The Heat’s Retooled Roster Is Doing Everything Right
1:49 PM EDT on November 3, 2021
Cherry-picked stats are among the least useful things in basketball, better used as a meme than for explaining any form of success. There are so many basketball games, and so many stats that go with them, that you can use galaxy-brain manipulations to make pretty much any set of numbers look convincing. It is with a heavy heart, then, that I have to say that what Miami did against the Mavericks on Tuesday is best explained through one of those highly specific statistics: For the first time in Heat franchise history, four players scored 22-plus points in the same game.
The numbers themselves are less important than what one actually saw during the course of the action, which was the Heat's four stars finally hit on all cylinders at the same time and giving us a glimpse of what the best version of this squad might look like.
Kyle Lowry finally had his breakout game after a rough offensive start to his first season with the team. The 35-year-old point guard shook off his early-season shooting struggles to drop 22 points on a tidy 7-of-10 shooting with six made three-pointers, by far his best performance of the season. Though his season averages still look rather middling—10.7 points per game on 40/37/100 splits—adding Lowry's scoring to the mix is a frightening proposition for opponents of a team that was plenty scary without his outburst on Tuesday.
Miami has not needed Lowry's shooting to become a league-leading juggernaut through seven games. They've just needed him on the court. The Heat's only loss this year—an overtime defeat courtesy of the messy Pacers—came with Lowry sidelined with an ankle tweak. Miami currently plays 13.7 points better than opponents when Lowry is on the court, a team high, and the team's net rating is a healthy plus-20.1 when their new point guard is at the helm. Lowry pushes the pace more than any other Heat player, as The Ringer's Dan Devine analyzed last week, which leads to easier buckets for everyone around him, more than offsetting his own struggles.
It's not just Lowry, of course. Miami's best player is still Jimmy Butler, and there's a case to be made for the coffee impresario as the league's best player through the first batch of games. Through seven games, Butler is tied for the league-lead in Wins Above Replacement with last year's MVP, Nikola Jokic, and his 25 points per game is 10th in the league.
Butler is shooting at an elite level by minimizing the amount of bad shots he's been taking; he's never been a great three-point shooter, and his 1.3 attempts per game are the lowest since his second year in the league. Even better than that, he's shooting a career-low of his attempts from the least efficient part of the court: He's only taking 4.4 percent of his shots in the area between 16 feet from the basket and the three-point line. Oh, and whatever refereeing change was made this season to prevent ticky-tack foul calls hasn't really affected Butler; he's taking nine foul shots per game, tops in the league.
Elsewhere, Bam Adebayo has also continued his two-way excellence for Miami. His defensive resume needs no defending at this point, but his offense continues to tick up: he's putting up 20 points per game, along with 13.8 rebounds, good for third in the league. As a whole, Miami has made their undersized roster work on the glass this year, with a league-leading 56.4 percent rebound rate, even higher than the cleanup crew in Utah.
Perhaps most encouragingly for Miami, though, is the fact that Tyler Herro appears to be back to something resembling his 2019-20 playoff form. After a rocky sophomore slump of a season last year, Herro is shooting 47 percent from the field and 41 percent from three on a whopping seven attempts per game. That's bumped his scoring average to 22.4 per contest, all from the bench. If Herro continues to play like this, Miami would have the best sixth man in the league, and it wouldn't be close.
Though it has felt at times that Miami is top-heavy with those four—not a bad four to have, especially on offense—another key offseason addition has already shown what he can do to keep Miami somewhere near its current atmospheric heights. P.J. Tucker has been inserted into the starting lineup and done exactly what one might expect P.J. Tucker to do in an Erik Spoelstra team. He gives Miami yet another elite option for defensive switches, allowing the Heat's starting five to switch on pretty much every action with the confidence that they will not get cooked. Duncan Robinson is also in the starting five, and would be the likely candidate for switch targeting, but he's always tried hard and within the system; it's not always a lost possession if he can funnel faster players into Adebayo's zone by the basket. If his shot gets going on the other end, watch out.
The Heat's bench mob, led by Herro's 22.4 points per game, is leading the league in scoring, averaging 47 per game, 4.4 points higher than second-place Detroit. Markieff Morris, another summer acquisition, gives Miami a versatile and large defender who can provide some scoring, albeit not a lot. Ditto Dewayne Dedmon, who has a sterling 92 defensive rating in the 105 minutes that he's been on the court. This is a deep team, with the ability to play Miami's trademark brand of suffocating defense while letting its four scorers carry the load on offense. With Herro's resurgence, Spoelstra is able to stagger minutes so that one of the top four is always on the court, and oftentimes there will be two out there. Teams can't wait for Miami to rotate in weak players right now, and it's killing opponents.
There's nothing really to nitpick about how Miami has started this season. Thanks to the team's ability to rotate stars at all times, the starters are playing a healthy 29.9 minutes per game, good for 16th most in the league. Sure, Herro could regress back to the player he was last year, but most good players take a leap in their third seasons, and Herro was bothered with injuries last year that probably hampered his development. Lowry's age could be a problem, but injuries aside, he's always been a high-energy player with a deceptively good shot, both traits that should age well, especially with Miami's famously rigorous conditioning program.
As it stands now, the Heat are as well-constructed as a regular season team can be, and through seven games, they have already beaten four of last season's playoff teams by an average score of 24 points per win, bolstered by an opening 42-point win over the defending champion Bucks. The team will face a tough stretch in the next seven games, with clashes against Utah at home and Denver, both Los Angeles teams, and Utah again on the road. That rough run will make clearer whether Miami is an early-season mirage or something more substantial. Given their start to this season, I'd bet on the latter.