Hold The Fort: How The HEAT Can Approach Life Without Bam Adebayo

P.J. Tucker, Bam Adebayo, Dewayne Dedmon
by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

The Miami HEAT were dealt a tough hand on Wednesday, and your first thoughts always go to the person. Bam Adebayo is going to have the game he’s built his life on taken away from him for an undefined amount of time – he said 4-6 weeks – with a torn right thumb ligament in the middle of a season where he was, is, trying to lead a team to championship contention.

“It was rough,” Adebayo said about learning the update. “This is my first major injury in my NBA career, so definitely one of those things where I didn’t expect that.

“I’m not the type of person to put out negative energy. I try to always think positive. Today was a downer. Four-to-six weeks. Can’t change nothing about it. That’s my only option.”

As for the basketball side of things, the HEAT don’t have the luxury of time to feel sorry for themselves. They’re the last people you would expect to do so, anyway. Injuries happen. Sometimes you go a whole season healthy only to lose some of your most important players in the NBA Finals. Sometimes you lose an All-Star in November. It’s one of the worst aspects of sport. It happens and you deal with it.

“When you lose an All-Star player it’s never easy,” Erik Spoelstra said. “This is the league. When I look around the league, I see a lot of teams dealing with injuries and guys out and guys coming back. We just have to weather the storm and recalibrate. Figure out a new plan and new direction, which our guys are very capable of doing.”

There wasn’t any time for recalibration before Miami’s one-sided loss to a Cleveland squad that might give them problems even at full strength – they were also without Jimmy Butler – given the Cavaliers’ size and length. Spoelstra, clearly in assessment mode, was non-committal in postgame when asked about the various avenues forward beyond that being the direction they need to push in. But there were hints on Wednesday, and in all the minutes Adebayo was off the court this season, that we can at least take some educated guesses as to how they’ll hold the door against the horde.

If you worship at the altar of plus-minus – you shouldn’t, there’s more to this than that – then Dewayne Dedmon has been Miami’s most valuable player. When he’s been on the court, the HEAT have been plus-15.2 points per 100 possessions, and his plus-16.1 differential on the offensive side of things is one of the few best in the league. Of course there are reasons for this, not the least of which is that Miami is simply shooting far better from three with Dedmon playing. Those numbers are a carryover from his short stint last season, he’s shown good pick-and-roll chemistry with Jimmy Butler and even as the HEAT were getting thumped Wednesday, the starting group with Dedmon was a plus-one. Thirty minutes isn’t the same as 12-15, and he’ll have to adjust to that, but there’s reason to believe Dedmon can be a stable solution even if the on-paper impact has diminishing returns.

It will no-doubt look different. Miami switches pick-and-rolls and handoffs more than any team in the league, a position they regularly swap with Boston, and Adebayo being one of the best and most versatile perimeter-defending big men we’ve ever seen enables their entire system. They switch, they keep the ball in front and out of the paint. It works, and it works because of Adebayo.

“Bam is one of the most dynamic unique players in the league,” Spoelstra said. “So there’s not going to be one solution for that. It’s going to take some unique solutions and some thought. We’ll figure it out. There will be some things that we’ll have to do differently. There’s no way we can make it look the same.”

For the most part, the HEAT haven’t even tried to make it look the same. Adebayo switches 17 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions. Dedmon switches two. Instead, Dedmon plays what has become traditional center coverage, dropping back much like Brook Lopez did last postseason at double the rate of Adebayo. It’s a style that invites more paint pressure simply because there’s a cushion for the opposition to attack, but it fits Dedmon’s abilities and Miami is allowing just 0.95 points-per-pick-and-roll when Dedmon drops back.

Spoelstra doesn’t just set it and forget it. He’s got two offspeed pitches in the arsenal that he goes to with Dedmon’s lineups. The first is zone. After hardly running zone at all the first couple weeks of the season, Miami has gone to that well more and more – covering up for some notable man-to-man slippage that we’ve seen – to the point that they’ve used it the third most of any team. Often used in conjunction with a full-court press where the guards drop back into the head of a 2-3, or even as a 1-3-1, the HEAT have run zone nine percent of the time with Dedmon on the court.

It’s not quite the bed of vipers the zone was two seasons ago when Miami could throw out Butler, Adebayo, Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones. Jr to put a stranglehold on postseason-caliber teams, but it remains effective as they’re allowing 0.94 points-per-zone-possession, a mark that would effectively be the best defense in the league.

There is a trend with zone, which is that the more you use it the less effective it becomes. You can only throw your changeup so many times in a row until players know what’s coming. Barring some specific matchups, we’re more like to see 15-20 zone possessions than 50. That’s fine, because there are more options. Without the core of your base scheme, how you approach defense becomes even more of a night-to-night affair than it already was.

“Every game is going to be different,” Kyle Lowry said. “Every game, the coverage is going to be matchup based I would think a little bit more. I think we just have to find the matchups and the coverages that work for that game, who we’re playing against, the team we’re playing against, the individual stars we’re playing against. Every night is going to be a different adjustment.”

Pitch No. 2 is the blitz, ol’ faithful from the 2010-2014 group. Despite Adebayo’s mobility, the HEAT have only blitzed 1.2 screens per 100 possessions with him per Second Spectrum’s tracking. That number spikes to 8.2 for Dedmon, who might not have the same foot speed but happens to be massive. His length engulfs opposing ballhandlers, and when Butler is back on the court playing free safety this type of coverage doubles as a booster for the HEAT’s offense when the pressure creates turnovers.

"We blitz defensively with Dedmon a little bit more often than we do with anyone else at the five," Herro said. "I think that will speed us up a little bit, get us moving, get us into rotation which isn’t always a bad thing with us. Once we get moving around that gets us in transition, getting stops."

The process is going to change, but will the goals? The shot profile the team wants to give up? Teams tend to get to the rim slightly more often with Dedmon on the court, taking fewer threes as a result and converting at much higher rate from mid-range with that drop cushion, but overall it’s not that much of a difference. Cleveland still took 42 percent of their shots beyond the arc, a mark that would lead the league, and just 29 percent of their offense came at the rim (at a high conversion rate, as has become typical for the HEAT). Spoelstra understandably only had a “We’ll see” to offer on the subject of top-down strategy before looking at the threes Cleveland made at a 51.6 percent clip.

“You never want to give any team any open looks or any kind of rhythm looks. In the first half, our closeouts and discipline on going up for shot fakes, that opened up either open shots or driving lanes, it wasn’t our best version. But we’ll get better at that.”

It’s tough to imagine Spoelstra changing the core tenet of the team’s defense, which is to keep the ball out of the paint. The bigger mystery is what they end up doing behind Dedmon, assuming he remains the starter. The immediate answer Wednesday was playing P.J. Tucker at center. You may raise your eyebrows at that given Tucker is 6-foot-5, but a few years ago the Houston Rockets essentially traded Clint Capela in order to make Tucker their full-time center and it worked wonderfully. He’s got a few more ticks on the odometer since then and the HEAT have been -16.7 per 100 possessions in the mere 137 possessions they’ve used that look, but Tucker – and Markieff Morris, who can play a similar small-ball role in bursts, when he returns to the floor – is more than capable in the role and enables them to go back to a switch-heavy style whenever they want.

“P.J. is going to make the right play every time, offensively and defensively,” Lowry said. “In that lineup we have to be scrappier, we have to be a lot tougher. He’s done it before, for the last two years he played center. He’s really good at what he does at a high level. With him in that lineup we know the right decisions will be made all the time.”

After that, we saw KZ Okpala manning the middle of the floor. You get the sense that both he and Omer Yurtseven are going to get their chances, depending on the opponent. Time will tell on how it looks, but Spoelstra has long been complimentary of their commitment to the player development program and Adebayo voiced a commitment to leadership with the younger players.

“With KZ and Omer it’s a learning process for them,” Adebayo said. “Right now they’re getting thrown in the fire. When I was a rookie and got thrown in the fire UD did a great job, he kept watching film with me, he kept trying to get me going. I’m going to do the same for them.”

This is all assuming the HEAT don’t make a roster move in the coming days/weeks to help buy them some time, but if they do everything we said above will likely hold true. You don’t just sign or trade for a center who can switch every position all game long. Anyone added will likely be playing a mix of zone and drop coverage same as Dedmon, unless they go the Tucker route and add another smaller player who can switch. We haven’t even discussed the offensive side of things very much but there should be fewer changes there. Maybe the handoffs get dialed down, you lose Adebayo’s fullcourt grab-and-go ability and you lack the same tip of the spear against mismatches, but Spoelstra is creative and outside of more traditional pick-and-rolls you’ll still see a bevy of off-ball screens and movement. With or without Adebayo, the HEAT’s offense, which has been closer to league-average the past few weeks during a difficult stretch of schedule, cannot afford to stand still for too long.

That’s the near-term. Miami’s staff is a solutions-based group and they’ll turn over every stone to find what gives them the most competitive chance night-to-night. Big picture, Adebayo’s injury isn’t nearly as catastrophic as it might feel in the moment when the bad-news tweets are staring back at you. The HEAT’s season is hardly over. Not even close to it.

This is just a bump. Bumps might rattle the chassis a bit, but they don’t send you off the road if you keep your hands on the wheel. The greatest risk for the time being is the HEAT falling down the standings. The 11-11 Philadelphia 76ers currently sit No. 11 and are only 4.5 games back of first place. This isn’t the Eastern Conference you’re used to, and any slide for any team could cost them a beneficial first-round matchup. But even before the injury Miami was always setup for a second-half surge with a tidal wave of home games rolling in. Assuming no setbacks, Adebayo should be back with plenty of time for a push in the stretch run and a fight in the second season.

Your mileage may vary on silver linings, but this could all be a blessing in disguise. Adebayo had already had yet another shorter-than-usual offseason than everyone else given his participation in international competition, and he had been dealing with a bone bruise in his knee that was making him look a little less than his usual ACME-booted self. He should be the most fresh-legged player on the roster when the time comes.

“It definitely will [help], Spoelstra said. “It’s a bone bruise. Those take time. He’ll be able to take care of that and do all the corrective rehab work on his legs, his conditioning, all that. Because of the nature of where his injury is, he’ll be able to be on the court pretty soon.”

In the meantime, Miami will do what they do and find a way. That doesn’t mean they won’t take a few hits as they walk the path, but their approach to this season has always been one of a championship contender. The HEAT practice the art of resilience even when the going is good. That won’t change with a star player out, and everything will be readyfor him to hit the ground running when he’s ready to return. Until then, hold the fort. The walls are old and strong. They won’t come crumbling down for this.

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