Inside the Miami Heat's decision to revamp the rotation weeks before the playoffs
It all comes down to putting Jimmy Butler and Miami's best players in space.
The Miami Heat’s decision to revamp the rotation just a couple of weeks before the playoffs can be traced back to Pat Riley’s press conference at the end of the last season.
“Somewhere you to have to make a decision on the two or three players that you think are your franchise anchors, other players around them who can complement them, and players that will really add a specific fix to what our weaknesses are,” Riley told reporters in June.
At the time, the Heat’s president was talking about building around Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in free agency. Ten months later, after adding Kyle Lowry and witnessing Tyler Herro make a leap, Miami’s two anchors have become four.
So when coach Erik Spoelstra last Monday scrapped the rotation that carried the top-seeded Heat for most of the season, he did so with the goal of setting up his best players to be even better. It was a needed change. Even before the four-game losing skid and now-infamous sideline quarrel, Heat players and coaches had internal concerns about the way things were trending, specifically around Jimmy Butler.
Butler’s reputation in the NBA can be described a lot of ways: Confrontational, stubborn, competitive. But an underrated aspect of Butler’s personality is that he is proud of his basketball IQ, and doesn’t want to be told what to do or how to play.
During Miami’s embarrassing March 23 loss to a skeleton-crew Golden State Warriors squad, coaches and teammates wondered why Butler was reluctant to take advantage of Golden State’s young or smaller players (Jordan Poole, Jonathan Kuminga, Chris Chiozza) on switches. But Butler had also playing in cramped quarters too often, which made seeking out those switches more difficult and made it easier for opponents to double him in the post. It was getting exhausting, and frustrations boiled over.
So the decision was made to give Butler more space. His minutes pattern was scrapped and rebuilt. Butler now checks out at the six-minute mark and returns with two minutes left in the first quarter. It’s the same minutes pattern that LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo have used for much of their careers.
Like James and Antetokounmpo, Butler thrives when surrounded by shooting. When he re-enters the game, he does so at the 4. This decreases his minutes playing next to P.J. Tucker (who is shooting 23.3% from 3-point range since the All-Star break and, even before his regression, has never been treated by defenses as a floor-spacer) and increases his minutes alongside an additional shooter such as Max Strus by about 10 per game.
The first sign that things were going to change was the announcement ahead of last week’s win over the Sacramento Kings that Strus would be supplanting Duncan Robinson in the starting lineup. Though the Heat waited until last week to make the change, they had considered making the swap for a while. While Robinson and Strus are both knock-down shooters, Strus offers a bit more off-the-bounce verve and physicality on defense, on the glass and when setting screens.
There are two reasons why the Heat didn’t make the swap earlier:
Strus needed to become a more consistent team defender. There have been times this season when Strus was out of the rotation completely because he wasn’t up on his assignments. “That has been a two-year process,” Spoelstra said. “He’s really improved in seeing situations happen before they happen, getting to his spots earlier.”
Though Strus (40.6%) is shooting a better percentage from 3 than Robinson (36.7%) this season, opponents still weren’t responding to him with the same amount of fear from beyond the arc. So even with Robinson slumping at times this season, he still created plenty of space for Miami’s best players. Strus has now earned the label as “shooter” in opponent scouting reports.
Those minutes with Butler and Strus have been productive. In the 58 total minutes they have shared the floor, the Heat have outscored opponents by 35 points and shot 52.7% from deep as a team. Butler is shooting 69.6% in those minutes alongside Strus. It’s a small sample, but those are “LeBron-has-the-look” type numbers.
The efficiency isn’t limited to Butler’s minutes with Strus. The Heat have also outscored opponents by 29 points in Butler’s 53 minutes with Robinson, and Butler is shooting 59.1% in those minutes.
With Butler at the 4, the playbook isn’t complicated. Butler usually gets a screen from Adebayo or Dedmon and attacks downhill with three shooters spacing the floor. It’s spread pick-and-roll. And it gives Butler space to cook.
Miami’s Achilles heel for much of the season — halfcourt offense — is less of an issue now. The Heat have gone from scoring 96.9 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt to 106.8 since the rotation changes, per Cleaning the Glass. It’s the NBA’s fourth-best halfcourt offense during this short stretch.
So far, it hasn’t come at the expense of defensive or rebounding efficiency, as these kinds of changes so often do. As has been the case all season, this is the best version of the Heat.
The quiet consequence of the changes is that it likely means the Victor Oladipo experiment is over. At least for now. The organization is extremely proud of Oladipo for the work he’s put in to come back from his second surgery to repair his torn quad and still believe he could get back to something resembling his All-Star form, but time simply ran out.
Initially, the Heat didn’t think it would take as long as it did for Oladipo to make his season debut. The organization expected Oladipo to return at some point closer to the All-Star break. That would have given Oladipo somewhere in the realm of 20-25 games rather than the seven he ultimately got.
Although in Sunday’s win over the Toronto Raptors Oladipo scored 21 points on 7 of 11 shooting to help carry Miami on a night Butler, Tucker and others were resting, it’s unlikely he’ll see consistent minutes going forward.
Oladipo is an unrestricted free agent this summer. The Heat have his Bird rights and may still opt to re-sign him depending on the price and the market. Sunday’s performance is a glimpse at what Oladipo can do when he’s healthy and has a defined role.
For now, the Heat will likely stick with what they know works, and that’s putting Butler, Adebayo and Herro in space. The starting lineup of Lowry, Strus, Butler, Tucker and Adebayo with Herro, Robinson, Dedmon and Gabe Vincent off the bench appears set.
That’s not to say players such as Oladipo or Caleb Martin won’t get their opportunities in the playoffs. Spoelstra has proven to be quick to make adjustments within and between series.
Oladipo may get minutes in the right matchup if one of Miami’s more inexperienced players quakes in the playoffs. Spoelstra could opt for Martin over, say, Vincent if he needs more perimeter length and athleticism as opposed to ball-handling. Maybe Morris ends up being the best option behind Adebayo in a potential matchup with the Nets.
But the premise of putting the team’s best players in position to succeed should guide every decision moving forward.
“This is just what we’re going with right now,” Spoelstra cautioned over the weekend.
Well, right now, the top-seeded Heat are playing as well as they have all season.
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