Burning Questions: Diagnosing the Miami Heat’s scoring issues

Nov 1, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) attempts a three point shot against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 1, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat forward Jimmy Butler (22) attempts a three point shot against the Brooklyn Nets during the second half at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports /

Welcome to Burning Questions! It’s the Miami Heat mailbag with hot questions and even hotter answers.

As always, you can submit questions for future columns on X, formerly Twitter, @wcgoldberg or email them to wcgoldberg@gmail.com. Let’s get started!

Listen to Erik Spoelstra talk after enough of these losses and two words keep popping up: “Intentional” and “sustain.”

For the Heat to win games, they have to work hard. Probably harder than other teams with a higher base level of talent (Spoelstra also claims that working hard is a skill). It’s difficult to maintain that focus and hard work for a whole game and so, naturally, the Heat are going to drop a few regular-season games. That happens to every team now and again.

The issue for the Heat is that it keeps happening. They’ve outscored their opponent in the fourth quarter only once through five games this season (and that was against a Bucks team that took its foot off the gas after going up by 25 earlier in the game).

Part of the reason for these collapses is that opponents are just shooting well to end games. The Nets made 55% of their shots in the second half of Wednesday night’s collapse and opponents have an effective field goal percentage of 56.5% against the Heat in fourth quarters this season. Some of that is just shooting luck and should regress as the season goes on.

But there’s also an underlying issue, and that’s the lack of a go-to scoring weapon. Think of the most successful teams in the league and what they do when they need a bucket. The Warriors go to the Steph Curry-Draymond Green two-man game. The Lakers run a pick-and-roll between LeBron James and Anthony Davis. The Nuggets have Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray.

What’s the Heat’s go-to option? In the playoffs, they would give it to Jimmy Butler in the post. But Butler’s struggles and newly-cropped-up knee tendinitis have drained him of those postseason powers. Lately, they’ve asked Tyler Herro to bail them out. As well as Herro has played, that’s not a strategy that forces defenses to react and make mistakes. Herro and Butler have never figured out how to play off each other. This isn’t new. Last season, the Heat had the eighth-worst net rating in the second half.

There are a lot of reasons for Miami’s issues in the second half, but the main culprit is a roster lacking in top-end talent and whose best two scorers don’t complement each other at all.

For the record, I’ve been OK with Herro’s inefficient nights because he’s the only one on this team willing to take shots. Butler has been a shell of himself, Bam Adebayo has his hands full doing pretty much everything else on the court, and someone had to remind Kyle Lowry that he was allowed to shoot the ball. The Duncan Robinson evolution is a good story, but sometimes I think he’s too excited to show off that he can dribble into layups and ends up passing up decent catch-and-shoot looks from beyond the arc.

To answer your question, I’m confident when Herro and Robinson rise for a jumper, but that’s it.

Clearly, Spoelstra doesn’t trust Nikola Jovic at this point. With Kevin Love out Wednesday, Spoelstra went with rookie Jaime Jaquez Jr. over Jovic in the starting lineup and Jovic was a DNP-CD.

The issue is that, for Jovic to play, he has to take someone’s minutes. It won’t be Lowry’s, because they play different positions. Haywood Highsmith returned Wednesday and impressed when he was on the court. Caleb Martin, when healthy, will be a big part of the rotation. Love, for whatever faults he has, is still a more reliable player right now. It’s just tough to find a place for Jovic to fit in.

His offense can be dynamic and the tempo tends to ratchet up when he’s on the court, but defensively he still makes a lot of mistakes and he’s a below-average rebounder at this stage. Perhaps Spoelstra will get desperate enough to forgive the defensive shortcomings if it means raising the ceiling of this offense, but he hasn’t gotten there yet.

This is the question Spoelstra and his staff will be asking themselves over the next several days. Miami’s offense ranks 24th in efficiency. It ranked 25th last regular season. Unlike last season, though, the reason isn’t primarily shooting. After struggling to make 3s most of last season, the Heat are making 37.6% of their 3s this season (the eighth-best mark in the league). Part of the problem is that they are only getting up 33 3-point attempts per game when they need to put up closer to 40. Who takes those shots? Herro and Robinson need to combine for at least 20 3-point attempts for the Heat to even sniff 40 as a team. Through five games, they average 15.6.

Beyond the 3-point shooting volume, the Heat aren’t getting to the rim. They are attempting the third-fewest shots at the basket in the league and converting them at the sixth-worst clip (60.4% in the restricted area).

Instead, the Heat are putting up most of their shots in the non-restricted area and midrange. No team takes more shots from these two areas combined than the Heat, who are attempting 36.8 shots from the area of the floor considered the least-efficient shot in basketball — a long 2-pointer.

Think about the sweet spots for Miami’s top three scorers: Adebayo’s free-throw line jumper, Herro’s off-the-dribble mid-range jumper, Butler’s leaner in the paint. All of them fall into this long 2-pointer category. No one gets to the basket like Giannis or sinks 3s like Steph Curry. That means putting together an efficient offense is nearly impossible.

To break this down in analytic terms, let’s say the Heat made 50% of their midrange shots on 100 possessions (So, basically, everyone draining midrange jumpers like prime Michael Jordan). That would be 50 made 2-pointers, or 100 points.

Here’s the formula to calculate offensive rating:

ORTG = 100 * [(Points)/(Poss)]

ORTG = 100* [100/100]

ORTG = 100.0

An offensive rating of 100.0 would rank dead last for every season since 2016, and that’s with the whole team shooting like Michael Jordan on long 2s for 100 straight possessions! That’s because shooting 50% from that range is considered elite, while shooting 50% at the basket is considered very bad. Guess what, both shots still count for two points.

The Heat’s best players are all trying to score like Michael Jordan and, even when they do, it doesn’t result in efficient offense. The Heat need to mix in more shots at the basket and from beyond the 3-point line. Right now, they are doing neither at a high enough level.

As we’ve covered, there is a roster construction problem here. The only logical thing to do is to mix it up. The problem is that (a.) the Heat tried to make a big trade in the offseason but failed, (b.) there isn’t a free agent available to fix this issue, and, (c.) making a trade this early in the season is difficult.

The Heat need another team to conclude that changes need to be made, and for that team to also have what Miami needs. Rarely are teams ready to make a trade less than a month into the season (unless James Harden is involved, evidently). The trade deadline is in February. Perhaps something can be done closer to then.

For now, the Heat are stuck with the same problems they had last season.