It’s way too soon to assess the wisdom of the Heat bringing back this cast, merely six games in and five of them without their best player.
But in explaining why this 2-4 team isn’t playing much like the one that finished on a 30-11 tear last season, there are glaring tangible factors and less obvious intangible ones.
Hassan Whiteside’s absence simply cannot be understated, not only because of hie elite rebounding numbers and his ability to deter players at the rim, but also because his boards and blocks fuel the Heat in transition. Erik Spoelstra said Whiteside intends to play in Wednesday’s home game against Chicago.
But with Whiteside’s injury the No. 1 factor for this slow start, here are the next three:
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• Don’t underestimate Rodney McGruder’s loss, players say. Goran Dragic told me this week that the Heat misses “everything” about him.
“He’s always in the right spot, he’s always getting those 50 50 balls, even if it’s 70 against 30,” Dragic said. “We don’t know how but he’s going to get that ball. Those are game changers.”
• Delinquent defense. Whiteside is one reason for that, but there are others. Miami has gone from fifth in points allowed last season (102.1) to 23rd (109.2). They’ve regressed from seventh in field goal percentage allowed (45) to 27th (46.9).
Players defended by Dion Waiters are shooting 50 percent. They’re shooting 57.8 percent against Kelly Olynyk, 52 percent against Bam Adebayo, 46.7 percent against Justise Winslow.
• Erratic three point shooting, with Miami tumbling from 12th in three-point shooting percentage last season (36.5) to 27th (31.9).
So those - plus too many turnovers in a couple of these home losses and Waiters’ uneven play until the Minnesota game - are tangible factors for 2-4.
But what about intangible factors? During the second half of last season, Heat players were fueled by the chip on their shoulder from being overlooked. Do they have that this season, that extra spark that results in maniacal effort, especially defensively?
Tyler Johnson, always thoughtful, gave an interesting answer when I asked him that.
“I don’t think anybody has lost that chip but sometimes you forget what made you the player that you were,” he said. “Complacent is not the word either especially with our team because there are so many people who don’t let you get that way.
“I can only speak for myself. Sometimes I forget what got me here is undeniable energy and hunger. Nobody can keep me from being able to do my job. Whoever is matched up in front of me, I didn’t care who they were, if they were an all-star. That Rodney McGruder type attitude. We definitely do need to get back to that.”
Johnson said Erik Spoelstra spoke at the start of that nearly 60-minute clear-the-air meeting on Sunday but then allowed the players to take over.
“The thing with Spo is this is our team and he wants to hand the reins over to us,” Johnson said. “He doesn’t want it to be where it’s continually coaches telling you this, this and this. It’s so player driven that we hold ourselves accountable, we know what’s best for the team.
“I think it was good for him to see that because he has a little more trust in us that it will get to that point sooner. He will bring up what he thinks and then after that he goes back and let everything get hashed out how it’s supposed to. It’s not like we say something and he interjects. He steps back and lets us hash it out.”
Johnson said captains James Johnson, Udonis Haslem and Goran Dragic spoke initially in that meeting and then other players chimed in.
What’s mystifying is why this team’s defensive communication hasn’t been better, considering much of the team returns intact.
“Part of that edge, part of what made us who we were [during the 30-11 second half], is we didn’t even have to talk about that,” Johnson said. “That was corrected within the game. It wasn’t we had to come back game after game, we‘re continuing to tell you this is the problem. It was so player driven, we didn’t need to tell the coaches to tell us because we could figure it out on our own.”
So what has changed this year, I asked Johnson. Do players not want to call each other out during games because they’re so close?
“I don’t think it has anything to do with not wanting to hurt somebody’s feeling,” he said. “Communication isn’t just telling you what to do. It’s somebody talking to you and believing in they have your best interests and receiving the communication and implementing it. We have about half of it down but now I think we will start to see a change.”
The Heat hopes Bam Adebayo 13-point, 13-rebound game against Minnesota is the first of many double-doubles, a category that he led a talented Kentucky team in last season.
Adebayo, incidentally, told me he has been soliciting advice from the many young Kentucky players in the league (Devin Booker, Karl Anthony Towns, Nerlens Noel and others) and said Kentucky coach John Calipari gets players ready for the NBA because he teaches them “sacrifice. If you sacrifice for the better of the team, that means you care about the team more than yourself.
“Kentucky is a blueprint for the NBA. [Calipari told me], ‘You’re on your own, kid. This is your job now. And you have to take it as serious as anyone else.’”