NBA regular season

Will new-look Heat rediscover NBA bubble magic?

Naveen Ganglani
Will new-look Heat rediscover NBA bubble magic?

NEW HEAT STAR. Victor Oladipo finds a new home in Miami.

Photo from NBA Entertainment

The Heat add several impact players, among them Victor Oladipo, as they try to prove their NBA Finals run last season was not a fluke

The Miami Heat were a team in desperate need of a shake-up before the trade deadline.

Less than 3 months after reaching the 2020 NBA Finals and falling two wins short of a title in the Orlando bubble, the defending Eastern Conference champions faltered off the gates by dropping to 7-14 and quickly falling behind Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee in the conference standings. 

There’s a number of reasons why Miami looked like a shell of the team which not long ago as the fifth-seed defied expectations by winning its conference. 

Most prominent was the early absence of Jimmy Butler, their MVP candidate, who missed a third of the regular season’s first-half schedule due to an ankle injury and the coronavirus. In addition to not having their best offensive weapon, the Heat also missed All-Star Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, and Goran Dragic in multiple games because of various nagging ailments. Those are their top 4 scorers.

Dragic and Adebayo both got hurt in the finals and the shortened offseason may have contributed to their enduring injuries. The other last 3 teams left in the bubble – the Lakers, Nuggets, and Celtics – have also struggled with health and consistency this season, a clear repercussion from the taxing demands of the bubble. 

Los Angeles, the NBA’s defending champion, is sliding down a competitive Western Conference race, while both Anthony Davis and LeBron James heal from injuries. The Celtics have their core back and added firepower by acquiring Evan Fournier, but continue to pile losses and are now closer to the play-in tier than they are the top of the East.

Denver, which made a big swing before the deadline by landing Aaron Gordon from Orlando, has started winning and is in prime position to make a run at homecourt advantage in the first round of the postseason. Their recent victory over the Los Angeles Clippers is a good impressive indicator that the Nuggets are on the right path to contention. 

The Heat hope to follow the same course.

But will they?

It’s fair to say that Miami’s offseason transactions were not good.

They re-signed Meyers Leonard to a two-year, $20 million deal – a move questioned by Heat fans immediately after it was announced because of his reduced role in the playoffs. They then signed vets Mo Harkless and Avery Bradley, but both players contributed very little, as they also dealt with injuries and not being able to fit to the team. 

To put the cherry on top, the Heat were unable to retain Jae Crowder, who was a vital piece for them. Like most elite role players, Crowder’s contributions to winning teams go beyond the numbers on a stat sheet. He signed a contract with more guaranteed years to play in Phoenix, and it’s no coincidence the Suns are now in contention for the best record in the league.

Miami’s situation was problematic and that was highlighted when the Heat lost 4 straight games before the deadline. That losing streak was preceded by a stretch where they won 11 of 12, but lo and behold, they stumbled back to .500, and the problems which seemed solved suddenly resurfaced.

The good news was that the situation wasn’t hopeless.

Leonard, who had fallen out of favor with the Heat after uttering a racial slur on livestream, was traded to Oklahoma City with a draft pick to acquire Trevor Ariza. The 35-year-old has yet to prove he’s as impactful as Crowder was, but his playoff experience will be a plus for Miami, and the early returns are already promising.

Like Crowder, Ariza is a stretch 4 who can knock down shots, keep the ball moving with passes, and most importantly, defend players who are either shorter and quicker or bigger and stronger than he is. That’s key for the switch-heavy defense Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra likes to use. 

More on that later.

Miami then acquired stretch big man Nemanja Bjelica from Sacramento for a minimal exchange and pulled off a big move, getting Victor Oladipo from the Rockets for as some would jest “a bag of peanuts.”

The Heat gave up Kelly Olynyk – a starting-caliber player on an expiring contract – and Bradley for Oladipo, a former All-Star whose career has been limited by injuries. They did this without giving up a young asset like Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn, or even rookie Precious Achiuwa. 

It was also clear that Miami had been Oladipo’s preferred destination for years. He’s an impending free agent, which means Pat Riley, Spoelstra, and the Heat front office can take a good look at how he fits in their culture before committing long term. 

The Heat were able to reload their roster in the present while keeping financial flexibility for the foreseeable future. That’s a rare win-win situation, one that’s clearly better than what they had only a week ago. 

The most encouraging sign post deadline could be the improved play of Robinson and Herro. Both guys were revelations in the bubble but struggled this season against loftier expectations. They were constantly in trade rumors, both for Harden and then Kyle Lowry, who Miami was expected to land prior to Oladipo in a deal which would have most likely involved Robinson.

Miami may have caught lightning in a bottle by not trading Duncan, who’s averaging 17.5 points and has knocked down a blistering 24-of-46 from downtown since the deadline passed without having to change his address. Herro, on the other hand, has averaged 19.4 points a contest and looks closer to the breakout star he was in the playoffs. 

It’s not random that both young players started playing better when the mental burden of “will I be traded or not?” was lifted from their minds.

“You know, interesting day. Really my first experience really counting the clock down to the deadline. But I was just thinking about it. There are more than a handful of players that go through it every single year,” Robinson said about the trade deadline, according to the The Miami Herald.

“This time around, obviously it happened to me and a few others. But regardless of what happens, I’m happy to be here in Miami. I want to keep helping this team try to win.”

He’s been doing that. Ditto for Herro. And while it’s only a one-game sample, it’s already evident Oladipo will raise both Miami’s floor and ceiling.

In line with Spoelstra’s coaching principles, the Heat rank second in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage (44.5%), a good indicator of who are the elite shutdown teams. But in contrast, Miami has an effective field goal shooting (EFG%) of only 52.7%, 6th worst in the NBA, ahead of non-playoff teams Washington, Oklahoma City, Minnesota, Houston, and Cleveland.

It’s almost laughable how Miami went from one of the NBA’s best offensive juggernauts last season (2nd in EFG%) to one of the least effective in just a few months. It’s become plain to see that this team’s personality has changed – leaning more on defense while aiming to get just enough on offense to win games.

Oladipo enhances the former while improving the latter.

There are 3 reasons why Miami’s offense has come crashing down to earth. The first is because the team’s overall shooting has regressed from its historic pace last year. The second is due to the lack of a versatile wing who can alternate between power and small forward, keeping movement flexible. And third is because Dragic, Miami’s best slasher next to Butler, has not been healthy. 

With Oladipo, Miami has another penetrator off the dribble who can shoot from deep and create for teammates. His debut against Golden State was limited due to foul trouble and bad shooting numbers, but in Oladipo’s 23 minutes, he set up Ariza for an open three-pointer, converted a nice lob pass for an Adebayo dunk, and put Herro in position to make a game-sealing shot late. 

Oladipo’s speed also adds to Miami’s sometimes lifeless transition attack, something he displayed by scoring on a layup against James Wiseman.

His best quality, however, is defense, which is why it’s unsurprising that his first conversation with Riley revolved around that topic.

He’s one of the premier steals’ men in the NBA, a short list which also includes Butler. Add those two with Adebayo, the best switching big in the league, plus Ariza and Andre Iguodala, and you have an elite, high-IQ, fiv-man defensive lineup that can seamlessly switch assignments against pick-and-rolls while causing havoc in the passing lanes. 

That will mean more transition opportunities and easy baskets for a Heat team that badly needs them. 

What now?

The talk on how Miami’s run to the finals was a “fluke” due to the bubble’s setup was always misguided, but its uneven play this season did nothing to quiet the doubt. 

It feels like it’s been a campaign of constant start overs for Miami; the roller-coaster of winning and losing streaks and having guys in and out of the lineup make it difficult to gauge where the Heat rank in the leagu.

Are they still the team to beat in their conference, or is it safe to assume the Nets, 76ers, and Bucks have already overtaken them? 

With Oladipo, this good team can become great. 

Adebayo is still an All-Star on the rise. The young guys are settling into place. The bench is deeper. And ultimately, when it comes down to the nitty gritty, there are few superstars you want to battle in the trenches with more than Butler.

The question now is, can they be excellent once again? –