Erik Spoelstra has spent most of this season tinkering with the Miami Heat’s rotation, and that he’s landed on a starting lineup that prioritizes offense over defense is meaningful for a few reasons.
With a week left in the regular season, Spoelstra appears to have settled on a micro-sized starting five of Gabe Vincent, Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler, Max Strus and Bam Adebayo. That group beat the Pistons on Tuesday night and is expected to start tonight against the 76ers.
It would have played against the Mavericks last weekend had Adebayo not been sidelined with a troublesome hip. Spoelstra went with this unit, with Strus replacing Kevin Love as the fifth starter, against a similarly small Mavericks team and against a Pistons team that runs large with two centers often on the court.
When it became clear that Spoelstra would have to decide between a rotation of offensive-minded players or defensive-minded players, he chose the former.
Just as notable as who is in the rotation is who is out. Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller — once given a chance to anchor the second unit — appear to be out of the top eight. The bench minutes have gone to Kyle Lowry, Caleb Martin and Love.
Here’s a more visual look at Miami’s current depth chart:
PG: Gabe Vincent / Kyle Lowry
SG: Tyler Herro
SF: Jimmy Butler / Caleb Martin
PF: Max Strus
C: Bam Adebayo / Kevin Love
In the two games since making the change, the Heat have the league’s best offensive rating, scoring 130 points every 100 possessions. It’s a small sample size against two of the league’s most flimsy defenses, but it’s also all we have from which to draw conclusion. The Heat have also won both games.
Meanwhile, the defense ranks 23rd in rating, right in line with where they’ve been since the All-Star break. Could they get more stops by going big, playing Oladipo more or perhaps returning Martin to the starting lineup? Probably. But that would have come at the sacrifice of the offense. That a Miami Heat team decided to prioritize offense over defense is surprising.
How did we get here?
Since the All-Star break, the Heat rank 17th in offensive rating and 25th in defensive rating. It got to a point where Spoelstra had to decide if his offense or defense had a better chance of performing like a top-10 unit the rest of the way.
The defensive slippage was jarring, but not all that surprising. Miami’s defense ranked in the top 10 most of the season but a look under the hood revealed a patchwork approach. Rather than get traditional stops (put yourself between your man and the basket and force a missed shot), the Heat relied on ending possessions by forcing turnovers.
Those turnovers also fueled their offense, but it required a lot of hard work. A lot of Martin fronting bigs in the post, toggling between zone and man schemes, jumping passing lanes and recovering if it didn’t lead to a deflection. The slippage started in February, before the All-Star break. After a few months, Heat coaches concluded it wasn’t sustainable.
So the Heat signed Love and inserted him into the starting lineup hoping his size would help solidify the front line. His one-on-one defense was shaky and he wasn’t making enough 3s to make up for it (28.6% on 3s since joining the Heat). Other options like Omer Yurtseven made too many defensive mistakes, memorably prompting Spoelstra to throw a clipboard during a recent game. Haywood Highsmith played some front court minutes but gave up too much size.
The breaking point, however, came after three straight losses to Brooklyn, Toronto and New York in which the Heat scored just 100, 92 and 92 points, were consistently out-rebounded and gave up 53 combined fastbreak points.
Asked about the lack of transition defense and rebounding, players and coaches pointed to fatigue. It was clear that Miami’s best chance to get stops was to make shots and force opponents to score in a half-court setting against a set defense.
Creating space for Butler and Adebayo isn’t a new formula, but without a two-way power forward such as Jae Crowder or P.J. Tucker the Heat are forced to go with three guard looks that sacrifice size. If the ultimate ceiling raiser for this team is Butler, it makes sense to prioritize an ecosystem that lets him cook.
If there’s an original sin for this season, it’s not acquiring a true power forward after Tucker left for Philadelphia. Tucker was a knock-down 3-point shooter and a playoff-level defender who brought balance to both sides of the court.
Martin was adequate, made 3s and tried hard on defense, but playing out of position wore him down. Now that physical sacrifice seems to have landed on Strus, who spent time the other night guarding enormous rookie center Jalen Duren. These are not longterm solutions but, with three games left and the play-in tournament, the Heat are not in the longterm solutions business. They’re fine with band-aids.
There’s no perfect in-between lineup. No ideal way to balance offense and defense, size with shooting. With such limited personnel, the Heat were forced to make a choice. They chose offense. That they did speaks a lot to how much things have changed in a year, and what lies ahead this offseason.