The myth of ‘Heat Culture’
The Miami Heat were so close to booking another trip to the NBA Finals but after losing in Game 7, there are a lot of questions about the future. (Sean Carroll illustration)
But it’s Kyle Lowry, man! He’s a dawg! He’s built for South Beach, baby! And admittedly for a 35-year-old he came into the season looking evergreen, averaging 17 points and seven assists on good efficiency and still an excellent perimeter defender.
And Heat Culture was on display all throughout the 2021-22 season, finishing top of the Eastern Conference despite none of their best players managing to stay healthy at the same time. Minimum guys like Max Strus and Gabe Vincent went “next man up” mode when forced into the starting lineup. Even Caleb Martin started shooting upwards of 40 percent from the arc and looked at least neutral on defence while brother Cody kept stankin’ it up with the Charlotte Hornets.
As fitness and form of various players ebbed and flowed, the Heat’s deliberate offence and stifling defence stood fast, and although their Eastern Conference rivals struggled at various moments, a 53-win season is nothing to scoff at.
Heat Culture came crumbling down in the Eastern Conference Finals with, I would dare to say, some of the worst team playoff performances of all time against the Boston Celtics. The cracks of Heat Culture are showing more than ever.
Now, the team has somewhat hamstrung (har har har) themselves into either running it back next year with this same squad or an uncharacteristic sell high on one of their promising youngsters for a tilt at another star to put next to Jimmy Butler.
Kyle Lowry: Washed or injured?
The reports of Kyle Lowry’s death may be somewhat exaggerated, but let’s call a spade a spade: Norf Philly’s Finest will never be back to his finest.
Lowry was at the centre of the unforgivably bad Games 4 and 5 of the ECF, shooting a combined 1-12 and finishing the two game stretch with just three points and fuck all else on the line.
While he redeemed himself somewhat with a spirited double-double and foul-out in the Heat’s Game 6 win and looked switched on at the very least in the tight Game 7 loss, once you’re having stinkers like that at age 36 – there’s no going back.
Injuries and personal leave throughout the season and a hamstring injury sustained in the first round against the Atlanta Hawks have left Lowry lacking the zest and step necessary to keep up in a playoff game. Not for a minute do I want to say he’s done or he’s useless, but he won’t be the third (or even fourth) best player on a championship team that the Heat need him to be.
The situation doesn’t become much more palatable for the Heat, who have another $56 million to pay him as he’ll, at the very very very best, maintain this same level of play through his 38th (!) birthday.
There might only be one team in the NBA desperate enough for a net-positive point guard that they’ll take on his age, injuries and money (but more on that later), so moving him on will cost you in picks or youth, and probably isn’t worth it short or long term.
Max Strus and next man up
The only player who outstank Lowry in Games 4 and 5 was not-actually-German third year player Max Strus (he plays so European but!), who after a fair showing in the previous two rounds didn’t hit a field goal from 16 attempts across the two games.
If you’ve ever listened to my podcast with fellow contributor to The Deep Two, (oh, you haven’t? Hey Paulie pull up a link to that podcast) you’d often hear us throughout the season praising the Heat’s adherence to their offensive gameplan, regardless of results.
“Look at Duncan Robinson man!” we’d guffaw. “That guy can miss a dozen three-pointers in a row, but it doesn’t matter – because it’s all in the flow of the game! They’re good shots friend!”
We’d then smack our heads together and take a break to order chicken and chips.
Erik Spoelstra stuck with his $90 million man through hot and cold patches throughout the season, starting him in 68 of the 79 games he played. His dip in three-point-percentage (40.8 percent to 37.2 percent) and points-per-game (13.1 to 10.9) might not look like a lot, but he didn’t look like the player that lit up the bubble playoffs and teams were exploiting his shortcomings on defence more and more.
Eventually it became enough for coach Spo, and whether he panicked or it was the plan all along the Miami head coach benched Duncan Robinson for our minimum-boy Max Strus with seven games left to play in the season.
Strus repaid the favour with gusto, shooting 51.3 percent from deep and was the floor-spacing guard they needed in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Robinson practically dropped out of the rotation entirely, only seeing spot minutes where he seemed to paint a huge Looney Tunes-style target on his back on defence as soon as he checked in.
But come the Eastern Conference Finals, Strus just didn’t look ready. Although he’d hit some big shots in some games in others he just disappeared. And at the end of Game 7 it wasn’t inspiring that they were giving him the ball to launch in a couple of desperate three-pointers.
It’s a much of a muchness to say that he wasn’t good enough to be starting – and I’m certainly not saying Robison should’ve been in the lineup. The question for me is if Spo should’ve made the adjustment earlier in the season, giving Strus more time (and in less important games than the ECF for Sweet Baby Ray’s sake) to adjust to the bigger role.
Why the adjustment wasn’t made earlier, well, I have $90 million that might answer that. (Fox Sports, please please call me.)
Teams love talking about “next man up”, but how often does it apply when it really matters?
Look at Miami’s Conference Finals opponent. The Boston Celtics traded for Derrick White at the deadline, moving on from sub-par options in Dennis Schroeder and Josh Richardson. They gave White a good spell in the regular season to learn his role and find his form, and now he’s playing crucial minutes – and winning games – in the NBA Finals.
Boston made a clear decision about their lineup and rotation earlier in the season and prepared accordingly. Compare that to Miami who saw an underperforming piece, panicked and tried to slap a Strus-shaped Band-Aid on it.
The future in South Beach
After their 2020 Finals appearance, the sky looked the ceiling for Miami. Some cap space cleared for the 2021 free agency period to take a tilt at Giannis Antetokounmpo, and when that looked unlikely they gave Bam Adebayo the max and went another couple rounds with their mix of hardy vets and promising yout’s.
Two years later and the sky is Chicken Littling for the Heat. The franchise is capped by a combined $46 million to a “third star” who hasn’t panned out and will go grey on the books, and a one-dimensional shooter who can barely get minutes.
If Troel Embiid is right and Miami needs another star, the only real assets on the table for Miami to upgrade with this off-season are Tyler Herro and Bam Adebayo – two players who have been absolutely integral to Miami’s success this season.
Herro is young, exciting and sure to improve, but his skillset is replaceable and he flagged in his exit interview he’ll be looking for a starting role next season.
Would Herro, picks and salary filler be enough to secure wantaway Donovan Mitchell, who would certainly need Heat Culture to help him become a plus or neutral defender? Or would a similar package work in a sign-and-trade for Zach LaVine? (Author’s note: I’m personally of the conviction the noise around a) LaVine exploring his options and b) it not being a given that the Bulls will offer him the max is a bunch of hocus pocus).
Bam is a trickier proposition, simply because he is so irreplaceable. Could do more on offence at times, sure, but find me another player who is as comfortable guarding Trae Young as he is Joel Embiid.
I honestly don’t see an option here that is an improvement, even if he is the piece going out for a LaVine or Mitchell trade, unless by some miracle you can squirrel away Embiid.
I’m only going to entertain this in pure jest, but a Lowry-for-Russell Westbrook trade… is an idea being floated around on my Instagram explore page. If Heat Culture is real then sure, Pat, make the trade and I’ll ctrl-A and delete this entire article.
The other option, and honestly the only one that seems likely, is hope a little bit of internal improvement can get you over the line next year. Lest we not forget this team finished atop the Eastern Conference this year, but there were some startlingly inadequate playoff performances that seem to be clouding my memory.
Herro will take another step up on offence next year – whether it’s a leap or a shuffle it won’t matter too much. Bam needs to take on the game more on offence, even if that means forcing the odd bad shot or getting whacked on the way to the rim nine times a game.
Victor Oladipo is an unrestricted free agent (lol) but if you can get him back on the cheap there’s still a project there. His offensive performance was, uhh, not for most of the playoffs but he showed streaks of his All-Defensive prowess particularly in the Conference Finals.
Jimmy Butler, a man who has escaped almost any comment in this article, will be 33 going into next season, and although I’m certain he’ll keep putting up 40 points in the playoffs till every tendon in his knees disintegrates, the window on a Jimmy Butler championship is closing.
If this is the group Miami makes the tilt with next season, I would focus less on the “culture” and more on putting the best five players on the court.