Is Oladipo the Key to Future Miami Success?

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The Miami HEAT must have been dying to add the newly-acquired Victor Oladipo to their lineup. Just coming out of a slight tailspin, Miami managed to win the last three games after dropping six straight.

Well, Miami’s wish came true on Thursday night, when the HEAT finally got Oladipo into a game. In the end, the veteran played 23 minutes in his first outing with the team, scoring 6 points on 2-for-8 shooting.

At his pinnacle, Oladipo was a dynamic athlete, capable of leading a playoff team. But he’s failed to fully regain his pre-injury form since returning from a ruptured quad tendon, suffered in early 2019. But quad ruptures are very serious injuries from which athletes require significant time to recover – so this trade was as much about taking a chance for the future as it was securing the present.

And the fact that the HEAT only gave up Avery Bradley, Kelly Olynyk and a 2022 first-round pick swap solidifies the idea that this was a move that had to be made.

But what is Miami adding in Oladipo? Will they ever get the ‘Dipo of old? Or will they continue to hunt for another star to put beside Jimmy Butler and Bad Adebayo?

Another guy to get buckets

Butler has been the team’s only consistent go-to scorer. As he’s struggled with his three-point shot for much of the season – and missed a good chunk of time due to health and safety protocols – the HEAT have struggled, too.

Adebayo is versatile, too; but he’s not the kind of player you can rely on to spearhead your offense – yet.

Tyler Herro is another who, when hot, can shoulder the offense. But in just his sophomore season, Herro needs more time to get stronger, develop consistency and figure out how to work through being a focal point of opposing defenses before he can be relied on as a leader.

Enter Oladipo, who was a reliable bucket-getter in Indiana (and a shame he was never at full strength alongside Malcolm Brogdon). While his injury shouldn’t be overlooked, it appears as though there could be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Over his last eight games, Oladipo averaged 25.6 points, 5 assists and 4.5 rebounds. He’s not quite the athlete he once was, he’s demonstrated consistent progress on that front – showing a clear difference between his play late last season in the bubble and this year.

Oladipo is also demonstrating another layer, dishing out 4.7 assists per game on the season –  if he finishes the 2020-21 season at that mark, it will be the second-highest assist average of his career. He hit the ground running in Miami in this capacity, including a beautiful alley-oop to Adebayo off of a pick-and-roll.

Guys like Oladipo are nearly impossible to defend with single coverage. And with Butler, Goran Dragic Adebayo and Herro, it’s virtually impossible to send a double team. That spells trouble for opposing defenses.

And that becomes all the more important come the playoffs when the game slows down and defenses hone in on opponents’ offensive sets.

Unlocking even more versatile lineups

As mentioned above, adding Oladipo improves the HEAT on the offensive end. But it’s not simply because he represents a guy who can score the ball. Oladipo represents another weapon for coach Erik Spoelstra to deploy, offering another guy who can shoot It from deep, pull up off-the-dribble and get downhill quickly and effectively.

Here’s a list of everyone on the HEAT playing 20 or more minutes per game, including Dipo: Oladipo, Butler, Adebayo, Dragic, Herro, Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn, Trevor Ariza and Andre Iguodala.

Granted, there are no true big men on that list outside of Adebayo – and the HEAT should be scouring the buyout market in an attempt to add size – but the lineup potential should be downright scary to opponents.

If it’s defense that coach Spoelstra prefers, he can run out a lineup with Oladipo, Butler, Ariza, Iguodala and Adebayo. That lineup may struggle a bit with guys like Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic, but aren’t many intimidating big men left in the NBA – and it’s about as good as it gets in terms of hoping to defend the Brooklyn Nets.

And there are even more options offensively. Spoelstra can apply significant pressure to opposing defenses with lineups featuring some mix of Oladipo, Butler, Dragic, Herro, Robinson, Nunn and Adebayo. There are three or four initiators there (Oladipo, Butler, Dragic and Nunn), at least three knock-down shooters (Robinson, Herro and Nunn) and a versatile center that can pop and roll. That’s a luxury most coaches simply don’t have, plus it’s a nightmare for defenses.

Improves an already above-average defense

The HEAT are currently sixth in defensive rating. The addition of Oladipo makes waves for what he adds offensively, but his defensive impact has been largely overlooked. That’s downright disrespectful considering Dipo was named first-team All-Defense in 2017-18. If there’s reason to believe that Oladipo can return to form offensively, then there is no reason to think he won’t become an elite defender again, too.

For those of us who forgot what he can do on the defensive end of the floor, Oladipo gave everyone a sneak peek last night, locking up Stephen Curry on a third-quarter possession in which he displayed good footwork and defensive instincts.

But it’s not just Oladipo’s ability to lock down opposing guards that is enticing. He’s quick and smart enough to disrupt passing lanes, taking strategic chances at picking off cross-court passes. Oladipo led the league in steals in 2017-18, so a return to that level of play would be great for the HEAT, who are currently 15th in steals per game.

Indiana Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren communicated his enthusiasm about Oladipo’s defensive impact to Michael Pina of Sports Illustrated just prior to the trade that sent Oladipo to Houston.

“He is an extremely elite, high-level player,” Bjorkgren said. “He’s coachable, and he plays both sides of the floor. Like, I’m telling you, I don’t know what he’s better at, offense or defense . . . So absolutely he is in that All-NBA, elite-level category.”

That’s a big statement. Although it came from an Oladipo advocate, there’s no reason to believe that coach Bjorkgren’s statements were insincere.

The Miami HEAT’s present and future is considerably more secure after trading for Oladipo. This season, they’ve constructed a roster that’s versatile enough to potentially get them back to the NBA Finals – a feat seen as impossible prior to the deal. And moving forward, most of Miami’s core is in their control.

It’s still a long shot, but if the HEAT succeeds in their quest to return to the championship, Oladipo will have had a lot to do with it.