Coup's Notebook Vol. 11: Miami At 41, All-Star Cases For Butler, Herro, Lowry And The Two HEATS
The Miami HEAT are 26-15, No.3 in the Eastern Conference with the fifth-best Net Rating in the league at plus-4.8. In the past week they’ve beaten Phoenix and Atlanta, with a refreshing three-day break in between games. Here’s what we’ve been noting and noticing:
Now that we’re exactly 41 games into the season, this is the perfect opportunity to take stock of what has been a wild and eventful few months for both the team and the league at large.
Let’s go back in time to a handful of important dates.
Tuesday, Nov 2 – The HEAT are 6-1, having just beaten the Dallas Mavericks on the road. While new acquisition Kyle Lowry misses the lone loss in this stretch, on the road at Indiana, his impact on the team’s offense is immediately apparent with quick hit-ahead passes and a rejiggered approach that frees up Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo to hunt mismatches without such a great need for them to provide playmaking. They’ve beaten Milwaukee – a dominant 42-point win on opening night – Brooklyn and Memphis, and have a Net Rating of plus-16.4, tops in the league, along with a dominant Defensive Rating of 97.9. They projected to be a 50-win contender during the offseason, and they look it. The vibes are very good.
Wednesday, Nov 10 – The injury bug begins to bite. During a blowout loss at Denver Markeiff Morris and Nikola Jokic engage in extra-curricular activities that leaves Morris with a whiplash injury that keeps him out for the next 30 games and counting. Then tonight, against the Lakers, Jimmy Butler sprains his right ankle and is ruled out for the rest of the game. Miami drops four out of five games, but are about to beat the Utah Jazz – despite Utah’s three-point barrage down the stretch of each game – for the second time in a week.
Monday, Nov 29 – The entire makeup of the season changes. During a second loss to Denver, Adebayo tears the ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb and is ruled out for, at the time, 4-6 weeks, derailing what would have been a clear bid for his second invitation to the All-Star team. Meanwhile, Butler has taken a hard fall on his tailbone the previous win in Chicago, an injury that would cause him to miss 12-in-13 games.
Wednesday, Dec 8 – While Miami loses four in five as they deal with the absences of their two best players, the team rallies for one of the best regular season wins in franchise history, a 113-104 victory over the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. Caleb Martin, a revelation on a two-way contract and starting in place of Butler, has a career night, hitting 6-of-8 from deep as the team ties the franchise record for threes with 22, Max Strus hits another four threes off the bench and Lowry dishes out 13 assists. The player of the game, though, might be P.J. Tucker, whose defense holds Giannis Antetokounmpo to one of his worst games of the past few seasons, just 15 points on 4-of-13 shooting.
Wednesday, Dec 15 –After beating Milwaukee the HEAT springboard into a new style of play. While still emphasizing paint touches and attacks, the three-point rate skyrockets to the top of the league. You can take all the threes you want, you still need the players to hit them, and Gabe Vincent and Max Strus answer the call while Duncan Robinson gets out of an extended early-season slump to return to this 40 percent ways. In the final minute of a tie game at Philadelphia, Vincent hits the go-ahead three on his way to a career-high 26 points, a mark he would top two days later in Orlando as Strus sets his own career-high with 32 (on 8-of-11 shooting from deep). In that same game against Orlando, Udonis Haslem plays 11 minutes and scores eight points, having posted a seven-point third quarter against Detroit just before Christmas. Everyone has a contribution to make.
Friday, Dec 31 – The team runs off five wins in a row, losing both Dewayne Dedmon and P.J. Tucker to injury along the way as they keep on keeping on, with Omer Yurtseven thriving in rotation minutes, Lowry managing the offense with nightly assists in the double digits and Tyler Herro providing scoring punch off the bench that has at the front of the conversation for Sixth Man of the Year. Earlier this week, Miami begins a process that will have over half the roster enter health and safety protocols, which leads to a game at San Antonio being postponed. No matter, tonight they win in Houston, with Kyle Guy, one of six players signed to 10-day hardship contracts (along with old friend Mario Chalmers) as positive tests mount, exploding for a career-high 17 points (along with Haywood Highsmith tripling his career total of made threes, making three in one night).
Tuesday, Jan 4 – Erik Spoelstra wins Coach of the Month for December after Miami goes 10-5 despite over 80 games missed due to injury or health and safety protocols (including Victor Oladipo, who has yet to play but is working toward a return). The honor goes to Spoelstra, but it’s a team award after they set a franchise record for threes in a single month with 229 (tying the single-game record of 22 three times).
Saturday, Jan 8 – Still no Butler. Still no Adebayo. The HEAT go into Phoenix at the tail end of a five-game road trip – they’ve played as many or more road games than any other franchise, depending on the day you check – and beat the team with the best record in the Western Conference by 23. Lowry posts another 13 assists as Herro and Robinson (coming off the bench after a spell in protocols) combine for 60 points.
It’s impossible to hit everything without unspooling the endless papyrus roll, but these are the major touchstones. Perhaps the most important thing of all is that despite the incredibly low viscosity of the roster, they never lost more than three games in a row (one time) and only endured back-to-back losses on three other occasions. Put plainly, they kept playing, kept adapting to the challenge of the evening, and kept winning.
A STORY IN TWO WORDS: THEY’RE GOOD
Alright, so we know they more than survived all the road games and the injuries and protocols. That all leads to wins. But this is a team with championship aspirations, and the postseason is about more than your record. In what way, exactly, is this team good?
That’s a complicated question.
There are, essentially, two versions of the HEAT. There’s the version of them that opened the season on a tear, with all-world defense and a methodical, deliberate attack featuring Butler hunting mismatches wherever they could be created. Then there’s the shorthanded version that’s been playing largely without Butler and Adebayo, taking threes at one of the highest rates in history, with Lowry quarterbacking a spread offense as shooters combine for an elite attack while keeping big men involved as release valves, and the defense has still been Top 10, helped along by the undersized group taking charges at a rate that laps the competition.
They’re both good. Through December 2, before losing Adebayo, the HEAT were 13-9 with a plus-3.9 Net Rating. Since then, they are 13-6 – late December was probably the softest part of the schedule this year – with a plus-5.8 Net Rating. There’s no iteration of this team that hasn’t been effective in some way, and there’s no version of this team that doesn’t have significant victories over the league’s best teams under their belt.
It’s a bit of a misnomer to say the HEAT will have to choose between the two versions, just not in the way you might think. Sure, you can blend the successes of each. That’ll happen regardless, as there’s plenty of overlap in scheme and especially in philosophical priorities – protecting the paint on one end, working for efficient looks on the other. Spoelstra has shooters at his disposal, and he’s going to leverage them whether the attempt totals are 45 or 35. But the reason the HEAT don’t have to choose is that there’s no choice to make. The Butler and Adebayo HEAT are the team. That’s who they’re going to roll with, and for good reason. They’ve taken the team to the NBA Finals before, and what Spoelstra had that group building through the first month was an approach with the requisite versatility and flexibility to tackle the very different sport that is postseason basketball. The shorthanded HEAT, as entertaining as they are, are not built for grind-it-out, physical halfcourt possessions where your shooters are being pushed and held on every off-ball action.
Not to mention that the HEAT might get healthy right before we get a chance to see what the three-heavy style looks like when the shots aren’t falling at a historic, entertaining and largely unsustainable rate. Sometimes things are good for exactly when they’re good for, and even as things change you can still internalize the lessons learned and experience gained for personnel making the most of their opportunities.
Remember, there’s a third version coming. Eventually. When Oladipo returns, he’ll upset whatever rotation Spoelstra is working with at that point. It’ll be worth it. Oladipo is that talented. But it’ll be an adjustment they have yet to be faced with.
Rest assured, whoever is getting the minutes and the shots, this team has proven itself as the 50-win, at least, group we all thought they would be. They’ve just had to go about it in a way nobody could have predicted.
WHO GOES TO CLEVELAND?
This isn’t a question worth spending too much time on, but let’s run through the candidates for a minute.
Adebayo would have been in the conversation had he been healthy. He isn’t. There will be All-Star games in his future.
Tyler Herro is having an excellent season, giving the HEAT every bit of the boxing-glove-on-fire punch they need off the bench. But there’s plenty of depth at guard in the conference and his advanced metrics, as they tend to be for volume shooters, are not exemplary. Given that the HEAT’s representative will be chosen by the coaches, as opposed to being voted in as a starter, that matters.
Kyle Lowry has the opposite case to Herro. Good impact metrics, the No. 5 point guard in the league according to 538’s RAPTOR system, but his game-to-game numbers – 14 points, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 56 percent true-shooting – aren’t going to leap out at anybody from the page. Still, every coach loves him.
Jimmy Butler has everything. A great stat line – 23, 6, 5 on 60 percent true shooting – and impact metrics that are so good, for the second year in a row, he should be in the conversation for Most Valuable Player and not as a courtesy mention. The problem is he’s only played in 23 games, barely over half of his possible appearances. He can build up his game volume over the next month, but availability tends to matter for these things.
P.J. Tucker is not going to be an All-Star, but holy hell has he been good, shooting a career-best 47 percent from deep while holding the defense together and providing an unexpected playmaking punch.
So, who goes? The HEAT are one of the best teams in the league, and there’s no chance the coaches don’t reward them with a representative. If Butler plays enough over the next month, it’s probably still him. But if he turns his ankle again and misses another chunk, it’ll be between Herro and Lowry. In that situation, given the inclination of head coaches, the guess is Lowry.
But if we’re talking about who most deserves to represent the HEAT, which one person has had the greatest impact on the team’s winning record, given all the extenuating circumstances, there’s a very good argument that it’s Spoelstra. Miami’s gameplan approach playoff-caliber just about every night they play, every player is empowered in a clearly defined role, they haven’t missed a beat no matter who is or isn’t available, and the schemes are all exactly what you would want given the personnel. A coach can’t be an All-Star unless his team has the best record in the conference. He can deserve it all the same.
-According to 538’s projection system, the HEAT have a six percent chance of winning the title this season. That doesn’t mean they actually have a six percent chance, but it’s interesting as a measure for quality. Considering the HEAT were at one percent just a few weeks ago, it seems their recent success is being noticed by the algorithms.
-Tyler Herro’s 11 assists against Atlanta Wednesday night tied his career-high, but the eight before the break were his best for a first-half. They weren’t cheap, swing the ball to an open shooter assists, either. He was looking off defenders, forcing rotations with his gravity and his handle, and creating high-value opportunities. It’s not something the HEAT need from him every single night, depending on how he’s being covered, but his development in that area is one of the best things happening in a HEAT season with all sorts of great things happening.
-Last week, the HEAT got a 3-of-17 shooting game out of Steph Curry. A few days later, it was Chris Paul shooting just 3-of-9, following by Trae Young posting a 4-of-15 evening. Over the past few years Adebayo has been Spoelstra’s best weapon against elite point guards with his ability to blitz and switch out on the perimeter. So it’s eyebrow raising that Miami held those same elite guards to such poor shooting nights without him, hardly blitzing at all as they focused on protecting the paint.
-Omer Yurtseven had his 11-game streak of 12-plus rebounds snapped against Atlanta, but he still pulled down 10 so the streak is now 12-games of 10-plus, which is the second best for a rookie over the past decade, behind Karl Anthony-Towns, and fourth-best over the past 20 years, behind Blake Griffin, Emeka Okafor and Towns.