Midseason Heat report: Josh Richardson emerging, Bam Adebayo’s future looks bright

Miami Heat forward Josh Richardson (0) brings the ball up court against the Indiana Pacers during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Indianapolis, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

MIAMI — At the midway point of the season, the Heat find themselves in a good spot.

Miami owns the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference and the eighth-best record in the league at 24-17. Here are 10 observations from the Heat’s first 41 games of the season …

The Heat have been clutch this season. Miami has been one of the top teams in clutch situations — defined by the NBA as a game that has a margin of five points or fewer inside the final five minutes of the fourth quarter. The Heat own the league’s third-best record in clutch games at 18-7, behind only the Boston Celtics (20-7) and San Antonio Spurs (13-5). This is a big improvement from last season, when Miami posted a 21-23 clutch record. What’s been working for the Heat late in close games? Offense. Miami is scoring 125.6 points per 100 possessions in clutch situations, which is second-best in the NBA behind only the Cleveland Cavaliers. Josh Richardson has played a big role in the Heat’s late-game success, as he has played a team-high 85 minutes and posted a team-best plus-minus of plus-64 in clutch situations.

Bam Adebayo has the potential to turn into the next great Heat draft pick. Miami has made some quality picks over the years. The one that immediately comes to mind is the Heat’s decision to take Dwyane Wade with the fifth overall pick in 2003. But it’s looking more and more like Adebayo has a chance to join Wade and a few others on the list of great Heat draft picks. The 20-year-old Adebayo is playing more than most expected, as he’s averaging 7.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.2 assists in 19.9 minutes over 32 games in his rookie season. The most encouraging part is the noticeable improvement Adebayo has made just in the first three months of his NBA career. The young big man has averaged 8.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists over his past 15 games. Adebayo has forced coach Erik Spoelstra to play him despite an already crowded power rotation that includes Hassan Whiteside, Kelly Olynyk and James Johnson. That says it all.

The Heat’s net rating is still in the bottom half of the league. The Heat have the NBA’s eighth-best record at 24-17. But they also own the 20th-best net rating at -1.1. So which is the more accurate representation of what the Heat are? Probably somewhere in between. Miami has won a lot of close games this season and haven’t really dominated many teams. In fact, the Heat have been outscored by 42 points over the first 41 games despite their impressive record. That’s a little alarming. And the net rating number shouldn’t be ignored. Net rating is a good indicator of how a team is playing on both ends of the court because it’s the difference between a team’s offensive and defensive ratings (OR-DR). Miami finished ranked 10th in net rating last season at 1.0.

Josh Richardson is emerging as one of the Heat’s best players. After a slow start to the season, Richardson is finally playing the way the Heat envisioned when they signed him to a four-year, $42 million extension this past offseason. Since Dec. 1, Richardson is averaging a team-high 16.8 points on 52.5 percent shooting from the field and 45.8 percent shooting from 3-point range to go with 3.5 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.1 blocks in 20 games. He’s also limiting players he’s defending to 39.2 percent shooting (5.7 percent worse than their combined average shooting percentage) this season. With the Heat hoping stars will emerge from this roster, the 2015 second-round pick is flashing star potential.

The defense has not been up to Heat standards. After finishing as a top-five defensive team last season, the Heat have been inconsistent on this side of the floor this year. Miami ranks 13th out of 30 teams in defensive rating, allowing 104.8 points per 100 possessions. But the good news is the Heat seem to be moving in the right direction, as they are eighth in defensive rating (103.2 points per 100 possessions) over their past five games. A big part of Miami’s inconsistency in this area probably has something to do with starting center Hassan Whiteside missing 18 of the first 41 games with two different bone bruises on his left knee. With Whiteside on the court, the Heat are a better defensive team. Period. Miami has posted a strong defensive rating of 100.4 with Whiteside playing this season.

The Justise Winslow story has taken a few turns. Winslow has started some games this season, he’s played as a reserve, and now he’s injured. Winslow, who was selected with the 10th overall pick in the 2015 draft, has missed the past 14 games with a strained left knee. The question is, where does Winslow fit in the rotation when he returns? He had been playing most of his minutes at power forward this season. But with James Johnson, Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk now getting minutes at that spot, it could be hard for Winslow to find playing time at that position. That could force Winslow to log more minutes at small forward behind starter Josh Richardson. But the elephant in the room is the fact that the Heat are 48-30 in games Winslow has missed and 17-28 in games Winslow has played since the start of the 2016-17 season. It’s important to remember that he’s still only 21 years old, though. Injuries derailed Winslow’s season last year and injuries have already forced him to miss a lot of time this season. There’s still optimism within the Heat organization regarding Winslow’s future.

The injury bug continues to follow the Heat. Eight Heat players have already combined to miss 124 games due to injury or illness this season. This comes after the Heat led the NBA in games missed due to injury or illness last year. It looks like Miami will be without starting shooting guard Dion Waiters for the rest of the season, as it’s been reported that he’s expected to undergo season-ending ankle surgery soon. And Rodney McGruder, who played a big role in the Heat’s success last season, has yet to play a game this year after undergoing surgery in October to repair a left tibia stress fracture. McGruder is expected to return before the end of the season, though.

The Heat need to find a way to keep Wayne Ellington this offseason. Most of the Heat’s core is already under contract with the organization past this season. But Ellington will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Ellington has been one of the NBA’s top 3-point shooters this season, making the shot at a 41.0 percent clip. Among those averaging six or more 3-point shot attempts, that number ranks seventh-best in the league. If this continues for Ellington, he will earn a bit of a pay raise in free agency from this season’s $6.3 million salary. With the Heat already capped out next summer, the luxury-tax line could make it hard for them to retain Ellington unless he’s willing to take a discount to stay or Miami opens up cap space.

It’s been an interesting season for Hassan Whiteside. After a career-best season in 2016-17, Whiteside’s numbers are down across the board. He averaged 17.0 points, 14.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks last season. This season, Whiteside is averaging 14.0 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks. But the most jarring stat is the fact that the Heat have been outscored by 13 points with Whiteside playing this season. By comparison, the Heat outscored opponents by 98 points with Whiteside on the court last season. To be fair, it seems like he’s been battling knee pain for most of the year. Whiteside has missed 18 of the Heat’s first 41 games with two different bone bruises in his left knee. The hope is that he will be an improved player over the second half of the season. For as good as big men Bam Adebayo and Kelly Olynyk have looked, the Heat need Whiteside to return to form to have the success they’re hoping for.

Erik Spoelstra is a really, really good coach. We all pretty much knew that entering the season. But for those who doubted Spoelstra’s coaching ability, just look at what he’s done in the Heat’s first 41 games. Without an All-Star on the roster, Miami owns the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference. The Heat are ahead of teams that feature elite players like the Washington Wizards and John Wall, and the Milwaukee Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Oh, and Miami is just two games behind the third-place Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference standings. Spoelstra finished second to Houston’s Mike D’Antoni in last season’s Coach of the Year voting. But if the Heat continue to win at their current 48-win pace, Spoelstra should be in a good position to win the award this year.

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