Miami Is Running Out of Time to Heat Up
The Miami Heat’s game against the Cleveland on Wednesday was the symbol of the season. The team’s three stars played well: Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro scored 67 points on just 40 shots. The defense was staunch, with Cleveland only scoring 104 points, eight short of the Cavaliers’ season average. And they were in the game until the final siren, which is typical of the team that played the most clutch games in the league.
And yet, the Heat still lost 104–100, three games behind Brooklyn on a decisive no. 6th place in the standings of the East. This is the symbol of the season in Miami.
Last spring, the Heat finished the regular season first in the East and then advanced to the Conference Finals with few bumps along the way. (An injury to Joel Embiid in the second round smoothed their path considerably.) They were one miss from Butler’s second trip to the Finals in three years. But now they seem to be in the play-in bracket with a 35-32 record and the 23rd best net rating in the NBA.
As usual for a team led by Butler and Adebayo, the Heat have retained their strong defensive identity even in the current struggle. They are seventh in defensive rankings (only 0.1 points per 100 possessions outside the top five) and excel at forcing passes, limiting offensive rebounds, and avoiding fouls.
But the cliché “defense wins championships” only tells half the story, because offense also wins championships. In fact, it’s just as important to playoff success, with the 2022-23 Heat scoring the fewest points per game (108.3) of any team.
Even adjusting for their slow pace, the Heat are only 26th in offense, ahead of only the bottom four teams in the league (Pistons, Rockets, Spurs and Hornets). Only two of the last 26 title-winning teams have been worse than 11th in offense: last season’s Warriors (16th) and the 2003-04 Pistons (19th).
The strangest thing about Miami’s offensive failures is that all of its most important players are enjoying good seasons. Adebayo was an All-Star and Butler was scheduled to join, while Erro adjusted well to the starting rotation after earning the Sixth Man award for the 2021-2022 season. With this trio, the Heat have three qualified players averaging at least 20 points per game; The Trail Blazers, who are seventh on offense, are the only other team that can make that claim.
But even against the backdrop of these excellent results, the Heat are pushing the limits of building a team of two non-shooters in the modern NBA. It’s not a new moment, but it’s worth revisiting because the numbers are so extreme. Of the 56 players averaging at least 20 points per game this season, Butler ranks 52nd in 3-pointers per game, while Adebayo is 56th.
Together Butler and Adebayo combine in just 0.5 did 3 s per game. The top two scorers on every other team have at least 1.8 triples per game; the average team grew by about 4.5.
Winning this way is not impossible, but it forces the team down a very narrow path. In Miami’s case, last season’s dominance reflected the combined talent of the Heat’s player development team and coach Eric Spoelstra, who usually managed to squeeze more points out of offensive lineups than seemed possible. The 2021-22 Heat finished 12th on offense.
But this approach requires the right role players to make up for the limitations of the stars. Last season, the Heat led the NBA in three-point shooting (37.9%). This season, they are ranked 28th in three-point shooting (33.6%). Their drop is the biggest for any team since the 2019-20 Warriors.
Those Warriors fell to the apparent huge losses of Clay Thompson, Kevin Durant, and (most of the season) Steph Curry. The heat of 2022-2023, by contrast, was falling bit by bit across the board. Each of Miami’s fast shooters this season is less accurate.
Heat 3-point precision
This general decline is not the result of harder attempts. According to Second Spectrum tracking, Heat’s 3-point appearance is a bit Take it easy this season. In the 2021–2022 season, they attempted to pull off the toughest triples in the league based on factors such as where they hit and distance to a defender, but their performance (actual versus expected efficiency) was the best in the league. However, this season their shooting accuracy is at the very bottom of the league.
High performance three-point
|Statistics||Expected 3P% (rank)||Actual 3P% (rank)||Shot (rank)|
|Statistics||Expected 3P% (rank)||Actual 3P% (rank)||Shot (rank)|
|2021-22||34.3% (30th)||37.9% (1st)||+3.6% (1st place)|
|2022-23||34.7% (27th)||33.6% (28th)||-1.1% (24th place)|
According to the second spectrum.
It might be an exaggeration to say that the Heat will only score 3 points, but that has been the case in recent seasons. In the 2019/20 season, the team finished second in 3-point accuracy and advanced to the final. In the 2020/21 season, they were in 19th place and were mediocre. Then in the 2021/22 season they were the best in the league and won against East no. 1 seed. Now, in 2022-2023, they are bad at 3 seconds and overall they are mediocre again.
The problem at long range is exacerbated by the fact that the Heat falls behind in other places in the attack. Since they barely make it to the rim (27th most frequently for cleaning glass), they also only rank 24th in percentage with 2 points. NBA.com John Schumann pointed out that the Heat recently had a 17-game stretch in which their effective field goal percentage was below the league average. No amount of Butler’s free throws – the only offensive area the Heat excels at – can make up for such poor play from the field.
The cavalcade of mostly undrafted players that have supported Miami in recent seasons has stalled, at least for now. Max Strus and Gabe Vincent have regressed, while backup center Omer Yurtseven hasn’t played at all this season due to ankle surgery. Duncan Robinson, in the second year of a five-year, $90 million contract, barely rotates and doesn’t find his shot, even when he plays. And no one new has taken their place, as did Strus, who replaced the fallen Robinson a year ago.
None of the Heat veterans lived up to expectations. Kyle Lowry is the main culprit, as the 36-year-old point guard was out for a month with a knee injury and was posting a career-worst performance record before getting injured. Victor Oladipo showing flashes of his old self – 22 points on 12 shots against Atlanta over the weekend! — but largely inconsistent and only scoring 39 percent from the field. Hell, they’re now counting on freshly traded Kevin Love as a starter after they failed to add a single player on the trade deadline, and even he only hits 24 percent of three-pointers in Miami.
It’s another way in which Wednesday’s loss to Cleveland mirrors Miami’s entire season: while all three stars have scored, none of their teammates have even hit double-digit points.
Although they’re shrinking offensively, the Heat are still a very good team when all three of them – Butler, Adebayo and Erro – are on the floor: +9.8 points per 100 possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass . This difference is the 95th percentile for all squads in the league. That statistic alone is enough to keep Heat fans with some hope for the rest of the season, and would-be playoff opponents to remain wary of the havoc that a full-fledged Miami roster in an upset bid could wreak.
But the trio can’t play the full 48 minutes together, and Miami’s current path to the points is so fragile that even the slightest breach could spell disaster. When Butler…