It’s the most quiet time of the year on the NBA calendar, but the Miami HEAT are already gearing up for the coming season and training camp begins in about a month. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing:
“WE’VE GOT UNIFORMS AND EVERYTHING, IT’S REALLY GREAT”
Each year it becomes more and more difficult to determine the shape of the Udonis Haslem discourse. Are some people actually upset at his return or are people upset at the idea of people being upset? Is anyone actually upset, or is everyone just a little bored because it’s August and there isn’t much else to talk about online? Good luck figuring it out, but at the very least people are saying things because that’s what people do. They say things.
So, without inventing a straw man against whom to argue, let’s say this: Haslem can come back as a player for as long as he wants. Let’s put aside for a moment everything he said last weekend about wanting to play for 20 years – which you’ve no doubt heard by now will put him in a very exclusive club among one-team players with Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant – and what that meant both to him and his late father. It’s a great story. It’s a touching story. It’s a story that matters. But you don’t need the story to explain why Haslem has his open-ended roster spot. He has it because he adds value, and you don’t push out people who add value especially when they’re one of the most beloved employees in the history of an organization. Doing so would be bad business, in sports or in any other industry.
Proving value is normally easy enough. Such and such player is among the best in the league in points-per-pick-and-roll. That guy holds opponents to below 0.9 points per possession whenever they try to isolate him. Every variation on adjusted plus-minus agrees that this guy is one of the most impactful offensive role players in the league. We don’t have such luxuries with Haslem, who hasn’t played more than 300 minutes since 2014-15 and no more than 100 minutes since 2016-17. He’s a player who doesn’t really play in games, and there’s no arguing that.
What we do have is years’ worth of testimonials, within the organization and without, espousing Haslem’s value. Young players he has helped to mentor. Older players who have battled with and against him. Coaches that love him or would love to have him in their locker room. Every season the HEAT’s player development program is in the news when the next Tyler Johnson or Duncan Robinson or Kendrick Nunn or Max Strus or Gabe Vincent or Omer Yurtseven – not to mention high draft picks like Bam Adebayo or Tyler Herro who show steady year-over-year progress – is surprising with a stretch of good play, and every year those players credit Haslem for helping to guide them to and through opportunity. You can’t credit the HEAT for one of their greatest strengths without crediting Haslem.
What do you think Jake Taylor’s OPS was in Major League? As a 38-year-old catcher – presumably, given that’s how old Tom Berenger was at the time – who was playing in Mexico with bad knees, was there any chance he was over .750? .700? Most of the time he’s seen hitting singles and barely reaching first, operating on guile and instinct and trickeration, and on the climatic play he bluffs his way into a bunt. For most of the movie he’s shown not as a lights-out player, but as a shepherd to an array of talent, either old, entitled and grumpy or young, naïve and wild. He guides them, he makes them better and they listen. When the forces working against them are revealed for what they are, he rallies the troops. In the second movie he eventually takes over as a coach and the relationship changes. Players, having tasted success and all that comes with it, don’t want to follow his orders. There’s a difference between ‘Hey, here’s some advice’ and ‘Hey, do this’. The team comes around because it’s a movie and the team has to come around, but there’s a clear line drawn between the veteran who is with you and the coach who is above you. There’s something in sharing the doing, even if it’s not done quite as easily as before.
Here is where we note that Haslem doesn’t even want to coach, and he’s on record saying that. The decision here isn’t between Haslem on a roster spot and Haslem on the staff. It’s between Haslem being around every day or not. The organization has clearly made that a question which answers itself.
This doesn’t have to be complicated. Haslem was very good at what he used to do, and he’s very good at what he does now. It’s a different kind of value. It’s still value. And value, even absent a great story or personal relationships or a shared history, deserves to get rewarded. Put everything else back into the equation, all the meaning and the respect, and there’s hardly a decision to make.
Udonis Haslem taking up one of the final spots on the roster isn’t going to be the reason the HEAT won’t win the championship this season, but he might be part of the reason that they do. He earns his keep, and then some.
THE SCHEDULE IS THE SCHEDULE
I’ve precious few thoughts about the schedule these days. That wasn’t always the case, when a schedule release meant sitting down and spending hours mapping out wins and losses all the way through the middle of April. Now, with how most teams approach the regular season as a marathon, the astronomical talent level across the board and the preponderance of three-point shooting, along with the accompanying variance, in everyone’s night-to-night strategy, it has become a fool’s errand to think you can analyze a schedule with any real clarity. While we have hopefully put some distance between us and the worst of the health and safety protocols, teams are still going to be shorthanded, of their own accord or otherwise, and 20-three nights are going to have everyone punching above or below their weight class regardless of opponent.
Time is better spent determining the quality of a team, exactly how good you think they’re going to be, rather than which games are Should Win or Should Lose.
Still, there are always interesting quirks particularly as it relates to distribution. Miami plays both Boston and Toronto three times each before December 3, so if either side is dealing with a significant injury or two during those early months our available matchup information going into a potential playoff series is going to be drastically limited. All games with the Warriors, Blazers and Kings are off the board by November 8, so you’d hope for peak availability in those games lest we’re robbed of interesting stylistic matchups – remember, this iteration of the Kings almost always plays Miami tight. The same goes for the Philadelphia 76ers, a team that figures to be in the mix at the top of the conference that Miami won’t play until February 27, while all four games against the Milwaukee Bucks are packed in between January 12 and February 24. Shorthanded games can still be exciting – Miami was missing half its team when it beat Milwaukee last December in one of the best games of the season – but it’s always nice to get at least a couple full-strength previews. At least the three games against Brooklyn are well spaced out over the course of three months.
Other than that, and the fact that the road trips are a little more spaced out this season than we’ve seen on occasion over the past five or six years, the schedule is the schedule. Everyone will have tough stretches on paper that wind up being easier than initially thought, and everyone will have easier stretches that looked like rough sledding in August. You get what you get. All that matters is your ultimate quality, your ability to build and consistently get to an identity, and how those factors play into seeding, homecourt or lack thereof and your eventual path to the NBA Finals.
FROM LUXURY TO NECESSITY
Caleb Martin was a luxury last season. There’s zero doubt about that. Producing positive two-way impact – in the 75th percentile or better for Estimated Plus/Minus according to DunksandThrees.com – in more than 1,300 minutes on what was initially a two-way contract is one of the greatest value propositions in the league. Similar to what Miami gets out of their undrafted players, it doesn’t get much better than finding rotation-caliber talent from the late-summer free agent market. Whether he needed to spot-star, play 30 minutes or 10 minutes, Martin was the definition of depth – the player Erik Spoelstra was always comfortable using but never needed to when his team was a full strength.
Now, with P.J. Tucker in Philadelphia and the only new player on the roster a 19-year-old rookie in Nikola Jović, Martin has become a need.
No position in the Adebayo and Jimmy Butler era has proven to be more important than power forward – where that pairing needs a floor spacer to thrive on offense and a capable switch defender to complete their scheme – in part because it’s the position that has been the most in flux. When they’ve had above-average production at that spot, and above-average is selling Tucker short for what was one of the better role player seasons in recent memory, they’ve been a legitimate contender.
Martin has shown he’s capable of above-average production, he just hasn’t done it as a regular, 25-minute player for a full season. It’s the same thing we talk about when it comes to someone like Tyler Herro trying to maintain his efficiency while shouldering a greater and greater offensive burden as the years go on. Can Martin be a 61.1 percent true-shooter over an additional 700 or so minutes as a regular starter? He wouldn’t even need to up his usage very much at all from 16 last year. Tucker made it work with an 11 percent usage rate and both he and Martin attempted fewer than six threes per 100 possessions. But both Tucker and Martin shot above 40 percent from three on those few attempts. Miami’s current makeup doesn’t require volume and efficiency. It probably does require one of those because you generally need one of those to draw the respect of opposing defenses.
Maybe Martin, who very well could maintain the gains he made as a shooter despite a slump in the postseason, could split the difference. Maybe his percentages drop off a few points as he takes a couple more spot-up shots a night, but his open-floor athleticism, creativity at a cutter and explosiveness around the rim makes up for the difference. There’s reason to believe Martin could be the most effective ghost cutter the HEAT have had in that roster slot. Teams should be forced to worry about him lest they concede higher value shots than they might intend.
He’s a good defender, too, if not as stout as you might typically see from a smallball-four. But again, different might be useful. Martin is good one-on-one and can hold up on switches at least 1-through-3 – more than that when opposing teams also downsize – while excelling at chasing smaller guards around, so maybe starting at the four doesn’t mean defending the four. Maybe he plays the four on offense while Butler takes on the forward duties depending on the matchups. That changes Butler’s burden, but not in the same way it would change if Miami started a weaker defender. Covering bigger players for a season is one thing, covering bigger players while also having to regularly cover for weak links in a switching defense is an entirely different matter.
Or maybe Martin stays on the bench, where he can most regularly be paired with Vincent, his Partner in Zone. Haywood Highsmith will have his say, and he may be the more traditional option if he proves himself capable (Summer League was a positive indicator on that front). Either way, Martin will figure heavily into how Miami goes about solving its forward rotation. He, and Highsmith and anyone else who proves capable of those minutes – including other centers – don’t have to replace Tucker. They just have to replace, and replicate, Tucker’s production. And do it in the aggregate.
If we draw a line from Tucker to the version of Jason Giambi that left Oakland for New York, Martin doesn’t need to hit 38 homers. He just needs to get on base.
-We’ll talk more about the starting lineup as we get closer to camp – a camp that will likely offer Spoelstra plenty of initial clarity on a direction to choose – but there are plenty of variations that makes sense. Having a low-usage, high-volume shooter like Robinson or Strus with the starters has always worked because those types of players always work next to star-level talent at least to some degree, but there’s also no reason Herro couldn’t earn his way into that spot if that’s how things play out. It’s the spacing for Butler and Adebayo that matters most, and with Victor Oladipo presumably coming off a strong, healthy offseason there is always going to be one elite shooter and one volume-creator available to stabilize the bench unit no matter what Spoelstra does. This may all just figure itself out before we see the team play a game.
-While it’s still August and that means things are slow – maybe slower than they’ve ever been given how much everyone in the league needed a break after the last three seasons were crammed up next to one another – HEAT players are quietly trickling in and out of FTX Arena each day for workouts.
-Former HEAT All-Star Tim Hardaway – whose No. 10 hangs in the rafters – is set to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on September 11. More on this later.
-If you missed it last week, Ruth Hunter was named Senior Director of Team Development after splitting time between the broadcast team and the front office last season. You won’t find a soul in the organization that has a negative thing to say about her, and she’ll surely make a positive impact in her new position. With Kristen Hewitt also stepping down from her decade-plus role as a courtside reporter, the broadcast team has two roles to fill before next season.