Eastern Luxury: Miami Heat Retain Team, Still Move up Conference Hierarchy

It turns out Pat Riley can have his cake and eat it too.

When a team’s Plan A falls through in NBA free agency, the front office scrambles to pick up the pieces. The next targets are identified as Plan B. In actuality, they’re the third- or fourth-best options, if they had been signed right away. Players usually take the sure money, rather than waiting to potentially get paid.

In the case of the Miami Heat’s 2017 offseason, Gordon Hayward (Plan A) went to the Boston Celtics, and when the clock struck midnight on July 5th, Dion Waiters and James Johnson (Plan B) were still available. The Heat will essentially run back last season’s 41-41 team, with additions of forward-center Kelly Olynyk and Edrice “Bam” Adebayo out of Kentucky supplementing the front court.

So how will they fair in the newly diminished East? Let’s take a look at how the team in South Beach fits together.

Heat Additions

Bam Adebayo

The Heat started their summer off by selecting Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo with the No. 14 pick in the 2017 NBA draft. Viewed as a surprise by some and a reach by others, the big man has quickly switched the narrative with some strong play in summer league, showcasing skills rarely highlighted as a Wildcat.

Adebayo’s athleticism and ability to attack the basket are on full display in the above clip. In just a few games, the young power forward has show a knack for knocking down the mid-range jumper, blocking shots and functioning as an overall force.

Dion Waiters

When the Oklahoma City Thunder pulled his qualifying offer in late July last summer, few teams had cap space to spare. So Dion Waiters bet on himself, signing what amounted to a one-year, $2.9 million deal with the Heat.

Now, he’s more than quadrupled that over a four-year contract:

Though the enigmatic Waiters pursued other offers—including meeting with the Los Angeles Lakers and reported mutual interest with the New York Knicks—it was only right the five-year veteran returned to South Florida.The Syracuse product is fresh off his first season with the Heat, in which he netted averages of 15.8 points, 4.3 assists and 3.3 rebounds on a 48.8 effective field-goal percentage (eFG%). But considering he spent a majority of the campaign battling groin and ankle injuries, the numbers understate the shooting guard’s value.

In a 22-game stretch from January 21st through March 8th, Waiters notched 19.5 points, 5.1 assists and a 55.1 eFG%. It’s no coincidence the Heat dropped just four games during that span. Overall, the team outscored its opponent by 3.1 points per 100 possessions with Waiters on the court, compared to just 0.2 points with him off, per nbawowy.

The next step for the 25-year-old shooting guard is to improve his efficiency. Though Waiters was fifth in the league in isolation frequency, he was only in the 55th percentile for points per possession. Converting more effectively there will help, and so too will shoring up his three-point stroke. Considering he only hit 35.8 percent of his triples in 2015-16, his 39.5 percent on 4.7 launches per game bodes well for his continued improvement.

The bulk of Waiters’ early career could be chalked up to immaturity, simply a young player struggling to find his footing in the league…or last season was an anomaly, and his overconfidence and oft-reckless playmaking will again rear their ugly heads.

Either way, Waiters has clearly bought into the Heat culture, and now, they’ve more than bought into him.

Kelly Olynyk

While Heat Nation awaited the re-signing of James Johnson, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski dropped a bomb, as he’s known to do:

This came as somewhat of a surprise, as there was little chatter of Heat interest in Olynyk after the Boston Celtics renounced his rights. The natural reaction is to be stunned at the length and vastness of the contract, but when you take a step back, it starts to make more sense.

Olynyk’s 2016-17 campaign was the most efficient of his career, as he averaged 9.0 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.0 assists on career-high 51.2 percent shooting from the field and 35.3 percent from distance, which should fit well with Miami’s affinity for the long ball.

Given his lanky build and limited body control, it’s often tough to tell if Olynyk is really trying to accomplish the things he does. But for the most part, it’s effective. Plus, at 7’0″, simply extending his tree-branch arms is often enough to block a shooter’s vision or redirect the shot. The Gonzaga product’s numbers haven’t fluctuated much in four seasons with the Celtics, and if you consider he’s never averaged over 22.2 minutes per game, he’s due for a modest bump in value.

Still, for a guy coming off his rookie contract who has never been more than a role player and fill-in starter, giving Olynyk four years and that chunk of cash doesn’t come without its risks. He’s the type of player who will have three or four solid shooting games in a row, averaging 15 to 20 points for a solid week and forcing you to start thinking that he’s coming around. Then he goes AWOL for two weeks.

If Olynyk can find some sort of middle ground, he could be a really effective player.

Thankfully, that’s all he has to do for the Heat. With Johnson and Hassan Whiteside already manning the front court—and Adebayo coming off the bench—he just has to fill in the gaps.

James Johnson

As news of Olynyk’s deal came down the pike, Heat Nation began to worry this meant the end of James Johnson’s campaign in Miami, due to salary-cap concerns. But a report from The Vertical’s Shams Charania quickly dissipated any doubt.

And shortly thereafter, Wojnarowski reported the deal was official:

In his first season with the Heat, Johnson had a career year, notching 12.8 points, 3.8 dimes, 4.9 boards, 1.1 blocks and a career-best 34 percent shooting from deep on 3.4 tries per game. After failing to carve out a steady role in his four previous stops, Johnson found a niche in head coach Erik Spoelstra’s offense: point forward. The second unit’s offense ran primarily through the 30-year-old, sometimes out of necessity more than anything. But there’s no question it worked.

The Heat outscored opponents by 3.6 points per 100 possessions with Johnson on the court, compared to a minus-1.4 net rating with him on the bench, according to nbawowy.

His fit next to Whiteside will be intriguing to watch—something we got a sample of in the final five games of 2017. During that span, Johnson averaged 18.2 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.6 assists and 1.2 steals. And if his offensive versatility wasn’t enough, Johnson was also a stalwart on the defensive end.

Johnson defended 0.7 isolations per game and gave up just 0.49 points per possession (PPP), which ranked in the 97.8 percentile. No matter who he defended, he gave them fits, and 15.1 percent of the time he was attacked in isolation, the opponent turned the ball over.

I mean, how many power forwards can play post defense on DeMarcus Cousins like this? Per NBA Math’s Frank Urbina:

Last Season’s Fit

The Heat ended the 2016-17 campaign on a 30-11 tear after a torrid, injury-plagued 11-30 start to the season.

Aside from health, a chief reason for the second-half jump was the backcourt duo of Waiters and point guard Goran Dragic.

The pair’s drive-and-kick style meshed perfectly, and as a result, both ranked in the top six for drives per game. But they often looked to dish in those situations, helping Waiters tie for first in assists while Dragic tied for fourth. This action led directly to Miami’s success from downtown during the final stretch, when it shot 39.0 percent on all types of triples and 39.4 percent off catch-and-shoot treys.

A main benefactor of these plays was newly guaranteed Wayne Ellington, who hit 37.8 percent from deep on 6.4 attempts per game.

And speaking of Dragic, he had a quietly remarkable season, posting averages of 20.3 points, 5.8 assists and 1.2 steals while shooting an impressive 40.5 percent on his 4.0 attempts per game from downtown. Those marks are nearly identical to his 2013-14 All-NBA Third team selection, and he remains one of the most underrated point guards in the NBA.

Dragic has averaged 17.1 points, 5.9 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.2 steals on a 52.8 eFG% over the past five seasons. The only other three to match those marks over the same span? LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Chris Paul.

Pretty good company.

The Weaker Eastern Conference

Aside from retaining their guys and adding Olynyk and Adebayo, Miami checked off another offseason accomplishment: simply residing in the Eastern half of the United States.

The Heat figure to move up three or four spots in the Eastern Conference after finishing ninth a season ago. After the Cleveland Cavaliers, Boston Celtics, Washington Wizards and Toronto Raptors, the Heat are right there with the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers, fighting for homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs if one of the favorites unexpectedly slips.

Simply put, the back half of the West is far superior to that of the East.

Take the Utah Jazz, for example. Even without Gordon Hayward, they employ a strong core of Rudy Gobert, Ricky Rubio, Rodney Hood, Joe Johnson, Joe Ingles, Derrick Favors and Donovan Mitchell. That team would be fighting for a top-four seed in the East; in the West, it’ll be lucky to make the playoffs.

So Heat fans, when you count your blessings tonight (making sure to tally Riley twice), don’t forget to include your team’s half of the NBA.


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Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics via Basketball-Reference and NBA.com