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The X-Factors: Miami

The Miami HEAT have been one of the East’s best teams this season, but certain factors can dictate whether they go deep in the playoffs or find themselves in a first-round exit. Matt John examines.

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Over the past two weeks, Basketball Insiders has taken a look at the X-Factors that can shape the fate of those who will be in the playoff running when the NBA returns with its 22-team format. So far, we’ve taken a look at teams that are:

1. On the outside looking in: New Orleans and Portland
2. Basically in a gap year: Brooklyn
3. Getting their first taste of playoff action with their new squad: Memphis and Dallas
4. A gritty opponent that no one wants to face: Indiana and Oklahoma City
5. Possibly the most unpredictable playoff team ever: Houston

Today, we’re looking at the boys down in South Beach — the Miami HEAT.

With Jimmy Butler onboard — Miami’s best acquisition since LeBron James — it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the team’s had its best season since 2016. What is a surprise this season is that the results go beyond just what Jimmy Butler has done.

Miami’s success primarily starts with Butler, yes, but he’s not leading a bunch of scrubs to the playoffs. Far from it, in fact. Miami has gotten better as a whole because roles occupied by previous alumni have basically been upgraded with new faces.

  • Defensive Enforcer/Board-Getter: Previously occupied by Hassan Whiteside and now dominated by Bam Adebayo, and that only partially covers how magnificent Bam has been this year.
  • Three-Point Specialist: Previously occupied by Wayne Ellington and now taken over by sophomore surprise Duncan Robinson.
  • Designated Complementary Scorers: Previously occupied by Dion Waiters and Dwyane Wade and now replaced with younger, more reliable shooters like Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn.

Lest we forget, Goran Dragic has been awesome in his new role as the sixth man, Derrick Jones Jr. has continued to develop nicely, and because of the hiatus, Miami now has more time to integrate Andre Iguodala and Jae Crowder. The HEAT are really good, and they could potentially get better, but not enough to be considered “great.”

The general consensus on them is that as impressive as they’ve been — in the sense that the team surrounding Butler has been noticeably better than we anticipated — they still need another elite player or two before they move up high enough to reach “contender” status. Could they prove those naysayers wrong with a fruitful playoff run? It depends on a few things.

First, let’s talk about their two top dogs, starting with Butler. This hasn’t been his best season shooting the three-ball. Butler’s never been a three-point marksman — he hasn’t relied on it nearly as much as other modern-day All-Star wings do — but as a career 33 percent shooter from downtown, seeing him shoot so badly from three — 24.8 percent this season — that he basically abandoned it all together is astounding.

Then, there’s Adebayo. Adebayo has been one of the best all-around bigs in the league. He hasn’t just been a menace on defense and on the boards. He’s also been one of the league’s best passing bigs as well. He can pretty much do everything on the court right now except one thing — shoot threes. In his defense, nobody in Miami is asking him to do that… yet.

Amazingly, Miami is tied for first in three-point shooting in spite of Butler’s woes and Adebayo’s lack of contribution in that department, shooting at a 38 percent clip as a group. It’s no doubt played a factor into why they have the sixth-best offensive rating at 112.7 points per 100 possessions — Robinson, Crowder, Herro, Dragic, Nunn, Iguodala, Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard all shoot between 36 to almost 45 percent from three. In the modern NBA, it’s honestly pretty impressive that the HEAT still have a top-10 offense in the league despite their two best players not being a floor-stretchers.

The real question is, can a team with a makeup like that go deep in the playoffs? We all know that the playoffs are a different game. Opponents will look to exploit weaknesses as frequently as possible. Having as much shooting as possible is a strong advantage. In Miami’s case, teams are going to leave as much space for Butler and Adebayo as possible. They’ll blanket their three-point shooters as best they can to keep the offense from humming. Butler is a playoff proven star but not a superstar, and Adebayo is a playoff rookie. Erik Spoelstra’s got a proven track record, but as good as this team is, they don’t have the overwhelming talent that the Heatles did back in the early 2010s, so his work will be cut out for him.

It will also depend on who Spoelstra trusts out there, which is another X-Factor. Miami has 11 players on it roster right now worthy of playing in the playoff rotation — Butler, Adebayo, Dragic, Nunn, Robinson, Herro, Crowder, Iguodala, Jones, Olynyk, Leonard — but another proven fact about the playoffs is rotations always shorten. Teams go with fewer guys than they normally do in the regular season as a means to tie up loose ends. The ones that go deeper in their rotation usually regret it. Spo definitely has some decisions to make there.

Miami is tied for the 11th-best defensive rating in the league, allowing 109.4 points per 100 possessions, which honestly is far from bad. Adebayo and Butler have a lot to do with why their efficiency on that end isn’t too far behind from their offense, but they haven’t had the most solid support behind them in the former department. Robinson, Herro and Nunn have all given Miami a layer they didn’t know they needed, but none of them are defensive stalwarts. That probably went into the decision-making process when they traded for Iguodala and Crowder.

Whether they did or didn’t, there’s no guarantee that those two are better options than Miami’s youthful crop of shooters. They definitely bring more versatility, IQ and toughness to the defensive end and they have a lot more playoff games under their belt, but how much Iggy has left in the tank is up in the air while Crowder is wildly inconsistent on the offensive end. The HEAT will have to do a lot of mixing and matching to do. Eight games might not be enough time to do it.

Finally, the last X-Factor is who Miami plays in the postseason. Playoffs always boil down to matchups. We’ve seen that year-to-year. The 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks were a good enough team to beat just about anybody… except for the eighth-seeded Golden State Warriors, who exploited every single advantage in their favor. That series upset overshadowed that Dirk Nowitzki and Co. were every bit as good as every contender in the league. They were just given the worst hand possible. Matchups can turn the tide no matter what seed you are.

These eight regular-season games can definitely have huge implications in Miami’s fate when they enter the playoffs. Adebayo’s elite defense against just about any frontcourt player along with Butler’s ability to get buckets would make life hell for Philadelphia, who Miami beat 3-1 in the season series. At the same time, Miami’s lack of two-way players could definitely be run over by Boston, who won their season series 2-0. Miami’s collection of talent gives them the luxury of adaptability compared to most teams, but that may not matter if the matchups aren’t in their favor.

How the playoffs shape up can have an impact on the HEAT in the long-term. With the moves they’ve made, they’ll have cap flexibility to make a run at a star free agent. You know how we said they are one or two more elite players away from being at the top? Well, a particular Greek superstar will be on the market in two years. If all goes right, he may be the answer to their prayers.

The odds of Miami winning a title are a longshot this season, but seeing where the bar was set this season, that may not have been the upfront goal to begin with. The goal was to put Miami back on the map this season, and no matter what happens, that’s exactly what the HEAT did.

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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