The Miami Heat is roughly one-fifth of the way through its regular season schedule and it’s still too early to make any firm judgements on what this can team be by season’s end (still mostly likely a playoff team).
But at 7-9 there are some early troubling signs Pat Riley’s decision this summer to bring back 11 players from last year’s 41-41 team and invest large chunks of the team’s salary cap in future years to a handful of players might have been a mistake.
It’s a lot to ask for a team with a couple new pieces to gel from the get-go and pick up where it left off when it finished with the second-best record in the league (30-11) over the second half of last season, but the Heat’s uneven play between the first and second half of games this season is concerning.
Though Miami has maintained itself as one of the better defenses in the league, ranking ninth in opponent field goal percentage and 14th in defensive rating (103.9), it isn’t elite like it was a year ago. The team’s consistent struggles in the second half of games (Miami ranks 30th in scoring, field goal percentage and three-point shooting) has been baffling for coach Erik Spoelstra. So has the overall increase in turnovers, which have gone up from 13.4 per game (11th last season) to 16.6 per game (26th).
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Individually, production for most of the roster has tailed off, too.
Here’s a closer examination player-by-player heading into Wednesday’s game against the best team in the league the Boston Celtics, winner of 16 in a row after Monday’s come-from-behind win in Dallas:
Goran Dragic: After averaging 20.3 points, 5.8 assists and shooting 40.5 percent from three-point range last season, the Dragon is once again leading the Heat in scoring (18.3 per game), assists (4.7) and shooting a respectable 37.5 percent from beyond the arc. The problem for Dragic is he’s been fading in the second half of games, particularly the fourth quarter. Last season, he led Miami in scoring in the final period with 5.4 points per game while shooting 46.5 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from three-point range. This season, he’s averaging 3.5 points, shooting 33.3 percent from the field and 16.7 percent from beyond the arch in the final quarter.
Dion Waiters: After signing a four-year, $52 million deal this summer, Riley wanted Waiters to become a more efficient player in his second year with the Heat. He’s gone in the other direction. Not only are his turnovers up from 2.2 a game last season to a team-leading 3.1 per game this season, but Waiters’ shooting percentage (39.9 percent) and three-point shooting percentage (31.7) are also down from last year (42.4 percent from field, 39.5 percent from three-point range). Defensively, he’s also slipped some, allowing opponents to shoot 44.9 percent against him on shots he’s defended compared to 40.4 percent a year ago.
Josh Richardson: The Heat signed Richardson to a four-year, $42 million extension this summer (it kicks into gear next season) in part to avoid having him becoming a coveted restricted free agent next summer. Defensively, the wiry Richardson has held opponents to 34.6 percent shooting on shots he defended, which ranks third in the league among players to defend at least 100 field goal attempts this season. But Richardson’s own shooting percentages have been among the worst in the league. Among players averaging at least eight shots per game, Richardson’s shooting percent from the field (37.8 percent) is tied for 12th-worst in the league and his three-point shooting percentage (28.4 percent) ranks eighth-worst among shooters taking at least four threes a game. Richardson is hoping his performance in Sunday’s loss, when he was more aggressive going to the basket, will help get him going offensively.
Justise Winslow: Winslow ranks ninth on the team in scoring (6.8 per game), tied for second in rebounding (5.4 per game) in 23.6 minutes per game. Although he’s started eight consecutive games, the 6-8 forward hasn’t played more than 24 minutes (half the game) since Miami’s win at Phoenix six games ago. Drafted in part for his defensive skills, opponents are actually shooting 49.2 percent when Winslow guards them. That’s not nearly good enough for a player drafted 10th overall and whom the Heat had high hopes for. It’s still early, but Winslow needs to give the Heat more than he has.
Hassan Whiteside: He missed five games because of a bone bruise in his left knee and the Heat went 2-3 without him, a clear sign Miami is much better with him than without him But Miami’s $98 million center has also been inconsistent at times this season and was benched in the second half at Golden State for not getting back on defense. Whiteside’s numbers this season (16.2 ppg, 13.5 rpg, 1.8 bpg, 57.9 FG pct., 69.8 FT pct.) are basically on par with last season’s (17.0 ppg, 14.1 rpg, 2.1 bpg, 55.7 FG pct., 62.8 FT pct). But the inconsistencies have been bothersome for a player the Heat hoped would continue to emerge and perhaps reach an All-Star status. He’s not playing like an All-Star yet.
Tyler Johnson: Like Waiters, the Heat wanted more efficiency from Johnson and simply haven’t gotten it. After being among the league-leaders off the bench last season with 13.7 points per game on 43.3 percent shooting, 37.2 percent from three with 3.2 assists compared to 1.2 turnovers, Johnson has regressed to 9.7 points per game on 34.5 percent shooting from the field (fourth-worst in the league among players averaging at least eight shots a game) and 29.9 percent shooting from three-point range. That’s simply not going to cut it for a player in the second year of a severly backloaded four-year, $50 million deal.
James Johnson: His numbers from this season (12.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.1 spg, 49.6 FG pct, 37.0 3PT pct) are nearly identical to the ones he put up last season (12.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.6 apg, 1.0 spg, 47.9 FG pct., 34.0 3PT pct.) including on defense. But after signing a four-year, $60 million deal this summer it was fair to expect a little more impact from Johnson, who after completely vanishing in a couple games has followed it up by taking ownership for it. The one thing you can’t argue against is his leadership. He’s gone from journeyman to one of the most important voices in the locker room and that has real value. Still, you can’t have players making his kind of money disappearing for stretches like he did last week.
Kelly Olynyk: The surprise signing of the summer after inking a four-year, $50 million deal, Olynyk has gone from starting alongside Whiteside at power forward to the backup center role and is now seeing fewer and fewer minutes per game (15.2 mpg since Whiteside’s return on Nov. 1). Surprising as it is, Olynyk is actually averaging fewer minutes for the Heat (18.4) than he did in any of his previous four seasons with the Celtics. His 8.9 points per game is on par with last season in Boston, but his rebounding (5.3 per game) and shooting from the field (53.2 percent) and beyond the arc (46.3 percent) are actually up. The issue with Olynyk – and ultimately the reason he’s playing less and less – is what he does on defense, allowing opponents to score on a team-worst 54 percent of the shots they take when he’s guarding them. If he can start defending better, Spoelstra will likely play him more and the better it will be for this team, which is clearly struggling on offense.
Wayne Ellington: The Man With The Golden Arm got off to a slow start, but he’s been finding his stroke of late, shooting 41.2 percent from beyond the arc for Miami including making seven threes in Sunday’s loss to the Pacers. He’s shooting just 40.2 percent from the field overall and averaging 7.5 points per game on 17.5 minutes per game. Last season, Ellington shot 37.8 percent from three-point range and averaged 10.5 points over 24.2 minutes per game. For whatever reason, Spoelstra has backed away from playing Ellington as much. He’s actually doing a better job defensively, too, holding opponents to 44.3 percent shooting on shots he guards compared to 46.4 percent last season.
Bam Adebayo: Among the league’s rookies to play at least eight games, Adebayo ranks 30th in minutes played (12.3 per game) even though he’s proven to be at times a good scorer on lobs and a decent defender against smaller players. The issue for Adebayo overall has been breakdowns on defense where he’s allowed opponents to score on 51 percent of the shots he’s defended. He’s also only blocked four shots in 123 minutes of action. Although he might be the better player long term, the Heat did pass on some players who are having bigger impacts elsewhere like Hawks center John Collins (11.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 1.0 bpg in 22.2 mpg) and Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma, who was taken 27th overall and was obviously missed on by quite a few teams.
Jordan Mickey: The former Celtics forward did a decent job filling in for Whiteside for two games while he was out, but hasn’t really been a part of the rotation since and only played in garbage time Sunday against the Pacers.
Okaro White: Sidelined by a broken bone in his left foot last week, White filled in as a starter at power forward before Spoelstra turned to Winslow. He was doing a decent job in limited minutes, but was basically buried on the depth chart before his injury.
Udonis Haslem: Finally saw his first minutes of the season in garbage time Sunday, but is not part of the regular rotation and doesn’t figure to be anytime soon.
Rodney McGruder: Last season’s starting small forward remains out after surgery, but has been around the team plenty and looks as though he could return later in the season. It’s hard to tell how much of an impact McGruder would have made had he been healthy, but his teammates certainly miss his grit and hustle.
A.J. Hammons: The 15th player on the Heat’s roster has been down in Sioux Falls since the start of the season to get in shape and improve. He’s averaging 8.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 19.1 minutes in seven games thus far for the Skyforce.