The Miami Heat are in Mexico City today to play the Brooklyn Nets. It sounds like they’ve been having fun exploring the city, when they are not busy abandoning head coach Erik Spoelstra at scenic parks. No really!
The Miami Heat, which will play Brooklyn in the second of two regular season games in Mexico City here Saturday night, nearly left coach Erik Spoelstra behind Friday afternoon after the team stopped to pose for a photo at a local park on its way to practice.
“I was taking a tour of the park and stopped to go to the bathroom,” Spoelstra said with a grin later.
“I don’t think they would have left me behind.”
Spoelstra was not, in fact, left behind. Though he politely paused to participate in a fan selfie while literally sprinting to catch up with a moving bus (click here for video), he was not abandoned to start a new life as a street performer in Mexico City. I want this to be a fun story, but, man, when I am reminded of the Miami Heat, I find myself getting bummed out. The Heat stink!
Just in terms of won-loss record, they’re 11-13, good for 10th in the Eastern Conference. But here’s the troubling part: they have the sixth-worst net rating (minus-4.1) in the entire NBA. Yes, there is plenty of season left, but the company down there is real bad: the only teams ranked lower than the Heat are the Bulls, the Kings, the Suns, the Hawks, and the Mavericks. The Heat were expected to contend for a playoff spot, possibly even a top four seed in the soft East. Instead, they have the net rating of 50-loss team.
And they’re enduring quite a run of shittiness, heading into today’s international showcase: they’ve lost four of five, with those four losses coming by an average of 20 points. Three of those losses were to strong playoff teams—the Warriors, Spurs, and Cavs had their way with the Heat—but that fourth loss was a 29-point paddling by the Knicks, in a game in which Kristaps Porzingis played all of three minutes. It feels weird to say this, but this team, coached by Erik Spoelstra and featuring Goran Dragic plus a deep cast of useful and versatile wings is, you know, pretty crummy! Their shitty sub-.500 record overstates their nightly competitiveness. They blow.
Mostly the problem is the offense: only the Lakers, Kings, and Bulls score fewer points per possession than the Heat. They weren’t great on offense last season, either—they finished 16th in offensive rating, at about 105 points per 100 possessions—but anyone would’ve assumed some combination of continuity, the development of guys like Justice Winslow, Tyler Johnson, and Josh Richardson, and the addition of a sweet-shooting big man like Kelly Olynyk, would yield a more open and potent attack. Through 24 games the Heat are one of the slower-paced teams in basketball, have the second-worst turnover percentage in the league, and grind for points like the utterly talent-starved Sacramento Kings.
And that’s such a letdown. Few teams in the league have an identity that extends to their specific style of play—most teams, even the good ones, are just a star or two plus the some in their orbit, doing a better or worse job of running the same general principles as everyone else. But that hasn’t been the case with the Heat—Spoelstra is a genuine innovator, and the Heat play a fun and interesting brand of basketball. They unleash James Johnson as a tiny-ball center and thrilling pick-and-roll facilitator; they play intense, harassing defense on the perimeter, funneling as much of the action as possible down towards Hassan Whiteside; and they give Goran Dragic or any of their other capable ball-handlers free license to push the ball ahead at breakneck speed off of any change of possession, at any time. And they consider just about anyone on the roster not named Hassan Whiteside a capable ball-handler. In the second half of last season, they were one of the best shows, just in terms of basketball aesthetics, in the entire NBA. After the All Star break last season the Heat were ninth in offense and sixth in defense, and won 16 of 25 games to surge to within a tiebreaker of the playoffs. They were good!
But Miami’s strengths from last season haven’t really carried over. A deep crop of athletic and interchangeable wings is supposed to be a good thing, but this season it’s mostly yielded shitty results: All of Johnson, Richardson, Winslow, and Dion Waiters have produced below 52 percent True Shooting, and Winslow and Waiters are below 50 percent, and those four guys account for around 114 minutes per game of playing time. That lousy efficiency is particularly a problem for Waiters, whose usage (26.1 percent) is highest on the team, but Winslow’s production is probably the bigger bummer—he’s on his third season of dismal scoring efficiency, and the Heat offense is a whopping 6.4 points per 100 possessions better when he’s off the court this season. Consequently, he’s playing the fewest minutes per game of his career, a dismal arc for a high lottery pick still playing on a rookie deal. Winslow can’t shoot for jack, and he’s not a good enough finisher inside to make up the difference, and so he’s settling in as a low-wattage secondary ball-handler with defensive potential. He was drafted to be a superstar, and this for sure isn’t that.
And then there’s Hassan Whiteside. Only rookie Bam Adebayo has a lower offensive rating than Whiteside’s, a problem that is made all the more glaring by the fact that Olynyk, Whiteside’s primary backup, has the highest offensive rating of any Miami rotation player. The Heat are a modest plus-2.5 points per 100 possessions when Olynyk is on the court, but plummet to a ghastly minus-9.1 when he sits. Whiteside is a defensive force, and a nearly unsolvable problem when he can get a lane to the rim as a roll man, but on a team running out a bunch of inefficient guards and wings and generally starved for shooting, Olynyk’s floor spacing is looking more and more necessary.
There are potential solutions hidden in all this rubble. Dragic is having a reasonably efficient season. Olynyk has been fine. Wayne Ellington is relatively lightly used among Miami’s perimeter dudes, but he’s a lights-out shooter having another solid season. Miami’s two most-used lineups are playing solidly in the plus, even while their most-used one (Dragic, Richardson, Waiters, Winslow, Whiteside) is horrifyingly bad on offense (a 94.9 offensive rating). Whiteside has played in only 15 of Miami’s 24 games this season—if he’s healthy, and the Heat can coax something approaching average efficiency from their wing rotation, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to get back to playing the way they finished last season. Those are big ifs, but that’s the equation that powered Miami’s strong second-half performance and playoff push.
For now, they’re playing more like how they started last season, when they opened up 11-30 and came thisclose to revving up the tank in pursuit of draft lottery gold. They hit on something in the second half, and pushed that kind of dramatic rebuild off into the distant future, but the penalty for settling in as a crummy lower-middle-class Eastern Conference team is stiff: no 2017 lottery gold, an approaching future in which draft lottery reform makes tanking a somewhat less viable strategy, and a hit to their prestige as a free agency destination. That stinks. The NBA is better when the Heat are good, and it absolutely never needs veteran laden teams wallowing just outside of the playoff pack, waiting for a miracle or a calamity to change the scenery.
Maybe the Heat can turn this around. They just came out of a brutal stretch. Their schedule over the rest of December is incredibly soft—they play as many games against the Orlando Magic (two) as they do against teams currently with winning records—so if they’re going to get the ship pointed in the right direction, now is the time. If they don’t, Erik Spoelstra may find himself wishing he’d stayed in that sunny park in Mexico.