The Miami Heat have reached the quarter mark of the season one-game under .500 (11-10). Certainly an improvement from this point last season but a very unsatisfying start given the expectations after bringing back the majority of a team that had the second best record in the league the second half of 2016-17.
Still, there has been plenty to like as well as dislike from what we have seen through the first six weeks and we will start with the positives.
WHAT TO LIKE
Defense (especially with Hassan Whiteside on the floor): It seems strange to be mentioning defense after the Knicks shot 60.3 percent Wednesday. But, despite that and the Heat being up and down defensively, they have allowed the eighth fewest points per game (102.9) and are 13th in defensive rating (103.9). From the time Whiteside returned after missing five games early in the season until the debacle in New York in which the center sat out, the Heat were seventh in defensive rating at 101.1.
Goran Dragic’s consistency and leadership: Dragic has hit a bump in the road with 13 points the last two games but he still leads the team with 18.0 points (the average was above 20 until the last two games) and 4.5 assists per game while shooting nearly 46 percent, 40 percent on threes. Dragic carried the Heat to three straight wins last week, averaging 23.7 points, 3.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists.
Justise Winslow’s new role: Yes, I said it. One of team’s more maligned players – although that list is growing this season – has settled into the role of an undersized power forward and playing it pretty well. The 6-foot-7 Winslow’s scoring is down (6.6 points per game) but he’s taking about half as many shots (6.4 per game) as he did in his 18 games last season. The biggest improvement has been his shooting percentage and shot selection. Winslow is shooting at 42.2 percent – 44.4 on twos – and has cut down on his 3-point attempts (1.3 per game). Additionally, his rebounding is up to 5.5 per game from 5.2 and he has held his own defensively, especially against bigger power forwards.
The continued development – and patience – of Bam Adebayo: The Heat are being patient with the 14th overall pick in the draft and are asking the same from the rookie center. So, after logging fewer than 12 minutes in a nine-game span and not playing in seven of those, the 20-year-old was called upon in the first quarter in Cleveland on Tuesday and responded with 19 points in 18 minutes while making all seven of his shots. Then on Wednesday in New York, the 6-foot-10 Adebayo started in place of Whiteside and scored nine points, making 4-of-5 shots to boost his percent to 63.2 on the season. He also had 11 rebounds in the two games. While Adebayo showed flashes of solid defense in Cleveland, he did struggle against the Knicks, as did the entire team allowing New York to shoot 60 percent.
The schedule becomes more forgiving: The Heat are in a stretch in which they play 14-of-19 games on the road. Included was a trip out west and home games against the teams with the two best records in the NBA, Boston and Golden State. But after returning from a three-game trip to San Antonio, Mexico City to play Brooklyn and Memphis on Dec. 12, Miami plays nine of its next 13 games at the AmericanAirlines Arena. Of those 13 games, eight are against teams with losing records.
WHAT NOT TO LIKE
Inconsistency: This is the most head-scratching part of this season for coach Erik Spoelstra. The Heat have had stretches in which they are embarrassed by Indiana and end Boston’s 16-game winning streak the next game. They win the first two games of this most recent road trip, one of those by leading almost from wire-to-wire at Minnesota, before dropping the next two and trailing by at least 30 in the third quarter of both. And then there are the in-game swings: Watching leads of at least 20 points against the Pacers, Hawks and Clippers shrink before holding on for the wins and the wild first half in Chicago in which Miami scored 7 points in the first quarter and 38 in the second.
Offensive meltdowns: While the Heat continue to pride themselves on defense, it’s tough to win if you cannot score. And with scores around the league creeping up in recent years, Miami needs much better production from its offense. The Heat are 26th in the league in scoring, averaging 100.0 points per game, and 19th in field goal percent at 44.5. Three of their key players, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters and Tyler Johnson, are shooting below 40 percent.
Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson shooting woes: Two players the Heat have invested heavily in are off to slow starts offensively. Johnson, who is due more than $38 million the next two seasons, is having his worst season. Johnson’s scoring average (9.4) is down more than four points from last season and he is shooting 34.6 percent and less than 30 percent on threes. Richardson’s average also has dropped (8.8 from 10.2) from last season. The man owed $42 million the next four years is shooting .368 from the floor and just .269 on threes. He recently had a stretch in which he missed all but two of 27 threes. Richardson, to his credit, has not allowed his offense to affect him on the other end and he continues to be a solid defender.
Hassan Whiteside’s injury: Whiteside’s left knee has been slow to heal since suffering a bone bruise in the season opener. The Heat’s defensive anchor missed five games after the injury occurred and was forced to sit out Wednesday in New York. The pain has lingered and Whiteside’s spirits were low as he spoke about the injury prior to Wednesday’s game. Whiteside’s averages – 14.9 points, 12.7 rebounds – have slipped from last season, although he is shooting 58.1 percent, up from 55.7 a year ago while taking about two fewer shots per game. But the Heat need a healthy Whiteside and cannot afford to have him moping around because his knee and sore.
Turnovers: This number has improved of late, at least before Wednesday’s loss to the Knicks, but the Heat still have the seventh most giveaways in the league at 15.7 and their turnovers still appear to come in bunches, allowing opponents to extend runs. Miami had 20 turnovers against the Knicks, leading to 18 points. It was just the second time in eight games the Heat had more than 12 giveaways. So while they are starting to value the ball a bit more, Miami still has to cut down on its sloppy stretches.