Monthly Report: Heat Survive January’s ‘Circus Gauntlet’
The circus road trip has become a staple for the Miami Heat in recent years as the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey takes over the AmericanAirlines Arena for almost a week and a half.
The ‘circus gauntlet’, usually a 5-6 game road trip stacked in the middle of January that sees the Heat head west to play half their Western Conference road schedule, brought an even more hellish stretch for Miami this January. They were forced into playing 11 of 12 games on the road, because Madonna, Placido Domingo, and WWE Raw occupied their home court soon after the circus left town.
Leading into the new year, Miami was a team no one could get a clean read on, and due to circumstances out of their control, this Heat squad is just as hard to get a read on now compared to a month ago.
The Biscayne Boys went into January with an 18-13 record (6th in the East) and a +1.5 point differential (13th in the NBA). They finished December off with a couple of rough losses, including a hard swallowed home loss to the woeful Brooklyn Nets.
A lot of doubt swirled around the team, considering they had played the most home games in the NBA leading into 2016, and many felt they didn’t take advantage of it. Now that we’re in February, here’s a ‘Monthly Report’ of January, which had a few major storylines accompany the team throughout a challenging span.
The Injury Bug Resurfaced At The Worst Time
You mention the word “injuries” to any Heat fan after the borderline apocalyptic nature from last season and you’ll have them knocking on wood, sacrificing chickens, praying to the Based God – just about anything to prevent it from happening again. But after a healthy November that saw the Heat play impressive basketball (9-5 record with a +4.3 point differential), December brought a taste of what was to come.
While Luol Deng, Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow each missed a few games, Tyler Johnson missed eight games in the month aggravating an already damaged shoulder and Josh McRoberts missed the last 11 games of 2015 with a bone bruise in his right knee that lingered far into January.
Those disruptions to stable November lineups saw the Heat stumble to an 8-7 record in December and a -0.9 point differential. The prolonged absence of McRoberts seemed to have a profound adverse effect on Miami’s defense, as Giancarlo Navas wrote in his latest article.
January brought an unfair test at the worst possible time to Erik Spoelstra and the Heat coaching staff with the following list of players missing games:
1. Dwyane Wade – 2 games; played numerous games with bad shoulders
2. Hassan Whiteside – 7 games
3. Luol Deng – 1 game
4. Goran Dragic – 8 games
5. Beno Udrih – 6 games
6. Josh McRoberts – 15 games
7. Tyler Johnson – 3 games before being scheduled for surgery at the end of January, and will now miss at least two months.
8. Gerald Green – didn’t miss any games, but played through a bad knee through most of January.
There was a four-game stretch from the last game of the first road trip through the start of the second road trip where Miami was down at least three rotation players in each game (down four rotation players in two of those games).
That battered roster was handed their first four-game losing streak of the season, losing those games by an average of 19 points per game. The Heat sat at 23-21, eighth place in the East, with three more road games on tap.
Things looked bleak.
Dwyane Wade: “About a week ago, everything looked real bleak.”
— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) February 1, 2016
Why won’t the Miami Heat fire Spo and trade Wade/Bosh.. Already? — Bennet Omalu (@neosoul_poetry) January 23, 2016
Heat Twitter was trading any asset that had value, speculating what it would take to get their lottery pick back from Philadelphia.
The season was on the brink of falling apart.
Now, it should be noted that Miami has been quite apt at adjusting to different lineups throughout the season. In games where the Heat are either at full strength or missing just one rotation player, they are 13-9. When they are missing two or more rotation players, they are still 14-12.
Credit goes to Spoelstra and the coaching staff for adjusting on the fly throughout the season. The toughest part has been the many instances where one game it’s one guy that’s out and the next game it’s somebody else. Therefore, consistent rotations have been few and far between these past six weeks.
Hassan Whiteside’s Value Is Still Very Much A Mystery
Let me start this section by being very clear about something, Hassan Whiteside is a valuable player and an important piece to this team. He does a few things better than anyone else in the league and they definitely help lift this team from time to time. Leading into January, there was a lot of dissension amongst fans regarding not only his worth but whether he was even a good fit for this team.
The divide amongst fans on Whiteside stems from two different ways of seeing and assessing a basketball player’s worth. If you look at Whiteside’s raw stats, you see a double-double machine who’s blocking almost four shots per game.
But the analytics crowd sings a very different tune. They see how the counting stats don’t fall in line with the perception of how he’s supposed to be helping the team.
Whiteside is an imposing presence in the paint that’s blocking shots at a historic pace, so it’s easy to assume he’s drastically improving the Heat’s defense. He’s putting up double-doubles as a big man, so it’s easy to assume he’s dominating in the low block. There lies the problem…
Before January, Miami had a defensive rating of 102.8 and a net rating of 1.6 with Whiteside “on the court.” Conversely, the Heat had a defensive rating of 94.5 and a net rating of 5.9 with Whiteside “off the court.” Those are alarming numbers for a player you’re contemplating giving near max money to in the coming offseason.
Then you look into his proficiency inside the post: Out of the 39 players this season with at least 100 post-up possessions, Whiteside ranks 37th with 0.67 points per possession. That’s largely due to a middling 40.5 shooting percentage (33rd of 39) and a 19 percent turnover frequency (38th of 39). These are some giant red flags for someone who could draw max money attention on the open market.
But January’s been a different story on a few fronts for Whiteside. Although he only played in 10 of 17 games, this was the first month where his defensive presence translated through the defensive rating metrics.
In January, Miami had a defensive rating of 96.8 with Whiteside “on the court,” and a 102.7 rating with him “off the court.” The Heat were also a better team in net rating with Whiteside “on the court” compared to having him “off the court.”
Whiteside was also holding his defensive assignment to 40 percent within six feet of the rim (20 percent below their average), compared to holding opponents to only 51 percent prior to January. This improvement led to ESPN.com naming him their top defender for the month of January.
Of course, because this issue never seems to see any kind of clarity, the Heat went on a 4-1 run in the last five games of January that Whiteside missed, with A’mare Stoudemire experiencing a minor renaissance by putting up very similar numbers to Whiteside while providing some much-needed passing and screening to a team that sorely needed it.
This only further puts into question the true value Whiteside brings to this Heat squad. If your replacement is fully capable of putting up similar numbers to you in the same system, while also bringing a few skills (passing and screening) at a significantly better level than you, how much value do you really have?
I do not envy the decision this Miami Heat brass will have to make both leading up to the trade deadline and going into the off-season.
Justise Is Finding Himself Offensively
Justise Winslow has given the Heat more than anyone could have expected out of a 19-year old, bringing a veteran poise, all-world level defense, and a yearning to grow and evolve while deferring to a team full of veteran leadership.
The only glaring flaw in his game is that he has looked totally lost on offense in just about every aspect of the game. Through the first 35 games of his NBA career, Winslow was averaging 5.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.2 APG, and 1.4 TOPG with a dreadful 39/22/66 shooting split.
Fans that couldn’t appreciate his unbelievable defensive acumen (for any NBA player, let alone a 19-year old) were casting him as a bust because he looks helpless at times on offense.
But Justise’s last 10 games have offered a sign of hope and a glimpse of the potential this Duke product has on both ends of the floor. Over Winslow’s last 10 games, he’s averaging 6.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.0 APG, and only 1.2 TOPG with 48/39/100 shooting splits.
Those shooting numbers are night and day compared to the rest of his season. In fact, Couper Moorhead of Heat.com noted how Winslow had a hitch in his shot early on in the season, but he’s seemed to have worked through it and the returns have been noticeable.
On top of his improved shooting form, Winslow has looked much more comfortable in recent weeks finishing at the rim, especially in transition.
This is important because Miami is a team that does not run in transition often, but when they do it’s often Dragic and Winslow that are leading the push up the court, so he needs to get more comfortable finishing the opportunities he is handed.
Apart from his general scoring prowess, Winslow’s ball handling and passing have also taken a step forward, largely out of necessity with prolonged injuries to both the team’s point guards. During his one year at Duke and throughout summer league, he showed an ability to put the ball on the floor and find the open man, however, he seemed too hesitant to do that this season.
That can likely be attributed to a combination of playing with other veteran ball handlers and his turnover issues earlier on this season. But the important thing with Winslow is that you can see his game is improving at a steady pace, which is a tremendous sign for such a highly talented teenager.
So many around the league questioned how Miami would handle this large influx of road games after regressing in December. This felt like the month that was going to dictate whether Miami was going to be a contender, or whether this season would be just another mirage much like last season was.
Miami finished above .500 for the month, despite some brutal mixes from tough scheduling and bad injury luck. Now in February, the Miami Heat are 0.5 game behind the third seed in the Eastern Conference with a matchup against the Charlotte Hornets tonight.
It’s time to stop trying to trade Bosh, Dragic, and McRoberts. It’s time to stop doubting the coaching staff. This team is ready to contend, and when healthy, they are a force to be reckoned with. It’s time to sit back, relax and enjoy the second half of the season. It wouldn’t hurt to pray for good health, too.