Frustrating And Fun Times With The Miami Heat’s Bench


One thing that has been frustrating to me is the constant droning of how the Warriors have made the NBA season boring. Sure, more than likely everyone knows how it will end. But for the true basketball fan, there is a lot of fun teams, players, offenses, and coaches in today’s NBA. One of these teams are the Miami Heat.

The Miami Heat have struggled this year. Before Friday’s game against the Knicks, they were below .500 at home. Advanced metrics – such as ESPN’s RPM and basketball-reference’s SRS – suggest they play like an under .500 team. Yet, they have a 22-17 record and sit at the fifth spot in the East.

During the first month of the season, watching the opening six minutes of a Heat game was equivalent to watching paint dry. They started Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, and Hassan Whiteside, and relied almost exclusively on the pick-and-roll.

Then, injuries hit, and Heat coach Erik Spoelstra started experimenting. When Whiteside was hurt, Miami started Kelly Olynyk and/or rookie Bam Adebayo in his place. Then, Dion Waiters’ troublesome ankle flared, and Justise Winslow hurt his knee, resulting in Tyler Johnson moving to the starting lineup.

Still, Miami’s starting lineup remains relatively boring. And frankly, players like Tyler Johnson, Dion Waiters, and Hassan Whiteside frequently make the wrong basketball play. This is anachronistic when one considers this is the team that, not so long ago, trotted out lineups with Dwyane Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, and Shane Battier.

But, after the first six minutes, Spoelstra makes substitutions, and the Heat become really fun to watch.

One lineup Miami uses is Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson with a bench unit of Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, and Kelly Olynyk. This lineup is +20 over 100 possessions. Additionally, Spoelstra has also used a lineup of Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson with Wayne Ellington, Bam Adebayo, and Kelly Olynyk, and they are outscoring opponents by 33.4 points per 100 possessions.

A big part of the reason why is that, when the bench unit plays, players like James Johnson and Wayne Ellington create a much more dynamic and unpredictable offense. For example:

This set begins with Tyler Johnson coming off a Kelly Olynyk screen. It looks as if the guard will drive into the paint and kick-out to an open shooter. Thus, Detroit is attempting to close off passing lanes from the painted area. The problem is that play was not what Miami was running. Rather, before Tyler Johnson got into the paint he kicked it out to James Johnson, who passed and screened for Goran Dragic. Detroit sold-out on Dragic in an attempt to close his driving lane, and left Johnson wide-open for an easy cut to the basket.

James Johnson is a unique player. He has a reliable three-point shot, and because of this, teams have to defend Johnson conservatively.

If the goal is to prevent Johnson from cutting, or even just to ignore Miami’s wing, he will sink open corner threes like on the above play.

The problem is that the Heat forward is also one of the best cutters in the NBA. On the first play shown in this article, the Pistons blitzed the Dragic/Johnson pick-and-roll. Rather than pop outside of the three point line, where Detroit could have somewhat contested his shot, Johnson made a quick cut towards the rim, was found by Dragic, and scored an easy layup. Below is another example of Johnson’s superb timing.

This play looks dead. Detroit has blocked Goran Dragic’s pick-and-roll with Olynyk and blitzed the play to the baseline. But, recognizing this, Johnson makes an improvised cut to the rim allowing Miami to score.

The three-point shooting and cutting are nice, but the best thing about James Johnson’s offensive style is his ability to read broken plays. Before Miami, Johnson was viewed as an athletic bench player. He was an offensive liability who could defend some of the stronger wings. Nonetheless, the Heat have figured out how to let Johnson use his intuitive style in order to benefit their bench.

This play shows something similar. Olynyk gets the ball at the baseline, but the Pistons defend this well, and the play seems that Miami will need to reset the play. Johnson, reading this, sets a “semi-legal” off-ball screen to free Dragic, and creates an open three-point play.

Because of Johnson’s ability to read plays, he has developed a nice chemistry with Miami’s three-point shooters. Per NBAwowy, the Heat have a .06 percentage point higher true shooting percentage with Johnson on the court than off it.

This play is supposed to see Josh Richardson cut behind James Johnson, the latter would then set a quick screen, leaving the former somewhat open for a corner three. But, instead of a mildly contested three-point shot, Johnson and Richardson quickly adapt and trick Detroit into selling-out for the corner three. This leaves Richardson open for the three-point shot.

A specific example of Miami’s chemistry is that Wayne Ellington’s true shooting percentage increases by twelve percentage points when he plays with Johnson, per NBAWowy.

One of the most fun things about this Heat bench unit is Ellington. He will make series of miniature cuts while finding Heat players to set screens for him to bounce off of. The nonstop movement is difficult for even the most disciplined teams to defend.

Thus, because of his aforementioned non-stop movement and quick release, teams will try and stick with Ellington in order to prevent Ellington from opening up for a “Korver three.” This is where James Johnson comes into the picture. Because Johnson is a solid shooter, good cutter, and great screener, his gravity frees up room for Ellington.

This play begins in transition with Ellington as the ball handler. He passes to James Johnson at the top of the key. Johnson’s threat to cut leaves Porzingis inside the lane. This results in Johnson having an easy screen on Courtney Lee, thus freeing up Ellington for the wide-open three.

Consequently, James Johnson and Ellington have developed teamwork while playing together. They mandate constant defensive attention or they will burn the opponent.

That play was a simple offensive transition. But, Joe Johnson is not reading Miami’s offense correctly and maintains a zone defense, thus leaving Joe Ingles to defend Ellington and James Johnson. As can be seen, this did not end well for Utah.

The problem for defenses is that both Johnson and Ellington are capable of creating their own shots from off-ball positions. So even if they are both defended tightly, the Heat wings can still beat their opponents with a few off-ball screens and good shooting.

On this play James Johnson is playing point forward. He passes the ball to rookie Bam Adebayo at the top of the elbow and the former sets a quick screen for Wayne Ellington. Through this point, the three Knicks (Michael Beasley, Doug McDermott, and Kyle O’Quinn) are defending the set perfectly. Yet, as Ellington receives the ball off of Johnson’s screen, the Knicks make two mistakes: McDermott does not prepare for a second screen from Adebayo; and O’Quinn does not cover the midrange. These mistakes combine into an open midrange jumper for Ellington.

The above play demonstrates the concentration it takes to defend the Heat’s bench unit. They run a lot of set plays, and each one is open to player improvisation. Even without Johnson, the Heat bench unit has adopted Spoelstra’s constant motion offense. If the defense falls asleep at all, they almost guarantee an open shot for Miami. Here is another example:

This play sees four separate screens set for Ellington and the Celtics defend each individual screen perfectly. The problem is Boston’s defenders failed to see the ultimate goal of the play, and it resulted in a wide-open three-pointer for Ellington.

Overall, the Heat are having a solid season. They have begun to figure out how to win games, and are starting to perform to expectations. A main reason for the transformation has been the offensive ability of the Heat’s bench, and how they compliment starters like Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson. Because of the unpredictability of Miami’s offense, they will cause problems for even the best defensive teams, and thus are one of the most fun teams to watch in the NBA.


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