The Miami Heat lack a second star to support summer signing Jimmy Butler but in Bam Adebayo, Justise Winslow and Tyler Herro, they have three young players who could eventually grow into that role, writes Mark Deeks.
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Over the summer, the Miami Heat were able to acquire something they have long-yearned for – a star player. In a complicated four-team deal involving the Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers and Philadelphia 76ers, the Heat acquired Jimmy Butler from the 76ers, along with Meyers Leonard from Portland, in exchange for sending Hassan Whiteside to Portland, Josh Richardson to Philadelphia and a first-round pick to the Clippers.
Jimmy Butler in preseason action for the Miami Heat
At the helm of the Miami Heat is team president Pat Riley, who has been with the team for 25 years in various capacities, all of them very senior. And teams under Riley’s stewardship famously do not rebuild.
Riley teams sometimes lose a lot by mistake, but they always resist the urge to ever bottom out. If ever they are bad, the motivation is to get better quickly, even if they are not able to acquire via the draft the kind of star talent around which teams would conventionally seek to be built.
This well-established principle has become further entrenched as Riley ages. Now 74, Riley surely does not want to spend his final few seasons before retirement in the doldrums of the NBA in a Process-like rebuild such as Philadelphia once went on themselves. But asset-stripping in that way, while unsavoury, does work with a little bit of luck and some good scouting. And given that they have abstained from it, Miami have had no star power as a result.
Miami’s Big Three pose with the NBA title
When the title-winning Dwyane Wade/LeBron James/Chris Bosh team was dismantled, no star talents remained. James left as a free agent, and although Wade stayed on for a couple of years, his star diminished before he did the same. Bosh meanwhile had his career prematurely ended due to ill health, and that was that – nothing was returned in trade for one of the game’s legendary trios, and the Heat had to pick through the pieces.
On the plus side, they have always been good at doing this. Through a steady stream of retreads, late bloomers and generally pretty-excellent drafting, Miami have for a long time been able to get great value on the mediocre assets that they have and find capable players who buy into the culture and compete on both ends.
Without stars, though, all that this ever leads to is ‘tough out’ territory. In the five seasons since the Big Three left and The ‘Heatles’ were disbanded, Miami have won between 37 and 48 regular-season games only, with just two playoff appearances and one series victory to show for it. They are in the middle ground, without facing upwards.
The trade for Butler, however, gives the team a two-way star player. The only other time that the Heat have been able to acquire an incumbent star since the 2010 free agency boon was when they traded for Goran Dragic, a fringe All-Star at his best. Dragic is however now past that best; aged, slowed offensively, never particularly good defensively and now frequently injured. Butler, then, is still on his own for now.
We know this to be a two-star league. That barometer alone conveys competitiveness; it always has done, of course, but with players moving teams much more frequently in the modern era than ever prior, especially star ones, it has become the new yardstick for a team’s chances.
What they have not done since 2010, however, is move to the Heat. In being capped out and regularly picking outside of the lottery, they can’t. The best place to look for hope, them, is within.
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When they traded for Kawhi Leonard last summer, the Toronto Raptors did not have a second superstar either already on board or coming along with him. They still had Kyle Lowry, a quality point guard who was aging gracefully and still a fringe All-Star, but Lowry was past his best and into his 30s, no longer able to lead the line on either end full-time.
Instead, Toronto were able to win their inaugural NBA championship due to two things – a merciless depth of quality defenders, and the quick and spectacular growth of Pascal Siakam into being that second star.
Bam Adebayo in action against the Memphis Grizzlies
Miami will be hoping that they can incubate a second star talent in the same way. And the best candidates for doing so are third-year center Bam Adebayo, fifth-year hybrid guard/forward Justise Winslow and rookie wing Tyler Herro.
Adebayo won the starting spot off Whiteside down the stretch of last season, and ultimately pushed him out of the team altogether, by being a more versatile and effective player on both ends. Last year, he averaged 8.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. For comparison’s sake, Siakam in his second season averaged 7.3/4.5/2.0/0.8/0.5 in his second year.
There is also a stylistic likeness to be found – Adebayo plays similarly to Siakam in that, for his position, he is an excellent ball-handler, the rare and distinctly modern style of center who can handle the ball in the open court.
Highlights of the Memphis Grizzlies up against the Miami Heat in NBA Week 1
Offensively, just like Siakam before him, the lack of consistent jump shooting holds back Adebayo’s offensive game at this stage, at least in terms of his individual scoring. Yet with his driving and rolling games, his high positional IQ and efficient finishing at the rim, his excellent passing on the move and his defense both on the interior and the perimeter, he offers almost every skill other than the jumper.
Winslow meanwhile was one of the major beneficiaries of Dragic’s struggles last season. The Heat carried very few guards into the year, subsequently losing Dragic due to injury and trading Tyler Johnson to Phoenix; someone, or some people, therefore had to handle the ball.
Justise Winslow elevates to the basket against Memphis
Richardson did some of it, yet Winslow essentially became the full-time point guard and primary playmaker for the heat, despite standing in a small forward’s body type and often defending the power forward spot. And he responded with what were by far career-best; 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.3 assists per game.
Winslow showed his limitations in the role last season in how he struggled to regularly get separation from his defender and get beyond the first line of the defense. But what this meant more than anything was that he needed some help, a significant threat elsewhere on the perimeter that opponents had to pay greater mind to, and potentially assign their best perimeter defender to.
Butler should be that player, and if not shouldering so much of a half-court offensive responsibility any longer, Winslow may see the efficiency numbers that slightly undercut his large role last season significantly improve.
Combining that offensive volume with versatile and committed multi-positional defense, he has all the tools of a Kawhi-light type of player, and is still young enough at only 23 years of age to have as-yet-unrealised upside.
Herro will be the shooter that Adebayo and Winslow both so badly need. He showed in his summer league and preseason appearances an extremely strong affinity for scoring against NBA defenders, and that it will take him no time at all to adjust to the longer NBA three-point line.
Tyler Herro in action for the Heat in their season-opener
In six summer league games, Herro averaged 19.5 points per game, and largely sustained that with a 14.2 scoring average in five pre-season games highlighted by 51.9 per cent three-point shooting. The Heat were among the NBA’s worst three-point shooting teams last season, and that was with designated play-saver Wayne Ellington on board, someone they could always run off a screen from 30 feet away to bail out a stagnated offensive possession.
With Ellington gone, Herro can immediately take this role, while also being a better shooter off the dribble and a player able to create space with the handle in a way that Ellington never has been.
Aggression is innate, and Herro already has it. It is of course ludicrously early to assign any kind of future stardom to him; the first thing to do would be to prove that he can be a consistent rotation player, and then possibly a starter, before any further accolades can be interpreted.
Yet in the modern NBA, with its heightened focus on shooting and the endless green light that the truly best ones received, Herro has shown all these signs and the tools to be a high-volume and potentially good-efficiency NBA scoring two-guard. If he can hold his own defensively and not force up too many shots, his emergence could be quite rapid.
In tonight’s game, then, look out for this trio. Jimmy Butler’s debut for the Heat will have to wait until his return from paternity leave. His eventual arrival will steal the storylines and be the most obvious improvement the Heat can show off.
Yet if this team is to contend in the next couple of seasons in a weakened Eastern Conference, they will need internal growth.
With this trio, they have the potential to get some of it.
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