It’s easy to eyeball the defending Eastern Conference champions through the prism of disappointment without absorbing the nuance plaguing their dispiriting season.
Surface level analysis of the Heat effortlessly indicates: They’re 7-14, they’re near-last in the conference, they just lost at home to the even worse Washington Wizards, and they probably should punt on the season, some would say. But when you survey deeper, you’ll see that it’s more complicated than that, even if those initial thoughts are all correct. Before losing last night to the man they may attempt to trade for — Bradley Beal — the Heat have been subjected to an excess of injuries to key contributors like Tyler Herro and Goran Dragic. Really, everyone on the roster has missed at least one game other than Duncan Robinson. The team was also slapped with COVID protocol absences, forcing them to play with eight players across multiple games, one of which nearly resulted in a road win over the Philadelphia 76ers, before a late no-call on a Joel Embiid carry turned the tide.
Jimmy Butler, who reportedly lost 12 pounds while battling COVID, actually contracted the virus, along with crucial contributor Avery Bradley, and they each missed three weeks. The Heat went 2-8 during that stretch after entering it 5-6. Prior to that, Butler had missed multiple games due to an ankle injury, which originally sidelined him for the second half of the Heat’s Christmas Day victory over the New Orleans Pelicans. Because they’ve had to shuffle their rotation frequently, Erik Spoelstra has already trotted out 14 different starting lineups in 21 games, and only the five of Herro, Butler, Robinson, Kelly Olynyk, and Bam Adebayo have started more than five games. There have been 10 starting lineups that tipped off only one time, with Adebayo and Robinson serving as the only constants on all 10. The Heat have even had to turn to two-way contracted players Gabe Vincent and Max Strus to have big moments.
Working in their favor is that no NBA club is uncatchable so far this season. Even at 13th in the East, and at 7-14 overall, the Heat are 4.5 games behind the Boston Celtics, who are fourth, and 2.5 games behind the Charlotte Hornets, who are eighth. Even the Sixers at 16-6 don’t hold a commanding lead over the entire East. But in a shortened 72-game season (though, we’ll see about that), playoff positioning will shift dramatically between now and the conclusion of the regular campaign. But on the court, it does feel and look different. Vastly incomparable to how they appeared during their NBA Finals run (and 44-29 regular season, which was as good as 31-13 at one point).
Last night, in quotes recovered by Alex Toledo of 5 On The Floor, Butler and Adebayo spoke to the basketball portion of what’s wrong with their team.
Butler: “I think we’re just not making shots. When we’re not making shots, it kinda gives us an excuse to go down there and not play defense. I think that’s what it is. ’Cause when we make shots, we defend pretty well. I think we just gotta grow up in that sense.”
Adebayo: “I just think, getting stops. We gotta be on the same page on defense. I just feel like we have mental lapses or a two/three-minute stretch where teams get back into the game.”
When the Heat had arguably the most enjoyable brand of basketball out of anyone last season — and a third-best-in-the-NBA 29-7 “home” record — the team was top 10 in fewest points per game allowed, offensive rating, net rating, and field-goal percentage. They were second in three-point percentage, tied for fifth in assists, and outside of the top 10 in turnovers committed. This season? They’re in the bottom five in net rating, offensive rating, and points per game. They’re 21st in defensive rating, 22nd in pace, and have allowed the 13th-most points. From three, they’re shooting 35 percent, three fewer percentage points than last season, and have dropped from second to 24th. They’re dead last in rebounding after being middle of the road one season ago, and they’re second to only the Chicago Bulls on most turnovers committed. Teams record 9.4 steals per game against the Heat, which leads the NBA.
The Heat haven’t been able to establish anything meaningful due to situations mostly beyond their control, though it appears they could’ve gone about their offseason more effectively. Jae Crowder did leave for a long-term deal with the Phoenix Suns even after the Heat tried to keep him on a one-year, $14 million deal to maintain cap space for 2021, but he’s missed, at least partially, even though his stretch with the Heat was career-best level. Meyers Leonard was retained for one-year, $9 million, and he played three games this season before needing season-ending shoulder surgery. The Heat didn’t package the expected trade pieces of Kendrick Nunn, Olynyk, and a first (as a starting point) to land a big man to play beside Adebayo, which is clearly their biggest void on the roster. Realistically, is PJ Tucker, LaMarcus Aldridge, or John Collins fixing all of this? Do they instead opt for Beal, Victor Oladipo, or Kyle Lowry? Is the move to assemble over $50 million in salary, prospects and picks to land both DeMar DeRozan and Aldridge as Ethan Skolnick of 5 On The Floor mentioned recently, or could they attempt to land Oladipo and Tucker from Houston?
Or do they … not.
The Heat aren’t bad enough to tank, not that they would anyway, and they can improve with the time and chemistry that injuries and COVID have stood in the way of. Standing still won’t result in a sudden surge (in the immediate), nor would it result in a championship in the end, but if they’re content to hold onto their pieces and make their run in 2021 free agency, maybe seeing it through isn’t the worst thing for them. But that would be counterproductive by their own admission.
Spoelstra says the Heat feel a responsibility to win in Butler’s window, and legendary executive Pat Riley will turn 76 in March. They don’t have to do something, as much as they should from a basketball standpoint. But on some level, how much could you depend on your organization to overcome a worldwide pandemic that is being managed more poorly in America than elsewhere, and maybe most poorly in Florida, where Miami is. Florida’s had over 1.7 million COVID cases, with over 27,000 deaths and rising. Miami-Dade County will soon have over 400,000 cases, and are nearing 5,000 casualties.
Could your basketball team thrive during a pandemic in your state being governed by a dude with the nickname “Deathsantis?”
So you can quote Nas and Anderson .Paak and say it’s “All Bad,” but this season is the one that should be labeled with an asterisk, not the last. The Heat can still save themselves, but even with a trade, there’s only so much they and others could do right now, with external circumstances up in the air on a game-to-game basis.