Are the Heat title contenders? Don’t underestimate their chances

NOTHING BUT NET 44

Over the past three seasons, the Miami Heat have had a relatively quiet run of success. In 2020, they made it all the way to the NBA Finals, but fell to the Los Angeles Lakers. Last season, the Heat then played their way into the Eastern Conference Finals after surprisingly securing the number one seed in the conference. They were only one three-point shot away from beating the Boston Celtics and returning to the Finals. Now, after a rather uneventful offseason, the Heat are hoping to make their way back to the top and finally win that title.

STARTING LINEUP

Last season, the Heat were the best three-point shooting team in the league while also forcing the third most turnovers on defense. This season, they will be playing with a starting lineup of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Kyle Lowry, Tyler Herro, and Caleb Martin that hopes to replicate that success.

This lineup has not spent much time playing together yet, so they will have to find their rhythm. While this is important, the team’s success arguably rests primarily on Butler’s shoulders, though. Getting him and the aging Kyle Lowry to the postseason in good form will be a priority for the Heat.

Butler is a two-way force who can play great defense and score explosively, even without a good three-point shot. Despite being 33 already, Butler is not showing any signs of slowing down and will look to continue his streak of dominating playoff series. Thanks to Butler’s tough play, the Heat dragged out every playoff series they were expected to lose last season and never made it easy for their opponents.

Over 17 playoff games in the last run, Butler averaged 27.4 points, 7.4 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 2.1 steals. It is almost a crime that he was only ranked 17th in ESPN’s most recent list of top 100 NBA players, behind much more unproven players. If he leads the Heat back to the playoffs and continues to dominate every game, Butler will surely prove them wrong (as he’s repeatedly done throughout his career).

Miami had one of the league’s best defenses in the last season, and should be able to accomplish that again, even after losing PJ Tucker during the offseason. Tyler Herro, who is often written off as an incapable defender, showed the ability to hold his own defensively during the preseason. He recorded four blocks against the New Orleans Pelicans; hopefully this type of effort will translate to the regular season. The most important part of Miami’s physical, switch-heavy defense, though, is Bam Adebayo. Miami can switch the Defensive Player of the Year candidate onto anyone, and he is more than capable of picking up the slack if teammates struggle defensively.

Adebayo is one of the most versatile defenders in the league and made the All-Defensive Second Team three years in a row, only narrowly missing First Team honors. The big man does pretty much everything on defense, but one notable stat is that he allowed only 0.84 points per isolation. That is second-best among the 24 players in the league who guarded a minimum of 500 isolations. Had he not missed so many games, he likely would have made the First Team.

As a defense-first player who is proud of his impact on that side of the ball, Adebayo is aiming for nothing less than a Defensive Player of the Year award this season. Often overlooked is Adebayo’s offensive impact. He averaged 19.1 points and 3.4 assists last season, while also leading the team in offensive rebounding. This effort makes him a crucial component of the Heat’s success on both ends of the floor. Luckily, Adebayo is also a very reliable player. He missed 26 games last season but before that he only missed nine games over three seasons. Adebayo is expected to attempt more shots this season.

Point guard Kyle Lowry also missed significant time last season. He is entering his 17th season now and will be 37 by playoff time. The six-time All-Star is not in his prime anymore, but he is still important to this Heat team because of his facilitating, playmaking, pick-and-roll plays, and pull-up threes.

Injuries slowed Lowry down ever since he came to Miami, but he still managed to keep the team afloat while both Butler and Adebayo were injured last season. Now, Lowry will be in much better shape and will assist the Heat in making another deep playoff run. Lowry has a propensity to take charges; as he ages, he may need to pick his spots more.

In order to assure Lowry’s healthy arrival at the playoffs, new starter Tyler Herro and reserves like Victor Oladipo and Max Strus will have to step up. The Heat just resigned Herro to a big contract extension, and now the reigning Sixth Man of the Year will be motivated to prove that they made the right choice.

Herro is an excellent catch-and-shoot three-point shooter who spaces the floor very well. He has already proven that he is an elite scorer, so now he just needs to develop into a better two-way player. He does not have to become PJ Tucker on defense, but he should at least not be a target for opposing teams anymore.

Rounding out the starting five is Caleb Martin, who just had a breakout season. Martin actually went from being on a two-way contract after going undrafted in 2019 to being a starter. He is quick on both ends of the floor and can shoot, but also play off the ball and find the right cuts. On the other end of the floor, Martin is a versatile defender and even blocked Zion Williams in the Heat’s last preseason game.

The Heat hope that Martin can fill the gap Tucker’s departure left in their lineup. Those are some big shoes to fill, and it will be quite the adjustment for Martin to have that much responsibility, but Butler believes that Martin will do just fine.

BENCH PLAYERS

Miami did a fine job of turning undrafted players like Duncan Robinson, Max Strus and Gabe Vincent into solid role players. By pairing them with players who had much better luck in the draft, Miami created a deep bench.

The most important, or at least the most interesting, player on that bench is former second pick Victor Oladipo. Oladipo played in two All-Star games, won the Most Improved Player award, and made the All-Defensive First Team before a ruptured quad tendon put a halt to his rise to stardom in January 2019.

Oladipo is not back to his All-Star level yet, but hopefully he will get there over the course of the season. Last season, he only appeared in few regular season games for the Heat, but quickly became a vital part of their playoff rotation.

In his first full season back, the Heat will be careful not to rush him and bring him back slowly while he takes on the position of a role player at first. Of course, that can change anytime he and the team feel it is the right time to put him back into a bigger role. Oladipo is very versatile on both ends of the floor and if healthy, he could be a quiet key to the Heat’s success.

Just like Oladipo, Duncan Robinson is hoping to have a bounce back season. Robinson was a starter for much of last season until he sort of fell out of the rotation. He could not make his threes and due to his defensive struggles, this made him more of a liability than an asset on the court.

He seems to have worked on a lot of things since then, though. During the preseason games, Robinson showed aggressiveness, while extending his offense past the three-point shots and not getting into foul trouble like he tends to. Given that inconsistency has always been his biggest issue, it remains to be seen if this development is permanent.

Either way, Robinson will still bring valuable shooting off the bench, but he will have to adjust to his new role. He is used to starting, and now he might not even be the first player off the bench.

Max Strus has a very similar style of play to Robinson. Given that he is also a good outside shooter, he took Robinson’s starting spot when the latter started to struggle. Since coming to the Heat in 2020, Strus has consistently improved and will hopefully continue to do so in order to meaningfully impact the Heat’s season.

The third undrafted player among Miami’s reserves is Gabe Vincent. Vincent took over a lot of Lowry’s minutes when he was out and became the team’s primary playmaker during that time. He averaged career highs all over the place and while he is still growing, Vincent has shown that he can step up and take on more responsibility.

Miami’s next undrafted-turned-role player project is Omer Yurtseven, who went undrafted in 2020 but ended up in the Heat rotation when Adebayo was out. Just in January of this year, Yurtseven recorded six double-doubles and grabbed at least fifteen rebounds in four consecutive games, trying to play his way into this year’s rotation.

Rookie Nikola Jovic is still very much unproven in comparison to the teammates he will be joining on the bench. Jovic is the last remaining rookie from this year’s draft who has not been waived or put on a two-way contract. He had a good preseason, averaging 9.8 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3 assists. Despite his young age, Jovic already looks rather mature on the court and can learn plenty from Adebayo as he tries to find his spot in the regular season rotation.

Last but not least, franchise legend Udonis Haslem is returning for his 20th season before retirement. Haslem went undrafted in 2003, but quickly became a champion in Miami. He used to be a big part of the team’s defense, and now he assumes that role from the bench, offering experience, leadership and mentoring.

CHAMPIONSHIP WINDOW

The Miami Heat are the most overlooked one of the possible contenders entering the 2022-23 season. They are continuously ranked below the Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics despite proving that they can hold their own against them in a playoff series.

Last season, Miami was plagued by injuries, and they lost their shooting touch when it mattered the most. If they stay healthy and keep it together on the court, they have a chance to make it out of the East. The competition is fierce, but the Heat are too good and some of their opponents have too many question marks filling their rosters to count Miami out.

This will be one of their last chances, though. While some key players like Herro and Adebayo are still young and just about to enter their prime, Lowry and Butler are getting old. Jimmy Butler is a playoff machine, though, and it is not yet wise to bet against him in the postseason. The Heat’s continuity also helps them, as the players know each other well after logging so many minutes together and having played in so many big games and clutch moments.

So, if Miami stays healthy and performs consistently while other teams fail to do the same, they have what may be a final shot at the title.

STARTERS
Kyle Lowry
Tyler Herro
Jimmy Butler
Caleb Martin
Bam Adebayo

BENCH 
Victor Oladipo
Duncan Robinson
Max Strus
Gabe Vincent

DEEP BENCH
Jamal Cain
DeWayne Dedmon
Udonis Haslem
Haywood Highsmith
Dru Smith
Omar Yurtseven

DEVELOPMENTAL YOUTH
Nikola Jovic

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