Maximum Overdrive: Once A Two-Way Player, Mighty Max Strus Has Become A Critical Piece To Miami's Championship Aspirations

Max Strus
by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

When he said it, at least one eyebrow was raised.

It’s a quiet early-January morning after a Miami HEAT shootaround and assistant coach Anthony Carter, perpetual smile-haver and lightness-bringer, is discussing his relationship with workout partner Max Strus, who Carter describes as “the type that gets in his own head sometimes.”

The topic of Joe Harris, the starting shooting guard for the Brooklyn Nets who missed a large portion of the season with an ankle injury, comes up. Both about the same height and weight, the player who spent the past five seasons shooting 45 percent from three seemed an appropriate blueprint for what the HEAT’s developmental program could try and turn Strus into. Harris was a dynamic, mobile shooter who could also get to the rim, either by putting the ball on the deck or cutting off his own gravity. And his somewhat stocky, thicker build allowed him to hold up relatively well in a defensive system that asked him to switch a ton.

If Strus, an undrafted guard out of DePaul University who joined Miami on a two-way contract in 2020 after being waived by the Boston Celtics and tearing his ACL during a stint in Chicago, could somehow become even a facsimile of Harris that would be yet another victory for a franchise on a never-ending heater when it comes to undrafted success stories.

“I think he’s already there,” Carter said. “I just think Joe is getting more minutes than him.”

Strus wasn’t exactly riding the pine at this stage of the season. With the team injury depleted and dealing with health and safety protocols, Strus started eight games in late December and early January and had the best stretch of a career that, to that point, had been brief both in time spent healthy off the court and playing on it. He scored a career-high 32 points against Orlando and kept running from there, hitting 47 threes over his next 13 games. There was clearly a real player there – that much anyone could see from how well Strus played at Las Vegas Summer League several months prior – but he still seemed to be just getting off the starting line. Being on the same level of a veteran like Harris was a few hurdles down the track.

Carter, matter of fact as ever, was ahead of everyone else that morning. Maybe even ahead of Spoelstra, under whom Strus’ minutes fluctuated in the coming months. Sometimes 13 minutes. Sometimes 20. Forty on one night, six a couple weeks later. Miami had more talented, playable players than could possibly be fit into a reasonable rotation, and like plenty of others Strus was sometimes on the outside looking in.

But after a four-game losing streak in late March that was one of the ugliest weeks in recent HEAT memory, Spoelstra swapped Strus for Duncan Robinson in the starting lineup and Carter’s statement months earlier began to look more prescient.

No longer an injury fill-in, Strus was now playing with the core group. Jimmy Butler. Bam Adebayo. Kyle Lowry. P.J. Tucker. This was the starting lineup that had championship expectations. One would understand if Strus felt any pressure.

“None,” he said. “I didn’t feel any.”

From there, the HEAT got back to winning and they’ve kept winning ever since. Miami closed the regular season on a 6-0 winning streak, only dropping a meaningless final-day game to Orlando when most of the regulars sat out, and have gone 8-3 over the first two rounds to clinch a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals. With Strus in the starting lineup, the HEAT are 21-5. He’s shooting 35 percent from three on 8.5 attempts per game, with all the gravity and spacing that comes with that volume. Better yet, the HEAT are plus-142 when Strus is on the court, with a plus-37.1 on-off differential, which leads all players in the postseason.

“I’m on Max so much, man,” Tucker said. “He’s gotten so much better from the time we started this year. He’s definitely our most improved. He’s really stepped up to be a guy we can count on.”

That the HEAT can count on Strus as a shooter isn’t a surprise. The system, which had already featured Wayne Ellington and Robinson in handoff-heavy roles and had one of the most selfless centers in the league on hand, was ready made for his skillset. Plug. Play. Boogie.

That they can count on him to be playmaker with the ball in his hands, to capitalize on the attention he draws on the perimeter and find his teammates – to produce 0.92 points per pick-and-roll in a pinch – has been slightly more eye catching only because it would be that way for almost any young player who doesn’t come into the league as a Day One playmaker. It was a development when Adebayo started whipping passes out of the paint to open shooters during his rookie season, and it’s a development when Strus ties his career-high with five assists in a closeout game on the road in the playoffs. These are not assists you just fall into swinging the ball around the horn:

But the real surprise is how far Strus has come defensively. Opposing teams have always called up the perceived weak links in Miami’s switch-all scheme. Tyler Herro (249) and Robinson (233) were No. 8 and No. 13 in total isolations defended this season. Considering Bam Adebayo, at 270, was just ahead of them despite being the player Miami wanted on all the best scorers tells you how other teams tended to gear their approach. Strus wasn’t too far behind at 211, but where Adebayo was at the very top of the list and Herro and Robinson both near the bottom in terms of efficiency allowed, Strus was smack dab in the middle. Of the 200 players who defended at least 100 isolations this season, Strus was No. 113, allowing 0.97 points-per-isolation. If you take assist opportunities out of the equation, which defenders have some but not entire control over since passing lanes open up if they get beat, Strus’ number drops to 0.88 points-per-isolation.

I bet you want to know what that number looks like during the playoffs, where players like Trae Young and James Harden have hunted for the Strus matchup. In 36 isolations, he’s allowed just 0.69 points-per without assists, 0.74 with them (44 possessions). Small samples are always finnicky, but for a reference point those numbers are right in line with Defensive Player of the Year candidate Mikal Bridges (0.75 on 39 possessions) and well ahead of actual Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart (1.18, though relatively meaningless on merely 17 possessions).

“[That’s] what he’s been showing us in practice,” Adebayo said. “He can guard. Max never backs down from a challenge. That’s why I love Max so much, he excels so much with challenges and he gets his fair share of one-on-one stops.”

It all passes the eye test, too. Against Young and Harden only, Strus has only allowed five points on 12 isolations (0.42 points-per). With Strus on the court during the playoffs, the HEAT are allowing 94.1 points per 100 possessions – the best mark on the team. It looks like this:

“Even if he doesn’t believe in himself, we believe in him being able to guard,” Tucker said. “[We’re] trying to make him do that a lot more so people can’t go at him.”

Maybe it wasn’t always the case, but it sure sounds like Strus is starting to believe, too.

“I take defense personally because people don’t think I can guard anybody,” he said. “I think I’ve been showing that that’s not true.”

The hunch was always that Strus had it in him to dial it up on that end, at least a modicum of defensive ability, because of his strength. He can move his feet and take a hit right in the chest and keep going. He does a decent job avoiding fouls, a Game 5 foulout aside, even against the league’s craftier foul-seekers. Spoelstra isn’t giving him the primary assignment by any means, but he’s proven that he can just be solid.

Is Strus suddenly a defensive stopper? That wouldn’t be fair to say, but the HEAT aren’t asking him to be. Even as they loaded up three players on both Young and Harden, with Strus always flanked by help in the gaps on either side, it hasn’t been much of a departure at all from their base scheme. The player on the ball is never on an island trying to stop an elite scorer on their own. Knowing that he has elite wingmen at his sides, Strus can focus on the trench run and not have to think about any pesky TIE Fighters. He can push up on the dribble and sit on a stepback or a crossover. To a degree, he’s protected from getting outright beat. Spoelstra’s system is putting Strus in position to succeed and Strus is doing his job.

“It’s been huge,” Strus says of Spoelstra’s confidence in him. “The most important thing he’s been saying to me is [about] my defense.”

It only gets more challenging from here. Even has he produces like a steady vet during his first real postseason run, teams aren’t going to stop calling Strus up because it’s still a better option than attacking any of Miami’s elite defenders. There are no rest days. In the postseason, as Adebayo has been saying for years now about his teammates being targeted, at some point you just have to “Guard Your Yard.”

This yard may not have a sign that reads BEWARE: MAX on the fence, but he’s proving to have more than a little bite in him.

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