The Miami Heat have finally found an identity


The Miami Heat have undergone drastic changes in the past year and a half — as a team does when they lose LeBron James. For four seasons, the Heat’s identity was built around LeBron. Those teams — which featured a lot of shooting, a helter-skelter defense, and LeBron in every role on the team at one point or another — were consistent even when the roster was tweaked year to year. 

In nearly two seasons since then, the Heat have struggled to build an identity around the remaining members of the ‘Big Three’ — Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Last season, partially because Bosh missed the end of the season with blood clots, they showed little personality on the court and missed the playoffs. This season, Miami has found an identity that works and are now in the thick of the race for the East’s No. 3 seed, despite Bosh missing more time due to blood clots. 

In the time Bosh has been out (since Feb. 9), Miami has adapted its style. They are no longer a slow, half-court team that plays two bigs; now, they play fast and small almost exclusively. On the season, the Heat have played at a pace just slightly faster than the notoriously slow Memphis Grizzlies. Unsurprisingly, it has made them easy to defend. Since Bosh’s departure, however, they’re just outside the top 10 in pace, and the everything seems to be running more smoothly. In that time, the team has ranked fifth in net rating, fourth in offensive rating and seventh in defensive rating.

Goran Dragic has been the key to this transformation; the Slovenian has been unleashed since the Heat have picked up the pace. Before, he brought the ball up the floor slowly, which allowed for defenses to settle in. Now, opposing teams are having to react to Dragic on the fly.

Take this sequence from the Heat’s March 19 win against the Cavs. Dragic pushes the ball up the court quickly, which leaves the Cleveland defense out of sorts. As Dragic crosses half court, two Heat wings head to the corners and the other trails behind. Wade can create similar actions if he chooses:

This kind of play is a regular occurrence for the new-look Heat. Dragic gets up the floor, puts defenses on their heels and, as a result, even the simplest pick and roll can create open looks for Wade, Johnson and others. It’s helped, too, that Hassan Whiteside is thriving off the bench, Luol Deng is having a nice overall season and the Heat are getting a lot of good production out of young players like Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson. It took time to get all of the necessary pieces, but Miami has found the right balance between veteran stars and young role players who could yet turn into stars.

Winslow, in particular, stands out. He can’t shoot, and he might see his minutes cut in the playoffs when teams ignore him on offense, but he’s an aggressive defender who can (and eagerly does) defend the likes of LeBron, DeMar DeRozan and Jimmy Butler. That’ll matter come playoff time, when the Heat will have to dial things up defensively and will want to use Deng on somebody else.

The Heat are a capable defensive team even when Whiteside isn’t there to protect the rim. They are aggressive, smart and rarely give opponents clean looks. As we saw against the Cavs, it helps having Winslow, Deng and even Johnson, who defended LeBron. Miami swarmed when necessary, leaving little room for James to find an open teammate. Given the Cavs do not run the most complex offense, this style would likely be replicable in a playoff matchup between the two teams. LeBron makes this particular shot, sure, but the Heat will be happy enough watching him attempt jumpers from the elbow with the shot clock winding down. Miami’s defense is good enough to force the Cavs to actually run some plays to get good looks.

There are, however, some problems with Miami’s new brand — it’s still not guaranteed they’ll get the No. 3 seed or make a run to the conference finals. As it stands, there isn’t much separating them from the Hawks, Hornets and Celtics in the middle of the Eastern Conference. Despite their improvement, there’s still a good chance the Heat lose in the first round of the playoffs; the East might not be quite as strong as the West, but there are still a lot of good teams in there. 

The biggest problem is that they have almost no consistent shooting aside from Johnson. As the numbers show, the Heat’s rotation wing players are neither consistent threats from deep nor able to capitalize on the looks Dragic and Wade are able to create for them when they get inside against opposing defenses. As a team, the Heat are 25th in 3-point shooting at 33.6 percent per game. Amongst playoff teams, only the Celtics and Grizzlies are worse.

PlayerThree-point %Catch-and shoot 3p%3PA per game
Dwyane Wade17.931.30.6
Luol Deng34.2333.4
Goran Dragic31.3352.9
Joe Johnson (w/Heat only)4841.73.3
Gerald Green31.430.13.8
Justise Winslow26.228.11.5
Josh Richardson50.048.72.0

As a result, teams that consistently play sound, active defense can stymie the Heat’s offense and force contested twos late in the shot clock. Wade can (and will) bail them out at times and Johnson is a solid shot-maker. Still, teams can clog up the paint by working to eliminate Miami’s already-cramped spacing. Any team that can hit threes against the Heat is also going to win the math game — their twos just aren’t enough to beat a team taking and making a lot of shots from deep. 

If the Heat are really going to make this work and give themselves a chance at a deep playoff run, they’ll likely need Bosh. During the LeBron era, Bosh was a killer five, and developed into a decent three-point threat and a solid rim protector. Were the Heat to play the Cavs at any point in the playoffs, having a healthy Bosh would enable them to try a number of interesting lineups. Something like Dragic/Wade/Johnson/Deng/Bosh might have just enough shooting to stretch the Cavs defense, while also making LeBron and Co. work for points on offense.

Moreover, if Bosh plays at the five, the Cavs won’t be able to play Kevin Love at the five when the Heat go small. For all of Love’s struggles in Cleveland, not to mention his vulnerability in the pick and roll, getting a player of his caliber off the floor would be good news for Miami. It is also worth pointing out that the Heat have beaten the Cavs 11 times in a row at home, although some of those wins came before LeBron returned to Cleveland. If the two teams do meet in the playoffs, the Cavs will rightly be favored, but it could be a lot closer than some people might think. 

As of now, it doesn’t look like Bosh will return this year, and the Heat might very well get knocked out in the first round of the playoffs. But they have a chance to make some noise in the East this season, and it’s all because they have finally found an identity that doesn’t revolve around LeBron James.