attempts when he’s in the game as he can use his agility to meet the ball in higher, more inefficient two-point zones. But a stationary Adebayo near the rim letting the action come to him is not often his best self. He’s the tip of the spear, not a wall.
If you’re thinking this sounds a bit like a Chicken or Egg scenario as it relates to the one-on-one battles in question, that’s fair. Is Adebayo getting fewer on-an-island duels because teams are avoiding him, or is it happening because the HEAT are switching less? Some of that has to do with Adebayo and some doesn’t – more traditional pick-and-roll coverages sometimes plays into the strengths of someone like Martin, who excels at chasing smaller guards around – so there’s no easy answer. It’s probably both, anyway. Teams started exorcising their demons when it came to their Adebayo process last season. That forced some adjustments from the HEAT. Now the roster is different and switching isn’t the answer to every question on the test. More changes result from that.
Miami will continue to evolve as they sort out their defense, currently ranked No. 18 overall and just as close to No. 27 and they are to No. 9. Their coverage diet may look different a few months from now, or it might not. Spoelstra has always been willing to use the entire toolkit – there are plenty of blitzes and shows and doubles lurking in Miami’s profile – and each coverage can be distorted to fit their goals.
The league might have changed for good. Adebayo might never come close to being a leader in raw isolations defended just as Max Strus and Duncan Robinson were never defended the same once teams gave them the respect of deadeye shooters. The scout is out, and the scout doesn’t change on a whim.
That’s respect. Respect Adebayo started earning all those years ago, when it was just him and Curry on an island for a few fleeting moments in time. Respect that continued to proliferate to where we are today, when Adebayo can survey the breadth of his domain and smile, for there are no more lessons to teach.
“You’re not going to go into the game making the game tougher,” Martin said. “You’re going to avoid Bam.”
“People are way more on notice.”