• Kyle Russell

Miami’s Young Core Is Pushing Them to the Playoffs

Heat Zone

Almost like clockwork, the Miami Heat have started hitting their stride in March and are back in the top eight of the East. Coach Spoelstra made an adjustment to the starting lineup, adding in second year big man Bam Adebayo to the starting lineup, and doesn’t seem to be looking back. Alongside 4th year wings Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow, the Heat’s young core is finally starting together consistently for the first time. Winning 5 of the last 6, with the lone loss coming as the result of a 58-point James Harden explosion, the young trio have pushed the Heat back into the playoff picture.

To go back to the beginning of the year, it was never a given we’d see all three start together, let alone this season. At the time, only Richardson was starting, while Adebayo was playing backup minutes and Winslow was constantly being shuffled in and out of the lineup. Richardson has been the Heat’s primary scorer and 3 point shooter, averaging 17.4 points per game while shooting 36.9% from 3 at 6.4 attempts per game.

A knee injury to Goran Dragic in December opened up the opportunity for Winslow to take the starting point guard role and Point Winslow capitalized on that chance. He’s done an excellent job getting his teammates involved, averaging 4.4 assists per game. In addition he’s shown his ability to space the floor alongside Richardson, shooting 37.6% from 3 on 3.8 attempts per game. Winslow should garner some votes at the end of the season for most improved player given the his play this season.

Coming out of the all-star break, the Heat needed to make a hard push to get back into the playoff picture. Instead, they stumbled hard losing three in a row, the last of which was to the NBA’s worst team, the Phoenix Suns. At a critical point in the season, a hip pointer injury to starting center Hassan Whiteside forced coach Spo to start Adebayo in his place. Like Winslow earlier in the year, Adebayo has risen to the occasion to now become the starting center for a Heat team that now looks to solidify its playoff position.

By no means is this an indictment of Whiteside, who while overpaid is certainly a good player. As shown in Wednesday’s win over the Charlotte Hornets, one of the teams vying for the playoffs with the Heat, Whiteside can certainly have a game altering impact, finishing with 18 points, 15 rebounds, and 4 blocks while also closing out the game. But for the starting unit, Adebayo just seems to be a better fit and allows the Heat to start games without falling into a hole.

Adebayo has two main advantages over Whiteside that make him a better fit for the starting unit. The first is his passing ability. For a center, Adebayo has excellent vision and is an unselfish player that looks to set up his teammates whether it’s in transition, off the short roll, or through dribble hand-offs.

He’s averaging 2.1 assists this season compared to Whiteside’s 0.9. For a Heat team that lacks a clear go to scorer to run the offense through, ball movement is key to generating open looks and better shots. Per NBA stats, the Heat have been 7th in assists per game over the last 6 games with Adebayo starting, a clear improvement over their 17th place ranking prior to that.

The other key advantage for Adebayo is in his perimeter defense. While Whiteside is a terrific rim protector, he’s still a massive 7 footer that has difficulty stepping out and guarding players in space. For Adebayo, he was touted coming out of Kentucky for his fast feet and that has translated well into his perimeter defense, allowing him to guard all five positions regardless of where on the floor. Today’s game favors perimeter defense over rim protection, so in this specific area Adebayo helps out much more than Whiteside when guarding starting units. There aren’t that many centers in the NBA that can successfully defend Stephen Curry when left on an island.

The youth movement is in full effect in Miami, and the early results have looked promising. As Miami continues it’s pursuit of a playoff berth, the timing couldn’t have been better. Here’s hoping this is just the start for the young trio.

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