After striking out in the Gordon Hayward sweepstakes, many wondered which direction the Miami Heat would take in the 2017 free agency bonanza.
Most expected Pat Riley and Co. to more or less settle with getting the band back together in the form of re-signing their own unrestricted free agents: James Johnson and Dion Waiters.
The two journeymen had career years in 2016-17, seamlessly fitting in within the fabled Heat culture and helping the team win 30 of its final 41 contests after an abysmal start to the campaign – a start that kept Miami out of the playoffs for the second time in the three years since LeBron James’ departure.
In the end, those people were right: the Heat did bring Johnson and Waiters back, both on healthy deals. However, Riley – as he so often does – also had a bit of a surprise up his sleeve, one that ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski was the first to report:
The initial response to the Kelly Olynyk signing was mixed. Sure, the Canadian big man was coming off an absurd Game 7 performance in which he dropped 26 points and four assists to help his former team, the Boston Celtics, eliminate the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals.
But he also had flaws to his game that made many wonder whether he was worth a price tag that lofty.
Despite his 7-foot stature, Olynyk has never been much of a rebounder or shot-blocker. A former lottery pick, he came into 2017-18 averaging 9.5 points and 4.7 rebounds nightly on 47.7 percent shooting for his career. And although he flaunted moments of brilliance as a Celtic, they came far too inconsistently to ever be considered anything other than teasing flashes.
This season, however, Olynyk has at least started to change the narrative on his career.
In his first year with the Heat, Olynyk has become the definition of a difference-maker. The Gonzaga product is averaging career-highs in points (11.4), rebounds (5.7), assists (2.8) and nightly triples (1.3), while posting his highest true-shooting percentage as a professional (60.7).
It’s not just the raw statistics having a love affair with the man-bunned big man, either. Perusing Olynyk’s advanced stats show further career-highs in Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares per 48, Box Plus/Minus and Value Over Replacement Player.
Some of that betterment has to do with the fact Olynyk has already played the highest minute total of his career. But three of the four aforementioned metrics are per-minute measurements of efficiency as opposed to cumulative, so even that counterargument is flimsy at best.
Perhaps the most encouraging figure to note, however, is Olynyk’s net rating, which shows that the Heat are outscoring opponents by 11.1 points per 100 possessions with their big Canadian on the floor – by far the highest mark on the team.
Miami has scored 114.9 points per 100 possessions with Olynyk in the game this season (per NBAWowy); the best offense in the league (belonging to the Houston Rockets, of course) is producing 113.1 points per 100 possessions on the year. That’s how effective the Heat become with their floor-spacing 7-footer on the floor.
Examining Olynyk’s per-possession scoring marks helps us paint a clearer picture as to how he’s become so impactful in fewer than 24 minutes per contest.
For starters, his pristine pick-and-pop game helps open up the floor for the rest of the offense. According to Synergy Sports Tech, among players with at least 70 pick-and-pop possessions used on the season, Olynyk ranks seventh in efficiency, producing 1.07 points per possession (PPP). That’s a healthier rate than legendary sharpshooting big man Dirk Nowitzki (1.04 PPP on such plays).
Considering Olynyk – a 1.16 PPP producer as the roll man – has an excellent pick-and-roll point guard in Goran Dragic as a teammate, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the two do serious damage when they share the floor.
In over 700 minutes with both Olynyk and Dragic on the floor, Miami has scored a scorching 117 points per 100 possessions. If extrapolated for the year, that clip would highlight the league’s most productive offense by almost a full four points.
Olynyk’s efficiency is also aided by his mastery of a simple-but-vital action: cutting.
The big man’s 1.52 PPP on cuts this season is the seventh-highest mark in the league among players with at least 45 such chances according to Synergy, outpacing athletic specimens like Ben Simmons and (fellow Canadian) Andrew Wiggins.
Opponents have to respect Olynyk all the way out to the three-point line (above-average 36.5 percent shooter from deep on the year), and if they dare fall asleep, the 26-year-old darts to the dish for easy opportunities, which he rarely fails to capitalize on.
Head coach Erik Spoelstra’s primary use for Olynyk, though, is as the key cog of his excellent bench unit, which ranks seventh in net rating at +2.6 on the year. At times, without Johnson and Dragic’s distributing creativity on the floor, Miami’s offense can bog down for stretches.
Usually, it’s Olynyk who gets them out of the rut.
The Heat center can aptly post up, knock down jumpers and even create when he takes it upon himself to go one-on-one.
Among the 153 players with as many isolation chances on the year as the Miami big (passes included), only 11 boast a higher PPP than Olynyk’s 1.11. As always, sample size is important to note, but that 1.11 PPP is higher than Karl-Anthony Towns’ (0.95) and Blake Griffin’s (0.99). Olynyk’s wonky, put-your-head-down-and-go style of attacking in isolation is tough to stymie, even for the most grizzled point-stoppers. And on the rare occasion he does get shut down, Olynyk has an uncanny ability to push off while rarely getting called for fouls, making defending him all the more frustrating for opponents.
Remember, though, passes were also included in the aforementioned metric, hence why a comparison to other notable passing bigs was pertinent. And Olynyk’s distribution skills, though not often talked about, help set him apart.
Only one center who plays fewer than 24 minutes nightly averages more assists per game than Olynyk: future Hall-of-Famer Pau Gasol. Olynyk may not be a Nikola Jokic-level passer (he certainly doesn’t have close to the same flair), but he’s got great timing as to when to hit cutters and usually knows where to find spot-up shooters.
Of course, scoring points and setting up teammates is only half the battle. There’s the less glamorous end of the floor to worry about, too. And that’s the only area in which Olynyk has failed to see major improvement.
He’s still not much of a rebounder (he tends to get pushed off his spots a little too easily) and swatting away opponents’ shots will never be a consistent part of his game. That would explain why the Heat give up 108.3 points per 100 possessions when Olynyk is on the floor. The Orlando Magic and the New York Knicks – 21st and 22nd in defensive rating respectively this year – both allow the same amount of points per 100 possessions: 108.3.
Nevertheless, Olynyk has still earned Spoelstra’s trust to the point he plays the fourth-most minutes per 4th quarter on the team at 7.8 – the highest rate, by far, among Miami’s big men. With good reason, too: His complementary style of play transforms the Heat’s offense from mediocre to elite merely with his presence.
Whether playing alongside versatile defenders such as Johnson, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and Hassan Whiteside helps mask Olynyk’s defensive deficiencies enough to string together stops in the playoffs will ultimately determine how successful his first season in South Florida is.
So far, though, the returns on his Year-1 campaign under Spoelstra are quite promising.
You can find Frank Urbina on Twitter @frankurbina_.