In recent campaigns, the importance of a good, reliable bench unit has soared out the window as the rise in superteams grew larger.
This is not to say that the Golden State Warriors regret not having a consistent Sixth Man of the Year contender in their second unit because, well, their back-to-back championships speak for themselves. But since every franchise can’t be blessed with four future Hall of Famers there have to be alternative routes to the top, even if it doesn’t culminate in a ring. The recipe for success is simple: Get a superstar, whether via the draft or by trade, and then build around them — more or less, that’s how it works in the modern NBA.
Naturally, the six lowest scoring benches this season also happen to boast a large amount of the league’s very best players – Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, Russell Westbrook and Paul George, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid and, of course, the Warriors. Rocket science, this is not. In a superstar driven-landscape, this is the tried and true method to reach the postseason.
LeBron James is almost certainly not extending his eight-year streak of reaching the NBA Finals summit by executing this exact strategy – Kevin Love, Chris Bosh, et al — but this Lakers roster, youth-driven headache and all, is the exception.
In 2017-18, just four the of NBA’s top 10 scoring bench units reached the playoffs: the aforementioned James-led Cavaliers (6th), the Kawhi Leonard-less San Antonio Spurs (4th), the notoriously superstar-absent Miami HEAT (8th) and the Toronto Raptors (5th). Of that group, only Cleveland went past the second round after defeating Toronto in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. From there, the postseason teams ranked in order by bench points went as follows: Washington Wizards (16th), Utah Jazz (17th), Boston Celtics (18th), Indiana Pacers (T-22nd), Golden State Warriors (T-22), Philadelphia 76ers (24th), Houston Rockets (25th), New Orleans Pelicans (26th), Milwaukee Bucks (27th), Portland Trail Blazers (28th), Oklahoma City Thunder (29th) and Minnesota Timberwolves (30th).
Beyond all that, you’d have to go back to 2014-15 to find the last time a top two-ranked bench scoring unit even made the playoffs. That season, both the Celtics (41.4) and the Spurs (41) did so, only to be wiped out in the first round. During the three seasons since then, those first- and second-highest scoring units – one time for the Lakers, Kings, Pelicans and Nuggets, two times for the Nets — finished with a combined record of 164-328 and an average conference standing of 13th place.
Again, this isn’t any grand breakthrough or novel theory. No, not at all. The NBA demands star power and, generally speaking, you can often sort franchises into one of two categories: the Haves or the Have Nots. This year, however, there are three high-scoring bench groups poised to make some serious noise in the postseason, all without a go-to superstar to boot. Only time will tell if they can buck the everlasting trend of their historical prisons but, as it stands, nobody wants to face the Los Angeles Clippers, Sacramento Kings or Brooklyn Nets in a seven-game series — and for good reason.
Los Angeles Clippers
Once the calendar flipped to December, the Clippers were basketball’s surprise darlings at 15-7, led by the perennially underrated Tobias Harris and his motley crew of veteran contributors. From Danilo Gallinari to Avery Bradley, Los Angeles had taken their presumed rebuild season by the scruff and effectively ignored all the outside noise. A few months later, the Clippers aren’t nearly as red-hot and no longer feature Harris — who was traded to Philadelphia close to the deadline — but they’re hanging in there. As of now, the Clippers are 34-28, good enough for the NBA’s seventh seed in the Western Conference — but just 4.5 games separate the Jazz in sixth and the Lakers in 11th.
To the Clippers’ credit, they’re 4-3 since dealing away Harris and the always-bold Steve Ballmer still wants to make a playoff push, even if it costs them their first-round pick, according to Sam Amick of The Athletic. Los Angeles’ bench is the best scoring bunch in the NBA by a considerable margin, dropping a ridiculous 53.2 points per game — six full points more than second place. At the top of the totem pole is Lou Williams, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year winner and microwavable sharpshooter. Any roster that boasts Williams’ 19.9 points per game average gets a massive headstart in this bench category and his tally is 33rd-best in the entire league.
But it’s not just him either, as Williams has formed a terrifying one-two punch with breakout sensation Montrezl Harrell. The 6-foot-8 big man has seen his basic statistics jump to 16.3 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, thus demanding opposing defenses to stay sharp and focused versus the Clippers’ renowned second unit. Elsewhere, Ivica Zubac and JaMychal Green have done well to replace Marcin Gortat and Boban Marjanovic’s season-long efforts. And don’t forget, they’ll get Luc Mbah a Moute and Wilson Chandler back for the playoff push eventually too. As good as this bench squad has been all campaign, it got even scarier at the trade deadline.
Next up are the Kings, who are currently tied in the loss column with eighth-seeded San Antonio. Overnight, Sacramento morphed into a fast-paced, high-scoring monster, much in part thanks to the massive growth both De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield have found alongside one another. But the Kings’ grind for their first playoff berth since 2005-06 doesn’t fall on their budding stars, because for the second-straight season, the Kings are in the top five for bench scoring. This year, the Kings have nearly replicated their 44.4 points per game average. It’s a drop from first to fifth in the category, but they’ve also surpassed last season’s win total by four already in late February.
Some of this has to do with Sacramento’s skyrocketing focus in pace – outlined here – but there are some absolutely potent members of the Kings’ core bench rotation. Bogdan Bogdanovic has averaged the squad’s third-highest total from the second unit (14.7 PPG) and the Serbian continues to be a nuisance for any defense. Still, Bogdanovic mostly succeeded in this same role during his rookie campaign in 2017-18, ditto for second-year forward Justin Jackson – the latter of which was moved to Dallas at the trade deadline. Newcomer Yogi Ferrell, who signed with the Kings last summer for $6.2 million over two years, has had his fair share of bright moments too, including a scorching-hot 19-point performance on 4-for-4 from three-point range during a season-defining victory over the Spurs earlier this month.
But the grandest addition to the Kings’ lethal bench rotation is rookie Marvin Bagley III, hands down. In just 25 minutes, Bagley has torched defenses to the tune of 14 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, outworking and out-leaping most other backups. When Bagley missed 11 games with a bone bruise in his left knee, the Kings went just 4-7. That alone speaks volumes about the talents of the former Duke standout.
In the wildcard department, there’s the also the quickly improving Harry Giles, now playing the best professional basketball of his young career. After missing the entirety of last season as he rehabbed and strengthened a previously torn ACL, Giles has recently earned a spot in head coach Dave Joerger’s crowded unit. Since officially entering the mix in January, Giles has scored seven or more points in 13 of his 23 appearances.
As the Kings prepare for the important stretch of games for the franchise in over a decade, they’d do well to lean on their impressive and young second unit. It’s worked wonders so far.
Perhaps the surprise to end all other surprises, the Nets — owners of a whoppingly poor 69-177 record from 2015-18 — are your sole holders of the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed. The cherry on top is that it comes in the campaign that Brooklyn finally regains control of their first-round pick after what feels like an eon. Nevertheless, the Nets have been banged up since the year began, but somehow they continue to chug along while head coach Kenny Atkinson tinkers with his deep roster. D’Angelo Russell, Jarrett Allen and Joe Harris have been the only totally healthy starters as the Nets have needed to bounce back from longterm injuries to Caris LeVert, Allen Crabbe and Spencer Dinwiddie throughout the season already.
Heading into March, the Nets will only be missing Dinwiddie, who inches closer to returning after thumb surgery last month, but their bench unit remains fearsome all the same. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Shabazz Napier, Ed Davis and DeMarre Carroll have proven to be useful pieces once more, combining for about 36 points per game as a foursome. Of course, Napier and Davis came from Portland as highly-recommended free agent signings during the offseason and became reliable role players for the well-oiled Nets. Even better, Carroll underwent a career resurgence during his first year in Brooklyn (73 starts, 13.5 points) and has seamlessly embraced his new second unit catalyst role for the scrappy Nets this time around.
The Nets’ bench mob has scored about more points per game in 2018-19 – good for a 47.2 average and the 2nd-best mark league-wide – and it’s been a fascinating reshuffling to watch. Shockingly, replacing Quincy Acy, Dante Cunningham, Tyler Zeller and Timofey Mozgov with Carroll, Davis, Napier and, at times, Jared Dudley, Crabbe and Hollis-Jefferson has given Brooklyn so many clear and obvious upgrades. In any case, the final piece to this gasoline-infused backup battalion still remains the return of Dinwiddie, last year’s third-place finisher in the Most Improved Player race and clutch bucket-getter extraordinaire. Before his ill-timed injury, Dinwiddie was even putting together a compelling case for a late All-Star Game bid, averaging 17.2 points and 5.1 assists in 28.6 minutes per game.
The Nets play fast, work hard and jack up three-pointers at an efficient rate, all while starters and key figures have bobbed in-and-out from the injury report the entire year. There’s a reason why many have pegged Brooklyn as a top-seeded team’s worst first-round nightmare, but their reliable bench contributions might top the whole list. Once they get healthy once and for all, the Nets may just be a force to be reckoned with.
Ultimately, it’s hard to project how these revelation seasons will pan out for the Clippers, Kings and Nets, especially as two of them battle it out for the same spot in a crowded, competitive conference. Even more spectacularly, these three crews have done it without a bonafide superstar on their roster – a true sign of their roster’s balanced attack from top to bottom.
Although Russell, Harris and Fox have all shown signs of getting there, it’s certainly not the same as having a rested MVP candidate to put away any late and lingering affairs. Now, Los Angeles will need to keep surging without Harris, while Brooklyn looks forward to getting healthy and Sacramento attempts to give the reins to the youngsters.
April is right around the corner, folks, and if things fall into place, these three franchises could be a tough out in the postseason.
A reality that’s fully in play due to their incredibly strong bench units.
NBA Daily: Chasing 40
Can James Harden outdo his last season and drop 40 points per game in 2019-20? History says he can. Drew Mays takes a deep dive into the numbers.
As of this writing, James Harden is averaging 38.4 points per game.
He’s within striking distance of 40 – a number that would put him in the most rarified of air, joining Wilt Chamberlain as the only other player in NBA history to accomplish this feat.
Of course, Wilt averaged over 40 twice – 50.4 in 1961-62 and 44.8 in 1962-63. Harden has played 14 games. There’s a long way to go. But with each passing night, 40 looks more and more in reach.
And why not? He put up 36.1 per contest across 78 games last year. His partitioned game is like a filing system: Put threes there, rim attempts here and free throws in the back. Who says he can’t make one more three and one more free throw per game? He even started this year “slow,” getting 19 and 29 his first two out.
Since those two games, he’s scored under 30 twice. The other 11 games he’s been above 36. Even in today’s game, that’s unheard of – well, unless you’re James Harden.
Only two modern comparisons exist for what Harden’s doing the last 13 months: Michael Jordan in 1986-87 and Kobe Bryant in 2005-06. Jordan averaged 37.1. Kobe averaged 35.4 (for extra points, Rick Barry joins these four in the top-10 scoring seasons of all-time with 35.6 in 1966-67).
This year, Harden has a chance to go supernova — to really pass the Kobe season and to pass Jordan.
On any level, scoring points in the NBA is hard. But scoring at the rate these guys did requires two factors to blend seamlessly into a third. Talent has to meet opportunity in the right era. This equation was true of Wilt’s 50 and 44 seasons, and Jordan and Kobe’s 37 and 35, respectively.
It’s true of Harden’s 2019-20. And he might average 40 because of it.
Kobe, Jordan and Wilt are third, fifth, and seventh in scoring all-time. It’s no surprise they had outlier seasons (though Jordan went for 35 per game the year following 37.1). Harden is currently 55th, but will move into the top 35 or so by year’s end. There’s a good chance he breaks 30,000 career points in the next five years.
The truth is, Harden is as good of a scorer as they were. And he may even be better. Any argument to the contrary isn’t rooted in statistics or results – it’s rooted in a bias against Harden’s ways, or a distorted, reminiscent view of the past. A common refrain against Harden is that his scoring is a product of flopping and free throws – that without that, he wouldn’t be as effective.
Here’s Harden in 2012, still a member of the Thunder.
That looks pretty similar to what he does now — the paced attack; the ball-out, arms-locked attack to incite fouls; the strength to finish anyway.
And here he is the following season, his first as a Rocket.
Copy and paste that into game film from today, and no one notices the difference.
He’s been doing this his whole career…he’s just leveraged his ability with opportunity in the right era to become the most dominant isolation player of the last decade.
Opportunity arises in part because of talent. It’s also borne of team and organizational needs. When Jordan scored 37.1, he was coming off a broken foot and an 18-game season. The 1986-87 campaign saw the Bulls go 40-42, with only three players scoring over 10 per game. Charles Oakley and John Paxson joined Jordan in double figures, with the fourth-highest scorer being Gene Banks at 9.7. Only 8 of the 17 players from ‘86-87 returned the following year.
Charles Oakley scored 9.7 points per game for his career. Paxson scored 7.2. Those were Chicago’s second and third options – with Jordan’s skill level, he had one of the greatest opportunities of all time to put up huge numbers.
In 2005-06, the proud Los Angeles Lakers were on the heels of a 34-48 record and missed the postseason in their first year after Shaquille O’Neal. They entered ’05-06 with Lamar Odom as the only player outside Kobe able to create offense (To our frustration, Smush Parker was as disappointing as we remember him.).
Kobe was all LA had – he obliged by taking 27 shots per game and leading the league in scoring.
Generational, ball-dominant perimeter talents anchoring otherwise average to below-average rosters equal the recipe for lots and lots of points.
That’s where Harden has found himself in Houston, this year more than ever.
Since the now-infamous Thunder deal, Harden is averaging 29 points per game. He’s on his way to his third straight 30-point-per-game season, and second above 35. His numbers have continued to climb not only due to individual improvement, but also within his permanent place as the unquestioned center of the offense. This is the collection of point guards Harden’s seen during his Houston tenure:
Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Aaron Brooks, Ty Lawson, Chris Paul.
The latter four were far from central playmakers – Paul was the only other star Harden’s joined forces with, and even he declined significantly last season. Sidenote: We’re also not counting the failed Dwight Howard experiment. While other teams were doubling and tripling down on star-laden rosters, Harden was primarily left as the single-engine to the Rockets’ vehicle. He had no choice but to make all the decisions.
This becomes even more true with Paul gone. Paul and Harden have similar styles in that they both control the ball. Consequently, even with the two often playing staggered minutes, Harden’s opportunities decreased. Paul took some of the slowed-down possessions away from him.
The fit with Russell Westbrook, however, is more complementary. Westbrook has Houston playing at the fastest pace in the NBA. He gets it and goes. When he doesn’t have it in transition, he pulls back and gives it to Harden. Harden isn’t losing those prodding isolation possessions anymore.
As Harden has improved year-by-year, he’s done it amid a changing NBA. His rise has coincided with the three-point boom – and it’s led to the possibility of a 40-point-per-game season.
In 1986, Michael Jordan was doing things on a basketball court that few had ever seen.
The ability to leap and hang in the air wasn’t common then. The clip below encapsulates Jordan’s 37.1 ppg season:
Look at that spacing! Jordan clunkily misses a jumper over a double-team, gets the ball back and makes a play at the basket. He scored because he was more athletic than everyone else. That’s not an indictment on Jordan, and he didn’t only score this way – he was skilled this early in his career, too. But the athleticism was the predominant thing. Just check out this clip from 1988:
(1988) Jordan breaks out a wrap around dribble to his same hand and the commentators go crazy.
"I can't explain what he just did." pic.twitter.com/iv2KSTKLRK
— Timeless Sports (@timelesssports_) August 14, 2019
You’d have thought MJ was a Salem Witch the way the announcers reacted to a behind-the-back dribble. Imagine if they saw Kyrie back then!
Jordan was unparalleled in talent over the history of the NBA; this was especially true, athletically, in 1986. That, along with the state of the Bulls’ roster, mightily contributed to his single-season top-five scoring average.
Kobe Bryant took 2,173 shots in 2005-06. Of those, 1,655 were two-pointers. And of those two-pointers, 1,041 were taken between 10 feet and the three-point line. Kobe took 27 shots per game and 13 of them were long twos. Think about that: Kobe spent an entire NBA season not only shooting 27 times a night, but taking the least efficient shot in basketball nearly half the time.
(Quick aside: Jordan took 27.8 shots per game in ’86-87. Wilt took 34.6 shots per game in his 44-point season and 39.5 shots per game in his 50-point season. So, when Harden scores 49 on 41 shots as he did in Minnesota last week, please don’t complain while standing up for the other three.)
The league’s climate in ’05-06 was perfect for Bryant to hoist an inordinate amount of mid-range shots. 79.8 percent of the league’s field goal attempts came from two-point range, compared to 62.5 percent this year — Harden’s Rockets are at 49.4 percent. Kobe’s greatest strength was the NBA’s most popular shot, and he took advantage.
That brings us to Harden. If Harden followed Steph Curry’s lead and broke basketball last season, he’s slammed into a million pieces in 2019-20.
Harden set a record last year by attempting 1,028 threes, making up over half of his total field goal attempts. That averages out to 13.2 per night – and most of those were unassisted. His shooting percentage of 61.6 was otherworldly, considering the difficulty of his looks.
Now, he’s back for an encore.
His shot chart is more categorized than ever. 56 percent of his attempts are threes, up slightly from last season. 21 percent come at the rim, and almost 20 come from 3-10 feet – and if you watch, most in the 3-10 range are short floaters. Only 2.9 percent of Harden’s looks are between 10 feet and the three-point line.
He’s taking 13.9 three-point attempts per game. Before last night’s loss in Denver, he’d already taken 200 threes!
His total shot attempts per game are at 25.4 (lower than Wilt, Jordan and Kobe during their historic seasons) and he’s taking 14.5 free throws per game. If you threw twos out the window, Harden would get you 28 points on threes and free throws alone!
The free throw rate should slightly regress. He took 11 per game last year and should stay in that 11-12 range. But his shooting percentages are down; he’s shooting 42.5 from the field and 34 from three, about two percentage points lower than his Houston norms. Assuming those tick back up, there’s no reason to believe he can’t add a few points per game to break 40.
Averaging 40 is next to impossible. Only one person has ever done it – and he did it towering over the league, on 39.5 and 34.6 shots each night, at a breakneck pace. Jordan, Kobe and Harden are the only players in the last 30 years or so to even sniff it.
Harden is at the peak of his powers. He plays with a team that relies on him to be the offense and a star running mate whose game doesn’t clash with his. He’s reached the heights of his game at the summit of the three-ball movement, where shot distribution and efficiency are king.
He still has to prove it can work in the playoffs. And even if he can’t, maybe that’s okay. Maybe, among the detractors whining about his style, complaining about his methods, we should enjoy this for what it is: an all-time scorer tearing through the league.
Jordan had a funny quote about his 37.1-point season that went something like this: It was hard, because he’d score 32 one night and then realize, man, I have to get 42 tomorrow to stay on track.
Harden had 27 last night. He’d need 53 Friday to keep the pace.
It’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it that way. Still, it seems unwise to bet against him.
NBA Daily: Reliable Burks Thriving In Long Sought-After Opportunity
Spencer Davies takes a look at Alec Burks’ outstanding start to the season with the Golden State Warriors.
If you go back and look at the 2011 NBA Draft, you’ll see big names all around.
Champions such as Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Kyrie Irving. All-Stars like Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker and Nikola Vucevic.
19th overall pick Tobias Harris turned out to be a maximum contract player. “Mr. Irrelevant” was Isaiah Thomas, a player that made an All-NBA team in a near-MVP season.
But there’s still time for another man to prove himself as one of the best talents in his class and, so far this year, he has given us a reason to believe he will.
Once plagued by injuries and often dealt with inconsistent roles, Alec Burks finally has the opportunity he’d been seeking — and this time around, he’s doing the stepping up instead of being the one on the sideline.
Last night against the Memphis Grizzlies, Burks exploded for 29 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists, plus a block and a steal. It’s the most he’s scored in a single game since Dec. 2017 and the fourth game where he’s eclipsed the 20-point mark this season already. And in the nights that he’s played over 30 minutes, he’s averaging 23.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.2 assists.
While that is an impressive accomplishment in its own right, the way Burks is going about getting his points is the real encouraging story. Healthy and fearless, he’s attacking with purpose and being rewarded with results, one way or another.
Burks is drawing fouls at a high rate with his aggressiveness. He’s getting to the line at will and knocking down his free throws, an astounding 23-for-25 over the last three games. A knack for disrupting opposing offenses, he’s been able to capitalize on the other end with a team-leading 5.5 points off turnovers per 100 possessions. That would also explain his success in transition, where he’s made a living on the open floor.
Don’t mistake Burks as a one-tool guy, either. He’s one of Golden State’s top threats in the pick-and-roll, using his dual-threat ability to either penetrate or pull up from distance. Trailing just Paul George, Andrew Wiggins and James Harden, the veteran combo guard is deadly off handoffs with 1.67 points per possession in such situations.
In addition, Burks has had a noticeable impact on the defensive end. The Warriors suffer when he’s not on the floor, as the opposition’s effective field goal percentage is 8.4 percent better when he sits. According to Cleaning The Glass, that ranks in the 99th percentile in the league. Furthermore, those teams are scoring 120.3 points per 100 possessions if he’s on the bench.
The 28-year-old has been a top-10 defender when it comes to guarding his assignments coming off screens, too, holding those players to 33 percent from the field.
Watching Burks operate with a clean bill of health is a gift from the basketball gods who have been cruel to him over the last three years of his career. It’s a shame that this chance has been given to him with his teammates on the mend, but how many times has he been on the other side of that battle?
Selected by the Utah Jazz at No. 12 eight years ago, Burks started his NBA career on a high note. He was a part of a franchise built around Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson, playing a complementary bench role while developing with the likes of Gordon Hayward and Enes Kanter. Then, Trey Burke was added to the mix along with Rudy Gobert in Burks’ third season, one where he appeared in a career-high 78 games.
That following year when he signed an extension, things took a downturn. Already having to adjust to a new head coach in Quin Snyder, Burks began having shoulder issues and played through them until electing to have surgery in late December. The Jazz also brought in Rodney Hood and Dante Exum as rookies.
Burks came back from the setback and, again, had been on the floor consistently in the 2015-16 campaign — except the injury bug decided to rear its ugly head in another way. Almost one year to the date that his season ended with shoulder surgery, he suffered a fractured left fibula that once again cut his year short. Snakebitten by misfortune in way too many occasions, his role in Utah never really was the same. His minutes diminished, his rhythm was off and Snyder had his backcourt rotations set.
Utah ultimately parted ways with Burks via a trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers last year, and while he did show flashes of his abilities and even snuck in a game-winning dunk during that 34-game stint, it wasn’t long before the organization moved on. The Cavaliers flipped him to the Sacramento Kings, where he had 15 DNPs and played less than 10 minutes per game.
Burks admitted at Warriors media day that being traded twice after spending seven years with one organization took a toll on him and his family. By the same token, he also knows that things happen for a reason.
Originally signing with the Oklahoma City Thunder this past summer, Burks pivoted to Golden State because he wanted to reevaluate his following the trades of Paul George and Russell Westbrook. He was sold on the Warriors’ team culture and an opportunity to play for a winner. Unfortunately, Stephen Curry went down with a major injury early this season, D’Angelo Russell is out for a couple of weeks and Draymond Green has missed some time as well — so championship aspiration is aiming high.
At the same time, the Warriors need a veteran to show young guys the ropes. Steve Kerr needs a guy to produce at a high-level to keep up with a fast-moving, deep Western Conference. Burks is proving each night that this group can rely on him.
That first-round pick all those years ago with so much promise, so many obstacles to overcome is now on the other side of the spectrum. The chance he’s been starving for is staring him right in the face.
Believe that Burks won’t take it for granted.
Hungry HEAT Destined To Be Dark Horse In East
The Miami HEAT are off to a hot start at 9-3. Jordan Hicks details why this may actually be legitimate and why the HEAT have a chance to go deep in the playoffs.
After Jimmy Butler was acquired by the Miami HEAT this past offseason, everyone expected them to be a solid team in the Eastern Conference. They weren’t expected to go deep in the playoffs, and very few people had them pegged as one of the league’s elite teams. But 12 games into the season, the HEAT are 9-3…and they might be — dare we say — really, really good.
The crazy part about how their team is playing together is all the moving pieces that make it work. Butler is the leader of the team — both in general and in scoring — but he’s only averaging 18.4 points. They have six guys averaging double-digit points, another at 9.7 and three more all above 7 points per game.
As a team, they are number one in the league in field goal percentage, third in three-point shooting, fifth in assists per game and first in steals per game. They are tied with the Toronto Raptors for the fourth-best plus-minus.
Looking into more advanced statistics, they are fifth in the NBA in net rating, helped greatly by their current defensive rating of 101.2. They are second in the league in assist percentage and first in both effective and true field goal percentage.
Of their nine wins, two of them came on the road against the Milwaukee Bucks and the surprising Phoenix Suns, and another came at home in the complete demolition of the Houston Rockets. Their three losses were all the road against the Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Lakers — three games you’d almost expect them to lose.
This isn’t a take that’s expecting you to believe the HEAT are the real deal based solely on their wins and losses up to this point in the season, but the fact they are completely taking care of business shows that Erik Spoelstra may be well on his way to one of his best head coaching seasons since the departure of LeBron James.
Just what is making this team so good? Let’s start by highlighting their stingy defense, the main driver behind their early-season success.
Butler is leading the entire NBA in steals with 2.8 per game. He is their leader on that end and a large part as to why they’re so successful. They are currently leading the NBA in steals as a team. This is great for a very obvious reason. It takes possessions away from the opposing offense and, in many cases, leads to an easy look in transition on the other end. The most efficient way to score is a wide-open dunk or layup, and fast breaks usually turn into that. The HEAT are averaging a tick under 10 steals per game, so that is plenty of looks their opponents won’t get off.
A huge breakout player for the HEAT this year is Bam Adebayo. Ever since his rookie year, you got the feeling he’d turn out to be solid, but his third season in the league finally feels like Adebayo’s time to shine. He’s averaging 13.9 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks. Guess how many other players in the NBA are putting up a similar stat line? Just one. His name is Giannis Antetokounmpo, you may have heard of him before.
In a league that is being overrun with efficient scoring, the glue guy is a key piece to any championship team that often goes unnoticed. Take Draymond Green, for example. You remember Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson, but Green played as big of a role as any of those guys in bringing rings back to Oracle. Adebayo has a chance to take an incredibly large leap this season, and some are even calling him an early candidate for the Most Improved Player award. No big deal, just HEAT-royalty Dwayne Wade.
— DWade (@DwyaneWade) November 17, 2019
Most impressive is where Adebayo currently sits in box plus-minus. This leaderboard is usually nestled with all the top players in the league, and Adebayo currently sits at No. 8. It’d be crazy if he stayed there all season, but the fact he’s up there already 13 games into the season is pretty impressive.
On the offensive end, things seem to be clicking on many different cylinders. As previously mentioned they have six, basically seven guys in double figures. Two of them happen to be rookies, and one of those rookies happens to be undrafted. That undrafted guy, Kendrick Nunn, is making a whole lot of noise.
He’s second in per-game scoring behind Rookie of the Year favorite Ja Morant, and he leads all rookies in steals per game. He’s first in made field goals and first in total steals, too. He leads all rookies in overall plus-minus. He’s second on the HEAT in points per game behind Jimmy Butler and second in steals per game, as well. He’s shooting well from the field as well as from behind the three, where he’s tied with Coby White for most threes made out of all rookies. He’s shooting the three at 38.4 percent which is killer for a rookie considering he’s shooting over six of them per game.
The other rookie standout, Tyler Herro, is averaging 13.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s a great spot-up shooter, but is capable of creating his own looks, too. Of the rookies on the roster, he’ll likely be the better shooter in the long run, and he’s shown every bit of why he deserved to be drafted in the lottery at No. 13.
The HEAT have many other players contributing in diverse ways, some big and some small. Meyers Leonard is shooting over 60 percent from three on two attempts per night. Justise Winslow was pacing the team in nightly plus-minus before his concussion. Goran Dragic — a savvy veteran who is somehow glossed over in this group — is scoring 16 per game on very efficient marks. One could go on and on about all the talent this Miami team has deep on its roster.
Listen, there is still an eternity left before the playoffs start, and Jimmy Butler has shown previous incapabilities of putting the team first. But the HEAT seem to be off to an incredibly productive start. Most wouldn’t pencil them in as a championship team, but with all the parity in the league today, they absolutely have an argument to be considered the top dark horse.
The Miami HEAT have plenty of pieces to make a deep run in the playoffs. Apart from Butler, they are definitely lacking a superstar or two, but they make up for it with early-season continuity, solid coaching and overall execution on both ends of the floor. With all the talent on their roster at almost every poisition, don’t be surprised if the HEAT end up coming out of the East.