The Miami HEAT are 40-35, No. 7 in the Eastern Conference with a Net Rating of -1.0, No. 22 in the NBA. They have seven games remaining, with a back-to-back against the Toronto Raptors and New York Knicks looming this week. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.
THE CASE FOR BAM
Making the argument for Bam Adebayo to win Defensive Player of the Year last season was relatively easy. Aside from him being limited to 56 games due to a December hand injury – there was precedent, in Rudy Gobert, of a player winning the award with a reduced game total – it was as iron-clad a resume as anyone could possibly have. Adebayo put up what was likely the most prolific screen-switching season of all time and Miami’s defense was wildly good whenever Adebayo did switch. Had he not had that nagging games played issue, which some voters took more into account than others, he should have probably been a shoo-in for the award. As it was, he finished fourth in voting, behind Marcus Smart, Mikal Bridges and Rudy Gobert, with the third-most first-place votes.
This year things have changed, and Adebayo’s case has taken on a very different shape. In some ways, Adebayo has been a player in search of a scheme – a year ago Miami had the personnel to switch just about any action, but now they’ve had to mix and match even if it means taking Adebayo away from the thing he does best.
“Sometimes whatever you plan on coming out of training camp might not be what actually makes the most sense once you start getting into competition,” Erik Spoelstra said. “As teams have tried to scheme against that, keep him on the perimeter, keep him away from the rim, we have to pick our spots.”
What Spoelstra is referring to is what Devin Booker and Damian Lillard did earlier this season, pulling Adebayo out of the paint on the switch and then quickly getting off the ball to effectively let their teams play four-on-four against a smaller Miami look. Not every team could pull it off since you needed multiple high-level ballhandlers to do so, but it was clear that teams had thought of counters. Spoelstra has always wanted his defense to be one that dictates the terms of engagement no matter how aggressive they need to be. Through the first month or so of the season, teams were using Adebayo’s own strengths against him. Which isn’t to say Adebayo wasn’t doing his job, only that Miami was no longer as well equipped to handle those counters.
So what this season has been about, then, is about Adebayo adding to the breadth of his coverages. He’s still switched the second-most screens of any big man and been effective when doing so – his tracking numbers look worse than they are because of how effective teams have been when they pass out of the matchup after drawing Adebayo, 1.38 points per screen on assist opportunities out of Adebayo switches versus 0.94 when they attack Adebayo – but he’s had to do so much more just switch.
Fortunately for Miami, he’s pretty good at anything he does.
Last year Adebayo ran drop coverage on just 8.4 screens per 100 possessions, a miniscule amount for any starting center. For comparison, Joel Embiid was in drop in 27.6 screens per 100 last year and Brook Lopez is in that coverage over 28 times per 100 this year. This year Adebayo’s drop rate is up to nearly 11 screens per 100, an increase of more than 200 screens defended in that coverage overall.
And guess what? Of the 34 centers who have defended at least 500 screens in drop coverage this season, Adebayo is No. 4 allowing just 0.92 points per screen. If you remove assist opportunities, ballhandlers are scoring just 0.81 points per screen when they attack Adebayo in a drop – only Kristaps Porzingis and Anthony Davis are ahead of him.
What about ICE coverage, which is effectively drop coverage for side pick-and-rolls where the ball is pushed towards the baseline? Of the 61 big men who have defended at least 100 screens in ICE, Adebayo is No. 2 allowing 0.84 points per screen. When ballhandlers attack in those situations, they’re producing just 0.76 points per screen.
Then there’s blitzing, which the HEAT used to use more than anyone but now hardly anyone uses it at all. Adebayo has blitzed 69 screens this season, and teams have scored just 0.72 points per in those situations – No. 1 among the 24 big men who have blitzed at least 50 times.
Of course there’s also zone, which Miami has employed for 1,197 possessions this season – easily the most of any team on record. About two third of those possessions have come with Adebayo on the court, and Miami’s 1.08 Defensive Rating in those minutes would rank No. 2 among all teams when it comes to half-court defense. Adebayo isn’t a space eater in the heart of the zone, but the team leverages his mobility, pressuring the ball up top and relying on Adebayo’s side-to-side quickness to track the ball as teams hunt for the seams.
Lastly, there’s straight up isolations however they come about. While teams have been far more selective about when to attack Adebayo – aside from the younger guards who have yet to learn The Lesson – but he’s still allowed just 0.88 points per when the ballhandler attacks him, good for No. 16 among the 84 players who have defended at least 100 isolations. Not quite the all-timer season he had on an island last year, but still plenty good across a small enough sample size that a few tough Julius Randle numbers will affects your overall marks.
Put it all together and Adebayo has still been an elite switch defender – especially when you remove possessions where teams move the ball away from him – and has essentially defended at a Top 5 rate in every other coverage imaginable.
And he’s done it all while playing the 11th most minutes in the league at 2,464 – about 300 more than Brook Lopez and about 850 more than Jaren Jackson Jr., the two players ahead of Adebayo in DPOY betting odds.
Is it all going to be enough? Tough to say. It hasn’t appeared as though there is much momentum behind Adebayo in the conversation, but on closer inspection voters may look at the fact that Jackson Jr.’s minutes are going to be at or around where Adebayo finished last season, and that Lopez has another DPOY candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo next to him, and Adebayo’s feats in holding together Miami’s defense when they haven’t had much of a foundational night-to-night approach – they’ve even shifted toward more show-and-recover coverages since adding Kevin Love to the starting lineup – might start to separate him from the pack.
Does it help that Miami is down to No. 9 in overall defensive rankings? No, but with Adebayo on the court they’ve defended at a Top 5 rate at minimum.
This hasn’t been the HEAT’s best defensive season. That much is clear. It’s been a drop from last year, and they haven’t been a part of the national conversation for most of the year due to overall performance. That’s just how it is – but none of that should be disqualifying for Adebayo, who has fought through counters to his best coverage and played in more styles than anyone else.
He might not be the only choice, but he’d be a right one all the same. There just happens to be multiple right choices for this award every year, and it all depends on what voters are drawn to most.
The only other award that Miami is likely in the running for – aside from All-NBA, which we addressed recently with regards to Jimmy Butler, and All-Defense, which Adebayo and Butler are up for every year – is the Clutch Player of the Year trophy that is new on the scene. Because it’s new we don’t have a great sense of what voters are going to value and prioritize in their evaluations. That being said, it’s not a particularly complicated one – clutch minutes are clearly defined and the statistics within those limits are regularly accessible to the public. Which is why De’Aaron Fox and his 185 total clutch points this season is likely the frontrunner.
Butler’s case is that he’s right behind Fox, and DeMar DeRozan, with 145 clutch points, with Miami also a +30 in those minutes. Butler has played far more clutch minutes than Fox because the HEAT have played far more clutch minutes than anyone, which means on a per game basis his numbers won’t stand out quite as much, but voters may gravitate towards volume in the end.
There’s also the chance they could learn towards the smallest of sample sizes, too – the game winners. Nobody has hit more go-ahead jumpers in the final minute of the fourth quarter or overtime this season than Tyler Herro’s seven, and only Chris Paul (8) has hit more in a single season since 1996.
We’ll see. Whatever numbers voters choose to put a premium on, the HEAT have a viable candidate in either direction. But the hunch for now is that Fox takes this one.
-Before the All-Star break, the HEAT were forcing turnovers on 16.7 percent of opponent possessions, second most in the league. Since All-Star, that number is down to 14.6 – still a Top 10 rate but a far cry from the nearly all-time rate that was sustaining them on both ends of the floor. When Jimmy Butler or Adebayo are off the floor since All-Star, opponent turnover percentage drops before 14.
-On a related note, Miami’s non-turnover defense – only looking at possessions where the other team takes a shot or draws a foul – since All-Star is No. 25 in the NBA. Their half-court man-to-man defense overall is No. 23 since All-Star.
-The HEAT are allowing opposing teams to take 11.3 corner threes per 100 possessions this season, the 11th highest mark for a defense in the past 10 years. That’s not as bad as it sounds considering the rate at which threes have escalated over that decade, with all of the 20 highest corner-three rates coming since 2019-20 – including two other seasons from Miami. This team has generally prioritized limiting the most damaging shot in the game – deep paint attempts – at the cost of allowing the second most dangerous shot. Since All-Star they’re allowing 12.4 corner-three attempts per 100.
-They’re still sitting at 39 games decided by five points or less, two away from tying the all-time record. It’s only appropriate that the clutch record comes down to the final two weeks of the season.