20 Miami Heat observations through the first 20 games

The Heat are 20 games into a season that has already had some surprises, disappointments and controversy. Here are 20 observations from the first part of the season.
Brooklyn Nets v Miami Heat
Brooklyn Nets v Miami Heat / Megan Briggs/GettyImages

The Miami Heat were 9-11 after 20 games last season. Twenty games into this season? 11-9. By record and for other reasons we’ll get to here, the Heat are better than they were last season. 

That doesn’t necessarily mean they will return to the Finals, but Pat Riley and Co. typically like to reassess the team at this point of the season. Here are 20 observations through the first 20 games of the season.

1. The toughest stretch might already be over: No NBA team has played more road games than the Heat so far this season, with 12 of their first 20 coming away from Kaseya Center. This means that a majority of the remainder of their season will be played at home, including eight of 13 in December. 

2. But the Heat might like the road better: The Heat are 6-6 on the road this season and have the league’s third-best defense on the road versus the 27th-rated defense at home. (Two barn-burning games against the Pacers this past weekend dropped them from 21st at home.) If defense travels, the Heat’s road defense should be more representative than their performance in home games going forward.

3. The Heat are who they thought they were: Before two games against the Pacers in which they scored a total of 271 points and gave up 276 points, the Heat were 19th in offensive rating and eighth in defensive rating. After those two games, the Heat rank 11th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. This serves as a reminder that we’re still dealing with relatively small samples that can be thrown off by a couple of outlier performances. Don’t let the numbers fool you, the Heat are likely closer to what they were before the Pacers mini-series (slightly below average on offense, top 10 on defense) than after.

4. The Heat’s closest comp: Only two teams this season are shooting 38% on 3-pointers, get to the line at least 22 times per game and have a turnover differential of at least plus-2 – the Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder.

5. Do the Heat have an All-Star? Making this season’s All-Star roster in the East will be tough. Yes, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant have left for the Western Conference, but perennial All-Star Damian Lillard has joined the Bucks and several young players have taken a leap. 

Three players are shoe-ins for starting spots right now: Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum. If there’s another lock, it’s probably Tyrese Haliburton. Donovan Mitchell has a good chance of repeating as an All-Star starter. That leaves seven reserve spots for Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler, Jaylen Brown, Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, Lillard, Trae Young, Jalen Brunson, Tyrese Maxey, LaMelo Ball, Mikal Bridges, Scottie Barnes, Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner.

Adebayo has a strong case to make his third All-Star team, but it’s far from a guarantee (especially if this lingering hip injury forces him to miss more time).

6. If they stay healthy, the Heat will have one of the best lineups in the league: Miami’s current starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Duncan Robinson, Butler, Haywood Highsmith and Adebayo is out-scoring teams by 11.7 points per 100 possessions, ninth-best among lineups that have logged as many minutes. While they don’t come close to the amount of time together as starting fives in Boston or Sacramento, they could by the end of the season if they stay healthy. And, of course, if that remains the Heat’s starting five…

7. There’s a case to be made for starting Robinson over Tyler Herro: Herro is expected to return from a sprained right ankle soon, at which time the Heat will have a tough decision to make. Herro has started 75 games since last season, including the first eight this season when he was putting up career-highs in points, rebounds and assists. But the starting lineup also seems to click better when Robinson takes his place as a low-usage shooting guard. Spoelstra was already manipulating his rotations to give Herro time running the second unit. Could he ask Herro to reprise his role as sixth man and make a permanent change with Duncan starting? It’s had to at least cross Spoelstra’s mind.

8. Duncan Robinson’s evolution is real: More of Duncan Robinson’s field goals are coming from 2-point range than ever. He’s developed a helpful off-the-bounce game to attack closeouts and keep defenses honest, but his bread-and-butter is still the 3-point shot. After a two-year slump, Robinson’s 3-point percentage has climbed back to 45%.

My only note: Robinson should keep doing what makes him great. There have been a handful of times when he has passed up 3-point looks to dribble to the basket. It’s fun to show off the new skills, but taking and making 3s is the top job requirement.

9. Bam Adebayo’s shifting shot chart: Adebayo is averaging career highs in points (22.3), shot attempts (15.8) and free-throw attempts (7) this season, but his shot chart is a bit troubling. He is moving further away from the basket, with 33% of his shots coming at the rim compared to 40% last season and 20% of his shots coming from the long mid-range compared to 10% last season. Adebayo’s field goal percentage hasn’t changed much (52.2% this season from 54% last season) but it might be unrealistic to expect it to remain steady with that shot diet. He needs to work on getting closer to the basket more often.

10. More Jimmy Butler is better: The Heat are 3-1 in games Butler has posted a usage percentage of 30% or better. They are 2-3 when his usage rate falls below 23% of Miami’s possessions. When Butler plays like a star, the Heat are better for it.

11. Butler and Kevin Love are a good fit: Spoelstra has settled into a rotation with Love as the backup center behind Adebayo, and that’s largely because of his fit with Butler. Love is a natural pick-and-pop partner with Butler, and the Heat are out-scoring opponents by 9.2 points per 100 possessions with Butler and Love on the court (versus 1.3 points per 100 in the Butler-plus-Bam minutes).

12. Haywood Highsmith needs to be more productive: Since inserting Highsmith into the starting lineup, the Heat are 10-5 in the games he’s played. What he adds defensively is nothing short of vital. He’s defended some of the league’s top scorers and when he, Butler and Adebayo are going full-tilt it forms a Bermuda Triangle where opponent possessions go to die. 

But to remain a long-term starter in this league, Highsmith needs to provide something on offense. After a hot start, he’s back to making about 33% of his 3-pointers – which is in line with his career average despite an offseason in which he trained with Duncan Robinson to get those percentages up. Opponents already play off of him in the corners, but he needs to make them pay by taking and making those shots more consistently.

13. The Heat need a new in-season tournament court: The bright red was an eye-sore and made it difficult to track the game. Points for creativity, but hopefully we can get something a little easier on the eyes next season.

14. After a slow start, Caleb Martin is rounding into form: After missing 10 of Miami’s first 11 games with a knee injury, Martin in his last four games has scored 22, 14, 14 and 18 points. Moments like this, where he starts in the corner and drives baseline, are classic Caleb. 

15. Miami has had enough at point guard: Despite preseason concerns at the position, Kyle Lowry and Josh Richardson have been fine at point guard. Lowry has played in 19 of Miami’s 20 games and Richardson, after a slow start, has found his footing as a table-setter and opportunistic scorer. Lowry is fourth on the Heat in plus-minus, according to Cleaning the Glass, while Richardson has scored in double-digits in seven straight games.

16. Jaime Jaquez Jr. is awesome: The reigning Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month has been among the most pleasant surprises for the Heat this season. He’s not only good for a rookie, he’s just good. Jaquez has earned a nightly role because of his ability to defend, play off the ball and make plays for others. His floor game resembles a player beyond his years. Jaquez is consistently making the right read and toes the line between aggressive and unselfish. 

The emergence of Jaquez potentially changes a lot for the Heat, including their standing among the East’s elite and approach to February’s trade deadline.

17. Nikola Jovic is a work in progress: Unlike Jaquez, Jovic has yet to carve out a role in the rotation. While his skillset as a 6-foot-10 forward who can dribble, pass and make open shots is exciting, he needs to develop as a defender. Though there have been some rumblings about his frustrations about a lack of playing time, Jovic has openly prioritized the team’s winning over his own role. Butler remarked a few weeks ago that Jovic will be part of the franchise in the future and long after he’s gone. Patience is key when it comes to Jovic, who is still the youngest player on the roster by at least two years.

18. Orlando Robinson has moved ahead of Thomas Bryant on the depth chart: Though Miami prefers to play just two centers most nights (Adebayo and Love), when Speolstra has recently had to go deeper into the bench he’s opted for Robinson over Bryant. Robinson, at this stage, is a more reliable defender than Bryant, and so he will get Spoelstra’s trust. With Adebayo sidelined against the Pacers Saturday, Spoelstra started Robinson in his spot. We can assume that will be the case if Adebayo has to miss any more time going forward.

19. Adebayo’s lingering hip injury is an issue: More on this here, but a left hip contusion has now sidelined Adebayo for four games and limited him in others. It’s only December, so it’s too early to worry, but the organization must find a way to get Adebayo the treatment he needs so this hip injury isn’t an issue come April.

20. Are more rotation decisions on the way? When Herro returns, the Heat will have 10 players worthy of a steady rotation spot: Lowry, Robinson, Butler, Highsmith, Adebayo, Richardson, Herro, Jaquez, Martin and Love. Going 10 deep in the rotation isn’t that kooky during the regular season, but it will be interesting if Spoelstra decides to streamline things to a top nine. If that’s the case, who is the odd man out? And is there a reason for a consolidation trade in the future?

Next. next. Re-Grading all the Miami Heat's 2023 acquisitions so far: Why Jaime Jaquez Jr. is a perfect fit. dark