The Miami Heat are 23-30 and 10th in the Eastern Conference.
Yes you read that right.
The Heat, only a month ago, were languishing in the pits of the Eastern Conference, struggling at 10-24 at the turn of the New Year and only looking marginally better than the consistently embarrassing Brooklyn Nets. Going into a mid-January game against the red-hot Houston Rockets, the Heat were amidst an abysmal streak where they had dropped 10 of their last 11, and facing the prospect of trying to stop MVP candidate James Harden and his vast armoury of flamethrowers.
Except the Heat won that game 109-103. Then they turned around two days later and beat Dallas 99-95. And then they won again, and again, and suddenly, here we are.
12 wins in a row later.
The Miami Heat are 23-30, after being 11-30 with Heat fans frantically scouring mock drafts everywhere and tuning in to Pac-12 basketball games to watch Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball. Except now they won’t get those guys.
They’re getting to the playoffs, and here’s why.
Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic
Now it’s not exactly the most groundbreaking or introspective take to assert that the Miami Heat’s two best players and known commodities are driving this playoff push, but the reality is that this pair have been very efficient and effective, even while the rest of the team was crumbling around them at the start of the season.
On the season, Dragic is averaging an even 20 points per game, a season mark that would be the second best of his career, behind the 20.3 points he averaged for the 2013-14 Western Conference darlings the Phoenix Suns, led by The Dragon and Eric Bledsoe along with NBA Champion Channing Frye and the since-separated Morris twins. But back to Dragic, along with his scoring output he’s dishing 6.5 assists per game, the second best mark of his career, while shooting a ridiculous 44.5% from three point range, easily a career best effort.
Hassan Whiteside, on the other hand, has transformed from beast to superhuman, averaging career high marks in points (17.1) and rebounds (14, which also leads the league), while also denying 2 shots per game.
Looking at basic stats is nice and paints a pretty solid picture, but it doesn’t explain why the team is doing so well. For starters, both players are having tremendously efficient seasons, with Dragic posting a player efficiency rating (PER) of 19.5, bested on the team only by Whiteside’s 21.5 mark. What’s even more profound though is the way these two players impact the game on the court together.
According to NBAWowy.com, Whiteside and Dragic have shared the court for 1073 minutes this season and have played a very distinctive style. The pace of the game is remarkably slow when they’re on the court (93.5 possessions per 48 minutes), yet they’re creating such efficient offense that it’s death by one thousand cuts to the opponent. In these shared minutes, the Miami Heat shoot 46.2% from the field, which is impressive in itself, until you add in the fact that the Heat are hitting on a gaudy 39.4% of their three point tries with both men in. To put that in perspective, an average 3 point percentage is around 34%, and anything around 40% is considered elite. But not only are the Heat hitting their threes, they’re taking a lot, with 28.8% of the total field goals attempted with Dragic and Whiteside on the court being from three point range.
Look, I’m really sorry to hit you with all these numbers but they are quite remarkable. With Whiteside and Dragic, the Heat score 1.093 points per possession (PPP), where any mark of over 1 PPP is considered tremendous execution.
But let’s fast forward to the last 12 game winning streak, where Miami has murdered teams left right and centre. Get this right, in lineups including Dragic and Whiteside, the Miami Heat are hitting nearly 50% of their threes, which is ludicrous, and a third of their shot attempts are from behind the arc as well. Their pace has quickened somewhat to 94.5, but their offensive efficiency has skyrocketed, with a PPP of 1.176, a mark that puts them in the same ballpark as the San Antonio Spurs starting lineup (Parker, Green, Leonard, Aldridge, Gasol). Their true shooting percentage (TS%), a mark that includes free throws as shots to give a more rounded view of shooting efficiency, is at a raucous 59.1% and they’re assisting on over half of their made field goals, averaging 24 assists per 100 possessions, showing the ball movement has become something else.
Now, the offense wasn’t really the problem with the Heat, as we saw before that their whole season actually isn’t that bad from an advanced statistic standpoint. Where they fell down was on the defensive end, but that has really shored up to lockdown levels in this 12 game run. Again, using their two star players as a reference point, when Dragic and Whiteside share the floor, the Heat only allow their opponents to shoot 29.7% from the three point line, and due to Whiteside inside, only allow 57% of opposing layups to go in, a fairly low mark for such a close in shot. The Heat have began winning games by forcing opponents to shoot from the midrange, statistically the most inefficient shot in basketball, and over the last 12 games they’ve forced their opponents to shoot more from the midrange than from three or near the hoop.
Quite frankly, the turnaround in the Miami Heat’s season has been incredible, and there are many factors for it. It does help that they are led by Erik Spoelstra, a man who once coached in four straight NBA Finals, winning two of them. But a lot of the credit also has to go to Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside who have elevated the play of their teammates around them. Dion Waiters is playing some of the best basketball of his career, hitting game winners over the historically best team in NBA history.
You better get in quickly, because real estate on Waiters Island is getting more expensive by the second, fringe guys like Wayne Ellington, Willie Reed and Luke Babbitt are contributing quality basketball. The Heat picked up Okaro White off the street and he plays crunch time minutes. Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson are expanding on promising campaigns last season despite their youth and (in Tyler’s case) propensity for getting their teeth knocked out.
The Miami Heat are doing all this despite being without Chris Bosh, Justise Winslow and Josh McRoberts, all theoretically key contributors, lost to season ending injuries. A 12 game winning streak and the hottest team in the league, the Heat are now 10th in the East, 2 games back of 8th placed Detroit, and with the Pistons inconsistency, Charlotte’s freefall and Chicago’s general ineptitude, there’s a playoff spot right there for the taking.
The East better watch out, because the heat is on.
*All stats from Basketball Reference and NBAWowy. Video from Ximo Pierto on YouTube.