Once Again, The Miami Heat Are Boiling
The 2021-22 NBA season has already thrown up some unexpected surprises to start.
The Chicago Bulls look good while the Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers also find themselves towards the top of the Eastern Conference. Steph Curry has shot the Golden State Warriors to the top seed in the Western Conference where the Los Angeles Lakers are only flirting with a playoff spot 11 games in.
It's not uncommon for strange things to happen at this time of the year. Most regress or progress to preseason expectations by Christmas. The Miami Heat, on the other hand, look here to stay. They're 7-3 and in 2nd spot in the East, and looking back, we should have seen it coming months ago. Looking ahead, it's not difficult to picture another deep run come playoff time.
We should have seen it coming
The Miami Heat are on fire to start the 2021-22 NBA season. You could form an argument for them being the form team of the league through roughly three weeks.
Cleaning The Glass has awarded the Heat with the sixth-best offence (112.5) and sixth-best defence (104.6) on their way to a 7-3 record. Most of those seven wins have been good ones, too. They smashed the Milwaukee Bucks in the season opener, have beaten the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, Brooklyn Nets and Utah Jazz.
We already knew the Heat would be the team "nobody wants to play in a seven-game series" by the time playoff basketball tips off, but they've exceeded expectations to be a lethal regular-season team already. It's not all that surprising when you look back at what we already knew before the opener.
Jimmy Butler is one of the best players in the league and never takes a night off. He averaged 21.5 points, 6.9 rebounds and 7.1 assists per game last season while finishing up fifth in win shares (9.3), fifth in defensive box plus-minus (2.5), fourth in box plus-minus (7.5) and 6th in value over replacement (4.2).
As we saw in the 2019-20 NBA Finals, Butler is a championship calibre 1A player. He's continued to produce in 2021-22 for a career-high 25.3 points per game along with six rebounds and 5.5 assists. He leads the NBA in win shares (2.4) and defensive win shares (0.8) while only Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo rate higher in value over replacement.
Few players are positioned to be a better foil to Butler than Bam Adebayo. A triple-threat with the ball, he can score to average 18.7 points per game last season, facilitate an offence through 5.4 assists per game and is one of the best defenders in the NBA after finishing 10th in defensive win shares (3.2). Adebayo has scored well for 18.3 points per game this season, and while his assists numbers are down (2.3 per game), his six assists against the Jazz suggest the option is there should the Heat need it.
Between Butler and Adebayo, the Heat have a scorer and top tier defender available at any position from 1-5.
Miami only went and added another excellent defender in Kyle Lowry over the summer.
Another player who is still doing what it says on the tin, Lowry slots in wherever he is needed. Similar to Adebayo in his ability to perform any role on any given night, Lowry will score when the team needs him to score and take control of the offence when they need somebody to take control of the offence. He might be 35-years-old, but his ability to supercharge and refocus an offence is nothing new and something the Heat have lacked at times in recent seasons.
He's the perfect fit for this group and an early contender for Signing of the Season.
Tyler Herro tried to tell us what was coming, too.
"I feel like I'm in the same conversion as those guys. The young guys coming up in the league who can be All-Stars, superstars one day—Luka, Trae, Ja—those guys like that, I feel like my name should be in that category, too."
Small sample size and all of those usual early-season prefaces, but he's averaging 20.3 points per game while shooting 40% from deep and well and truly in the running for the Sixth Man of the Year award. Capable of starting, Herro is playing when it matters most to average the most fourth-quarter minutes on the roster.
Between the four of them - we're not in Big 4 territory just yet - the Heat are versatile on both sides of the ball. They can get to the matchups they want with the ball on any given night, and if the shots aren't dropping, they can defend their way to victory just as well.
They've started the season to be one of the best teams in the NBA. Can they keep it up?
The Heat are legit
Defence wins championships. At the very least, a top tier defence puts you in a position to contend late in the season.
The Heat aren't up there in the championship probability list with the Bucks, Nets, Nuggets and Lakers just yet. They have, however, started to build into the sort of team that can take one of their places should disaster strike.
They're going to be one of the best defensive teams in the NBA all season. Their switchability has caused havoc to start the year with opposition finding it particularly difficult to connect on shots from beyond the arc.
"I can be on KD and Bam will switch, and I’m like cool. Jimmy will switch, I’m like cool. Kyle will switch, it’s like cool. We’re not tripping. I know what those guys are going to do." - P.J. Tucker
Miami gives up a higher proportion of three-point attempts than any other team in the league with 45.1% of the shots the opposition shoots being taken from behind the line. However, they're generating the fifth-lowest percentage at 32.4%.
Miami's system is designed to block the lane and limit the number of opportunities around the rim. It's working so far with just 28.8% of the shots Miami is giving up coming within four feet of the basket.
Dragging down 5a4.4% of all available rebounds (REB% - 1st) and 76.6% of defensive rebounds (DREB% - 5th) the Heat are one of the best rebounding teams in the NBA, limiting second-chance points to just 10.1 points per game (4th).
Miami's impact in defence is hardly a surprise and is expected to stick through to the post-season where it will only grow in intensity. In the meantime, a lot of the focus when it comes to assessing their championship credentials will be in how they score.
Erik Spoelstra has talked about getting to matchups he wants and that is made available by Miami's versatility. In Lowry, Butler and Adebayo, Spoelstra can attack from any position on the floor.
Butler is an above-average offensive player but willing to take a back seat in scoring when it's best for the team. Adebayo is similar while Lowry acts as the chassis of the offence. Lowry can shoot 1-8 for five points against the defending NBA champions and finish with a +22, or he can knock down 7-10 for 22 points and a +9. Being able to pick and choose who takes the lead in scoring is a trait that will really become a factor in the playoffs.
With Duncan Robinson struggling to start the year while Tucker and Markieff Morris develop cohesion in a new team, the Heat can still take major strides on the offensive end.
Miami finished 19th in offensive rating last season before posting an awful 95.4 offensive rating in a four-game sweep against the Bucks in the first round of the playoffs. It's early days, but the Heat are primed to be much more of an offensive threat at the pointy end of the 2021-22 season.
A loss to the Nuggets has tipped off a tough road trip against the Lakers, Clippers, Jazz and Thunder. It's the sort of road trip that will give us a good idea of where the Heat are to start the season and just how much of this 7-3 record is real.
After all, the Stats Insider Model hasn't reacted too quickly to Miami's early-season play. On the tenth line of the championship futures projections and part of the mid-range contenders at 3.6% before the season started, the Heat remains on the tenth line at 3.4%.
The race for a top-two seed in the Eastern Conference is already heating up, though.
The Philadelphia 76ers have started somewhat surprisingly well to top the list at 8-3. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers have overachieved to be 3rd, 4th and 5th ahead of the Brooklyn Nets at 6th.
Injuries can change things in an instant. There is an inevitable poor patch that will cost the Heat a few wins they'd have otherwise picked up somewhere along the line, too. But currently 2nd at 7-3 and looking every bit like a top team in the East, Miami's championship chances will receive a massive boost if they're to capture home court advantage through to the Conference Finals.
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