US basketball

Reenergized Miami Heat set eyes on NBA title

Naveen Ganglani
Reenergized Miami Heat set eyes on NBA title

BIG THREE. The Heat boast their own triple threat of (from left) Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, and Jimmy Butler.

Miami Heat

‘Kyle is just a damn-near genius when it comes to knowing how to get people the ball,’ Jimmy Butler says of his best friend and Miami’s big offseason grab, Kyle Lowry

The Miami “Heat Culture” has always prided itself in making no excuses regardless of the outcome of the team’s performances. 

If a player or two are injured, their ideology is “next man up.” Filipino-American head coach Erik Spoelstra likes to proclaim their franchise isn’t “for everyone,” and that South Florida’s winningest sports team, contrary to the sunshine and sand, is for “competitors only.”

But if there was any season to validate a lackadaisical ending, it would be the gauntlet of challenges the Heat went through. 

Fresh off a run to the finals in the bubble this time last year, Miami, along with the world champion Lakers, had the shortest offseason in NBA history before getting back on the court. 

What followed was a mini-basketball catastrophe: COVID, injuries, and fatigue all reared their challenging heads, leading to a turbulent start to the season. 

But what was surprising was the occasional lack of spirit from an organization that’s known for its work ethic and effort. It became a common issue and the franchise player’s patience was tested. The issues aggravated when Miami was swept out of the first round by the would-be champion Bucks, a series where the Heat were badly outclassed.

“In many ways it felt like three years ago,” Spoelstra reminisced about the bubble on media day, before the opening of Miami’s training camp for the new NBA season.

“This offseason was really good for everybody in the building… to be able to disconnect, recharge, but then reenergize for a new season and a new goal. [It] felt very adequate, it felt long, it felt like we were able to get away.”

For a franchise whose players are usually tuned into the mindset of competition, the Heat are hopeful a theoretical breath of fresh air can propel them forward. Maybe not necessarily by following the same formula they had during the first year of the Jimmy Butler tenure, but to carve a new kind of Miami team that’s better suited to chase what Pat Riley likes to call “the main thing.”

“The playoffs are tough. It’s hard to win at the highest level and ultimately you want to have guys that have experienced playoff basketball and have experienced that kind of adversity,” Spoelstra explained.

“We feel we’ve added that kind of veteran experience and championship-level experience that can really help our group.”

Miami’s big offseason grab was to sign Butler’s best friend, Kyle Lowry, to a three-year, $90 million deal. 

There’s an argument that a contract that long and expensive is risky to bet on a 35-year-old who’s past his athletic prime. But that’s in the minority. The macro view is imagining what Lowry can do for a team who struggled on both sides of the floor as they failed to defend their conference crown. 

It was only two years ago that Lowry led the Toronto Raptors to their first-ever NBA title as the squad’s leader and floor general. And even after Kawhi Leonard bolted for Los Angeles, Lowry maintained Toronto’s standing as top-tier in the East. It was only until the season after, one where Tampa became the Raptors’ new home due to COVID, when the wheels came off.

Miami snagged Lowry on a sign-and trade which involved sacrifice for the Heat. In exchange for their best player in franchise history, the Raptors received Goran Dragic, a well-respected figure in Miami, and promising 22-year-old big Precious Achiuwa.

Was it worth it? At face value, yes. Lowry’s averages declined last season, but he’s not buying the numbers.

“I think I’m a better basketball player,” he claimed, “because with age and repetition you just continue to get better, you get more confident, and understand who you are, what situation you’re in. You know what’s going to happen, you are prepared way more now than you were back then.”

Lowry’s first Heat media day was met with the same kind of fervor as Butler’s in 2019. The duo shared a funny moment during Kyle’s presser which Jimmy used as an opportunity to promote his budding Big Face Coffee brand. Lowry, not a coffee-drinker, preferred water instead.

While the duo has work to do on their chemistry as baristas, there is plenty of intrigue on what they can do together on the court.

“Kyle is just a damn-near genius when it comes to knowing how to get people the ball, playing his role to a T,” a new-look Butler told Rappler. He takes a lot of the pressure off of myself, off of Bam (Adebayo), and you just get to go do what you do.

“He’s a facilitator, he guards, he shoots the ball well, he can finish, he gets to the line. That’s what we need, that’s what we want here, [and] I think he gives Bam the room to just go and be who you are and not worry about too much else.”

Spoelstra must be exhilarated at the thought of Lowry-Butler pick-and-rolls or how to get Jimmy in better off-ball scoring opportunities with Lowry there to set him up. The Heat relied plenty on Butler’s penetration last year on offense, but they still ranked 25th in the NBA in scoring. Some play sets in non-Jimmy minutes looked claustrophobic.

Lowry raises Miami’s floor on offense. He joked on media day that Adebayo and Butler would take all the defensive responsibilities, but his perimeter D will be critical to their success, perhaps more than anything else he brings to the table. Nevertheless, that’s only two of the traits that make the future Hall-of-Famer, perhaps, the missing piece of the Heat to contend for an NBA title once again.

“He can really control the game from a classic point guard position. His mind for the game is as high as anybody in this league and I’m looking forward to learning from him,” Spoelstra said.

Spo’s a two-time champion coach, but a facet of the game he can learn from Lowry is Kyle’s aptitude to push the ball and yield easy scoring opportunities. The Heat have historically played at a slow pace under Spoelstra’s playbook, even during their dominant LeBron-Wade-Bosh years. But Lowry is at his finest pushing on the break, a wrecking ball with the IQ of a proven winner.

It’s no secret playoff hoops remain a grind-it-out slugfest, but capitalizing on fastbreaks during the regular season could determine homecourt seeding for the playoffs.

“I love that aspect of his game. When you look at his impact, there are so many different categories where he impacts winning, and that’s one of them,” Spo said. 

“If you can get some key easy ones during key moments of the game, that could be the difference of winning and losing.”

Miami has the second oldest roster in the NBA behind the Lakers and given their long-term mindset of building a playoff-ready team, it’s easy to assume missed games for rest and recovery will be a theme for their older players. That includes their two other free agent acquisitions, PJ Tucker and Markieff Morris.  

With a bench that won’t include Oladipo for the foreseeable future and need to rely on unproven NBA rotation players, the Heat might find themselves facing the prospect of multiple Game 7s on the road in the postseason anew. Being the No. 5 seed wasn’t an issue on the neutral hardwood of the bubble, but fate flipped the year after against Milwaukee.

That’s the down side. The flip side, like what Spoelstra used to describe Oladipo’s rehabilitation process, is “sunshine ahead.”

Miami has the East’s best big three outside of Brooklyn and Milwaukee. Lowry’s playmaking could lead to career seasons for Adebayo, who’s already an All-Star, and Tyler Herro, whose bounce-back campaign could include contention for Sixth Man of the Year.

“He has an incredible iron-will and a work ethic that is going to develop his game and it is going to grow exponentially,” Spoelstra said of Bam, who this offseason regained the upper body muscle and size he lost after injuring his shoulder. 

“That’s why I’ve called him ‘no ceiling’ before,” Spo added.

Spoelstra added that Herro gained 10 pounds of muscle to compete better on defense – a weakness of his game – and to handle contact on offense. “A monster work ethic,” is how the head coach described the enigmatic young Herro, who’s only 21. 

Everything about Tucker, as Spoelstra eloquently described, is “Heat Culture.” 

They got a first-hand view when Tucker was a Buck last season and was instrumental in defending Butler. In addition to what he brings for the Heat, nabbing PJ also weakens a conference rival.

“He’s fierce, he’s tough, he’s edgy. He does not give you an inch when he’s competing against you defensively.”

Morris is a tough-nosed competitor his new team “respected for the course for his career,” and the feeling seems to be mutual. 

Strus and Omer Yurtseven, while inexperienced, were revelations during Summer League. Dewayne Dedmon is a solid backup big off the bench. The Heat’s best move over the summer, following the signing of Lowry and extending Butler, was to re-sign sharpshooter Duncan Robinson, who you can make a case for as the best catch-and-shoot three-point specialist in the NBA.

Moreover, Robinson showed signs of improved penetration and defense last season. Honing on those traits while adding a few more tricks will be critical in his development as expectations rise now that he’s being paid a shade under $20M per season.

With Miami’s other new acquisitions attracting the defense’s attention, there will be easier opportunities for the Heat’s best podcaster to score in multiple ways.

“We can have all the best intentions and plans but I’m just as curious as anyone to see how this all works together,” Spoelstra cautioned. “The most important thing is that we checked some boxes of things we wanted to accomplish from a personnel standpoint and we acquired some like-minded people.”

The task for these like-minded people who’ve been through their fair share of battles sounds clear-cut. “Our goal is to win a championship,” Lowry said, plain and simple. 

“That’s the biggest goal. That’s the only goal there should be.”

Whether what they have is enough, we will see. The journey for the answer has begun. – Rappler.com