What the Miami Heat is achieving that’s unusual. And how its players were underestimated

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Barry Jackson
·7 min read
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Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, was remarking on Twitter the other day that he has “been a big Heat fan for around 25 years. This is my favorite team. Well coached and deep. They seem to have fun playing. Watch out Milwaukee!”

Bush makes a good point about the “fun” part. Besides ranking among the most aesthetically pleasing Heat teams this century (Big Three era aside) because of elite shooting and graceful ball-movement and precise cutting without the ball, this collection of Heat players is something else, too:

Undervalued. Underestimated. And often overlooked.

Not a single Heat player — aside from Andre Iguodala — was selected in the top 10 of the NBA Draft. Most of the rotation players were chosen far later than they should have been, in retrospect, or not drafted at all.

For some context, consider this: The Heat is one of only three franchises in the past decade to advance to the second round of the playoffs without a top half-of-the-lottery player on its roster.

Iguodala is the Heat’s highest-drafted player, going ninth overall in 2004. In the last decade, only the 2012 and 2013 Indiana Pacers and last year’s champion Toronto Raptors advanced to the second round without a single player on their roster who was selected in the top 8. The Heat will now join that select group.

Last season’s Bucks had one player drafted in the top eight (Pau Gasol) who didn’t play in postseason.

So what the Heat is accomplishing — advancing to the second round without a single high lottery pick — is unusual. To appreciate how this group of players has exceeded the expectations of league executives and scouts coming out of college, consider what each player has become compared to what was initially expected:

Jimmy Butler: The franchise’s max player is the poster child for a roster of expectation-exceeders. Remember, Butler was picked 30th by the Bulls in 2011, directly ahead of journeymen Marshon Brooks, Jordan Hamilton, JaJuan Johnson, Norris Cole and Corey Joseph.

Not only has Butler become a five-time All-Star, but only four players picked in the 29 spots ahead of him have had as good or better careers (Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker).

Goran Dragic: Of the 44 players chosen before Dragic in 2008, only 16 are still in the NBA, and only Russell Westbrook is significantly better than Dragic at this point, though cases could be made for Serge Ibaka, Kevin Love, Danilo Gallinari and Brook Lopez.

Consider the six journeymen selected just before Dragic was picked by the Spurs and immediately re-routed to Phoenix: Sonny Weems, Chris Douglas-Roberts, Nathan Jawai, Sean Singleton, Patrick Ewing Jr., and Ante Tomic.

Per Heathabit’s Simon Sperling, Dragic is the first player aged 34 or over — since Michael Jordan — to average at least 22.8 points, 5.0 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 1.3 steals and shoot 48 percent in the first four games of a postseason.

Duncan Robinson: He wasn’t even selected in the 2018 draft, and only 12 players chosen in the second round that year were even in NBA rotations this season, with Robinson clearly better than all of them.

If the 2018 draft were conducted again, one scout said before the NBA restart that he would take Robinson no higher than 11th, behind at least - and not in this order - DeAndre Ayton (first), Marvin Bagley (second), Luka Doncic (third), Jaren Jackson (fourth), Trae Young (fifth), Mo Bamba (sixth), Wendell Carter Jr. (seventh), Colin Sexton (eighth), Shae Gilgeous-Alexander (11th) and Knicks center Mitchell Robinson (36th).

I asked the scout that question again on Tuesday, and he said he would now move Duncan Robinson to eighth, ahead of Sexton, Bamba and Mitchell Robinson.

“Robinson’s value is conditioned to where the league is going with shooting,” the scout said, believing that Bagley’s and Carter’s ceilings would still have them going before Duncan Robinson.

▪ Nunn: See Robinson, since they both went undrafted in 2018. The scout had Nunn going 16th or 17th in a re-draft.

Tyler Herro: He went 13th in 2019, but two scouts said this month that in a re-draft he should be picked anywhere from third to fifth, definitely behind Zion Williamson and Ja Morant and possibly behind Rui Hachimurra and the Knicks’ R.J. Barrett, who also went ahead of Herro.

Per hoopshabit’s Sperling, Herro is the youngest rookie since Derrick Rose in 2009 to average 16 points, four rebounds and three assists over their first four playoff games.

Bam Adebayo: He went 14th in 2017, but if that draft were held now, the veteran scout said Tuesday he would pick Adebayo fourth, behind only Jayson Tatum (selected third), Donovan Mitchell (13th) and De’Aaron Fox (fifth). “He is so much better than I thought he would be,” the scout said.

And there was this from Kentucky coach John Calipari.

“When I watched the Heat win the series[ Monday] with two of our guys performing at a high level, it made me smile,” Calipari tweeted. “Both [Herro and Adebayo] were gym rats. They were first to arrive and the last to leave. There were many late-night workouts.”

On Tuesday night, Adebayo finished fifth in defensive player of year voting, behind winner Giannis Antetkounmpo, Anthony Davis, Rudy Gobert and Ben Simmons and ahead of Pat Beverley, Marcus Smart, Andre Drummond and Kawhi Leonard. Adebayo got two first place votes, one second place vote and fourth third place votes.

Derrick Jones Jr.: He went undrafted in 2016. Of the second-round picks that year, only Malcolm Brogdon was an NBA rotation player this season. So Jones clearly should have been drafted by early in the second round and likely in the mid-to-late first round.

Kelly Olynyk: Went 13th in 2013, and while he’s comparable to several players picked ahead of him, only C.J. McCollom, Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams have had clearly better careers. Anthony Bennett, the first overall pick, isn’t even in the league. But Dallas — which picked Olynyk 13th on behalf of Boston that year — assuredly regrets not taking Antetokounmpo, who went 15th to Milwaukee.

Jae Crowder: Of the 33 players selected ahead of him in 2012, only six are better: Anthony Davis, Bradley Beal, Damian Lillard, Harrison Barnes, Terrence Ross and Andre Drummond.

Several picked ahead of him are out of the league, including Fab Melo, Jared Sullinger and Festus Ezeli. But Cleveland, which selected Crowder and re-routed him to Dallas on draft night, should have picked Draymond Green, who went next.

Udonis Haslem: Went undrafted in 2002 and promptly became the best rebounder in Heat history. Only six players drafted in the second round that year had significant NBA career (500 games or more): Roger Mason, Carlos Boozer, Dan Gadzuric, Luis Scola, Matt Barnes and Rasual Butler. Haslem has outlasted every player selected in that draft.

Iguodala: The Heat’s highest-drafted player (ninth overall, by Philadelphia) had a better career than every player picked ahead of him in 2004 except Dwight Howard. And of the top nine picks, only those two are still active. The player picked directly ahead of Iguodala, Rafael Araujo, logged 138 NBA games.

Among the four others on the 15-man roster, it’s too early to tell what rookie K.Z. Okpala (selected 32nd overall last June) and undrafted rookie Chris Silva will become.

Meyers Leonard (selected 11th overall in 2012) was picked about where he belonged (no first-rounder selected after him has been an All Star but second rounders Draymond Green and Kris Middleton were). Solomon Hill was selected 23rd by the Pacers a year later, regrettably before Tim Hardaway Jr. and Gobert.

So who gets credit for the Heat having so many players underestimated out of college? The players, obviously, but Miami’s coaching staff should get acknowledgement for its significant role helping develop Haslem, Adebayo, Robinson, Nunn, Herro and Jones Jr. And the front office deserves plaudits for identifying and acquiring this young core.

“It starts with [longtime Heat executive] Chet Kammerer, the best talent evaluator in the NBA,” said TNT analyst and ex-Heat coach Stan Van Gundy, with Kammerer and Heat vice president/basketball operations Adam Simon both deserving credit in finding Robinson and Nunn, among others. “They’ve always done well with undrafted guys and guys not thought of as can’t miss guys.”

Here’s our piece with what Brian Flores had to say on Tuesday.

Here’s our full practice recap from Tuesday, with lots of highlights, who looked good and details on every Tua Tagovailoa throw.

Here’s my Tuesday piece with details on how the Dolphins lost a rookie fifth-round pick and a conundrum in the same spot on the field on both offense and defense.