NBA

The Miami Heat Are Trying To Crash The NBA Contender Party

It's been a hot start for Jimmy Butler and crew in South Beach. Are they a real threat in the East?

If someone had told me two weeks ago Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra would be doling out approximately 106 combined minutes per night to the foursome of Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Meyers Leonard, and undrafted rookie Kendrick Nunn, my reaction would have been that picking them to finish fifth in the East was more than a bit of a reach. Yet here we are. The Heat are sitting at 5-1 against a non-patsy slate of opponents, despite new alpha dog Jimmy Butler missing three games for the birth of his child, and the style of basketball they are playing appears mostly sustainable. In the early going, it’s easy to focus on teams which have disappointed (like Golden State, Sacramento, Brooklyn, and Chicago), but on the other side of the coin, there is a success story brewing in South Beach, where Spo has taken a roster full of misfit toys and quickly forged it into something with the vague outlines of a contender. The Heat won’t win sixty games (like the burgeoning colossus in Philadelphia), but we’ve seen enough to conclude this is a squad with a chance to make some real noise in the East.

The numbers paint an incomplete picture at this early juncture of the season, but even with all small sample size caveats applied, everything’s coming up Milhouse for the Heat through their first six games. The defense has been predictably stout, with Miami sitting at third in Defensive Rating (behind only the Lakers and Jazz). The pleasant surprise has come on the offensive end, where Miami has jumped from 26th in Offensive Rating in ’18-’19 all the way to 7th this year on the strength of a much faster pace (6th in ’19-’20 vs. 23rd last year) and perhaps unsustainable outside shooting (40.1% from deep as a team). They are eighth in the league in 3-point attempt rate, second in free throw rate, and first in True Shooting Percentage. The playmaking chops of wings Butler and Justise Winslow allow Spoelstra to play big minutes without a traditional point guard — veteran Goran Dragic is averaging around 27 minutes a night and there are no other “true” PGs on the roster — which contributes to the strength and versatility of the defense. Put it all together — a fast-paced attack which shoots efficiently from every level without sacrificing anything on defense — and it should come as little surprise Miami currently leads the league in both point differential and net rating.

Butler has struggled from the field, but otherwise he’s been as-advertised, and plugging him in as the offensive hub has enabled everyone else to slot into the proper role. They’ve been highly egalitarian, with eight players averaging double-figure points and no Usage Rate higher than 26.1 percent. Dragic has embraced the sixth-man role and is as steady as ever. In his third season, big man Bam Adebayo has stepped into a starting spot and thrived as an across-the-board producer, including a double take-inducing 5.2 assists and 3.0 “stocks” (steals plus blocks) per game. His defensive awareness has improved by leaps and bounds, and he is even experimenting with adding corner threes to his arsenal. If Bam achieves even basic competence from the corners, his ceiling goes from “above average starter” to “possible All-Star.”

First-round pick Tyler Herro has immediately proven he belongs on an NBA court. He’s been exactly the confident shooter he was billed as coming out of Kentucky (36.4% from deep on 5.5 attempts per game), but he’s also flashed more of a floor game than his reputation suggested. [John Calipari keeping the full breadth of his players’ talents under wraps — a tradition unlike any other.] Herro is averaging 15.7/ 6.0/ 2.8 in a robust 32.5 minutes a night, and there’s no reason to suspect his role will diminish going forward.

With all due respect to Herro, the true rookie surprise has been the little-known Kendrick Nunn. The 6-foot-2 shooting guard has taken a circuitous route to NBA stardom. He played three seasons at Illinois before being dismissed from the team in response to a domestic violence allegation. [Nunn pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to community service and counseling.] He later played one season at mid-major Oakland, but went undrafted in 2018 despite averaging 25.9 points per game his senior season. He signed a partially guaranteed deal with the Warriors, but was waived in training camp and assigned to their G League team, where he averaged 19 points per game for Santa Cruz last season.

Miami scooped up Nunn at the tail end of last season, signing him to a partially guaranteed, “prove it” deal which runs through next season. He has rewarded Miami for giving him the opportunity by leading the Heat in scoring (19.5 PPG) on blazing 44.4% shooting from three. As an undersized two-guard, it remains to be seen whether Nunn can hold up on defense over the course of a full season, but conjuring up a starting-caliber player out of thin air is the sort of personnel move which can instantly change the trajectory of a season. Credit to Pat Riley and his staff for unearthing a diamond in the rough.

Nunn isn’t the only unheralded player from whom Miami has gotten contributions. Brazilian rookie big man Chris Silva has been an able-bodied banger in limited minutes. Meyers Leonard has been resurrected after being discarded by Portland, and is hitting 62% of his threes thus far (on an admittedly small number of attempts, but still). And former Michigan forward Duncan Robinson has given the Heat another rangy wing who can space the floor (17-of-34 from deep in 22 minutes a night). [Leonard and Robinson give Miami the added benefit of being able to run out a credible “whitewash” lineup (Dragic, Herro, Robinson, Leonard, and Olynyk) which can actually hold its own, a rarity in the modern NBA. This 5-man combo has yet to take the floor together, but a guy can dream.] Veteran bruiser James “Bloodsport” Johnson is back after missing the first five games, and Dion Waiters is once again available to play, though it’s debatable whether or not that qualifies as a good thing. Point is, Miami is strong, deep, skilled, and versatile, all of which suggests they should be able to hang in virtually any matchup under the sun.

So start planning the parade down South Beach, right? Slow down. Again, it’s only a six game sample, and they’ve already had some things break their way. The first game was against Memphis, an inarguably bad team. Their most recent game was against Houston, a good team currently moonlighting as a crappy, dysfunctional one. In-between, they won back-to-back games against Atlanta where Trae Young injured his ankle early in the first and subsequently didn’t suit up for the second. [With Young in the lineup, the Hawks are an exciting, dynamic young team. Without him, they are one of the very worst teams in the league.] The Heat tried to give away the Milwaukee game in every conceivable way, and the Bucks simply refused to take it. If a handful of plays had gone differently over the last two weeks, we’re probably not having this conversation.

Beyond the sample size, there are roster considerations to work out as well. As Johnson and Waiters re-integrate, will there be a minutes crunch? How will it affect the overall team dynamic if guys see their roles reduced? Miami’s culture is built to handle these types of stresses, but it doesn’t guarantee anything. Fair or not, character questions will hang over Nunn until further notice, and Johnson, Waiters, and especially Butler are all known to be somewhat volatile personalities, if we’re being charitable. Teams tend to take on the mindset of their leader, and with those other guys alongside Butler, the potential for knucklehead cross-mojonation is very real. The outside shooting will likely regress to the mean, and Herro and Nunn could both be reined in as teams develop scouting reports on them. They face a grueling, three-games-in-four-nights road stretch the rest of this week (against Denver Tuesday night, followed by a back-to-back against the upstart Suns and rampaging Lakers on Thursday and Friday) before the slate eases up some again. The Heat could easily be 5-4 by the time they return home to play Detroit a week from now, at which point we would interpret their opening stretch in a rather different light. But that’s life in the NBA.

The season will ebb and flow, but for now, Miami has staked a claim to a spot in the top group of Eastern Conference squads, along with Philly, Milwaukee, Boston, and Toronto. Those wins are in the bank, the style which rendered them appears sustainable, and Pat Riley could yet have a trade to make to further shore up the roster. For a franchise considered little more than an also-ran just a few weeks ago, thrusting itself into the mix in a wide-open East counts as a rousing success.

Top Photo Credit: Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports

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