featured-image

Coup’s Notebook Vol. 68: On Looking In The Mirror, Doing What’s Required And Late-Clock Magnets

The Miami HEAT are 26-24, No. 8 in the Eastern Conference with a Net Rating of -0.9, No. 19 in the league. They ended their seven-game losing streak on Wednesday and are about to open a home back-to-back against Orlando and San Antonio beginning Tuesday before welcoming the Boston Celtics back to town on Sunday. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing.

WHAT IT MEANS

When you’ve been working for a team for long enough, a team that takes such pride in a culture, people will inevitably ask you exactly what that culture is, what it stands for.

The word that always comes to mind before anything else is accountability.

After factoring into the rotation for most of the season when healthy, Josh Richardson found himself sitting on the bench when the team went to New York last weekend with the team mostly healthy for the first time this season. He would never come off it.

When Duncan Robinson exited the next game, against Phoenix, Richardson turned in a fine performance, 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting and a plus-seven. Then, the breakout, 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting, including 6-of-10 from three, to help end Miami’s seven-game losing streak in a nine-point win over Sacramento.

Afterwards, this is what Richardson had to say about temporarily losing his minutes.

“It’s never easy. It’s hard. We’ve got a lot of guys that can play and contribute. I really had to go home and think, figure it out, ‘What do I have to do better to get minutes? How can I help this team win games?’ Just change my mindset to straight defensive, gritty, dirty plays and let the rest fall where it may.”

There’s more to it than that, but you want an example of what the team considers to be a player who fits into their culture, that’s it. Yes, you must be willing to work, you have to play hard, you have to have thick skin and a competitive drive. All of that. But you also need a little self-awareness, the capacity to see yourself and the way you’re playing the way the team sees you and the way you’re playing. Players who aren’t accountable to their own play, those who look for others to blame rather than seeking solutions, they don’t last very long.

Yeah, it all sounds like something you might read in a self-help book, but it’s the truth. Richardson hasn’t been defending to his standards this season, his Defensive Estimated Plus Minus of -1.3 marking the first time in his career he’s fallen into negative numbers, and he knew it. Flying his trainer out from California for some shooting help doesn’t hurt, but the way into Erik Spoelstra’s rotation is consistent defense.

Caleb Martin was in a similar boat. Martin didn’t begin the year healthy, missing ten games with a knee injury after the season opener against Detroit, and while his offensive numbers have recovered of late the defense had yet to consistently reach his own standards. Martin has been a positive defender in each of his two seasons in Miami, +1.0 or better in Defensive Estimated Plus Minus, and this season he’s been in the negatives like Richardson. So, after Miami lost their seventh straight to Phoenix last Monday and the team held a lengthy film session which reportedly involved some very open and honest discussion amongst the team, Martin looked at himself.

“What bothers me is I look back on tape and I haven’t been my best self on the defensive end either. “I’ve got to get back to getting stops and taking accountability on things that I should be getting better at and doing things that I get paid to do. Get better at that aspect and bring a different type of attention to detail towards that. And be the spark guy I need to be. That’s part of our identity that that stuff doesn’t happen. When it does teams feel comfortable, and I don’t think I’m being felt as much as I should be on that end.”

Neither Martin nor Richardson are entirely responsible for Miami’s defense not feeling quite as stout as it has in past years. They’re a part of it, yes, but no two players can take responsibility for the HEAT allowing 1.08 points-per-drive this season, one of the lowest marks among hopeful playoff teams trailing only Indiana, Sacramento, Dallas and Atlanta. They’re just two players who have spoken about needing to improve lately, which is fitting because over the past few games they’re two players who may have improved the most. For the past couple years Martin has been at the head of the snake of Miami’s zone defense, paired most often with Gabe Vincent up top of the coverage in an alignment that would give opposing guards and wings fits. When Vincent signed with the Los Angeles Lakers, Richardson seemed the most likely candidate to take his place in the zone.

Results have been mixed. Miami is allowing 1.16 points per possession in zone this season – 1.12 in halfcourt man-to-man looks – and 1.17 specifically with Martin and Richardson on the floor together. Hence the introspection. But over the past three games that number is down to 1.07, with the Washington Wizards on Friday turning in the single least efficient game against zone defense of any team this season when facing at least 25 possessions of it. That doesn’t even include the press part of the zone, which drags out opponent possessions while occasionally induces helpful turnovers like this one:

Notebook 68: Caleb Backcourt Steal

The Clippers found plenty of efficiency against the zone on Sunday just as they did in early January, but they did it over the top with shooting and hardly anyone is going to blame the coverage for James Harden or Kawhi Leonard hitting tough, contested threes.

Most of the focus is going to be on Miami’s Offensive Rating falling to No. 23 after a rough stretch the past few weeks, but being close to an average team is not the HEAT’s path to success. You’re going to deal with the make or miss of it all on the scoring side of things all season, but when it comes to controlling what you can control nowhere is that more possible than on defense. That’s where the accountability matters, and over the last three games Miami has allowed just 106.5 points per 100, including 109.6 to the Clippers despite them shooting over 40 percent from three. The trend, for now, is up.

“A lot better,” Bam Adebayo said of the recent defense. “Just because we figured out how to get on the same on defense.”

“There’s a lot more connectivity,” Spoelstra said. “Our guys are really committed to doing some tough things in this league.

“It’s three straight games holding teams ten plus points under their average and you’re only doing that if you’re really rallying around each other, rallying around multiple efforts, rallying around doing tough things defensively. That’s our identity and that’s how we’re going to try and win games right now while we’re getting everybody in a rhythm and figuring out what the best plan is offensively.”

ONCE MORE WITH FEELING

If you’ve been following along over the years, you’re more than familiar with the fact that Adebayo is one of the best one-on-one defenders in the league. If you remove assist opportunities from the equation, Adebayo is allowing just 0.72 points-per-possession, No. 3 in the league among 74 players with at least 70 isolations defended. Pretty good, but that’s Adebayo.

What still goes under the radar with him is just how differently he’s defending in order to best match skillsets with his teammates. Two seasons ago, in 2021-22, Adebayo was in drop coverage against 8.5 screens per 100 possessions. That went up to 11 per 100 last season and now it’s at 18.8 per 100, almost exactly half of Adebayo’s defensive repetitions in pick-and-roll, and he’s allowing 0.88 points-per when factoring out assist opportunities, No. 9 of the 22 players who have played at least 200 possessions of drop coverage and ahead of players like Brook Lopez and Victor Wembanyama. Height isn’t everything, but Adebayo is only 6-foot-9 – it makes a difference up against all the seven footers in the league, especially in a coverage that is all about shutting down anything going to the rim. Adebayo’s super power is switching onto smaller players and blowing up opposing actions, but he’s adapted to what the team needs.

On a related note, Adebayo was just selected for his third All-Star appearance – that resumé is creeping closer and closer to Hall of Fame status when you factor in all his All-Defensive nods – and is averaging 20.4 points, 10.7 rebounds, 4.1 assists, one steal and one block a game. Throughout NBA history, at least as far back as all those stats were recorded, the only players to average those numbers for a season at 6-foot-9 or shorter are Larry Bird, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Bob McAdoo and Dave Cowens. All those guys are in the Hall of Fame, too.

HOT POTATO

The other day on the socials we had a brief but interesting interaction that ultimately offered a bit of insight into how far we’ve come on the statistics side of things.

If it looks like Bam Adebayo has taken a ton of shots right up against the shot clock this season, forced to take a jumper in the tiniest sliver of open window available to him, that’s because he has. In the true mid-range zones, all two-pointers outside of the paint, only Joel Embiid (62) has taken more shots inside of five seconds on the shot clock than Adebayo (53), which means Adebayo has taken more last-second mid-range jumpers than Kevin Durant, DeMar DeRozan, Brandon Ingram, Devin Booker and anyone else you can think of. If you add in the upper paint – non-restricted area paint – then the only player who jumpers ahead of Adebayo (80) is Jokic (85) just behind Embiid (87).

In other words, only the last two Most Valuable Player award winners have taken more end-of-clock shots away from the rim and inside the arc.

We characterized these shots as bailout shots because that’s generally what they are. A team can earn a good catch-and-shoot three at the end of the shot clock by working their offense the right way for long enough, but few teams are seeking out two-point jumpers as a primary function of their process. Those are generally star shots, shots that need to be created when nothing else has been made. Adebayo has more often than not been that guy for Miami’s half-court offense.

Now, the response from some was that Adebayo just holds the ball too long in the post or when he gets an upper paint catch, the reason he ends up taking late-clock attempts being that he takes a long time to make his move or attempting to pump fake a defender into the air. There’s a small kernel of truth to that, only in the sense that Adebayo will sometimes work the possession as long as necessary to create a shot in the right moment.

Fifteen years ago, any further discussion would have either been largely theoretical or required a good deal of film work and manual logging to prove a point. With tracking data, however, it takes mere moments to look up and point out that Adebayo (32) also leads the league in true mid-range touches in the final five seconds of the shot clock, meaning he doesn’t even get the ball until time is short. Throw in the upper paint and he’s just barely fourth behind Alperen Sengun, Jokic and Julius Randle.

Is Adebayo the quickest player when it comes to creating his own shots? Hardly. But that’s not so much the issue here, where Adebayo’s function as a escape half for Miami’s half-court offense is at play. When the shooters are being run off the line and the paint is packed against Butler’s drives, Adebayo is the glass you break in case of emergency, the target you find when the ball needs getting in the right direction.

And here’s where that role can have a drain on your efficiency. When Adebayo gets a two-point touch (961 of them) away from the restricted area in the first 19 seconds of the shot clock, he produced 1.12 points-per-possession. In those last five seconds? His efficiency created drops to 0.59. Such is life when you’ve earned the right to shoulder the burden at the end of time.

TIDBITS

-After their win over the Kings, the Heat are now 20-1 over the past five seasons, playoffs included, when shooting .450 or better from three while their opponent shoots .300 or worse. NBA teams are 389-20 in those games during that span (.951 Win Rate).

-Adebayo had a pair of converted lobs in each of the Sacramento and Minnesota games, tied for the second-most he’s had in a game this season behind three against Phoenix in early January. Adebayo’s record for lobs is five, in a game against Oklahoma City in January of 2021.

-Jimmy Butler is currently shooting 44 percent from three on over two attempts per game. If he finishes the season with those numbers or better, he’ll be just the eleventh player in the history of the league to do so at 34 years or older – and the first to do so without ever having shot 40 percent in a season before. Butler’s aggression with his three-point shot is impossible to predict, always ticking up in the postseason, though he has shifted almost entirely to a standstill, no-jump form outside of late-game situations where he needs to create a tough shot. Amusingly, Butler is shooting 62.5 percent from three in first quarters, albeit on less than an attempt per game.

-For as much as Miami’s offense has struggled at times of late, their halfcourt points-per-play – per cleaningtheglass.com – ranking currently sits No. 5 at 99.2. Their issues in transition have hurt the overall record, but the halfcourt is what matters most come postseason time.

-The HEAT have the third-lowest opponent Shot Quality in the league on threes at 54.3 expected effective field-goal percentage, and teams are shooting just 0.81 percentage points above expectations. On the other side of things, they’re No. 29 in their own expected value on threes at 53.96 expected, and they’re shooting 2.06 percentage points above that mark. All more or less in line with previous seasons.