Trying to pinpoint the scariest team in the league right now shouldn’t take longer than a few seconds. After nearly two weeks of action, the Miami Heat are cementing themselves as the strongest East contender.
Look, it’s still early. Observations at the Halloween mark will always be accompanied by the necessary caveats. Things rapidly shift in the NBA, with injuries and hot or cold shooting stretches dictating how we view certain teams.
Just six games in, Miami has undoubtedly made the best first impression. They sit at 5-1, along with three (surprising) teams in the East with the same record. However, only one has thrashed the competition. The Heat have outscored opponents by 16.3 points per 100 possessions in non-garbage time minutes, leading the NBA. They are fifth in offensive rating (112.1) and first in defensive rating (95.8), per Cleaning The Glass. The defense is suffocating so far, holding teams to nearly 11 points per 100 possessions below league-average in this early stretch.
Their only loss so far? An overtime war against Indiana, on the road, without new point guard Kyle Lowry.
In the seven days following their defeat, Miami outclassed Orlando by 17, put the clamps on Brooklyn to win by 13, knocked over Charlotte by 15 despite a rough outside shooting night, and absolutely destroyed Memphis by 26 on the second night of a back-to-back.
The blowout versus the Grizzlies was wildly unexpected, too, considering Miami was missing center Bam Adebayo and entered the night as one of the worst shooting teams in the league. Seriously, the amount of wide-open threes they failed to convert in the first five games was alarming. Generating over 13 threes per game with at least six feet of space, the Heat made just 31.8% of those looks before heading to Memphis.
Then, of course, the basketball gods elected to give them a break. Miami walked into FedEx Forum and shot 21-of-37 from deep, becoming the 22nd team in NBA history to make at least 56% of their threes on similar volume (min. 37 attempts).
The South Beach swagger is flying high. Jimmy Butler’s two-way supremacy is carving an early path to MVP candidacy. Kyle Lowry’s pace is opening the door for others to absorb more scoring chances. PJ Tucker’s burly physique is filling in the gaps as an excellent screener and short-roll vehicle, while also giving them a corner spacer without sacrificing their defensive strengths. Tyler Herro is finding his way as the microwave scorer off the bench, shooting 39.5% on 8.3 (!) three-point attempts per 36 minutes and gradually developing the playmaking chops he only showed flashes of before.
However, Adebayo is at the forefront of their most notable and significant change from a year ago: Rebounding like madmen.
After losing in such disappointing manner in last year’s first round, it was on the short list of improvement areas. Part of leaning into their identity of a nasty, grind-it-out team had to include a more physical and assertive approach. Rebounding is one of the components in basketball you can control, at least to some degree, with added focus on technique and positioning.
When Miami was disturbingly swept off the floor in their playoff rematch with the Bucks, rebounding wasn’t the sole reason for the early letdown. You could point to numerous things, including Butler having the worst series of his life, Trevor Ariza not adequately filling the Jae Crowder defensive role, and well … Giannis just deciding no ‘wall’ is working against him ever again.
Mixed into the losing recipe, though, was the Heat’s abhorrent rebounding effort in a series in which they had zero margin for error. Sure, they didn’t have the proper size in the first place. Sure, sometimes rebounding can be a product of luck because of unfortunate bounces. But for the most part, the desire and aggression to attack the boards wasn’t good enough for the coaching staff.
The Bucks decimated Miami on the glass, outrebounding them 236-169 in four games. Milwaukee grabbed 33.6% of the available offensive boards, with the Heat giving out extra possessions like Halloween candy. For perspective, that led to a defensive rebounding rate of just 66.4% for Miami, which would’ve been far below the league-worst rate of 70.1.% last season.
It was more than just a change in philosophy after that series. The clear need for a stronger rebounding presence was one of the factors that led to Miami’s free agency pursuit of Tucker, who was a member of that Milwaukee group that squashed the Heat.
Entering this year with a polished starting and closing lineup, which includes Lowry wanting to increase the tempo, the Heat understood they had to control the number of possessions – and make the most out of each one – to be considered in the same tier as the defending-champion Bucks and betting-favorite Nets.
Last regular season, they finished 22nd overall in rebounding percentage (49.1%) and 19th if you only consider the available defensive boards (73.3%).
In their first six games this year, Miami has a total rebounding rate of 57.0% and defensive rebounding percentage of 79.7%, meaning they collect nearly 80% of their opponent’s misses. Both of those figures lead the NBA.
They have kept opposing bigs off the glass and, most importantly, finished defensive possessions. Becoming a fierce defense doesn’t just require elite awareness at the point of attack, rotating properly after a pick-and-roll, or having strong isolation defenders. Perhaps the most demoralizing event in a basketball game is allowing second and third opportunities after forcing a tough shot in the halfcourt.
All of the work and physicality teams exhibit for 18-24 seconds of the shot clock can’t be for naught. Ending the possession – preventing an offensive rebound for another shot opportunity – is just as critical as the defensive scheme put in place.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra could sense there would be a difference this year, as he spent most of training camp stressing the value of crashing the boards to unlock some of their transition attacks.
“It’s been a quality of the team that we noticed early on,” he said. “We hoped this would be a good rebounding team. It’s something that we really focused on as an organization in the offseason and as a coaching staff to commit to that. That’s on both sides of the glass.”
Adebayo, now in his fifth season, had to lead the charge as someone that will always be tasked with battling larger centers when he’s on the floor. At 6-9, he came into the league as a quality rebounder for an undersized big, but has slowly progressed into the type of stingy enforcer Miami needs.
Last season, Adebayo had a defensive rebounding rate of 19.1%, per Cleaning The Glass, which put him in the 64th percentile among all centers. Both his offensive and defensive rebounding numbers dipped. Offensively, you can probably attribute most of it to how often he was in a distributor role. Having your center stationed at the elbow (or further) during most possessions can unlock more passing angles, but obviously hurt the potential for offensive boards.
In his five-game sample to begin this season, Adebayo is gobbling up 28.8% of available defensive rebounds – ranking him in the 94th percentile among bigs. For context, the only centers who meet the standard minutes requirement that are currently above him: Rudy Gobert at 39.0%, Nikola Jokić at 34.2%, and Jusuf Nurkić at 30.7%. They are all taller than Adebayo with reputations of being top-tier rebounding forces.
After pulling down 10.5 boards per 75 possessions last year, Miami’s franchise center is up to 16.1 in his five-game sample size. Will that hold up? Likely not, especially taking into account all of his other responsibilities on the court. Adebayo’s offensive usage is up, he’s establishing post-up position more than ever, and he’s getting to the rim at a higher rate this season. Meaning, in addition to the Heat asking him to be a great facilitator and switch defender, there’s only so much energy a player can exert within a game.
Like Spoelstra, Adebayo knew it was time to refocus his efforts on rebounding during the offseason. That started with a more diligent and physically-demanding workout program, which enabled him to put on muscle and get into peak form. As he’s reminded us multiple times, Adebayo wasn’t able to be active in the gym last offseason (post-bubble) due to a shoulder injury he suffered during the NBA Finals. Training camps started just six weeks after the previous season ended, putting injured players at a disadvantage in terms of recovery timelines.
“I got my body back, man,” Adebayo said last week when asked about his increased physicality this year. “I came into the season last year 245 (pounds). Not being able to lift during the offseason really hurt me. Obviously, being able to defend and move guys around. But this year, I got into the gym and put some weight on.”
As for the team’s collective rise in rebounding, he suggests it’s a product of Miami’s offseason additions of Lowry, Tucker, and Markieff Morris being competent defenders in the halfcourt, which is leading to more misses and opportunities to run. With how dominant they’ve been defensively, the incentive is certainly on the table – stay disciplined, finish the possession, and let that spark your offense on the break.
“I think it’s the personnel,” Adebayo said. “We’re getting stops. That’s the biggest difference in our team. We’re getting stops and playing in transition. Our rebounds are going to go up when we’re getting stops.”
How they are managing to destroy teams on the glass (62-42 versus Brooklyn, 60-37 versus Charlotte, and 50-32 versus Memphis) doesn’t just come down to Adebayo. It’s all of the work that goes into establishing position, boxing out, knocking guys out of place within the legal confines, and clearing the way for Adebayo, Butler, and even Lowry to grab uncontested boards.
That job has mostly fallen on Tucker’s brawny shoulders. He’s been Adebayo’s right-hand man on the defensive glass, bulldozing his way through the paint and creating advantages for Bam to ultimately capitalize on.
“It was definitely a point of emphasis since the first day of training camp,” Spoelstra said. “When (Adebayo) is playing with big guys like PJ and Markieff, they may not be seven-feet tall but they have a lot of size and girth to them. They put bodies on people. “The last factor is that Bam is just going after it. He’s getting a lot of rebounds in traffic.”
Tucker is perhaps the NBA’s strongest and most bruising player that’s 6-6 or shorter. He’s just a workhorse, and deserves a lot of the credit for Miami’s starting lineup being the No. 1 rebounding group among all five-man combos with at least 50 minutes played. Even without Adebayo active for Friday’s win against the Grizzlies, he provided the same contributions to aid center Dewayne Dedmon on the boards.
“PJ is one of the best block-out guys in this league,” Spoelstra said after the Heat’s win over Memphis. “And he was really detailed and intentional with his block-outs, particularly with (Steven) Adams tonight. The group rebounding of everybody else – you take away our leading rebounder in Bam, and we knew a bunch of other people would have to get involved. Everybody had their hand in there.”
With this Heat roster in particular, limiting the number of second-chance opportunities for the opponent is going to be important. Not only because it helps their defensive numbers, but also because they have Lowry, one of the league’s smartest transition guards of the last decade. One of the major strengths of bringing Lowry into the fold was the increased value it would inherently give them on the break, both in frequency and effectiveness.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a full transition attack or a quick pitch-ahead to trigger an offensive action early in the clock, Lowry will not waste time. When Adebayo comes out of the pack with a rebound, Lowry is instantly clapping his hands and shuffling his feet, begging for the ball. Their intention of speeding up the offense (until crunchtime kicks in) and hunting those easier scoring chances will pay off for shooters such as Herro and Duncan Robinson.
So far this season, Miami is fifth in the league in transition possessions per game (22.0), scoring at the sixth-highest rate on those (1.14 points per chance), per NBA.com tracking. In 72 games last year, they finished 18th in transition frequency (15.8 possessions per game) with the same efficiency (1.14 PPP).
In a game consisting of 100 to 105 possessions, minimizing the amount of time you spend taking on a halfcourt defense should be the goal, especially in the regular season. That’s clearly Miami’s objective this year.
With Adebayo becoming one of the elite rebounders and controlling the paint, the early returns indicate a championship contender in the making.