The Heat’s Void At Power Forward Will Define Their Season

Insightlast year11 min readGiancarlo Navas

The Miami Heat lost Jae Crowder, and the entire team feels like it’s off its axis. It’s a weird thing to say about a team’s sixth- or maybe seventh-best player, but it illustrates the importance of positional fit.

Because as much as we love to tout Erik Spolestra’s ability to get the most out of any player, fit matters and five games into the Miami Heat’s very young season, they seemingly have a vacuum at power forward.

Yes, it’s only been five games, and yes, Jimmy Butler has only played in about 2.3 of them, but the issues are consistent and glaring. So we need to look at this with the perspective and understanding that numbers in a five-game sample don’t mean much of anything and that whatever we discuss today is conjecture to an issue that long preceded the start of the 2021 NBA season: Who the hell should the Heat start at the four?

It’s weird for a team to have so many “options” but no real options. This may sound like basketball hyperbole, but I assure you, it’s not: Mo Harkless has been absolutely cataclysmic.

Part of the numbers are skewed by Miami getting molly whopped by 47 points to the Milwaukee Bucks, but the Heat are sporting a minus-32 net rating with Harkless on the court — second-worst to only Kendrick Nunn who has the Heat at a minus-36 net rating whenever he sees action.

Harkless’ calling card is on defense, but the Heat are mustering only a 111 defensive rating during his floor time, and his offense certainly doesn’t make up for it either. The Heat have a 78 offensive rating in the 44 minutes of Harkless’ game time. Yes, you read that correctly. The Heat are scoring 78 points per 100 possessions when Harkless is on the floor. That is 20 points per 100 possessions worse than the last place offense in the league (Editor’s Note: Gianni was too shook to say the Toronto Raptors).

How about in the non-Harkless minutes? The Heat largely stabilize, having a minus-0.7 net rating when he sits with a 107 offensive rating and 108 defensive rating. It’s not enough when Harkless sits, but it’s clear that it’s apocalyptic when he isn’t. The term “unplayable” is thrown a lot on #NBATwitter and it’s oftentimes premature and grossly misused. However, through five games of this young NBA season, Moe Harkless is indeed unplayable.

Which brings us to the question we started with: Who the hell should the Heat start at the 4?

Harkless was theoretically the answer to this question. It made sense. With Crowder gone, Miami needed a 3-and-D wing to play small ball four, switch on defense, and spot up. Harkless felt like the perfect discount replacement for Crowder, despite his shaky shooting.

You would bank on the Heat’s culture to get a career 33 percent three-point shooter to be a 35 percent shooter and live with those results. It’s not like they hadn’t done that with James Johnson, Jae Crowder, and several other power forwards like Harkless.

Instead, Harkless is approaching a career-worst from three, shooting at 25 percent. As an added bonus, he is shooting 17 percent from the field overall. He has missed every single attempt from two-point range.

This, by the way, wasn’t without warning. Per Cleaning the Glass, Harkless has played power forward before but not to the extent he has with Miami. He has played power forward in 93 percent of his minutes for Miami, eclipsing every other figure in his career. He has also only been a positive in his power forward minutes in only two seasons out of his 10-year career. The writing was on the wall.

The other question mark with Harkless is his ability to guard up a position like Crowder could.

At 6-foot-6, Jae Crowder was undersized at power forward but you would never know it. What he didn’t have in speed and height, he made up for with great positional initiation and strength. Below is a compilation of him guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo. Crowder is exceptional at ball denial and taking contact from Giannis when he tries his patented spin move. He is able to stay grounded and keep a hand up. When Bam switches on Giannis, Crowder is smart enough as a help defender to come add a body in the paint to cut off an easy pass to the corner. Undersized but not overmatched.

Harkless hasn’t shown any ability to do that against bigger players in a Heat uniform. He has been fouling a ton, pushed off spots, and is grabbing a career-low one rebound per game. It’s bad. And the deeper into the film and analytics you go, the worse it gets. I don’t think anyone needed the numbers to illustrate how rough it’s been for Harkless this season, but they validate what our eyes have been telling us: This is a problem.

Now that Spo has moved on from starting Harkless, it’s brought a flurry of different lineups and combinations that have yielded little fruit outside a win against Milwaukee. The Heat have used a different starting lineup in each of their five games, almost exclusively mixing up the front court.

• Game 1: Butler/Harkless/Adebayo
• Game 2: Butler/Adebayo/Leonard
• Game 3: Harkless/Adebayo/Leonard
• Game 4: Robinson/Iguodala/Adebayo
• Game 5: Butler/Iguodala/Adebayo

What ultimately may be the answer is playing Igoudala or Butler at the four spot, have them defend up a position, and hope for the best. In both cases, they aren’t the floor spacer you want, but they move off the ball well enough that you can survive regular-season games with that kind of condensed spacing.

Butler last season with the Heat played five percent of his minutes at the four and they were running teams out of the gym. The Heat had a plus-18 net rating and a monster 138 offensive rating, however, the defense was not stopping anyone (119 defensive rating).

In Philadelphia, Butler played more four than he had ever in his career. Fourteen percent of his playing time came at that position, and the Sixers comfortably won those minutes with a plus-5 net rating. It helps that the Sixers had Simmons and Embiid, two All-Defensive players, so downsizing at certain spots had a little less of a risk. For the Heat, it might be one of their only options.

With Igoudala, he hasn’t spent much playing time at the four throughout his career via Cleaning The Glass, and the Heat are already playing him there for nearly 30 percent of his minutes — doubling his next highest career mark. Iguodala’s minutes there have had varied success. 

It’s clearly on Spo’s to-do list to try out those Butler, Bam, and Iguodala front court lineups, and theoretically, it provides smart strong defenders to a lineup to swarm bigger players while also giving them the flexibility to switch most options on and off the ball. A classic example is the Heat’s defense in Games 3-6 in the NBA Finals on Anthony Davis. Despite being undersized, the mobility of the smaller lineups allowed the Heat to double Davis and recover. It is an incredibly demanding style of play. While not ideal, it can survive. And to Spo’s credit, it worked incredibly well in the playoffs last season.

That frontcourt trio had a plus-15 net rating with a 130 offensive rating in almost 100 minutes. While defensively it didn’t hold up, the scoring was overwhelming, but I worry that extrapolated over the course of a regular season that unsustainable offensive number will not hold. Plus, the wear and tear on a 35-year-old Igoudala and a 30-year-old Butler would not be wise in this mad dash of a regular season. It is however a tremendous back pocket lineup to bring out in a pinch and one that will surely be seen come playoff time.

So where does that leave us for a long term solution at the four? KZ Okpala is the #HeatTwitter cult favorite to win that spot, but despite a decent showing against the Bucks, Okpala has not seen the floor before that or since in spite of Harkless’ apocalyptic play and Butler’s injury. The #FreeKZ movement certainly has legs. He has the body and build to play the brand of power forward they need. He is an incredibly capable defender as displayed by his defense on Giannis, and he has shown flashes of an off the dribble and spot-up game.

Spo, however, does not trust him and he does get lost on more complicated screen actions on defense or miscommunications with the guards on whether to switch, drop, or hedge.

The other immediate answer is to play two bigs together. Bam Adebayo and Meyers Leonard helmed a very potent frontcourt last season. The duo was a plus-7 net rating in nearly 800 minutes and were part of one of the NBA’s best and most consistent starting lineups last season. It’s too early to tell what happened, but since the bubble, Leonard has not looked like himself. Together this season, they are a minus-23 net rating. While the sample is a mere 16 minutes, any eye test would confirm that Leonard is not the same player he was earlier last season.

Which leaves us with the Kelly Olynyk and Bam frontcourt option. So far this season, they have a plus-14 net rating when on the floor together with a 112 offensive rating and a 98 defensive rating — good for one of the best two man units on the team. Most importantly, it won’t hurt their bench production much.

Precious Achiuwa has flat-out been a top-five rookie this season already, and when he is the lone big on the floor, the Heat have a plus-19 net rating. It’s interesting how the numbers fit this well, and the eye test backs this up too. Starting Bam and Olynyk together until they find a real small ball four might be the move. It slots Achiuwa as the lone big, which is devastating teams, and Dragic, his favorite new pick-and-roll partner, have both been feasting on second units all season.

Olynyk and Bam have a history of playing well together, which is why last year felt strange when they barely broke even in net rating as a pairing. The Adebayo and Olynyk frontcourt gives the Heat not only an elite shooter (Olynyk is shooting 40 percent his last two seasons from deep) but also slots Adebayo into a help defender role which gives the Heat much-needed rim protection. Even last year, it was Crowder, Butler, and Iguodala on that backline helping, not a lengthy and versatile big like Adebayo.

Olynyk isn’t the best pick-and-roll defender, but with Avery Bradley’s perimiter defense plus Miami’s conservative drop scheme, they will be able to survive. It’s not a perfect solution. The Heat’s ceiling will hinge on whether they can fill the four spot with a wing. It unlocks their most devastating offensive lineups with little gaps on defense.

The Heat last season had an elite creator who could get to the rim, shooting all over the floor, the ability to switch almost any action, and a big man who can do it all on both ends. That’s the formula to win, and for the Heat to get back to the Finals, they will need to solve the Jae Crowder-sized hole in their lineup.