Understanding The Heat’s Slow Start: What’s Going Wrong And How Can It Be Fixed?

Commentary4 weeks ago7 min readJuan Carlos Pardiño

The Heat’s 4-7 start has been equal parts frustrating and confusing. When reflecting on what has led to the Heat’s early demise, my mind gravitates to a number of basketball reasons and others that go beyond the basketball court. Here’s my stab at understanding why the Heat have started slow. After all, without a good account of the reasons why this season has started off as it has, any forecast of what the Heat should do would be nothing better than a blind guess.

The Basketball Problems

When examining the on-court reasons why the Heat has sputtered, one figure stands out: Bam Adebayo’s On/Off splits. Cleaning the Glass shows us that the Heat’s offensive rating increases by 5.6 points per 100 possessions when Adebayo is on the floor. Moreover, with Adebayo on, the Heat defense holds opponents to 11 fewer points per 100 than team average. His efficiency differential of plus-16.7 points per 100 ranks him in the 89th percentile relative to all players. In short, Bam Adebayo is a remarkably impactful player.

These numbers might lead one to recall Jimmy Butler’s individually phenomenal 20-21 campaign, in which he posted a plus-10.7 pt per 100 possessions efficiency differential (96th percentile). Despite Jimmy’s excellence, the Heat floundered in the playoffs against the eventual champions.

Each scenario paints a similar picture. Though it’s certainly encouraging to have such a profoundly impactful player leading your team, one player having such a dramatic efficiency differential is a sign that something is off with your team’s build. In 20-21, the Heat was missing quality playmaking and wing defense around Butler.

Eleven games into this season, it is clear that the Heat is missing quality frontcourt pieces around Adebayo. With Bam on the floor, opponents’ offensive rebounding rate is 24.8 percent, placing the Heat in the 33rd percentile. In other words, opponents are finding it easier to produce second opportunities against the Heat even with Bam on the floor, a fact that can be at least partly explained by our lack of size in the frontcourt. NBA.com ranks the Heat’s 12 second-chance points allowed per game at 24th in the league. Add the Heat’s 26th overall 43.8 points in the paint per game, and the message is very clear: the team needs more rebounding talent and size.

Besides the rebounding and size issues, the Heat’s defense has not been performing as expected. Through these first seven games, its opponents are shooting an efficient 55.8 percent effective field goal percentage (eFG%). Dunks and Threes ranks that at 27th in the league. One could say that good shooting luck has a non-negligible role to play in this number. But digging into the tape reveals a litany of mistakes on defense that are essentially creating open shots for the opposition.

These clips reveal issues that no stat can truly quantify. The Heat frequently gives their opponents switches that lead to an advantage (see Sabonis’s crafty post seal against Jimmy). On top of that, defenders are getting lost in transition, getting beat by their man or simply not recognizing whom they should be covering. In several of the clips above, Heat defenders seem unsure about who has which responsibilities.

The Heat are allowing the third lowest rim rate in the NBA (30.4% of opponents’ shots come at the rim) and the highest 3pt rate (45.5% of our opponent’s shots come from 3). This is a familiar recipe. However, the Heat is 25th in FG% allowed at the rim (66.5% fg%) and 26th in adjusted 3pt% allowed (57.1% e3PT%).

Some of this has to do with opponents hitting tough shots. Much of it has to do with them beating us in transition. Clips of the Heat’s transition defense like this one, plucked from last Monday’s loss versus the Trailblazers, illustrate the latter point all too vividly.

All of these issues have culminated in an underwhelming defensive rating of 109.8. Though there are obvious issues with the offense that I do not have the space to cover here (Heat is currently posting a ORTG of 108.5), I believe that the on-court problems fundamentally stem from the Heat’s lack of size around Bam, impotence on the boards, and sloppiness on the defensive end.

The Beyond-Basketball Problems

Despite the obvious issues on the court, I cannot help but wonder whether factors beyond the on-court product are influencing this team’s play.

For instance, Eric Spoelstra is playing what’s ostensibly an eight-, sometimes seven-man rotation on most nights. One should ask, Why is Max Strus receiving 34 minutes and Duncan Robinson just 4 minutes on this team’s third game in four nights during the backend of a West Coast road trip? The curious minutes distribution leads me to think that Spoelstra had planned on players not currently with the team to have significant roles off the bench.

And this thought ties into another beyond-basketball problem that should not be overlooked. The Heat is missing one of their best individual rebounders due to injury (Omer Yurtseven, who appeared poised for a bigger role). Also missing is above average perimeter defender, capable playmaker, and projected second-unit leader Victor Oladipo. To be clear, mentioning these injuries is not a way of letting Spoelstra off the hook for bad decision making. Still, I find it difficult to imagine that the Heat struggles in its non-Bam minutes if one or both of these players are available through the first seven games.

Aside from the injuries, the Heat is one of only a handful of teams to play their first seven games in eleven nights to open the season and the first Eastern Conference team to embark on a West Coast trip this season. Considering the density of the schedule combined with the miles traversed and injuries to rotation players, part of me wonders, How much of the Heat’s early malaise was simply caused by tired legs? How much of these results are the fruits of Spoelstra trying to adjust and experiment on the fly? How much of the current struggles are symptomatic of a hangover from some of these factors?

Where Do We Go From Here?

Although a popular answer to the question “Where do the Heat go from here?” is to fire up the trade machine, the beyond-basketball reasons make it difficult to determine whether the Heat should make a drastic move right now.

It’s reasonable to ask, “What if some rest, reinforcements, and a fresh look at the tape leads the Heat to turn their season around during this current home stand?”

Inserting Yurtseven into the rotation could make lead to more success on the glass for non-Bam units. Inserting Oladipo into the rotation gives the Heat another switchable, savvy defender and provides bench units with a true lead ballhandler. At the very least, one should concede that an eleven game sample is not determinative, and that sample’s determining power is even more diminished when one weighs current extenuating circumstances.

Seasons are rarely (if ever) won and lost in early November, an adage undoubtedly applicable in this case. What we do know is that if either injuries prevent key players from seeing the floor or a healthy roster doesn’t produce expected returns, the Heat must act urgently.

For now, all we can do is wait and hope that, as Spoelstra assured us at the conclusion of October’s West Coast road trip, the Heat is not as far away from playing good basketball as it looks.