Thorns and Switches: Heat Defense and How It’s Improving

Insight2 years ago9 min readGiancarlo Navas

The Miami Heat’s playoff success depends on two things. The first being Jimmy Butler’s health, specifically his wrist that has been bothering him for some time. With a healthy wrist and a long layoff, perhaps his jumpshot can reasonably return. The second thing is maybe even more important: The Heat’s ability to switch on defense — a skill unlocked by the acquisition of Andre Igoudala and Jae Crowder at the trade deadline. 

The Heat are a bit divisive in the grander NBA conversation. How good are they, and do they pose a legitimate threat to the Bucks in the East? Most analysts feel the Heat will be nothing more than a little thorn on the one seed’s side. Zach Lowe, esteemed ESPN analyst, recently said on his podcast that the Heat have outperformed their record. And to an extent, he might be right.

An Erik Spolestra team has gotten to the upper half of a top-heavy Eastern Conference without a great defense, firmly ranked at 14th with a 109 Defensive Rating. Spo preaches defense first and has since his tenure started in 2009, so seeing a team helmed by him look so disorganized on that end is uncharacteristic. 

Their offense, however, is a bit strange, ranked at seventh (112 Offensive Rating). There are legitimate concerns if they can score on elite defenses. Butler’s jump shooting has seemingly abandoned him this season, shooting 31 percent from midrange and 25 percent from three, but he buoys Miami’s offense with a Harden-esque free-throw rate of 11.5 free-throws per 100 possessions and creates shots for the best three-point shooting team in the league. Miami is shooting 38 percent from deep on the season and are in the top 10 in attempts per game. The question then becomes: How do they fare with a playoff whistle? Can Butler put pressure on defensives without his jumper or his elite free-throw rate? Without that, can Miami get enough quality looks from three to score? It’s the make or break question for the Heat, but their offense is their offense. It works, and they have seemingly settled into this style, but what about their defense?

We can theorize all day about hypothetical Ed Malloy no-calls, but the Heat’s tangible, real weakness going into the bubble in Orlando is their defense. So, let’s try and understand what they are doing philosophically, and how they can fix this. 

The Heat are following suit with the Raptors and Bucks in terms of defending opponents three-point attempts. Miami is allowing the third-most threes in the league (behind Milwaukee and Toronto), but teams are only yielding 34 percent shooting on those shots, good for fifth-lowest in the league. So Miami has their three-point defense covered, allowing those long range shots while keeping the percentage down. It runs counter culture to the league now, but when looking at the trends from last and this year, the best defenses are starting to give up more three pointers. So what is the Heat’s problem?

Their issues defensively are inside. The Heat are a bottom-five team in defending the rim despite allowing the second-fewest attempts at it. It’s weird. They do everything they can to prevent shots inside of five feet, and they succeed at it. However, when it breaks down, they haven’t been able to clean it up. 

My colleague Nekias Duncan has covered this a lot, but there is an immense pressure on the guards to contain dribble drives and ball movement. Miami has mostly played a drop style defensive scheme, where the big in the pick-and-roll “drops” to contain the ball handler while the on-ball defender fights around the initial screen. Milwaukee plays a supercharged version of this by having Brook Lopez drop sometimes below the free-throw line in his coverage. For some context on how an exaggerated version of this works:

Brook Lopez dropping in a pick and roll

Because Bam Adebayo is often not playing center, he isn’t the last line of defense rim protecting, but rather their first. He is usually defending the screens up top or picking up the bigger wings like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam and LeBron James. This leaves Meyers Leonard or Kelly Olynyk to help the guards that have been beat.

It’s a compromising position for them, and while they compete, it isn’t their strength. Here, we have Kelly doing a good job on his initial drop assignment. Dragic gets screened by Lopez and Kelly is covering for Dragic until he can recover, but Lopez very quickly rolls to the rim. Crowder isn’t in a good help position, and there is no shooter in the right corner to help off of. So, Kelly has to defend the Bledsoe drive and the Lopez roll.

Bledsoe gets in the paint and when Kelly commits to stepping up to contest, it’s an easy lob to Lopez. Crowder, being late, fouls Lopez giving him an and-one. Giannis didn’t even have to touch the ball and the Bucks got an easy three-point play.  

That, in essence, is the Heat’s problem on defense. Their guards, particularly Dragic, Nunn and Herro, cannot fight the screens effectively, and they force their bigs into compromising positions. It’s weird, though, Miami gets their opponents to shoot the shot profile they like. Few attempts at the rim and threes that are contested. Via Second Spectrum, Miami is contesting the hardest out of every team in the league. The blueprint works, they just don’t have the point of attack defense to get it done. Jimmy Butler can’t defend every pick-and-roll, and his responsibilities on offense are taxing enough to stretch him even thinner at age 30 in the first year of a max four-year deal. 

So, where do we go from here? 

Enter the 2020 NBA Trade Deadline. The Heat acquired Igoudala and Crowder from the Memphis Grizzlies in hopes to bolster their shaky perimeter defense. Almost immediately, we can see a change in philosophy. Miami, which almost exclusively ran a drop defense scheme (with zone mixed in here and there), started switching more. Since February 9th, the Heat have the fifth-most switches in the league, and while it’s results have varied, they seem committed to making this work. 

Since the trade, the Heat defense hasn’t gotten worse or better, it’s stayed about the same, ranking 14th during this time. It’s a different system yet has executed the same results. Part of this feels unlucky. Here, Bam gets switched onto Trae Young, a matchup the Heat should be comfortable with as we have seen Bam contain better and more deadly shooters, but Trae hits this monster of a shot.

Bam defending Trae Young on a switch

Analytics aren’t kind to that, and it’s okay. You have to hope the math evens out and your game plan works.

Here, we see an instance where Andre is looking like himself. Duncan Robinson gets screened and because of his big 6-foot-9 frame, Miami can afford to switch him onto the bigger PJ Washington. Andre picks up Caleb Martin and everyone is able to stay home on the shooters. Washington tries to seal Duncan who fronts him, Kelly is able to back him up, and even if Martin makes a really hard cross court pass, Olynyk will have time to contest. 

The play ends with a deflection, and this kind of defensive possession is only made possible with the versatility of Andre. 

Here is an instance where Miami has Butler and Crowder put into a Luka Doncic and Tim Hardaway Jr. pick-and-roll. 

Crowder is comfortably able to switch onto Luka, having the size and foot step to keep up. Seth Curry, who had been lighting the Heat up like his name is Steph, goes to screen Luka up top, and this time Miami won’t switch. Dragic instead shows hard on the screen, allowing Crowder to recover and contain Luka. Dragic on Luka is not a matchup they want, and I wanted to show the freeze fame here to highlight what good defensive position Crowder is in after the Dragic show. 

Jae Crowder defending Luka Doncic on a switch

Crowder stays with Luka and Bam comes to help, leaving Kristaps Porzingis in the corner, but Bam being Bam, he can recover and close out as soon as the pass leaves Luka’s hand. Porzingis pump fakes, side steps, and Bam is still able to get the strip in a huge moment late in the game.

There were many instances in this game where Crowder switches onto Luka and was completely beat one-on-one, and that’s gonna happen when opponents have ultra-talented offensive players. They aren’t going to be the best defensive in the league with these chances, but hopefully they can creep into the top 12 or maybe even into the top 10 to be able to go to war with Boston, Milwaukee, and Toronto for a deep playoff run. 

Defense wins championships is a cliche we hear all too often, and while hoisting a Larry O’Brien trophy isn’t realistic for the Heat this season, this is a franchise that has continually and defiantly competed to the best of their ability. If there is a way to improve, Riley and Spo are sure as hell gonna try. Even if its moving from 14th to 11th in defense, every bit counts. While there is a lot of uncertainty with the bubble, the one thing we do know is that the Heat will go out swinging. Thorns can make you bleed, and they sure as hell will make you feel them.