Heat midseason report card: Jimmy Butler's fit, Bam Adebayo's emergence fueling Miami's impressive season

No one had the Miami Heat pegged as a team that would be a real threat in the playoffs heading into the season. Even after signing Jimmy Butler, the rest of the roster wasn't regarded as one that could be competitive, even in the Eastern Conference. At the halfway point of the season, however, the Heat have proven to be one of the top contenders in the East, thanks to great team chemistry and a roster loaded with young talent and quality shooters. 

The Heat opened their season without Butler, who stepped away from the team to witness the birth of his daughter. In his absence, they pulled off a gutsy overtime win against the Milwaukee Bucks in the second game of the season. Seven players scored in double figures that night, and while in the moment it looked like a flash in the pan, few could've predicted that it would only foreshadow how the first half the season would go for the Heat. 

There have been several areas where they have excelled this season, so let's take a deep dive into what's been working for Miami as we hand out their midseason report card.

*Statistics accurate as of Jan. 15

The Jimmy Butler and Miami pairing: A

In a recent Player's Tribune article where Butler wrote about the five toughest players he's guarded in the NBA, he finished it off like a journal entry, detailing the wide array of food options at your disposal in Miami. "Whatever you're into, we got it here in Miami. Just another reason I love it here," Butler said. He has not been shy in professing his love for the city of Miami or the Heat franchise since joining the team through an offseason trade with the Philadelphia 76ers. While some saw it as an odd move, joining a team with no other notable star and no legitimate shot at winning a championship, Butler was sold on the Heat culture, the thought of following in the footsteps of Dwyane Wade and joining a team that was headed by Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, who both have resumes that speak for themselves. 

Some people waited on Twitter for the first sign of trouble with Butler and his teammates. Instead, the no-nonsense veteran is guiding a young Heat team that has looked like a legitimate contender. He's been the typical elite scorer and lockdown defender we've come to expect from him, and his playmaking has been perhaps the greatest area this season, as he's averaging a career-high 6.8 assists. However, the greatest asset to this team is his leadership style. 

Yes, Butler is known to be ultra-competitive and very blunt and forward, which didn't work out when he was in Minnesota or Philadelphia. Though, with this Heat team, a franchise that has a history of welcoming that kind of firepower and work ethic, it's embraced. He's formed a bond with Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro, two players thriving this season for the Heat. He's not asked to do too much on offense as he has what feels like an unlimited amount of shooters at his disposal, and most importantly the Heat are winning with him. 

While Butler may be shooting a career-worst 26.4 percent from 3-point range, and below his career average from the field (44.7 percent), he also has the highest net rating on the team (8.1) and the Heat's offensive rating is far better when he's on the floor (114.6). On his last two teams, Butler bristled with other players on the team, but in Miami, his teammates have his back wholeheartedly. That was pretty evident from the overwhelming support he received from his teammates after getting into a kerfuffle with T.J. Warren during Miami's game against the Indiana Pacers. Spoelstra has said before that Butler should've been in a Heat jersey long ago, and if the first half of this season is any indication, it looks like he was right.

The ascension of Bam Adebayo: A

Bam Adebayo has emerged as the Heat's second star. It happened unexpectedly, and perhaps all at once, but in his third year in the league, Adebayo has taken leaps and bounds to improving his game. He's putting up career marks across the board -- 15.8 points, 10.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.3 steals, 1.2 blocks -- and he's proving he's not just another shot-blocking, rebounding big who can't create for himself or shoot outside of the restricted area. No, Adebayo's game is more well-rounded than that and he's making a case to be a first-time All-Star this season. Since trading away Hassan Whiteside, Adebayo's become the primary starting center in Miami, and since that change he's been given more opportunity to expand his game. 

It's allowed the Heat to get a little more creative with him on the floor. Instead of just waiting for lob passes coming off a pick-and-roll, similar to DeAndre Jordan or Blake Griffin during the Clippers' Lob City era, Adebayo's been allowed to handle the ball a bit more, and sometimes it results in plays like this:

Yes, that's 6-9, 255-pound Adebayo bringing the ball up the floor and faking out the No. 2-ranked defense in the league with a smooth Euro step to the basket. Not convinced? Here's Adebayo again, albeit against the Knicks, with another effortless finish at the hole after splitting the defenders for the and-1:

Adebayo's been perhaps the biggest benefactor of Miami's free-flowing style of play that allows multiple ball-handlers to take control of the offense at any given time. They're playing truly positionless basketball down in Miami and it's resulted in must-watch television. It's not just Adebayo's scoring; he's improved his passing, too. He's second in the league among centers in assists per game (6.4), which has led to his first two career triple-doubles this season. When he's given the ball, he exhibits patience and doesn't rush passes or try to drive into two defenders. Adebayo assesses the floor, waits for something to develop and makes the smart basketball play. 

When Butler gives him the ball at the elbow here, you would expect him to give the ball back as Butler comes off a screen. Instead, Adebayo waits for Elfrid Payton to commit on Butler rolling to the basket to kick it out to a wide open Kendrick Nunn in the corner for three:

Spoelstra said that they're "running the offense through Bam more and more" this season, and that he can handle anything that's thrown at him. That's especially true on the defensive side of the ball. Need him to keep Joel Embiid out of the paint and settle for a mid-range jumper? No problem, Bam can do that:

Need him to stay in front of a speedy guard when he gets switched on them? He can do that, too, by widening his stance on defense, lowering his center of gravity and recovering well after Spencer Dinwiddie almost gets him to bite on a crossover:

There aren't many players in the league who can truly guard every position on the floor, but Adebayo can do it effectively and he's been an anchor for the Heat on defense. He ranks seventh in the league in defensive win shares (2.2), third among centers in steals per game (1.3) and allows just 0.856 points per possession as the primary defender for Miami. Adebayo is doing a little bit of everything for the Heat, and he's been one of the best player development stories of the first half of the season.

The rookies: B+

At the start of the season, many had Tyler Herro as a potential darkhorse for Rookie of the Year, but no one expected Kendrick Nunn to push himself into the conversation as an undrafted rookie. Both have been absolutely essential to what the Heat have been doing in the first half of the season, with Nunn maintaining his spot in the starting five and Herro acting as a spark plug off the bench. Nunn's production (15.4 points, 3.6 assists) is far more surprising, given the fact no one knew who he was just four months ago. Now, though, he's playing 30 minutes a night on a true contender, where he's been able to contribute in a variety of ways.

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One of Dunn's best assets is his speed, and he's able to use it to explode coming around screens and elevate for a jumper, which has resulted in him generating 1.349 points per possession off screens this season. He's had stretches where his shooting has gone cold, but his on/off net rating of plus-4.4 still makes it beneficial to have him playing with the starting unit.

Herro has quickly become a favorite not just of Heat fans, but NBA fans in general. He's a lethal spot-up shooter, and benefits greatly from being paired with Goran Dragic off the bench. Herro has been on the receiving end of some incredibly crafty passes from Dragic this season, as the former All-Star has a knack for finding a typically wide-open Herro out on the perimeter.

Of the catch-and-shoot jumpers Herro is taking this season, nearly 75 percent of them are unguarded, and he's been making defender's pay when they leave him open, generating 1.573 points per possession. Like Nunn, he's been effective scoring off of screens as well. He doesn't possess the type of explosiveness that Nunn has, but it doesn't take long for Herro to get off a shot before the defender can recover. The flip side of that, though, is that he often struggles with his footwork coming off a screen, which results in an off-balance shot. He's had cold stretches, which is expected of any rookie, but he's provided more than expected in the first half of the season. There's plenty of time for him to work on things like footwork and his ball-handling, but combined with Nunn, the two of them have been part of the reason why the Heat have surprised everyone this season.

Shooting: A

Here are some numbers on the Heat's shooting in the first half of the season: 

  • Second in the league in 3-point percentage (37.6)
  • Fourth in the league in field goal percentage (47.2)
  • Meyers Leonard ranks seventh in the league in 3-point percentage (44.4)
  • Duncan Robinson ranks 11th in the league in 3-point percentage (43.4), and sixth in effective field-goal percentage (65.1)
  • Bam Adebayo ranks 10th in the league in field goal percentage (59.3)

You look up and down Miami's roster, and nearly everyone in the rotation who is playing over 20 minutes a game is shooting better than 43 percent from the field, and they've got four players all shooting above 40 percent from beyond the arc. This is a complete flip for Miami from a season ago, where it ranked in the bottom half of the league in both 3-point percentage, and shooting from the field. Pat Riley assembled a roster stuffed with shooters everywhere you look, even in the most unlikely of places.

Take Leonard for example. Miami flipped Hassan Whiteside, a traditional post-up center who has only attempted 22 3-point shots in his career, for Leonard who shot above 40 percent from deep in each of the last two seasons in Portland. He's starting for the first time in his career and is thriving in the expanded role with Miami. He's not putting up monster numbers -- he's averaging 6.0 points and 4.9 rebounds -- but when asked to, he can knock down shots on the perimeter instead of clogging the lane. 

The Heat are attempting the most 3-point shots in franchise history per game (33.3), and they're just two percentage points lower than what they shot on the 2012-13 championship team. The excellent shooting this team is seeing can be attributed to the amount of ball movement that happens on a nightly basis, as well as the number of off-ball screens they set to get players open.

First, the ball movement. On this play, every Heat player touches the ball, and instead of settling for a tightly guarded Robinson 3-pointer, they patiently wait for something else to develop. Two passes later and Leonard is wide open on the other side of the court for a triple:

The Heat hold on to the ball longer on offense than any other team in the league (22.2 seconds), and by letting things develop and making smart basketball plays, they often find someone open as the clock winds down. Opponents may think they have the them beat, but then it turns into something like this:

When it comes to off-ball screens, the Heat are one of the best teams in the league at it. They rank third in the NBA in points per possession off screens (1.114), and because of all the shooters on this team, it's difficult for defenses to keep up. Like this play here where Herro confuses two Knicks players to get wide open on the 3-point line.

The Heat are loaded with shooters from top to bottom, and it's made them a team to watch out for. They're playing an unselfish brand of basketball, and Spoelstra has gotten players like Leonard, Kelly Olynyk and Derrick Jones Jr. to shine in their roles. It's hard for teams to game plan for the Heat because while Butler is the star of this team, if you try to double him there's four other guys on the floor who can put points on the board. 

Depth: B+

The Heat have a 10-man rotation, and it's one of the best in the league. Their bench ranks sixth in the league in scoring (42.0), and as explained in the section above, everyone on this team can contribute on offense. That second unit of Dragic, Herro, Jones and Olynyk has held its own when the starters go to the bench, and in some games they've been the reason the Heat have won. 

With Justise Winslow being sidelined for pretty much the entirety of the first half of the season with what was first diagnosed as a back strain then changed to a bone bruise, Miami's been able to slide Robinson into that starting small forward spot and he's become one of the unlikely stars on this team. He's been the ultimate floor spacer for Miami this season, becoming just the latest undrafted success story in Heat history.

Olynyk's minutes and scoring numbers have actually decreased from last season, but that's merely a product of being surrounded by better players who not only can take more of the load on offense, but put him in the position to be an efficient shooter. He's shooting a career high from beyond the arc (41.5 percent), and while he has been used sparingly as the season progresses, when he's on the floor he's done what is asked of him. 

Perhaps the greatest asset the Heat have on their bench is Dragic, who has been Miami's starting point guard up until this season. He's now their secret weapon off the bench, looking rejuvenated in his new role, while putting up the best numbers (15.6 points, 5.0 assists) since his All-Star campaign two seasons ago.

Even James Johnson, who has been in and out of the Heat's rotation all season after not meeting conditioning requirements at the start of training camp, has proven that he can provide production off the bench. He's seemingly been in the doghouse virtually all season with Spoelstra, but in Miami's loss to the New York Knicks, Johnson added 19 points off the bench ... before fouling out of the game. Still, Johnson, as well as the rest of Miami's team, is a testament to Spoelstra's coaching. If everyone buys into what he's trying to accomplish with all the moving parts on this team, they'll be successful. 

Overall Grade: A

With moderate expectations going into the season, coupled with the actual performance by this team, the Heat have proven to everyone that they are the real deal. While most of the first half has been incredibly positive, though, that doesn't mean they are without their blemishes. They have a mediocre defense, which costs them games on some nights, and they tend to rely too heavily on the 3-point shot. Also, Winslow's health should be a concern going forward. He's only played in 11 games this season due to multiple injures. Even when he's limited, he provides you with more than just spot-up shooting that Robinson offers in the starting lineup.

Still, though, the Heat's offensive juggernaut has made them one of the elite teams in the East. Butler's fit with the team has been seamless, Adebayo should be an All-Star lock, Nunn and Herro are among the best rookies in their class and Miami sits second in the league in 3-point percentage. 

What more could Miami want at the midway point of the season? It has built a championship contender with bargain players in a short amount of time, and has also positioned itself once again as a free agency destination for the future. 

Jasmyn Wimbish has been closely following the NBA since Dirk Nowitzki hit his sweet signature jumper to send the Miami Heat packing in 2011. She's a graduate of the University of Kansas and Northern Arizona... Full Bio

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