Expectations for the Miami HEAT have varied a lot since LeBron James left for the greener pastures of Cleveland in 2012. Many felt that the HEAT had finally climbed out of the basement when they swung a deal for Jimmy Butler this past off-season, but doubts about their depth and their lack of a true second option remained.
Well, the doubters obviously failed to factor in the HEAT’s rookies performing as they have.
While they do not boast one of the league’s youngest rosters (25th overall), the HEAT have succeeded through the first 20-or-so games by playing young, inexperienced players. In fact, three of the HEAT’s top seven minute-getters are essentially rookies – Duncan Robinson, Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn. Herro is a true rookie, Nunn went un-drafted in 2018 and played all of last season with the Santa Cruz Warriors (Golden State’s G-league affiliate) and Robison played most of 2018-19 with the Siox Falls Skyforce (the HEAT’s G-league affiliate) — but also appeared in 15 games with Miami.
Now, it’s not terribly unusual for rookies and young players to crack a team’s rotation. But when most people consider rookies playing major roles, they typically think of teams that are somewhere in the process of a rebuild – not a team in third place in the Eastern Conference. As of Dec. 9, the HEAT are the only team in the league with a .700 winning percentage or better to feature more than one rookie and/or second-year player as top-seven minute getters.
While this is a pretty impressive feat, it speaks to the HEAT’s organization and its culture. After all, the Miami system is notorious for its player development. Looking back at its past successes and reclamation projects, the HEAT’s system was responsible for reinvigorating a number of players including Dion Waiters and Chris Anderson.
And more importantly, the HEAT are lauded for providing one of the very best cultures in the entire league. The best example is head coach Erik Spoelstra himself, who has now been with the organization for 23 years, famously beginning as a video coordinator in 1995. At the top, Spoelstra preaches defense and ball movement, which leads to success for all.
The team’s youngsters have already taken note of the special vibe around the HEAT locker room. Robinson recently told Basketball Insiders that the Miami coaching staff and veterans deserve most of the credit for their early successes.
“It shows leadership,” Robinson said. “We have some guys, obviously UD (Haslem), Jimmy (Butler) and other guys that are good secondary leaders, and taking us younger guys under their wing…guys like Justise (Winslow) and Bam (Adebayo).”
Robinson elaborated on the importance of absorbing as much as possible from the team’s coaching staff and veterans prior to training camp. “Us three (rookies) were around all summer,” Robinson said. “It’s only my second year as part of this program, but I feel like I’ve learned so much and come so far in that time.”
But while team leadership deserves some of the credit, it’s also due to the rookies themselves – who have taken on whatever role they’ve been assigned. Tyler Herro spoke with Basketball Insiders recently about coming off the bench for the HEAT, which represents a very different – and some might say, reduced – role compared to the one he owned last year at Kentucky. But that’s not how Herro sees it.
“I look at it as I’m still seeing starter minutes,” Herro said. “I’m not concerned with coming off the bench. I try to come in and give no empty minutes and play my absolute best.”
It’s hard to say if the HEAT select players with strong personalities and positive attitudes, or if that’s learned from Spoelstra and the team’s veterans. But either way, players like Herro enter their rookie seasons and make the team look incredibly savvy.
“I think (coming from Kentucky) helped a lot,” Herro continued, while – again – complimenting his new team and coaching staff. “My teammates at Kentucky and Coach Cal and his staff prepared me for this. But I also think that the (HEAT) staff and my teammates here pushed me to where I’m at now, too.”
Herro and Robinson have flourished in the HEAT’s system so far. Robinson is averaging 10.9 points on 42.5 percent three-point shooting in 26 minutes per game. Herro is averaging 14.5 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists over 29 minutes per game.
And then there’s Kendrick Nunn. Nunn is a pleasant surprise for the HEAT, scooped up immediately following last season. Despite slumping of late, Nunn is averaging 15.3 points, 3.4 assists and 2.5 rebounds in 30.0 minutes per game — good for third in scoring and second in assists, making him a major (surprise) Rookie of the Year candidate.
In addition to how well the three HEAT youngsters are playing, they are all incredibly close – especially so considering the short amount of time they’ve been teammates. And that stands to benefit Miami both this season and beyond.
“We’re best friends,” Herro said of his relationship with Nunn while sitting immediately next to Robinson in the Brooklyn Nets’ visiting locker room. “We like to see each other have good games. We don’t pay attention to the media or try to out-do one another.”
“Generally, we got a great group of guys who like each other and we enjoy each other’s success,” Herro continued. “So that makes it easier for everyone to perform at the highest level.”
But friendships aside, they play well when sharing the court.
“I feel like, as a team, we are at our best when Tyler and I are out there and aggressive,” Robinson said. “So we just want to continue to do that and translate that into wins.”
There are still improvements that need to be made in Miami, though.
For example, the HEAT are only 4-6 against teams above .500. Further, they’re lost all four games they’ve played on the tail end of back-to-backs. While you can point to fatigue as a culprit, you can also blame it on a lack of experience and stamina – and the latter two will improve over time. But the scary part is, while there is room for growth, they are already so far ahead of the curve.
Just imagine what they might look like in a year.
But let’s remain focused on this season: And in 2019-20, the HEAT are in the favorable position of having young talent supporting established stars like Butler and Dragic. While they are well-positioned for the future with Winslow, Adebayo, Herro, Robinson and Nunn, they are also built to compete now. Just don’t bother asking them about the team’s goals.
“We talk about goals, of course,” Robinson said. “But that stuff stays between us in this locker room. At the same time, we understand that the day-to-day is far more important. You want to keep the big picture in mind, but you’ve got to take care of what’s on your plate first.”
So we’ll have to wait and see how much they develop and what they ultimately do in 2019-20. But one thing’s for sure – the HEAT are on track to greatly exceed expectations.
And they just might do so in a big way.
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