The Heat Bringing the Jazz Down: Time to Get Back on Board

The Miami Heat is finally back, right?

Beating the best team in the NBA, the Utah Jazz, should be enough for those who have been doubting this team since the beginning of the season.

A team that didn’t have a great preseason (no team did, but still), that brought several pieces that couldn’t fit, and that had to face several games without starters or key subs because of COVID-19 related issues.

All of that, plus an apparent lack of enthusiasm or coordination at some points of the season, led to a frenzy on #HeatTwitter or all social media outlets in which fans discuss the Heat.

The Heat was in a dark place. We can’t deny that. They were seven games under .500 at some point (7-14), and it looked like the only way to relive it was to trade somebody, or something.

Jimmy Butler took over and since he’s been back, the team looks different.

However, not even Butler himself would say this version of the Miami Heat is similar to the one that was two wins away from a championship months ago.

 

Kendrick Nunn has also gone back to what we saw during the regular season last year, and that has made that we barely notice the absences of Dragic and Herro.

Some people may forget, but the Heat is still missing pieces. I don’t even remember the last time Spoelstra had the entire roster available, or if that has ever happened in this 2020-2021 season at all.

That’s why I was suprised when the team was getting bombarded by their own fans, and even some of our own guys here in the Five Reasons Sports Network lost a little bit of their guts (you know who they are).

Here’s a good podcast you should listen, on assessing the adversity narrative.

The beautiful thing about sports is that everything can change rapidly. I personally have never asked for a trade, but I did think the team needed to adjust several aspects of their game.

No team is perfect, and it is just not that easy to get rid of Kelly Olynyk, Chris Silva and Max Struss to get James Harden or a similar star in return.

Some people pulled the trigger too early on this team, or as Bam Adebayo said right after beating the team with the best record in the league, too many counted the Heat out, when there was a lot to play left.

It’s ok, though. The reality is that the team is still playing under .500 (16-17), and it’s not where it should be, so you’re on time to jump back on board.

The second part of the schedule is out, and the Heat should do better (it’s not that hard if the team is healthy and playing the way they’ve been playing, anyway).

They’re in fifth right now, because the East is better this season, but it’s really not, and even the third place doesn’t look that far away for a team that was in the middle a “crisis” just weeks ago.

Enjoy the rest of the season, and thank you for the support that you’ve been showing us in all of our platforms. We’re growing thanks to all of you, and we’ll keep grinding and getting better, for you.

In case you missed it, you should check out the Miami Heat – Utah Jazz postgame show…

 

By Alejandro Villegas | @Alejandrovg32 on Twitter

Canes announce Aristide as new LB coach following T-Will Departure

Travis Williams’ tenure as linebackers coach at Miami was short-lived and as a result, head coach Manny Diaz found himself yet again searching for a candidate that would assist with coaching up Miami’s poorest unit in 2020. The Canes officially announced on Monday that Ishmael Aristide would take over the reigns as the new outside linebackers coach.

 

Aristide spent the last two seasons as a defensive analyst for Texas A&M, where the Aggies defense allowed 317.3 yards/game, 9th-best in the country and tops in the SEC.

 

Before College Station, Aristide had stops at Ole Miss (player personnel analyst in 2017-18) and Auburn (GA in 2016). He played collegiately at Purdue from 2009-12.

 

Per a UM press release: “We’re excited to welcome Ishmael to the Hurricanes program,” Diaz said. “He is a sharp defensive mind and relentless recruiter who will be a great addition to our coaching staff.”

 

ANALYSIS

 

Now I know Aristide’s name might not ring a bell at first. This is because it is Aristide’s first gig as an on-field coach so he’s definitely not proven in terms of player development and relationships with current roster players.

 

This leads me to my next point on why Aristide is a big get for the Canes. Aristide made 247Sports’ most recent “30Under30” list, which notes the top 30  up-and-coming coaches under the age of 30. Here’s what 247’s Chris Hummer had to say on Aristide:

 

“Take a look at any member of Texas A&M’s 2020 recruiting class, and there’s a pretty good bet Aristide had a role in helping to land that player. Considered an elite recruiter, Aristide aided the Aggies’ pursuit of players like Donell Harris and one of the deepest defensive back classes in the country. He’s also been a big asset for Texas A&M’s defensive back room, working alongside defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Aristide came to College Station from Ole Miss, where he served as a senior defensive analyst from 2017 to 2019. Before arriving in Oxford, he was a GA at Auburn. The former Purdue Boilermaker is someone we expect to have an on-field role sooner rather than later. Those around the Aggie program are very high on him.”

 

It’s clear that Diaz jumped on the chance to get Aristide on his staff knowing that he is held in high regard, a great recruiter, and a Miami native.

 

Let’s start off with his recruiting prowess. Texas A&M has compiled top-7 classes in the past two recruiting cycles  and a big catalyst for both classes was Aristide.Fisher counted on Aristide to land a lot of the big fish that would eventually make their way to College Station, including former longtime Miami commit and four-star DE Donell Harris. If you don’t (or don’t want to) remember, Harris was a highly-rated defensive end that was initially in the 2021 class but switched to 2020.

 

He did graduate from an Orlando-area high school but his Miami roots do run deep outside of changing one recruit’s mind. If the Canes didn’t already build a fence around Miami Northwestern High after the 2021 recruiting class, it’s interesting to note that Aristide’s father Wallace is the principal.

 

All in all, it’s definitely far from a given that he will provide exponential growth to the linebacker room. But Manny Diaz recognizes that the next two recruiting classes are flooded with South Florida prospects and adding a fourth coach with major South Florida ties (TRob, DVD, Stephen Field, Aristide) should pay major dividends.

What are some Miami Heat trade options?

March 25th marks the deadline for NBA general managers to secure trade deals with other teams.

 

Trading players gives each squad leader a chance to bolster their roster and potentially upgrade their teams’ position in the NBA.

 

Miami Heat’s performance this season has dwindled. Considering last season, they slayed the courts during the Covid bubble NBAs and even made it to the finals. It’s reasonable to infer that this season the squad isn’t living up to its full potential. 

 

From players like Dragic and Butler sitting out because of injuries. Not to mention, Covid-19s impact on the NBA has caused a real struggle for the team. Can Miami Heat turn this season around and make it to the playoffs?

 

Well, if the trade rumors are true, there are a few candidates that could reignite the team’s execution on the court: Zach LaVine, Rudy Gay, and Bradley Beal. 

 

Many will be patiently and eagerly waiting to see the trades Miami Heat follow through with this season. From devoted fans of Miami Heat, to punters who fancy their chance on the team to succeed this season, potential trades are more than likely music to their ears.

 

So, here is a profile of the three potentials that could enable Miami to maintain its reputation as an elite NBA team and reach the final this season.

 

Potential Trade Deals

 

Player: Zach LaVine

Team: Chicago Bulls

Trade: Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn, and Andre Iguodala

 

Zach LaVine is 25, in his prime, and heavily considered one of the best offensive players out there right now. 

 

It’s thought he could do wonders for Miami Heat, but a significant trade deal would need to go down to get this star on the side. 

So, what’s in it for the Chicago Bulls, you ask? To make a trade, it’s likely Miami Heat will need to let go of four players: Herro, Robinson, Nunn, and Iguodala.

 

Should the trade go ahead, Zach would bring incredible offensive firepower that would boost the existing roster. And, while he may not be the best defender, Miami has more than enough defensive-orientated players to support Zach’s stance on the court. 

 

Alongside Miami Heat’s top players Bam Adebayo and Jim Butler, Zach would help form an unstoppable trio. Giving the team a greater chance of making it to the finals.

 

After all, the star player has a current average of 28.1 PPG while taking a shot of 43.0% from a 3PT range. Even when he’s under pressure on the court, his confidence, athleticism, and capability win time after time, enabling LaVine to shoot hoops regardless of the conditions.

 

For a player that’s likely to lift the team’s performance this season and secure Miami heat as a top team in the seasons to come, acquiring Zach LaVine is a must for the squad.

 

Player: Rudy Gay 

Team: San Antonio Spurs 

Trade: KZ Okpala, Olynyk, plus a 2022 second-round pick

 

Other trade rumors circulating suggest 34-year-old forward Rudy Gay from San Antonio Spurs could be snapped up by Miami Heat.

 

At a mighty 6 feet and 8 inches, Rudy could become a staple defensive player on Miami’s squad. 

 

From the 22 minutes Gay has played on the court each game this season, he has earned a 98.7 defensive rating, which topples Miami Heat’s Jimmy Butler’s current rating.

 

Rudy has tremendous defensive skills, which would undoubtedly elevate the team’s current position. Plus, despite his experience and skills, he is, for Miami Heat at least, considered inexpensive to buy.

 

But whether Gay joining the team would be enough to fix the squad in time for the playoffs is questionable. Instead, it may be wise for Miami Heat to on-board a few additional players alongside him.

 

Player: Bradley Beal

Team: Washington Wizards 

Trade: G Tyler Herro, G Goran Dragic, F/C Kelly Olynyk, 2022 first-round pick, 2024 first-round pick, 2026 first-round pick

 

Anyone familiar with the Miami Heat understands Pat Riley is keen on creating a “Big 3”. Just as he once did with Bosh, LeBron, and Wade.

 

While there are talks about putting Zach LaVine alongside Jimmy and Bam, another alternative is Bradley Beal.

 

As an excellent all-round offensive team player, Beal could become the go-to scorer the Heat relies on. Beal will also have the advantage of a range of advanced players who can defend and enable Bradley to shoot.

 

The trade would come at a high cost, causing the MIA to lose Robinson and Herro. But Bradley Beal is arguably a better player than both and could be the last piece of the “Big 3” to help the team excel and make it to the finals. 

 

Rumors reveal Bradley is open to the idea, too, because he’s experiencing frustrations in his current team. 

 

Miami Heat: Trade Deadline Nearing

 

Miami Heat are usually top-tier NBA contenders worthy of championship status. But, this year, it’s unlikely they’ll make the cut unless the president of the club takes serious advantage of the opportunity to recruit before the end of March and shuffle the team around with some fresh talent such as the players profiled above. 

 

While Zach LaVine seems like a no-brainer, Rudy Gay could be a strong accomplice too.  

 

Should the Heat be content with the West Coast trip?

The Miami Heat finished their west coast trip with four wins in seven games and will be coming back to south Florida in a similar situation to the one they were when they left.

Still three games under .500, and still very close to the top four spots in the Eastern Conference.

After Monday night’s win against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Heat is only two games from the fourth-place Pacers (tied with the Raptors), and four games behind the Milwaukee Bucks, in third.

Looking back to it, I think we all though a 4-3 overall result would be great, given the circumstances the team was facing at the moment.

The Heat had lost to the Hornets and the Wizards, and barely beat Ethan Skolnick and Ricky J. Mark beloved Knicks in a couple of close games before leaving to face Houston.

As you can see, since James Harden left, that team has just sunk, and that was the perfect opponent for the Heat to start this adventure.

After that Houston team, it was time for the Heat to face the best team of the moment, the Utah Jazz, and it was clear that once they got going, this version of the Heat had no shot at them, so we probably went to bed that night knowing that it was just not meant to be against that opponent (If they were to meet in the playoffs in some sort of crazy scenario, I would take the Heat anyway).

What happened after was just the perfect example of what this season has been for this Heat team. Miami lost to a really depleted Los Angeles Clippers (not the barely depleted Lakers that ESPN likes to portray), and then blew a very solid lead against the Golden State Warriors, who didn’t have Draymond Green available, in one of the worst nights I’ve seen from a superstar like Steph Curry.

Just like that, the Heat was in another losing streak, but this time, with almost everybody back. At this point, and with hundreds of people asking for trades desperately on Heat Twitter, as they do all the time, anyway, regardless of what happens.

Being 1-3 in the trip, after those bad losses against the Clippers and Warriors, and knowing LeBron was waiting for them on Saturday, it seemed impossible that this trip would end up on a positive note.

With the Lakers on the horizon, the Heat defeated the Kings in another “must-win” even game against a lower quality opponent (the Heat struggled even more at home against them), and headed to Los Angeles again for a rematch of the 2020 NBA Finals.

Jimmy Butler has a positive record against LeBron James. We all know what happens when the real games come around, but somehow, and thanks in part to a great defensive game by Bam Adebayo, the Heat held up to upset the Lakers, who are now in the middle of a minicrisis, in case you haven’t watched ESPN lately, after losing to the Brooklyn Nets, the Miami Heat and the Washington Wizards in a row.

It also happens to the best teams in the league…

Closing out the trip with a solid (ish) win

Facing Oklahoma City with the opportunity to finish the west coast trip meant the Heat had to ended up on a positive vibe.

We know the Heat plays down to opponents, even though Oklahoma had a better record than the Heat. The team struggled in the first half, missed shots that should not miss, and were hanging around up to the fourth quarter, when they finally got away.

First solid win in a couple of weeks (or months!?), and a 4-3 record, that we would have taken before it all started, but that seeing what went on, looks like it was not enough.

This trip could have ended up with five or six wins for the Heat, and the team would be a little closer to the actual spot they should be in.

I would say they might be satisfied with a winning record on the road (just talking about this particular trip. The Heat is actually 7-10 on the road this season), but I feel like they should not be content.

This trip meant a lot to the team in a matter of getting closer to each other, as Erik Spoelstra pointed out in one of his press conferences, but it could have been better.

Like everything in this season so far for the Heat (maybe exaggerating a little bit). It could all be better…

 

By Alejandro Villegas | @Alejandrovg32 on Twitter 

A streak to start believing again

A winning streak. Finally…

The Miami Heat has really struggled this season. On Tuesday night, against the Knicks, it wasn’t different.

Jimmy Butler is back, is his best version, aggressive, leading the team, and on Tuesday, it was him all over again. A +25 that almost ended up in a loss, believe it or not.

That’s how bad the second unit was at some point.

The Heat has finally found a way to win consecutive games, something they’ve really struggled with this season, and ended up tied for the ninth place in the East, just one game behind the Raptors, eight place, one and a half from the sixth-place Hornets and two games away from the Pacers, in fifth.

Not that bad, considering they lost games against the Wizards, those same Hornets, and the Pistons, that should’ve been wins.

At this point, Miami should already be in the top four of the Eastern Conference.

However, after 24 games in, the team is playing way below .500, with only 10 wins.

Trade everybody, get a whale

How many times have we read this in the past month?

And I get it. Heat fans are desperate from watching a team that seems to be lost, and very far away from that one that made them feel so happy just few of months ago.

Trading for another player is not necessarily what this team needs. I get it if they do it, but looking at the circumstances they’ve been facing, with a tough schedule, injuries and COVID-related absences, I wouldn’t get to crazy with a team that is just three games away from the third place in the East.

I know fans were tired of some moral victories, like those games they almost won against the Sixers, Nets and Celtics. But taking a look at it, that’s how close the Heat has been to change the narrative.

There are five or six games that could’ve gone the Heat’s way, and nobody would be talking about trades. That’s the reality of it.

It’s not only about the winning streak, or the losing streak they had. It’s about those games they only won or the ones they should’ve won.

That’s the difference in the narrative.

Olynyk, Nunn & Herro stepping up

Duncan Robinson struggled once again, going 0 for 5 from the three-point line. And guess who came to save the day?

Kelly Olynyk. That same guy that frustrates a lot of fans, I would say, more often than not. 6 for 8 from threes, and second only behind Jimmy Butler in points, with 20.

At some point, it was him and Kendrick Nunn leading the way to come back from a double-digit deficit in the second quarter.

Later, Tyler Herro redeemed himself with a couple of baskets and a clutch three in the last minutes of the game. All of these, signs of a team that seems to be finding their way.

A path to a winning streak that could lead to fans believing in this team once again.

We’re still waiting to see Bam Adebayo back in a more aggressive mentality, but he keeps finding the way to almost score 20 every game.

There are a lot of things this team can do better. Hopefully this is just the beginning of them figuring everything out, and the beginning of many winning streaks…

Check the latest episode of Five on the Floor:

 

By Alejandro Villegas | @Alejandrovg32 on Twitter 

The new look Panthers start season strong

The Panthers have been South Florida’s hottest team over the month of January with a 5-0-1 record in a six game span. The Cats are off to their best start in franchise history early on in this shortened NHL season. 

A large part of the team’s early success can be attributed to all of the new players the Panthers have in the lineup this season. In six games this year, Florida has used 13 different players who did not play a game with the team last season.

After a mediocre 2019-2020 campaign which saw the team get bounced in the Stanley Cup qualifying round by the New York Islanders, Florida clearly needed to make a lot of changes. 

Which started with the front office.

Shortly after being eliminated, the Panthers and general manager Dale Tallon mutually agreed to part ways, bringing his tenure in Florida to an end. Not satisfied with three playoff appearances and no playoff series wins during Tallon’s decade-long tenure, Florida hired  former Columbus Blue Jackets assistant general manager Bill Zito as the new gm.

Zito immediately went to work, completely changing the roster over the offseason. With the departures of top players like Vincent Trocheck, Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov over the past year, Florida needed to add more depth to the forward core. And that’s exactly what they did.

Two of the biggest moves was the signing of NHL All Star Anthony Duclair and Stanley Cup Champion Carter Verhaeghe. Both players were put on the top line with captain Aleksander Barkov to start the season and they haven’t looked back. The trio has combined for 20 points in six games this year and have dominated oppositions nearly every time they are on the ice. The speed and puck skills of Verhaeghe and Duclair have helped open up Barkov’s game this year. The Finn has never looked more dominant.

Another huge offseason move made by Zito was the acquisition of two-time Stanley Cup champion Patric Hornqvist for Mike Matheson. It was evident that Matheson had become a liability on the back end, especially when the Panthers entered the NHL postseason bubble as he was scratched twice in four games. The veteran Hornqvist came into Florida and hasn’t shown any signs of aging as he already has five goals to start the season.

Hornqvist joined last year’s leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau and former Blue Jacket Alexander Wennberg on the second line. The Barkov, Verhaeghe, Duclair line has received all the attention so far, but this second unit is just as dangerous. They have combined for 16 points in six games. As of now, the losses of Hoffman and Dadonov don’t seem to be an issue for Florida.

As the Panthers progress through the 56 game season, a huge key to their success will be the goalie tandem of Sergei Bobrovsky and Chris Dreidger. After signing a 7-year, $70M contract, he only posted a 23-19-6 record with a 3.23 GAA, ranking in the bottom third of the league. The two-time Vezina winner didn’t have a good season in 2019-2020, but he is talented enough to bounce back.

So far this season, Bob and Dreidger have split the games evenly. Even though it hasn’t all been pretty, if they can both stay on their game, this 1A-1B tandem will win Florida some much needed games down the stretch.

With the condensed schedule consisting of many back to backs and short turn arounds, teams around the league are going to rely on two goalies more than ever. Whether it’s Carey Price and Jake Allen in Montreal or Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner in Vegas, top teams this year have been using multiple goalies. When they are on their A-game, Bobrovsky and Dreidger are one of the best duos in the league.

Top to bottom, this year’s Panthers team has something for fans to be excited about. The top 6 looks great, young players like Aleksi Heponiemi and Owen Tippett have been getting opportunities, Aaron Ekblad has continued to shape into a solidified top defenseman and the Reverse Retro jerseys look unbelievable.

We have barely started this NHL season but you could already sense a different vibe to this Florida team. They have more energy and excitement than any Panthers team I could remember watching. They haven’t played some of the top teams in Discover Central division yet, but with what we’ve seen on the ice so far, there’s no reason why Florida can’t be one of the four teams to make the playoffs out of the division.

The Current State of Frustration Surrounding the Miami Heat

Miami has now hit the 20 game mark of a 72 game season, which is when most teams would normally have an idea of what they are. For the Heat, that hasn’t been the case for reasons out of their hands. But things aren’t as simple as merely blaming COVID protocols. Questions and frustrations are starting to add up at a rate that can’t be ignored. And now they find themselves at 7-13 and tied for 11th in the East in this bizarre NBA season.

*record scratch* *freeze frame* Yup, that’s the Miami Heat. You’re probably wondering how they ended up in this situation. For starters, the team has had 14 different starting lineups already, and Jimmy Butler has played only 8 games. They’ve had to play Gabe Vincent, Max Strus, and Chris Silva more minutes than anyone should feel comfortable with. It’s not even that they’re getting minutes, but that they’ve been relied upon to do more than what they’re capable of in their prolonged stints. That’s been the tip of the iceberg that continues to threaten to sink the Miami Heat season. But the time for excuses has seemingly run its course on the fanbase. No longer does anyone want to hear about “getting everyone back” and seeing what you have. The very same glaring holes the team had coming into the season are still there. The same holes you had even before a game that should never have happened in D.C. started a protocol tailspin into sports hell.

“What you have” is a defense that is still struggling to contain dribble penetration and giving up 3s at an almost historical rate. Not to forget the turnover and rebounding problems that have lingered and stuck around like an unwelcome houseguest. Losing to the Magic and squeaking by teams like the Wizards, Hornets, and Kings on a nightly basis isn’t going to calm anyone’s worries. That very first game of the season against the Orlando Magic was a precursor of things to come. A game where they had everyone on hand yet allowed 113 points and gave away the ball like a Panda Express employee giving free samples at the mall. That game showed the flaws that are still apparent to this day.

While it’s true that the team has been hit hard by COVID protocols, it shouldn’t blind people to the fact that they aren’t good enough as is. They haven’t proven it in their limited time out there. Even going back to last season, the team was at .500 when the calendar flipped to 2020. It was until the team finally answered their questions at the Power Forward position and started a reinvigorated Goran Dragic when they reached its best and most cohesive form. A form that found the perfect balance of defense and offense they wanted all along. That form eludes them now, as both the team and fans clamor to fill those very same gaps that they had filled before. They didn’t answer those questions in the offseason as they struck out on every free agent power forward that would help their current situation. They were hamstrung by wanting to leave space for the 2021 offseason, which was supposed to have some major stars available. But now that all those stars are off the table, it makes it all the more frustrating that you were left with an empty plate. A plate that includes a generous portion of Moe Harkless that hasn’t filled up a starving appetite.

So you can understand the frustration being shared amongst everyone involved as time runs out in a shortened season filled with so many uncertainties. They just saw you go to the Finals and come within 2 wins of another title. Please don’t blame them for having even just an ounce of expectations for you. The organization itself knows competing for a title is first on their mind, especially after their comments that spoke of owing it to Jimmy Butler to win now. So why shouldn’t fans feel the same way? They’ve seen what a championship-contending team looks like — and what they see out there is a team in desperate need of a tune-up.

There’s a certain point where a never-ending avalanche of questions overwhelms you as you continue to struggle for answers. You can’t find yourself staring at a 9-15 record before a 7 game west coast road trip is at your doorstep. And that’s what everyone is afraid will happen unless things change in the immediate future. There is a genuine and terrifying chance that things could get even worse soon. You want to hopefully get the ship somewhat afloat before the sinking can even begin. You can imagine just how frustrated the actual players must be. They want to win as desperately as any Miami Heat team before them. But the answers are more than likely not on the team, which could be tough to swallow for them as they’ve grown so close together. The timelines of some of the player might not line up with where the Heat want to be. It’s why you see so many people clamoring for a trade. The answer could lie in a move similar to the Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala trade of last season. It might have to be even more moves than that, to be honest.

Are you willing to wait until the trade deadline to possibly find that answer? You might be too late at that point, which adds even more throbbing to the headache. Make no mistake about it; if the team wins a few more in a row in the current “soft part” of their schedule, many of the same questions will still be there. It will just be a nice bandaid to a hemorrhaging patient. You’ll still need the tourniquet and sever what isn’t working. Most of the time, it feels like people want a trade just for the sake of a transaction, but this team is in genuine need of a change-up. Maybe it’s for the long-desired PJ Tucker along with Victor Oladipo? Or even a guy like Otto Porter Jr or Thaddeus Young, along with a swing at Lonzo Ball, might help. At this point, it’s just about who, not when—someone to spark that same magic and fill those gaps that you got at last year’s deadline.

Hopefully, things will get better soon, but you can’t simply hope. There will need to be some action. Whether that’s improved play on the court or a move that’ll reignite everyone, it needs to come soon. Time is ticking on not only this season but for the clocks of Jimmy Butler’s best years and Goran Dragic’s waning career. The frustration around this year will soon either be put to a stop by the team, or it’ll boil over into a wasted year that no one wants. Hopefully, the team and organization soon figure out how to stop the dam from breaking before the drowning starts.

 

Marco Romo (@Marco_Romo) is a new contributor to Five Reasons Sports Network.

 

Duncan Robinson’s Quiet Defensive Improvement

The story of the NBA’s prototypical sharpshooter has been as predictable as the plot of a Hallmark Movie. The sniper of 3 point shots takes the league by storm, teams start game planning, and the player eventually gets figured out to a point, thus making them less valuable. The shooter is more than likely a bad defender and leads to the downfall of their minutes and effectiveness. It’s up to Duncan Robinson and the Miami Heat to figure out how to rewrite the script and keep their once-in-a-lifetime shooter on the floor as much as possible. So far this season, they’re off to a promising start.

 

Duncan Robinson is not your ordinary NBA sharpshooter. He might be the best non-Steph Curry shooter lacing them up today. He bends and shifts defenses to his whim, creating chaos in his path. One second the defender will think he’s bottled up, only to be foiled by an improvised dribble handoff with his right-hand man Bam Adebayo. He’s relentless in his pursuit of getting a shot off, and if the defense relaxes, even for a second, it’s already too late. Miami relies so much on this to make its offense the well-oiled machine that it can be at its peak. It’s why improving his defense and keeping him on the court as much as possible is vital for the team to reach another level.

 

Last season Miami found itself choosing between keeping him on the court late in games or bringing in someone else for defensive purposes. Duncan would get hunted by the opposing team, knowing they could take advantage and play him off the court. They wanted to get rid of the headache he was causing on the other end by any means necessary. The aspirin they were looking for turned out to be a constant barrage of pick and rolls Robinson’s way. However, this season there hasn’t been as much noise concerning the sniper’s availability late in games. Duncan seems to be getting the grasp of all the small things on defense, and he’s being rewarded with the trust late in games that alluded him last year. 

 

Watching him on the court and you can see a stark difference in how he’s paying attention to detail and not allowing mistakes to compound themselves. One of his most significant shortcomings last year was how prone he was to fouling so much. Those were the mistakes he kept allowing to build until Coach Spoelstra was forced to show him to the bench. He’s become careful, but not to a point where he’s actively disappearing on defensive possessions. So far this year, he’s averaging 1.8 fouls through the first 15 games, as opposed to last year when he averaged 2.6 per game. That may not seem like much on the surface, but the difference during a game is palpable when you don’t have to sit after picking up two quick fouls. He has made sure to avoid getting his golden arm caught in the cookie jar. He’s not picking up cheap fouls as he was so prone to doing last year. He’s now trusting that his size will be enough to bother the opposing players. Diving deeper into the numbers, Duncan has only had two games of 3 or more fouls.

 

Compare that to the six such instances he had through his first 15 games last season. The three penalty mark is where things get sketchy for players, and not only do their minutes get in trouble, but their defense suffers, as well. The player becomes more tentative to be physical, and an edge is lost. Duncan has managed to avoid these pitfalls so far, and Miami has gotten to enjoy his elite offensive presence late in games because of it. While it hasn’t resulted in much success, there’s no denying it won’t hurt once the team is back to somewhat full strength. It’s something that can’t be taken lightly, considering just how much good havoc he creates. That kind of chaos could create a much-needed bucket for the team as the game begins to bog down.

 

Duncan’s continued to grow even as a team defender.  He’s become visibly more vocal, calling out teammates when they’re not where they’re supposed to be. He was essentially a rookie last year, but now he knows he’s a veteran leader on the team. The reluctance he carried has left his shoulder and, in turn, boosted his presence on defense. Learning from mistakes is a growing pain, and now he’s enjoying teaching those same lessons to the younger and new guys. He’s hedging even harder on screen and rolls, avoiding an easy switch that the defense wants to bait the team into eventually. He’s digging on post-ups and recovering to shooters under control. It’s such a vast difference to the wild closeouts last season that he’d resort to as he helped too far off on the dig. 

 

The lineup numbers bear these improvements out as well. Duncan is part of 5 of the top 10 best defensive rating two-man lineups with at least 100 minutes played. What’s most surprising is how the second guy next to Duncan in these duos doesn’t include Bam Adebayo, the team’s defensive anchor. Expanding this even further, he’s also a part of 3 of the top 5 three-man defensive lineups with at least 50 minutes played, including being in the top-ranked one featuring Avery Bradley and Goran Dragic that boasts an 87.2 rating. On/off-wise, the team has its second best defensive rating of 108.8 (among those with at least 200 minutes played) with him out there. And even if single-player defensive stats aren’t your thing, it’s still worth mentioning. And it’s very evident when watching the games as well. I haven’t found myself uttering “ugh Duncan” under my breath so much this year. It’s a good sign that the amount of yelling being directed his way on Twitter has mostly been for wanting him to shoot more. It’s been apparent that the team hasn’t been bleeding points because of him specifically. The mistakes have cleaned up to where it’s nearly negligible.

 

Miami will continue working with Duncan on his defense, and he’ll continue to get better from game to game. He’s always had the work ethic to get better on that end. After all, we’re talking about a kid who made it to the NBA from a D-III college. The effort is half the battle on defense, and with his unquenched thirst for improvement, he’s well on his way.

 

You can tell he wants to be out there late in games with his teammates. He doesn’t want to be just another “shooter” like JJ Redick or Wayne Ellington that gets played off the floor as soon as playoff teams start hunting them out. Those guys didn’t have a near 6’9 foot frame and 7’1 wingspan to help them out. Those are the same qualities that made him such a unique shooter, to begin with. He’ll find a way to incorporate that unwavering motor, footwork, and impeccable balance he has on offense into his defense. Look at Jim Carrey, he was a great comedic actor in his prime, but he didn’t let that stop him from showing off his dramatic chops from time to time. Duncan needs to find his ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ or ‘The Truman Show’ to go along with his ‘Ace Ventura’, aka his 3 point stroke. Sure, we know how legendarily amazing you are at one aspect, but immense acclaim will come your way when you can be versatile. He doesn’t need to be Daniel Day-Lewis or Leonardo DiCaprio, but he needs to make sure he isn’t Rob Schneider, pigeonholed and typecast the rest of his career.

 

I don’t expect Duncan to become Robert Covington or Josh Richardson, and neither should anyone else. He’ll make sure not to be just another sharpshooter but a once-in-a-lifetime offensive weapon with more than capable defense. Duncan will show you he can do ‘Man on the Moon’ but won’t let you forget what got him to where he is. He’s changing the narrative one shot and rotation at a time.

 

Marco Romo (@Marco_Romo) is a new regular contributor to Five Reasons Sports Network and the Five Reasons Sports YouTube Channel.

The Curious Case of KZ Okpala

KZ Okpala’s major motion picture with the Miami Heat is just about to go into year 2, but it feels like we’re still waiting for the opening credits. The fans feel like they want to see a closer look and better understand the case at hand. When will they get to see the story truly unfold? Answers seem to get hazier as the fog of a weird season continues to make this harder to see.

Taken with the 32nd pick in the 2nd round of the 2019 NBA Draft after a solid sophomore showing with Stanford, Okpala was seen as a reach by many experts. But the Miami Heat were in love with him and traded multiple future second-round picks to select the versatile Forward. Reports would later come out that they had him right after Tyler Herro in their overall draft board. The team was seemingly in love with the young and raw talent. His athleticism and length seemed to have caught the eyes of the scouting team. They saw so much potential that could eventually be unearthed by the famous Miami Heat developmental staff. We’re now into KZ’s second year as a pro athlete, and he has yet to etch a role out for the team that took a chance on him. While that’s understandable for a player taken in the 32nd slot, something still seems to not sit right with Heat fans. It’s hard to imagine why Okpala hasn’t been given much of an opportunity in a year where you need youth and seem to be down at least four players every other night.

Maybe it’s just the usual impatience from fans? They want to see the shiny new toy that Erik Spoelstra can unleash on the unsuspecting basketball universe. And you know just the type of magic the Coach can make happen out of seemingly nothing at his dispersal. Yet, the “shiny new toy” remains kept in the sealed package despite what seems to have been a more than willing taker. It could always be a case that has to do with more of what we’re not seeing. After all, Coach Spoelstra and the organization have always been big on showing in practices just how bad you want that playing time. Even with all that, there are still minutes there up for grabs because the choices aren’t very plentiful at the moment. You can’t blame the fanbase for wanting to see what the team saw when they took somewhat of a gamble when they selected him. The team kept lauding him as a first-round pick that they stole right from under the league’s noses. Especially after the same fans just finished watching Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn start almost all of last season despite them being an undrafted second-year player and a rookie.

Granted, those guys are a lot older, but NBA experience isn’t easy, no matter the age. But Tyler Herro and Precious Achiuwa seem to have had quite an easy time when getting at least constant bench minutes as rookies. To go even further back at examples like Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, who both found roles so early in their careers despite one of them spending so much time in the D-League (now G-League). KZ himself spent all of last year in the G-League developing his game almost the same way Richardson did. So shouldn’t a player who was touted as being almost equal to Herro prospect-wise be getting a much longer leash? Or it could be that Okpala was just hurt the most by not having a Summer League or regular Training Camp to work out even more of the rawness he still has. There are so many factors that fans keep going through in their heads that’ll eventually have them spinning out of control.

So far, it’s been an endless cycle of getting a taste of what Okpala could be, followed by a quick DNP the next day. And those tastes have left the fanbase craving more. Like an excellent teaser trailer of a crowdfunded movie, you want to see the full version of what so many people invested in. It’s always been on the players to force the coaching staff’s hands by showing them what they can do when they get opportunities. It’s hard to argue he hasn’t done as such. He’s shown you glimpses at that player you know he can become. He’s improved his shot, expanded his dribbling ability, and gotten so much stronger. The defensive skills have been the most promising, and that’s something “Heat Culture” has always preached. Okpala has made his mistakes here and there, but every player needs to have their growing pains sooner or later. Especially someone you’ve indicated will be a part of your future.

There is the argument that the team needs win-now players to see the floor to counterbalance the amount of youth getting such critical roles. Hence why you’ve seen players like Andre Iguodala and Moe Harkless continue getting those minutes instead. Even with that, I still think it wouldn’t hurt to showcase a guy like KZ in a year where it’s almost like a preseason half of the time. The worst case is that you’re taking minutes away from guys who will become more critical for possible trade bait or future playoff minutes. It’s a sort of fork in the road that Miami finds themselves in where they’re looking at both the win-now and future. There’s also the argument that the staff is trying to protect him from any deal he could be attached to in the future. While I can see where that’s coming from to an extent, I don’t think the Heat staff operates in that sort of manner.

It could very well be a case that he isn’t ready. And that may be the hardest pill to swallow for fans and even the staff itself. He may still be too raw and immature (basketball-wise) to have out there. It’s a difficult thing to let sink in because of how much you’ve been hearing about him. The fans have been fed this idea that he’s such an invaluable commodity of the future. Like a folk story, everything they’ve heard seems to look better in their heads than the actual reality. And fans don’t want their reality to crumble before them. But if he continues to play well in the minutes he gets, they’ll be right to keep asking questions.

For Okpala, one thing is for sure in that he’s going to keep trying every single time he’s given a chance. Miami always drafts guys who are willing to become the best versions of themselves. If the minutes continue to be uneven and uncertain, he’ll be there waiting to seize the opportunities, as slim as they may be. Even if his current role is slightly murky, he’ll make sure his future is bright in some capacity. He’s in the right environment and with the right people to do so. Soon he won’t be a mystery, but a thriller that you’ll need to see the endgame of. Hopefully, the ending doesn’t disappoint because you have all the right cast and crew on hand.

 

Marco Romo (@Marco_Romo) is a new contributor to Five Reasons Sports Network.

Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes at the opening night event for Super Bowl 54. (Craig Davis for Five Reasons Sports Network)

Veterans vs. Newbies: The NFL Playoff Story

The playoffs in the 2020-2021 NFL season holds a special matchup. While the NFC has 3 starting QB’s over the age of 36, the AFC has 4 starting QB’s under the age of 26, and the youngest QB in the NFC is older than the oldest QB in the AFC.

After Wild Card Weekend, the Bills, Ravens, Chiefs, and Browns are left in the AFC, while the Buccaneers, Packers, Saints, and Rams are left in the NFC.  Here’s how I view the battle of the Veterans vs. the Newbies.

The NFC has over 200,000 total passing yards and 1600 total passing touchdowns between the 4 QB’s competing for the divisional title.

Between the 4 teams in the NFC, there is a lot of talent but the division title will only go to one of them.

Here is where I rank each of them throughout the playoffs:

4. Rams: I think that the Rams will lose their game to the packers next weekend. The Rams showed promise against the Seahawks, and beat that very talented team, but I can’t see the Rams stopping Aaron Rodgers and the Packers.

3. Buccaneers: The Buccaneers probably have the best offense in the NFC. Between the GOAT, Tom Brady, and his explosive receiving core, that offense is amazing. Unfortunately for Brady and the Bucs, it seems like the Saints have been their kryptonite. I think that the Buccaneers will lose to the Saints next weekend to be the 3rd best team in the NFC.

2. Packers: This is a risky placement for the Packers. Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams have been unstoppable, and while they should definitely make the divisional game, I think that the Saints(or Buccaneers) will be able to take down the Packers to grab the divisional title.

1. Saints: I really believe in Drew Brees to make it to the Super Bowl. He has an amazing defense, and an unstoppable offense on his side, along with an extra desire to get in, due to his past 3 years in the playoffs, as he got knocked out by the Vikings twice, and the Rams once, stopping him from making the Super Bowl. I think Drew Brees, Alvin Kamara, and the Saints defense can bring a divisional title to New Orleans.

 

The AFC is a fully different story. Every quarterback is age 25 or under. Between the four QB’s, they have less than 45,000 passing yards and under 300 total passing TD’s.

These young quarterbacks are easily some of the best in the game already. While Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson have won an MVP, Josh Allen was a top 3 contender this year for sure, and Baker Mayfield is starting to play much better.

Out of the 4 AFC teams, here are my bets for the playoff standings:

 

4. Browns: The Browns portrayed a shocking performance against Steelers. While the defense played amazing, and Baker mayfield carried the offense to a 48 point showing, I can’t see them holding the Chiefs offense enough to win.

3. Ravens: Lamar Jackson is terrifying to play against. His arm, along with his speed and agility, make the perfect dual threat QB. I think they will be close but, I think the Bills will come out on top in this game.

2. Bills: Josh Allen just played the best year of his life and has been leading his dominant team. Stefon diggs led receivers in yards in the regular season, and has also been playing amazing, earning them the number 2 spot in the AFC

1. Chiefs: I’m sorry, but I don’t see a world where anyone beats the Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce are unstoppable in the passing game. The Chiefs offense along with a pretty skilled defense shouldn’t lose to anybody in these playoffs.

Overall, I think the young group of the AFC will beat out the veterans of the NFC, and the Chiefs will beat the Packers in the Super Bowl.

Can experience win, or will the new guys be able to take the ring.