The Tell-Tale Heart Of The HEAT: It All Comes Back To Bam Adebayo

Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris Are In, Jimmy Butler and Duncan Robinson Are Back, And One Player Connects Them All
Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Kyle Lowry Tree
by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

There is a manner in which NBA Summer League games function that is generally understood, a rhythm that keeps the games flowing. Part of that is the seating arrangements. Fans sit in the fan sections. Team executives and media have their own roped off areas. Courtside seats are reserved for VIPs, celebrities, high rollers and established players swinging by to watch the young guys get some run in.

Any of those aforementioned zones are where Bam Adebayo could have sat as the Miami HEAT’s Summer League team faced the Denver Nuggets in a half-empty Cox Pavilion last Sunday. Instead, fresh off the highest of highs in international competition and carrying the hardware to show for it, Adebayo plopped himself down on the front of Miami’s bench between assistants Caron Butler and Eric Glass – the perfect illustration of Adebayo’s role in the organization.

From the staff to the developmental players to the stars and the veterans, Adebayo is the connector. All things to all people. Now the second-longest tenured HEAT player behind Udonis Haslem – and the only other player to have played minutes of significance with Dwyane Wade in a HEAT uniform – Adebayo is the link to the past, engine of the present and key to the future. You talk about the HEAT long enough and all verbal roads return to Bam.

Kyle Lowry and Jimmy Butler are very close friends, if you hadn’t heard. Who knows if Lowry would have joined the HEAT were it not for Butler’s presence, but it was certainly an important factor. The two will pair well on the court in a general sense. Lowry is a capable screener who will fit right into Erik Spoelstra’s varied timing-based sets, and there’s promise of a simple two-man game that could help get Butler more advantageous matchups. Mostly Lowry should act the warm blanket over Butler’s entire game, letting him get off the ball more, carry less of a load, require fewer reps on A1 scoring threats and enter next postseason with fewer miles on the odometer.

“I put him in a position where he doesn’t have to work as hard,” Lowry said. “I don’t want him working that hard to try to bring the ball down. I want him to get to his spot, his mid-range, get to where he needs to get to. His free-throws, his jump shot, his layups, and conserve as much energy as possible. This is a long season and you don’t want your best players to wear out.”

Such a mindset would no doubt help Butler fare better than these past playoffs which came after a season with a career-high in usage which came after the shortest offseason in franchise history which came after an NBA Finals run which came after months of being stuck at home during a pandemic. Even if he still runs up against Giannis Antetokounmpo defending him for all 48, Lowry gets Butler off the ball and gives Miami another drop-coverage punisher who doesn’t give anything back on the other end.

What Lowry can do for and with Adebayo is a little more direct.

You had to be looking for it to really see it happening, else it looked too natural to notice. In each game of international play, there was a little pocket where Damian Lillard would hit a pull-up three or two in a row, the opposing defense would adjust by sending a second body off the screen and suddenly the middle of the floor was wide open. Adebayo thrived in that space, space that has rarely been available to him at such a magnitude outside of the three or four possessions a week when Duncan Robinson got so hot the defense lost its mind. Lillard would make a simple pocket pass to Adebayo, and the resulting options were aplenty. Skip passes to the weak corner. Drop-off feeds. The mid-range game, if not a straight path to the rim. Playing on a team with Draymond Green, Adebayo looked more like Green than ever before. His true playmaking potential unlocked.

Lowry is not Lillard, one of the four or five players alive who can freak a defense out of its own principles on a nightly basis. The pull-up shot, particularly at Lowry’s volume of attempts, is enough of a threat that he’ll still draw the occasional extra man to the ball. Miami can play with a level of timing and execution that there will sometimes be two on the ball without the opposing team even meaning to do it. It won’t be an every night thing, but Adebayo will have more middle-of-the-floor opportunities now that he’s working under the floor control of a great director. Miami was No. 18 on offense last year. The fruit hangs low.

Does anyone stand to benefit more from Lowry possibly being the first HEAT player in years to get the team to play at an above-average pace without spiking the turnover rate than a 24-year-old full-court athletic marvel? That’s rhetorical.

“Just helping him get in better spots and getting easier looks,” Lowry said of how he can aid Adebayo. “Getting layups and dunks and give him the confidence to shoot the 15-footer when he’s open. For me it’s just about building confidence. That’s a big thing in how I operate. I want to build everyone’s confidence to where you’re basically feeling like Superman out there. No matter what the situation is, time score, I want to make sure you feel like you can do whatever you need to do to help our team win.

“It’s a relationship where we can really benefit each other.”

Robinson’s return shouldn’t be taken for granted, restricted free agency or not. His impact on the floor – Miami is plus-13.7 and plus-6.8 with him on court versus off the past two seasons – both for the shots he makes and the shots he’s a threat to take, will be as important as ever. The league may have adjusted to the deadly Robinson-Adebayo handoff, forcing Robinson to adjust into more of an on-ball role at times, but that combination isn’t going anywhere. One of the greatest shooters alive stands to benefit plenty from the heads-up playmaking of Lowry. It’s the synergy with Adebayo that will continue to let Robinson’s game breathe.

“The fit in general was huge,” Robinson said. “Bam is obviously a huge part of that. Playing with a big that is as versatile as him. Also just unselfish. The fact that you have a 23-year-old (at the time) budding superstar in a postgame presser talking about how he needs to get the undrafted guy more looks, that’s just super uncommon. He facetimed me right when it kind of became official and congratulated me for sticking around and then also cracked a joke about how I owe him dinner and a few other things as well. We joke about that stuff but it’s true.”

Butler, Lowry and newcomers P.J. Tucker and Markieff Morris all give the HEAT a defensive edge the franchise is always seeking out. Use whatever descriptor you want, trying to score on them will be described by zero souls as fun or enjoyable. No team remade itself in its own image more than Miami. It’s Adebayo that gives the defense its identity. You don’t transition to a switch-first defense if you don’t have one of the best switch defenders in the history of the league (argue against this if you’d like, you will be wrong). Butler is unquestionably important, but everything Miami does on the defensive end is crafted around Adebayo’s many skills.

Complaints pop up on occasion with Miami’s switching. Understandably so when the HEAT would get punished by size and strength in the paint while Adebayo was switched onto a guard 25 feet from the rim. What those complaints often missed is that the alternatives weren’t often better options. If Miami’s defense failed it wasn’t always because they switched, it was because they weren’t creating the appropriate disruption to accompany those switches, allowing direct passes to the soft spots in the shell constructed around the paint. Trying to solve this by playing Adebayo to his weaknesses, turning him into a space-eating, vertical rim protector, only takes away from what they did best. The best adjustment is often to do what you do and find a way to do it better. You don’t take a spear, flip it around and use it as a shield.

In this case the way to do it better is with better personnel. Miami might find ways to switch a little less thanks to Lowry’s abilities, but Tucker is one of the best switch players in the league. There’s a reason Houston traded Clint Capela and relied on Tucker to be its center a couple years ago. No center in the league enjoys the prospects of backing down Tucker. Now you can have Adebayo deleting opposing guards with Tucker, through clever off-ball maneuvering if he wasn’t directly in the action, brick-walling bigs behind him.

“Bam is my guy,” Tucker said. “He’s a North Carolina guy. We always stick together. I’ve known him for a while. To be a center and to be able to do what he does, it’s unbelievable. Get off the glass and push it. Guard one through five. His energy every night on the glass. His ability to pass. I’m super excited to play with him because he’s a smart guy and he makes the game easy for a lot of people.”

This defense should be at minimum what it was before, a Top 10 group, but most likely better. There might be the occasional off night simply due to the age of some of the key players. Those can look more concerning than they really are. Come the playoffs they’re as well suited to that style of play as could be reasonably expected. Miami’s stable of guys they can confidently throw at elite playmakers has doubled.

The discourse, as much as the statements and conversations we typically see online represent The Discourse as it were, often carries with it a “Get in the robot, Shinji” element when it comes to Adebayo. His agency is stripped away as Monday Morning Developmental Coaches all seek to direct him toward his true purpose. Which is not to say that all those who register an opinion are wrong. If you can sift through the loudest, most retweeted chatter there are thoughtful messages. They may not nail which jumper he should or shouldn’t take or which switch he should or shouldn’t make, but they’re right that Adebayo is the one who can.

Success in the NBA isn’t as simple as climbing in a giant robot and trying to save the world. Adebayo can’t make a pull-up three for Lowry or a 15-footer for Butler or an open look in the corner for Tucker. The best handoff the world has ever seen doesn’t ensure that Robinson is going to his hit the go-ahead triple with 45 seconds left in a pivotal Game 6. Yet Adebayo is the star on the upswing. In 2012 the veteran-laden San Antonio Spurs were two wins away from another NBA Finals when a young Oklahoma City Thunder blitzed them for four consecutive wins. Kawhi Leonard was a rookie that year, and it was his rapid development, along with some beautiful team play, over the next two seasons which propelled the Spurs to consecutive Finals trips. Tyler Herro can certainly push Miami’s ceiling higher with his own development, but Adebayo is the trunk of this giving tree, the organ that provides blood to every HEAT appendage.

We’re just three years away from Adebayo sitting on that bench at Summer League in uniform, ready to prove himself after a promising rookie season. Now he’s an All-Star, a two-time All-Defensive Teamer and international champion with a team built to a blueprint manifested by his mere presence.

Whatever this team can be, and it should be prettay, prettay good, it will be that with Adebayo at the heart of it.

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