Over the course the season’s first five weeks, the Miami Heat have already held a players-only meeting, as well as another gathering in which one of the team’s most important players apologized for his string of poor performances.
Oh, and even after those two well-intentioned assemblies, they also required a “grueling, dog-eat-dog” practice, unusual for a club this far into a campaign.
That’s all to say: The Heat are struggling mightily to start 2017-18.
Miami has played in a style unbecoming of the culture the franchise loves to tout. The frenetic, passionate team that scratched out 30 wins in their final 41 contests to close last season is gone. In their stead, there’s a whole lot of pointless dribbling, contested three-point shooting and finger-pointing on the defensive end.
Whatever cunning tactics head coach Erik Spoelstra employed to make his squad – without Justise Winslow and Dion Waiters for long stretches – play on a 60-win pace from Game 41 to Game 82 last year have seemingly vanished.
And it’s difficult to surmise why.
Because after striking out with All-Star wing Gordon Hayward during last summer’s offseason, team president Pat Riley’s strategy involved opting for continuity.
Among the league’s 30 teams, only the Portland Trail Blazers, Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors returned a higher percentage of minutes from their 2016-17 rosters. Miami ranks fourth in minutes returned at 88 percent, per Basketball Reference.
Shouldn’t that have meant this year’s rendition of Heat basketball, familiar with each others’ tendencies and dislikes on the court, would hit the ground running?
Thus far, the opposite has been true.
Of the four teams listed with the highest percentage of minutes returned, Miami boasts by far the lowest net rating this season, getting outscored by 3.8 points per 100 possessions.
What’s more, of the nine franchises who returned at least 79 percent of their minutes from last year, only Miami, Milwaukee and the Dallas Mavericks have a negative net rating. The Mavs can be excused, as they’re clearly trying to rebuild post-Dirk Nowitzki, while the Bucks have already made a major trade this year in the acquisition of Eric Bledsoe, which they’re somewhat struggling to acclimate to.
So what’s the Heat’s excuse?
For starters, their unsustainably hot shooting that carried them to a 30-11 record to close 2016-17 has proven to be just that: unsustainable.
Their quality of looks haven’t changed all that much overall, as they’re averaging even more corners threes than last season, and about as many triples considered open or wide open by NBA.com.
The shots simply aren’t going down.
Well, that’s not an entirely true. The three-pointers Miami sank with aplomb last season are still going down, but for whatever reason, only in the first halves of contests.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Spoelstra’s team has already nearly blown two massive, 20-plus-point first-half leads: one to the Los Angeles Clippers on Nov. 5, and the other to the Washington Wizards on Nov. 17.
Although Miami wound up winning both of those games anyway, they were damning performances that, in the end, felt more like losses than victories, and have proven to be more indicative of the team’s overall quality than their other, less stressful wins.
Regression from various players has also killed the Heat thus far this campaign.
Starting in the latter half of last season, Spoelstra developed an offense predicated on his rugged backcourt – consisting of Goran Dragic alongside Waiters – and a simple-but-deadly drive-and-kick scheme.
In 2016-17, Miami’s two guards were among the league’s most relentless at attacking the basket, placing third and sixth in drives per contest respectively. Dragic preferred to finish on drives, and did so with tremendous effectiveness, scoring on 52.8 percent of his field-goal attempts on such attacks. His backcourt partner was nowhere near as effective as a scorer on drives (just a 42.8 percent finisher), but his 12.6 percent assist rate on rim attacks trailed only James Harden for the NBA’s best mark.
The issue is, this season, rival teams have adjusted to Miami’s offense. Opponents have done a much better job of playing tight defense when Dragic and Waiters try to get a full head of steam to the basket, while help defenders remain glued to shooters so as to eliminate the Heat’s imposing outlet options.
Through 16 games, Dragic’s field-goal percentage on drives is all the way down to 42.9 percent, while Waiters’ assist rate has fallen to 10.4 percent. The former has seen a dip in assist rate as well, while the latter is still a porous finisher at 43.1 percent.
In particular, teams have been smart to dare Waiters – a career 52.3 percent shooter from within three feet of the rim – to finish his drives one-on-one, as opposed to crashing down and risking leaving Miami’s three-point shooters open.
The poor results on drives have severely hampered the Heat’s offensive rating, which currently sits at 100.1 – the fifth-worst mark in the NBA.
Of course, the entire team’s pitfalls can’t be pinned on just two players; there’s plenty of blame to go around.
In 2016-17, the Heat’s bench was one of their main difference-makers, thanks to its ability to defend and score efficient buckets. On the year, led by James and Tyler Johnson, with Wayne Ellington spacing the floor, the unit outscored teams by 2.2 points per 100 possessions. This year, even despite the addition of versatile big man Kelly Olynyk, they’re being outscored by 2.9 points per 100 possessions.
This somewhat shocking drop in efficiency is at least partially to blame for the team’s struggles. And though it’s impossible to fault just one player, T. Johnson’s regression has been the most worrisome.
He’s scoring less often, less effectively, and hasn’t improved on what was his biggest weakness: creating for others.
Making this regression even more concerning for the Heat is the fact that due to T. Johnson’s poison-pill contract, Miami is about to owe him $18.9 million in 2018-19, and $19.6 million the year after.
That’s a whole lot of money for a player who may be maxed-out as a career second-string guard. And even if the Heat decided to open up some cap space by attempting to find takers for their sixth man, they don’t own a movable first-round pick until 2023, or a second-round pick of any sort until 2022. A lack of sweetener could make dealing T. Johnson next to impossible.
Again, though, it’s not just one or two players at the root of Miami’s problems.
Josh Richardson, who the Heat believed in to the extent they signed him to a four-year, $42 million extension before the start of this season, hasn’t made close to the jump the team expected.
Although he still provides tremendous value as one of the league’s most aggressive defenders, with the ability to aptly guard positions one through three, his offensive game has been among the NBA’s least potent.
Of all the players averaging at least 30 minutes per night, Richardson’s effective field-goal percentage of 45.6 ranks ninth worst. (Who sits one spot ahead of him with the tenth-worst effective field-goal percentage? His teammate Waiters.)
Not only does Richardson struggle with his scoring, but his play-making, which has always been a weakness, remains as lacking as ever. Which makes it all the more confusing that he’s run a total of 53 pick-and-rolls through 16 contests, while scoring 0.70 points per possession (PPP) on such plays – the sixth-lowest clip among players with a minimum of 50 opportunities, according to Synergy Sports
His teammate J. Johnson, on the other hand, is scoring 1.04 PPP when running pick-and-rolls (passes included), a mark that puts him in the “very good” range, per Synergy. Except J. Johnson, despite his clear superiority as pick-and-roll creator, has run five fewer such plays than Richardson, and does so with a lower frequency as well.
The disparity simply defies logic.
Miami has other issues as well.
Winslow, in a pivotal Year 3 of development, shouldn’t be averaging a career-low in minutes. It’s getting to be time for Spoelstra and Co. to figure out whether or not he’s going to be part of their long-term plans. How are they supposed to do that if he remains glued to the bench during nearly every fourth quarter?
Olynyk, who the Heat liked so much that they gave him a four-year, $50 million contract this offseason, leads the team in on/off differential among qualified players, giving them a 6.7-point-per-100-possession boost when he’s in the game as opposed to when he sits.
So why, like Winslow, is he playing a career-low 18.4 minutes per outing?
Whiteside is putting up monstrous numbers as is the norm for him. So why are the Heat only outscoring opponents by 0.4 points per 100 possessions when he’s in the game?
The unanswerable questions appear to be endless.
Perhaps things change when (if?) the Heat start hitting more than 38.6 percent of their wide-open triples. Maybe results improve if Waiters regains the flair he had late last season, when he averaged 18.7 points and 4.9 assists on 45.5 percent shooting over a 25-game stretch. Who knows? It’s still somewhat possible Winslow blossoms into a lesser version of Draymond Green once he receives an expanded role sometime down the road.
Or perhaps this is it, and Miami tied themselves down financially and for the foreseeable future to a team whose potential peaks at 41 or 42 wins.
If the latter is the case, you can be sure a trade or two will be in the works once the Collective Bargaining Agreement allows for it. Because after all Riley and the franchise have been through, it’s unlikely they’ll be satisfied with mere mediocrity.
You can follow Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.