The Miami Heat are not favored to win the NBA title, the East, or even make the conference finals. But that didn’t stop them from using the trade deadline to raise their ceiling and solidify themselves as the team nobody really wants to face.
Wrangling Danilo Gallinari away from the Oklahoma City Thunder, as had been rumored, would have elevated them to an even higher level, but what they ended up with — swapping Justise Winslow, James Johnson, and Dion Waiters for Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Solomon Hill — can still make the Heat more formidable than they’ve been since LeBron James left.
Even though they currently rank 10th in net rating, there are reasons to be bullish about what the Heat can now accomplish. Miami has been excellent in several areas, with two all-stars that don’t step on each other’s toes, supplemented by perhaps the NBA’s most dangerous collection of outside shooters. They’re sixth in RPI (a quantification that ranks every team based on their own record and the record of everyone they’ve played), and only 2.5 games behind the second-place Toronto Raptors.
Before the trade, it was easy to look at this roster’s statistical resume and have two contradictory beliefs: 1) that the Heat could make a legitimate playoff run, and 2) that several of their biggest nightly advantages would be schemed away in a seven-game series. Adding Iguodala doesn’t change either statement, but it does make them a more threatening two-way force, one that will be an even more troubling headache for the rest of the East come spring.
The Heat live in the half-court, don’t rely on fastbreak points as a spark, and take more time getting off their shot than any other team. A generous 63.6 percent of their baskets are assisted, which is sixth-highest in the NBA. Every player understands their role on the court. They move in symphony, with a head coach who preaches the timely adage that good offense is spacing and spacing is good offense. They’re the NBA’s second-most accurate three-point shooting team off the catch, a rain storm that squeezes all it can from the likes of Duncan Robinson, Goran Dragic, Tyler Herro, and Kendrick Nunn. Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler directly benefit as foul magnets that prop up Miami’s offense at the free-throw line (the Heat lead the league in free throw rate).
The Heat are also third in points scored off a screen assist, and only five percent of their possessions end with an isolation. They barely throw the ball into the post, either. Instead, no team uses the dizzying effects of dribble handoffs better, ranking first in volume and efficiency on these plays. Their bigs work at the elbows, then wait for shooters to either loop up from the corner or cut backdoor, depending on how the defense is positioned. It’s a cascading rhythm that makes guarding them for 48 minutes feel like an ultra marathon with no route or finish line.
The Heat run more miles when they possess the ball than every other team except the San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans. And, as unsurprising as it is appropriate, Miami leads the league in play types that are categorized as “miscellaneous”. Their implacable motion is why they succeed.
The offense works wonderfully in the regular season, against teams that could be flying into South Beach on the second night of a back-to-back after playing an opponent with more traditional sensibilities. The Heat’s quirkiness is an inherent advantage in these games. The question is, how will they adapt to tighter whistles and tapered passing lanes in a playoff series?
Many of the easy buckets that materialize from an opponent’s physical and mental fatigue disappear in the postseason. (This stat isn’t a be-all, end-all conclusion, but during the 2018-19 regular season, teams averaged 10.25 points per 100 possessions on assisted baskets at the rim. In the playoffs, that number dropped to 9.01.)
Iguodala and Crowder won’t expand Miami’s offense or create by themselves like Gallinari could, but they’ll allow the Heat to experiment with smaller lineups that slide Adebayo to the five, where he and Miami are at their deadliest. And the Heat will enjoy Iguodala’s passing and unlock his resourceful skillset in too many ways to count; he’ll be a convenient addition to their whirring offensive system.
On the other side of the ball, where Miami has fallen to league average, they can be a lifeline. Iguodala is not the athlete he used to be, but he remains one of the more intuitive and intelligent defenders in the league. If he’s able to make life difficult for the Pascal Siakams, Jaylen Browns, Jayson Tatums, Ben Simmonses, and Tobias Harrises of the world without assistance, suddenly Butler will have more opportunities to take in-game rest, allowing him to channel more of his energy on the other end of the court.
There’s no guarantee the player Iguodala used to be still exists, however. And on the offensive end, Iguodala’s below average three-point shooting means playing him heavy minutes next to Butler (currently at 25.5 percent behind the arc) and Adebayo could muck up an offense that has grown comfortable in space. Defenses will happily leave Iguodala alone on the perimeter, which may be an even more glaring problem than it was when he was surrounded by Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kevin Durant. (Iguodala went 44-for-98 on wide-open threes three years ago; Miami is obviously hoping that accuracy returns.)
On the whole, the Heat are greater than the sum of their individual parts, which is the goal for every basketball team that has ever wanted to win. But in the playoffs individual moments still matter, those momentous stretches when a player breaks off and conquers on their own. It’s here why Miami could come to regret not acquiring Gallinari.
As currently constructed, the Heat only have one player who can consistently create good looks for himself in crunch time of a tight playoff game: Butler. (Adebayo is wonderful in so many ways, but he’s not there quite yet.) Competing for a championship without any alternative isn’t an option, and Gallinari would have been an ideal solution. Not only would he have spaced the floor with more gravity and a quicker release than Kelly Olynyk or Meyers Leonard, but he can also duck inside to punish smaller defenders on the block.
He’s a nightmare mismatch, particularly on a team that has embraced positionless basketball to an extent that few others have. Watching him develop a two-man game with Dragic against opposing bench units would have been extremely fun. (In low doses, he’s been a pick-and-pop menace this year.) When the two feet that’s afforded during the regular season shrinks to two inches in the playoffs, Robinson, Herro, Nunn, and Iguodala will have problems getting decent looks at the basket. That would not have been an issue for Gallo.
But back to the Heat’s reality: I won’t label this deal, or most others, with phrases like “win now” or “all in” because nearly every NBA roster is more like a sandcastle than a cement structure. Even though the Heat acquired a 36-year-old who hasn’t stepped on an NBA court in eight months for a 23-year-old with obvious upside (who has only played 352 minutes this season), they will also be a destination every max-level free agent considers in 2021. If they lose in the first round and then sign Giannis Antetokounmpo next summer, nobody will remember how this trade potentially hurt them in the postseason.
In the meantime, Pat Riley upgraded Miami’s defense in an effort to take down Antetokounmpo’s Milwaukee Bucks, along with the Raptors, Boston Celtics, Philadelphia 76ers, and Indiana Pacers. Four of those teams did not make a single move yesterday, which could be to Miami’s advantage.
But even without knowing every detail of their trade negotiation, it’s still frustrating to think about what might have been had the Heat pushed in even more chips for Gallinari. Frankly, knowing they were close lessens the excitement around adding Iguodala, which sort of came out of nowhere and is a beneficial thing.
Gallo could have been the missing piece, someone who does exactly what these Heat will need in ways that Iguodala currently can’t. That doesn’t mean they would make the NBA Finals, but Gallinari would diversify an offense that may look rigid against playoff teams that have time to take away what they had so much success doing throughout the regular season.
If this sounds harsh, it doesn’t mean to be. The Heat are a delightful overachiever and their willingness to add a proven winner should be commended — that two-year, $30 million extension notwithstanding. There’s no way to quantify the value of championship experience, or what Iguodala will offer a focused locker room that can appreciate his expertise. This trade probably won’t catapult Miami to the top of the conference, but it does nudge them closer.