On the Unsung Heroics of the Heat’s Bench

Insight2 months ago6 min readJuan Carlos Pardiño

Last season, the Miami Heat marched their way to the first seed in the East owing in no small part to unexpected contributions from the back end of the bench.

In order to recapture last season’s magic and vault their way up the Eastern Conference standings, the Heat will need similar contributions this season. Over the past three games, we’ve seen the early makings of what can be comparable break-out campaigns from three unsung heroes.

Let’s look at what Haywood Highsmith, Dru Smith, and Jamal Cain have given the Heat during this latest three-game win streak.

Haywood Highsmith

When glancing at the numbers, all of the most frequently used and most effective units on this roster have featured one name: Haywood Highsmith. Per NBA.com’s lineup data, over the Heat’s 3-game win-streak, their most frequently used 5-man lineup consists of Lowry-Herro-Martin-Highsmith-Bam, which has logged 26 minutes.

That unit has held opponents to 100 points per 100 possessions and is scoring 136.7 points per 100 possessions. The fourth-most used 5-man unit in this stretch consists of Herro-Dru Smith-Martin-Highsmith-Dedmon. That lineup has held opponents to 57.5 points per 100 possessions over two games.

All of the highest usage 2-man pairings featuring Highsmith are overwhelmingly positive in terms of NET rating. Martin and Highsmith have posted a plus-16.2 NET in their 70 minutes together; Lowry and Highsmith have posted a plus-26.7 NET in their 59 minutes together; Herro and Highsmith have posted a plus-7.8 NET; Bam and Highsmith have posted a plus-8.7 NET; even Dedmon and Highsmith have posted a plus-16.3 NET in their 38 shared minutes.

In short, the lineup numbers show that Highsmith is making some of the Heat’s highest usage lineups run more smoothly.

In the clips below, featuring Highsmith operating at the top of Spoelstra’s 2-3 zone, what stands out to you?

What I see is a player with all the right physical tools to be a wing-stopper. Highsmith is not only stout, weighing in at around 220 pounds, but also has a 7-foot wingspan. When watching him close out to defenders and pick up his man on-ball, you see all of that wingspan. He’s not only very disciplined with his closeouts—but he also keeps his arms up and active when he’s in his stance. This shrinks passing lanes for the ball handler, allows him to pull off improbable contests around the perimeter and at the nail, and makes it possible for him to snatch passes out of thin air.

I also see improved footwork and lateral quickness, as well as the propensity for muscling through screens. In short, he has all the tools to be a menace at the top of the Heat’s zone and the versatility to switch onto multiple positions. Dunks and Threes’ Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus metric places Highsmith’s defensive impact at the 85th percentile among all players. The stats converge to demonstrate he is contributing above-average defense at both lineup and individual levels.

Despite some highlights (see John Jablonka’s clip below), the issues with his game come on the offensive end. Highsmith is currently hoisting a far-below-average 4.1 3s per 75 possessions. Moreover, he is shooting an ice-cold 31.2% eFG% from beyond the arch. He is neither providing volume nor efficiency as a shooter.

I’m not doubting that the shots will fall at some point. Until then, Highsmith has to willingly hoist threes when called upon to do so, providing space for others to operate by doing so. This is the surest way to prevent opposing defenses from treating him like he does not exist on that end of the court.

The 2-Way Guys

Dru Smith has struggled less on offense and has shown impressive flashes on defense, albeit in more limited time on the court. He guarded Hawks players for 45.5 partial possessions last Sunday. On top of forcing a turnover, he held the players he guarded to 3/10 shooting from the field and 0/2 from 3.

The clips below demonstrate his knack for operating in Spoelstra’s zone.

He isn’t just solid on-ball but plays passing lanes intelligently, straying neither too far from his man nor too close to the handler. He also brings help calmly and decisively. I rarely (if ever) saw Smith commit an unnecessary foul or perform a sloppy rotation on Sunday in Atlanta.

Jamal Cain also had moments of brilliance against the Washington Wizards last week. For one, Cain’s ability to jump out of the gym brings the Heat something they desperately need: more explosive athleticism from players other than Bam Adebayo and Caleb Martin.

Like Highsmith and Smith, Cain has both bought into the Heat’s zone principles and has executed them masterfully for stretches.

His 6’7” frame combined with his fast-twitch athleticism make him a nuisance at the nail and on-ball. I like players who can seemingly crowd passing lanes and either snare a steal or recover to the ball if the pass gets by them. While Cain has had some jittery moments, we’ve seen what he can potentially become and contribute over this latest three-game win streak.

Moving forward…

The Heat will inevitably get healthier. Jimmy Butler will be back. Duncan Robinson and eventually Victor Oladipo will receive rotation minutes. Highsmith, Smith, and Cain will not remain fixtures in the Heat’s rotation for long if all goes according to plan.

Nevertheless, what all three have shown us is that Coach Spoelstra can turn to them for spot minutes in the second quarter, late in the third, and even early in the fourth. These are all players that can contribute to stacking stops on defense when the team needs them and convert defense into offense. Though this group may not be dependable in, say, a close Conference Semi-Finals game, I have a feeling that some – perhaps all – of them will continue to contribute to winning regular season games.