Miami Heat Preseason Primer: What You Should Watch For

Miami Heat basketball is (technically) back!

The real games don’t start for another two weeks, but the tune-up circuit will have to do for now.

For the first time in what feels like forever, there’s genuine excitement surrounding this team. Having a top-15 player headlining the roster will do that for you. Combine that star power with a semi-open field in the East, and there’s room for hope.

(How reasonable that hope is, however, is a discussion for another day. Or preview. Definitely a preview.)

I won’t bore you with the generic “don’t overreact to the preseason” spiel. I’m going to assume we all know that, like Summer League play, process matters more than results. We’re looking for trends that could carry over into the reg-

Oh, I’m doing it anyway. In short: watch the games and take the box scores with quite a few grains of salt.

Of course, you should not expect flawless basketball. Guys are working themselves into regular season shape; coaches will be trying out combos that’ll never see the light of day in November, much less April. In light of that reality, I’ve come up with a guide that’ll help you weed through the inevitable noise.

Big Picture

 

Who’s starting at point guard?

Blah, blah, positions don’t matter. That’s true in a general sense, but the Heat’s most important positional battle involves Justise Winslow and Goran Dragic. 

Dragic is the wily vet with a couple of fringe All-Star-caliber seasons (and an actual appearance) under his belt. He’s been the head of the snake before. and gives the offense a much-needed punch with his elbow-swinging forays to the basket.

Dragic saw some natural slippage last season, but still grades out as a good finisher and respectable pull-up threat. For a Heat offense that has struggled for most of the post-LeBron era, having as many three-level scoring threats on the floor as possible seems important.

Then there’s Winslow, a 6’7* playmaker that can get to the rim on a whim and fire skips all over the floor. He plays a more deliberate style than Dragic, but it works; he enhances the shot quality of his teammates because of his ability to manipulate defenses. Kind reminder: the flashes have been there since Year 2

Winslow is still adding the intermediate area to his repertoire. He tinkered with some floaters and pull-up jimmies last season, particularly in the second half. He wasn’t great in either aspect, ranking in the 33rd percentile on runners and the 22nd percentile on off-the-dribble jumpers, via Synergy. But his willingness to take those shots represent a potential watershed moment in his young career.

If we’re being honest, Winslow should win the starting job. He’s arguably the best passer on the team, and his improved spot-up shooting makes him an ideal secondary option to Jimmy Butler. Defensively, Winslow can get back to his guard-hounding roots, the skill that made him stand out as a rookie. Having Winslow defend at the point of attack is quite the difference from the much smaller, slower, and less instinctual Dragic.  

At this stage of Dragic’s career, the Heat should prioritize saving him during the 82-game marathon. Allowing him to punch well above his weight against second units would maximize the value of both parties. 

But hey, we’ll see.

Who’s starting alongside Bam Adebayo?

Hassan Whiteside is gone. The starting center job fully belongs to Bam Adebayo. On balance, that is a very good thing!

Handing the reigns to Adebayo was the right move. His rim-diving, high-post passing, and chameleon-like versatility on defense make him one of the NBA’s most intriguing young guys. The next step for the Heat is deciding what his ideal front-court partner looks like.

While one could argue that Adebayo is an upgrade from Whiteside, there is reason for mild concern. Adebayo is 6’9 on a good day. As well as he moves on the floor, he isn’t the rim protector or rebounder that Whiteside was in Miami. The size element complicates the frontcourt pairing question. This is in addition to Adebayo needing a spacer to complement his rim-rolling ability.

The natural answer to this question is Kelly Olynyk. The Adebayo-Olynyk pairing posted a plus-4.9 net rating in 1,048 minutes last season. Of course, Olynyk is currently on the mend with a knee injury. A number that matters more now: their 50.6 rebounding percentage when sharing the court together. For comparison’s sake, the Whiteside-Olynyk was also a success (plus-3.5 net rating) while rebounding at a much higher rate (53.4).

On paper, newbie and Heat Twitter folk hero Meyers Leonard makes more sense. He’s a bit bigger than Olynyk, is a better outside shooter (career 38.5 percent from deep), is a slightly better rebounder (career 13.2 rebounding rate vs Olynyk’s 12.5).

One issue there is that Leonard doesn’t have a real track record for three-point volume. He’s only logged one season averaging more than 3.0 three-point attempts per game; Olynyk averages that many attempts for his career. And as lead-footed as Olynk is defensively, he at least knows where to be defensively and adds some value as a charge magnet. I … will just say the same can’t be said for Leonard at this stage.

Starting either James Johnson or Derrick Jones Jr. at the 4 would allow the Heat to be switch-y or blitz-heavy, but there are obvious spacing questions on the other end. The idea of Adebayo and Jones Jr. just bludgeoning teams on the offensive glass is intriguing until they face the Pistons (Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond) or the Nuggets (Paul Millsap and Nikola Jokic).

We’re going to find out a lot about the Heat’s thinking over the next couple of weeks.

Tyler Herro’s Next Challenge

Four things can be true at once.

  1. I was not a fan of the Herro pick on draft night.
  2. Herro has much more in his offensive bag than I gave him credit for, and made plenty of flash plays in Summer League.
  3. The questions that made me dislike the Herro pick are still there.
  4. An ideal starting lineup, to me, involves Herro at the 2 alongside Winslow, Butler, whoever-is-at-the-4, and Adebayo

Herro looked at home as a pick-and-roll initiator, especially when he was able to get a head start. That, plus his ability to stop on a dime and pull-up, are skills that should translate. Creating space is going to be the swing skill for him offensively; attacking those crevices is what will open up the plus-passing vision and shooting versatility. 

Here’s the thing: the level of athleticism is about to improve again. I understand how cliche that sounds, but it’s an important thing to note. Even though Herro played well this summer, he still struggled to create without help. 

He’s going to face more tenacious on-ball defenders and more athletic rim protectors moving forward. Those shot/pass windows are going to close faster. How quickly he can adjust will go a long way towards determining how high up on the depth chart he should be when the season starts.

While We’re At It…

 

Can Derrick Jones Jr. dribble yet?

That sounds more harsh than I intend it to, but this is the swing-skill for him. We know he can finish any dunk or lob attempt within a six-mile radius. He’s proven that his outlier leaping ability makes him a functional threat as an offensive rebounder. Giving him a launching pad is akin to giving peak Jerome Bettis a one-on-one with a slot corner.

The corner three is coming (36.8 percent via Basketball-Reference), and Jones’ defense has improved. He skies for weakside blocks, and did a much better job of navigating screens and bothering ball-handlers with his length.

If the jumper is as real as he says it is, teams will stop ignoring him from deep. That’s great news — unless he doesn’t have the ball-handling chops to pump, drive, then elevate (or flip the ball ahead, but we’re working with baby steps here). I lost count of the out-of-control drives and (uncalled) travels from last season. There may or may not have been James Ennis comparisons dropped on my timeline.

It is way too early to give up on Jones Jr; the Suns learned that the hard way. The fact that there’s a path to him being a consistent rotation piece is a testament to his work ethic. But man, he has to be able to dribble and run at the same time to take the next step.

What does the Dion Waiters-Jimmy Butler partnership look like?

Best believe I’m going to be paying attention to who ends possessions when these two share the court together. Ideally, this could be the Dragic-Waiters circa 2017 duo on steroids. Of course, there’s also the chance that we get a viral video of Waiters waiving for the ball while Butler does his mid-range dance.

When will we see James Johnson?

No, seriously, what the heck is his body fat percentage at this point?

Are we sleeping on Kendrick Nunn?

Lost in #HerroMania this summer was the play of Kendrick Nunn, easily the Heat’s best player during the July circuit. He earned All-Summer League honors with offensive exploits and tenacious on-ball defense. He grew as a passer out of pick-and-roll, and showcased a new confidence in his pull-up triple.

I’m interested to see just how much of a shot the Heat give him. It’s clear that they like him a great deal. If the pull-up jimmy is here to stay, there’s some real equity here for Nunn as the third point guard … or more, if .. certain players become available.

 

Nekias Duncan (@NekiasNBA) writes for a number of outlets about the Heat and NBA, including Bleacher Report, and will be contributing regularly for Five Reasons Sports. 

 

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