The Miami Heat's defense is a bigger problem than you think

The Miami Heat might be better off trying to turn their defense into an elite unit than focusing on their offense this offseason.
Miami Heat v New York Knicks
Miami Heat v New York Knicks / Mitchell Leff/GettyImages

While most of the blame for the Miami Heat’s disappointing season has been aimed at injuries and another year of listless offense, the defense hasn’t been the subject of very much critique. 

And why would it? The Heat were fifth in defensive rating – a very good mark – while the offense ranked 21st in efficiency and the team had more games missed due to injury than any other playoff team. No doubt, those are the primary culprits for another year in the play-in tournament.

But it would be a mistake to assume everything is fine with the Heat’s defense. Even though the Heat need to get healthier and better at scoring, there’s a lot more room for improvement on defense than their defensive rating suggests.

Pop open the hood and those defensive cylinders aren’t all firing. While the Heat did rank fifth with an overall defensive rating of 111.5 for the season, that wasn’t the case against good teams. Against teams with a top-10 offensive rating, the Heat’s defense ranked 19th, giving up 121 points per 100 possessions (nearly 10 more points per 100 than their regular-season average), according to Cleaning the Glass.

So what? I bet that’s the case for most defenses going against top offenses.

Nope! The two most dominant defenses in the league last season – the Minnesota Timberwolves and Orlando Magic – still ranked first and second in defensive rating against those same top-10 offenses. That’s the mark of a truly elite defense.

The Heat made up ground against bad teams – giving up 107.6 points per 100 possessions against bottom-10 offenses. So while Miami’s defense took care of business against lesser competition, that unit didn’t step up when it was needed most.

Top NBA Defenses Against Elite Offenses

Overall DRTG

DRTG vs Top-10 Offenses


108.9 (1st)

113.4 (1st)


111.5 (2nd)

113.8 (2nd)


112.0 (3rd)

117.2 (8th)


112.7 (5th)

121.0 (19th)

Data via Cleaning the Glass

This fits the throughline of the Heat’s season – that they won the games they were supposed to win but struggled to beat elite teams. (Miami was 5-20 against teams with a top-10 point differential, per CtG.)

The Heat also got lucky when it came to opponent 3-point shooting, as teams made just 35.3% of their 3s against the Heat, the fifth-worst mark in the league against a specific opponent.

Erik Spoelstra talked a lot during the season about the need to be disruptive on defense. How creating turnovers would help feed a starving offense. The Heat ranked fourth in creating turnovers against bottom-10 offenses (good!), but 22nd against top-10 offenses (bad!).

This difference in forcing turnovers is baked into Miami ranking a middling 14th in halfcourt defense, according to CtG. That’s a much more accurate reflection of the Heat’s quality of defense.

For those who watched the Heat all season, this shouldn’t be surprising. Even with an impressive overall defensive rating, it never felt like the Heat had an elite defense. You know what I mean?

Here’s how I’ve come to explain it: The Heat had a defense good enough to keep them in games, but not good enough to win them games.

Not like the Timberwolves or Magic, at least.

When looking at priorities this offseason, then, it’s easy to assume that Miami needs to find ways to score more consistently and get its best players to play more games.

But unless the Heat can acquire one of the league’s top scorers, how realistic is it that they can turn the 21st-ranked offense into an elite one? 

(The answer: Not very.)

There’s an argument to be made that the Heat have a better chance of upgrading their defense into an elite unit. They already have a Defensive Player of the Year finalist in Bam Adebayo, and Jimmy Butler can be a difference-maker on that end when he’s available and engaged. But there are weaknesses elsewhere.

The Heat need positional size and high-end defensive players at other positions. Point-of-attack defense was a concern for most of the season the Heat never truly fixed. Acquiring a guard who can lock up on the perimeter – like Orlando’s Jalen Suggs, Minnesota’s Anthony Edwards and Boston’s Derrick White and Jrue Holiday – is key to an elite defense. Another versatile wing defender and more depth and size at center would go a long way, too. Players who can make Adebayo’s and Butler’s jobs easier, not harder.

In other words, aim to be an elite defense like the Timberwolves and Magic. Both teams won more games than the Heat and avoided the play-in tournament despite also ranking in the bottom half of the league in offensive rating. That’s because they could rely on their defense to win games – against any level of competition.

The Heat weren’t elite at any one thing last season (unless you include getting injured). This offseason should be about finding a way to get elite at something. For a franchise that prides itself on defense, good isn’t good enough.