Is Josh Richardson the Miami Heat’s most important player?

ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 4: Josh Richardson
ATLANTA, GA - APRIL 4: Josh Richardson /

Prior to the 2015 trade deadline, the Miami Heat sent two future first-round draft picks (among other pieces) to the Phoenix Suns in exchange for Goran Dragic. That summer, they re-signed him on a five-year, $90 million deal. Dragic was acquired, ostensibly, to form a devastating trio with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, but Bosh didn’t play a single post-All-Star break game in 2015 after it was discovered that he had a blood clot in one of his lungs. The Heat missed the playoffs that year as a result, and they drafted Justise Winslow with the No. 10 overall pick.

The following season was a better one for the Heat as they finished 48-34 and secured the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference, but Bosh again had to shut it down after the All-Star break when another blood clot was discovered, this time in his leg. The Heat re-oriented themselves around Dragic, Wade, and Hassan Whiteside, who by that time had fully broken out after a scintillating 48-game stint with Miami the year before. With Bosh’s future up in the air, the Heat handed Whiteside a four-year, $98 million contract in the summer of 2016. They also matched a four-year, $50 million offer sheet for Tyler Johnson and, having missed out on top free-agents like Kevin Durant, pivoted to bringing in a bunch of low-cost, high-upside players like James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, and Derrick Williams.

After one of the wildest seasons in recent memory (the Heat started the 2016-17 campaign 11-30 and finished 30-11, missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker), Miami again went big-game hunting in the summer of 2017. Gordon Hayward elected to sign with the Boston Celtics, though, so Miami pivoted again, this time handing out large contracts to players that had worked out the year before (four years, $52 million for Waiters; four years, $60 million for James Johnson) and to Kelly Olynyk (four years, $50 million). Some creative accounting allowed them to keep Ellington, and though they missed out on a playoff spot they’d hoped to secure, they did wind up snagging Bam Adebayo with the last pick of the lottery.

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But over the course of those three-plus years, despite trading two first-round picks (Dragic) and spending another two in the lottery (Winslow, Adebayo); despite handing out $260 million in long-term money to players the Heat had originally acquired via the D-League (Whiteside), a 10-day contract (Johnson), and one-year prove-it deals (Waiters, Johnson); and despite handing another $140 million in long-term money to Dragic and Olynyk; it’s entirely possible that the best player the Heat have acquired is Josh Richardson, who they quietly selected — to comparatively little fanfare considering how much post-draft praise was centered on the selection of Winslow — with the No. 10 pick of the second-round back in 2015.

Richardson’s path to get to this point has been a rather circuitous one, even after turning pro. As a second-round pick, he obviously was not even guaranteed a spot on the 2015-16 roster. A strong summer league performance earned him a multi-year deal, but he barely saw the floor for the first few months of the season. He appeared in only 26 of the Heat’s first 56 games, and played only 11 times during that stretch of the season. Richardson then ripped off a 26-game tear where he averaged 30 minutes a night, shot 51 percent from the field and 54 percent from 3, won Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for March, and played at least 20 minutes in all 14 of the Heat’s playoff games.

He should have been a major part of last year’s Heat squad, but a torn MCL suffered in September basically derailed his season before it even began. Richardson missed the first few games of the year, didn’t look like himself when he returned, and then suffered two ankle injuries in the span of a month that caused him to miss a combined 25 games.

The only stretch of the season where he resembled the player he was over the final month and a half of his rookie campaign came during the final 12 games of the season: Richardson averaged 12.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.4 blocks across 36.2 minutes per game while shooting 43 percent from both the field and from 3. Outside of that year-end sprint, he shot a dreadful 38 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3.

As a result of his lower-body injuries, he was sapped of the burst of heady quickness that powered his rookie rise. So he got to the basket far less often, and had far more trouble finishing when on the rare occasions that he did get there. That pushed him to settle for more deep mid-rangers and shots from beyond the arc, which he struggled to hit because he wasn’t getting proper lift when pulling up for jumpers.

The share of his shot attempts that came within five feet of the rim dropped from 27 to 20 percent, while his conversion rate on those attempts fell from 58 to 52 percent. Similarly, his share of shots that came at least 16 feet away from the rim rose from 56 to 63 percent, while his conversion rate on those shots fell from 45 to 33 percent. Add it all up and you’ve got a player whose average shot originated almost two full feet farther away from the basket during his second season than during his rookie year, and whose field goal percentage dropped 5.8 points from one year to the next.

This season, Richardson has been both fully healthy and a full-time starter for the first time ever, (he’s has played 78 of Miami’s 79 games), and he has reached new heights on both sides of the ball.

Miami’s coaching staff is unafraid to use him in a variety of different ways, especially on defense. Richardson is 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, and that size and wingspan combined with his light, quick feet and low center of gravity allow him to hang with perimeter players of all sizes and speeds. He has defended the opposing team’s primary offensive option (defined as the team leader in Usage Rate and/or Offensive RPM) more often than any other Heat player, per an analysis of Second Spectrum data from; and he’s also spent a good deal of time defending primary ball-handlers, defending those players more often than anyone on the team but Dragic.

It’s not just his flexibility that’s commendable on defense, however. It’s also his production. He’s one of just seven players in the league this year averaging at least 25 minutes per game along with steal and block rates over 2 percent. He ranks in the top-30 in both deflections and loose balls recovered per game as well.

He’s been particularly adept at defending pick-and-roll ball-handlers: among 60 players league-wide that have been identified by Synergy Sports as the defender of record on at least 200 plays that finished with a shot, foul, or turnover by such a player, Richardson ranks 10th in points per play allowed. He’s also held opponents to just 19 of 50 shooting on post-ups, the 14th-lowest shooting percentage among 86 players that have defended at least 40 shots in the post. In other words, he has been fully capable of handling himself against shiftier perimeter players that prefer to attack off the bounce and around screens, as well as larger players that try to punish him on the block. There’s just no easy way to get the best of him.

Richardson is not a heavy-usage offensive player, but he is a perfect cog-in-the-machine for Spoelstra’s offense, able to do a little bit of everything and shape-shift himself to fit the needs of whatever foursome with which he shares the floor. Because he’s so versatile, Spoelstra is able to use him alongside a variety of different players, which the Heat have built into their chameleon-esque identity.

Maybe they go small with Richardson alongside both Dragic and Tyler Johnson, and James Johnson and Olynyk in the frontcourt. Maybe it’s a bigger lineup with Richardson and Ellington in the backcourt, plus Winslow, Olynyk, and Whiteside. Maybe it’s some other combination of those two kinds of groups. The only common variable among all their different lineups is that they play so freaking hard, and Richardson is right at the center of that. (Per Second Spectrum data, he moves faster than any player on the team save Dragic.)

Because so many of his offensive opportunities come as a byproduct of how the defense reacts to a threat elsewhere, Richardson has had to hone every skill in his arsenal, and he’s done so with aplomb. If he catches a defender napping, he can explode past him with the ball in his hands — especially as a secondary threat. He’s third on the team in drives per game and he’s shooting a respectable 46 percent when he drives to the rim.

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If a driver or post-up threat bends the defense away from him, he’s more than capable of making the opposition pay for leaving him alone on the perimeter. He’s knocking down 39 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3s. He’s done well in limited isolation opportunities, shooting 50 percent from the field. He works extremely well within the flow of Miami’s offensive sets, as he’s shooting a tidy 49 percent on a fairly high volume of hand-off plays, ranking as the NBA’s sixth-most efficient scorer among 60 players that have finished at least 50 plays out of hand-offs — on par with players like Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, and Jimmy Butler. He’s also been extremely effective as a spot-up shooter and he’s one of the Heat’s smartest cutters.

When you’re a high-level defender, doing a bunch of things pretty well offensively is enough to turn you into a really, really good player. And that’s exactly what Richardson is. On a team that often needs to add up to more than the sum of its parts in order to compete with opponents that feature greater individual talents, it should probably not be a surprise that he is the leader in minutes per game. Considering his two-way reliability and the pliable nature of his play, it only makes sense to have him out there as much as possible.