NBA

Nylon Calculus: The conundrum of the Miami Heat core

For starters, I never thought I’d consider Dion Waiters part of the Miami Heat core, but the world is weird, the Falcons blew a 25-point lead in the Superbowl, and Dion Waiters is the superhero we never thought we needed, much less deserved.

With Goran Dragic’s name dipping in and out of trade waters, it’s an interesting time to explore how Miami’s guards interact with their unique star pivot, Hassan Whiteside. There are several layers to this, but the first is to take NBAWowy for a spin and examine the interplay between the three players.

dion-dragic-whiteside

Welp. First things first — Whiteside is abysmal without support from either of his guards. Which makes perfect sense, seeing as he’s a crasher similar to DeAndre Jordan, defensively intimidating but opportunistic and thoroughly dependent offensively on a playmaking guard to set him up. Dragic is the exact opposite; he’s the only one of the trio that can run an offense by himself and produce solid results (he didn’t earn the nickname “Dragon” for nothing). Once we start looking at the interplay though, things get a lot more interesting and muddled. Whiteside pairs WAY better isolated with Waiters than he does with Dragic. Huh?

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There’s two important factors that play into this. The amount of time Whiteside and Waiters have spent without Dragic on the court is a little over a third of the time that Whiteside and Dragic have spent without Waiters on the court (604 minutes to 242), meaning small sample size caveats apply. The second factor is defense, which is where the weirdness starts. The Waiters-Whiteside pairing has a sterling (and perhaps anomalistic) 95.6 defensive rating without Dragic, whereas Dragic-Whiteside has a 111.8 defensive rating. Though defensive rating can definitely be noisy in small samples, this is a pretty massive difference.

It’s particularly confounding because neither Waiters nor Dragic are particularly noted for their defensive prowess. Their Defensive Box Plus-Minus ratings are -0.7 and -0.8, respectively. However, ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus has Waiters at a DRPM of -0.39, and Dragic at -1.98. So according to RPM, while neither of them are good, Waiters is decidedly less bad on defense.

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But according to the NBAWowy splits, Waiters’ defensive flaws don’t detract from Whiteside’s defensive ability as much as Dragic. In fact, according to NBA Stats’ lineup data (using this handy tool), Waiters pairs defensively better than Dragic pretty much across the board. So what’s the one thing that Whiteside can’t control? Perimeter defense. Miami’s most effective defense is to run shooters off the arc and funnel them inside, where Whiteside can make his presence felt.

When Dragic is sharing the court with Whiteside, Miami gives up 27 3-point attempts per 100 possessions, whereas with Waiters, that number falls to 23.3 attempts. The 3-point attempt rate against the Whiteside-Waiters combo is 26.3 percent, as opposed to 29.1 percent for Whiteside-Dragic. This isn’t necessarily a huge difference, but it does provide a little bit of context. Waiters is executing Miami’s ideal defense a little better (or less actively harmful, depending on your perspective) than Dragic, and in this scheme, is proving a better perimeter defender.

Ultimately though, this is less a case for any sort of “Dion Waiters is better than Goran Dragic overreaction” and more of a lesson on how to build the right team around the talent in South Beach, and the importance of having lock-down perimeter defenders around their guards. Were Dragic to be traded, Miami would lose a lot of its offensive aptitude and begin to flounder on that end. For all of the recent Waiters Island heroics, Dion has never proven to be able to lead an offense by himself in the way that Dragic has done and continues to do. Waiters may be averaging 6.8 assists per 100 possessions, but for now, that’s an outlier from his career marks.

It’s also instructive that within the Waiters-Dragic-Whiteside triptych, they play better in pairs than when they share the court together, suggesting that they offer marginal returns as a trio, and that their optimal usage pattern is in staggered pairs. The other aspect is that the Dragic-Whiteside pairing was actually far better last year, on both ends (net rating of 4.1 when they both shared the court, and a defensive rating of 100). Perhaps with some more talent and/or return to normalcy, we could expect these ratings to elevate some as well. So while Waiters Island is certainly open for business, let’s not forget that in the long run, Miami rises and falls with the play of its Dragon.