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3 Miami Heat preseason takeaways that matter

The NBA regular season is finally among us!

The Miami Heat will be kicking off their 82-game escapade matching up against the new-look Orlando Magic. Before that, it’s important that we take a look back at Miami’s preseason stint.

The important thing to remember about preseason play is that the process matters a lot more than the result. Individual and even some team statistics have a lot of noise due to the multitude of lineup combos, starters playing limited minutes, and things of that nature, which is why you should take them with a grain of salt.

However, some trends have merit, and can, therefore, transfer over to the regular season. These tend to be more systematic; in the case of the Heat, their offense looks and will be different. Here are three quick (lol) takeaways from the Heat’s preseason that are most likely to stick.

1. THIS IS ERIK SPOELSTRA’S TEAM

Replacing Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — two future, sure-fire Hall-of-Famers with game left — will be daunting tasks. Miami will need to produce by committee at the 2 and 4 spots to compensate, and even that might not be enough from a per-game numbers standpoint.

However, Wade and Bosh are 34 and 32 years old respectively, and their games are methodical — best utilized in the half-court. That put clamps on Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow — two players who thrive in an up-and-down setting.

With Wade and Bosh gone, replaced by younger, springier players like Dion Waiters (ooooh boy) and Derrick Williams, the Heat are now equipped to play the up-tempo, pace-and-space style that head coach Erik Spoelstra has wanted to implement since the Big Three Era.

For the first time, Spoelstra will not only have full control over the offense; he’ll be the biggest name in the locker room.

We’ve already seen a noticeable difference in offensive philosophy for the Heat this preseason:

  • 2015-16 preseason: 99.34 pace (18th), 22.5 3PT attempts per game (22nd), 29.4 percent 3PT (27th)
  • 2015-16 regular season pace: 95.75 pace (25th), 18 3PT attempts per game (28th), 33.6 percent 3PT (27th)
  • 2016-17 preseason pace: 101.62 pace (18th), 27.9 3PT attempts per game (7th), 36.8 percent 3PT (8th)

Just comparing the last two preseasons, you’ll see the Heat averaged roughly two more possessions a night, and jacked over five more threes per game while shooting over eight percent better on those attempts.

There will be some regression in terms of the pace. Teams will be scouting the Heat more, and with their rotations becoming more consistent, it’s less likely we’ll see as much free-for-all ball, which resulted in some uncharacteristically short possessions.

However, Miami does have more juice in terms of perimeter shooting. Adding Waiters (35.8 percent from 3 last year), Wayne Ellington (career 37.6 percent from 3), a finally-healthy Tyler Johnson (career 37.8 percent from 3), and Luke Babbitt (career 40.3 percent from 3).

With Dragic as the primary ball-handler, they can push the pace, which not only puts Dragic in his comfort zone, it’ll open up drive-and-kick opportunities for shooters when he gets downhill.

 

More space on the perimeter also makes it easier for Hassan Whiteside to find seams in pick-and-roll situations:

 

He was an absolute monster in the preseason, averaging 14.8 points (65.5 percent FG) and 10.2 rebounds in only 23 minutes a night. With the improved spacing and an increase of touches, we could see a Dwight Howard-like jump in production this year.

2. DERRICK WILLIAMS AND DION WAITERS SEEM TO BE STARTERS — FOR NOW

Knowing Spoelstra, I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes with an entirely different starting lineup and makes this entire point moot.

Based on what we saw in the preseason, it looks like Waiters and high-flying 4-man Derrick Williams have won the starting competitions at the 2 and 4 respectively.

Miami’s most-used preseason lineup featured Dragic, Waiters, Winslow, Williams, and Whiteside. The offense was pretty decent, via NBAWowy:

  • 100.2 pace, 121.2 ORTG, 65.6 eFG, 64.7 TS percent, 59.4 percent FG, 44.4 percent 3PT, 68.4 percent of shots were assisted

 

The defense…was not:

  • 118.9 DRTG, 57.1 eFG, 65.2 TS percent, 50 percent FG, 40 percent 3PT

 

Spoelstra typically has his bigs drop in pick-and-roll coverage, doing two things:

  1. It puts the onus on the guard to fight over the screen and recover as quickly as possible. If he gets caught on a screen or takes a bad angle, it gives the opposing guard a one-on-one matchup with a big going downhill.
  2. It concedes the mid-range shot. While Spoelstra would rather allow that than a free lane to the basket, most NBA guards are capable of jogging into a pull-up jimmy at the elbow. If the guard doesn’t get through the screen quick enough, that’s still a pretty effective shot.

Therein lies the biggest problem with starting Waiters and Williams together. They both held their own in one-on-one situations, but they were less-than-ideal in pick-and-roll coverage.

Waiters died on quite a few screens, and poor D-Will was often caught in no man’s land when trying to contain.

It’s fair to assume that Josh Richardson, currently out with an MCL injury, will take over the starting spot at the 2 when he’s healthy. He’s a longer and more active defender than Waiters, though, both can be a little iffy in pick-and-roll coverage. He’s also a better shooter than Waiters and seems to be a more natural off-ball partner to Dragic than Waiters, who needs the ball in his hands to make plays.

At the 4, it’s really Williams’ job to lose. The Heat could go with Babbitt–the Dragic-Winslow-Babbitt-Whiteside quartet had an offensive rating of 131.1 in 24 minutes together–but he’s a bigger liability defensively than Williams due to his physical limitations.

Josh McRoberts would make sense considering his combination of passing, screening, and defense. Of course, that would require him to have a durability rating higher than 25.

(I play too much 2K)

I think we’ll ultimately see Miami close games with a three-guard lineup with Winslow and Whiteside as the frontcourt, but if Williams can knock down shots from outside (33.3 percent on 4.1 attempts in the preseason) and be below-average instead of dreadful defensively, he could earn more responsibility.

3. TYLER JOHNSON IS THE BACKUP POINT GUARD

Another reason Waiters will likely be the starting 2 is because Miami is revisiting the #PGTJ (point guard Tyler Johnson) experiment. After waiving both Beno Udrih and Briante Weber Saturday, Dragic is currently the only “pure” point guard on the roster.

Johnson is a bit of a combo guard, but his size makes him more of a 1 than a 2. He was awful at point guard last season, though a lot of the criticism he took last season was devoid of context.

He was injury riddled for most of last season. His most notable stretch at point guard came during Miami’s torturous January with no Dragic. He predictably looked like a fish out of water.

However, the numbers via Nylon Calculus didn’t paint a pretty picture:

  • SG: +9.5 net per 48, 13.8 points per 36, 5.3 rebounds per 36, 2.8 assists per 36, 1.5 turnovers per 36
  • PG: -8.7 net per 48, 12.5 points per 36, 3.9 rebounds per 36, 3.7 assists per 36, 2.4 turnovers per 36

In terms of net rating, he suffered the fourth largest dip when he switched positions:

We’ve seen flashes of competency at point guard this preseason from Johnson. He’s done a better job of keeping his dribble alive instead of killing it like he did last year:

 

This was a pretty impressive find from Johnson in transition:

 

There are more causes for optimism:

  • Johnson had 14 assists to only three turnovers in the preseason
  • In 21 minutes with Johnson and without Dragic, Waiters, Ellington, Weber, or Udrih on the floor (essentially guaranteeing he was the point guard), the Heat had a pace of 103.8, an offensive rating of 108.9, and a defensive rating of 80.
  • Johnson’s per-36 numbers with no Dragic/Waiters/Ellington/Weber/Udrih: 18.9 points, 8.6 assists (3.4 turnovers)

This is the part where I remind you that these are preseason stats, and Johnson probably won’t come close to those per-36 numbers. However, he’s healthy and has been prepping for the switch to point guard all summer.He seems to be getting more comfortable playing point guard; that’s all the Heat can hope for:

“I feel comfortable doing it,” Johnson said. “That’s where a lot of my reps have been the last two years both in practice and in games. So, I’m definitely starting to feel more comfortable out there. Obviously I still have more to learn. But I think I’m taking a lot of stuff in the right direction.”

The Heat don’t need Johnson to turn into an Andre Miller-like distributor overnight (though it’d be wonderful). He just needs to be able to keep the offense afloat when Dragic comes off the court. A net rating of zero when he plays point guard would represent a massive improvement from last season, context notwithstanding.

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