How the Miami Heat Fell Apart

With Justise Winslow’s season coming to an early close due to a torn labrum, the calls have arrived for the Heat to tank the rest of the season to position themselves for a high draft pick. Trade rumors are already swirling around literally everyone on their current roster and Pat Riley has said in the past that in certain circumstances the Heat are not diametrically opposed to playing for draft position, putting Miami as the most likely team to hold a fire sale and/or strategically rest players to ensure taking a few extra L’s. Here’s an annoying Bill Simmons tweet about it:

While looking forward at an impending race to the bottom is interesting, it ignores the question of how the Heat got this low to begin with. The Nets, Lakers, and Suns were all expected to be here, as each projected under thirty wins, and the Mavericks have been totally ripped apart by injuries, but Miami looked totally okay. FiveThirtyEight gave them a 28% chance to make the playoffs, and their Vegas over-under was 36.5, and yet even before Winslow’s injury they were comfortably in the cellar. Miami has just been a bad team

To be slightly more precise, Miami’s offense has been dreck, and as with most NBA happenings, it all starts with their stars. Whiteside and Dragic are each setting new personal highs for usage percentage, and each are seeing their efficiency plummet. Whiteside shot over 60% each of the last two years but is stuck at 55% this year while Dragic has his lowest effective field goal percentage since 2013. There are 121 players with 50 or more possessions so far as the pick and roll ball handler so far this season, and Dragic is 73rd in efficiency, equivalent with Kris Dunn, Evan Turner, Iman Shumpert, TJ Warren, and Cory Joseph. Of the 76 players to get at least one post up per game, Whiteside is 6th in total attempts and 73rd in efficiency, a seemingly impossible combination. Whiteside has only blown 4.6% of the Heat’s total possessions this way, but if you simply removed Whiteside’s post ups from Miami’s season totals so far, they would jump to 101.9 points per 100 possessions, an increase over a point and a half.

Of course, not all of this can be reasonably pinned on Dragic and Whiteside, as they wouldn’t be put in such roles if the rest of their team was capable of relieving more pressure from them. Yes, it appears they would be well served by running spread pick and roll all game with role players spotting up around the action, but those role players have been too limited to take advantage of the diminished attention they receive.

The third through sixth best players on the Heat are a major problem. Those slots are currently populated by Tyler Johnson, Rodney McGruder, James Johnson, and Josh Richardson, and of that group only James Johnson is willing or able to put the ball on the floor to make a play. T. Johnson, McGruder, and Richardson each take more than three quarters of their shots away from the rim, and all three have an effective field goal percentage below 50%. The Heat are trying to scare defenders into sticking to perimeter shooters, but their shooters are less Annie Oakley than they are Elmer Fudd.

Given all that, the big picture statistics for the Heat aren’t totally awful. They score poorly, but their defense hovers around the top ten in efficiency, and their overall net rating is closer to fifteenth in the league than it is to last. Crunch time, however, is a different story. Miami is 8–15 in clutch games as defined by NBA.com, good for the fourth worst record in the league. Their already struggling offense turns to mayhem, as their turnovers skyrocket to second worst in the league and their shooting percentage sinks to bottom-five. When opponents are willing to execute at their highest levels, Miami is unable to stay afloat.

The Heat are going to tank away the rest of their season, and by the time next October rolls around the conversation will focus more on the return of Winslow and the addition of an exciting rookie than on early season struggles in Miami. When Pat Riley talked about tanking he repeatedly stuck with the phrase ‘quick rebuild,’ but these struggles are good reason to believe that the Heat’s return to success won’t be quite as quick as he believes.