The Detroit Pistons hope to return to the playoffs, but they will have plenty of competition throughout the Eastern Conference. This series takes a look at the prime competitors to one of the final spots in the Eastern Conference.
Offensive Rating: 106.7 (26th)
Defensive Rating: 107.1 (7th)
Major Additions: Jimmy Butler, Meyers Leonard, Tyler Herro
Major Subtractions: Josh Richardson, Dwyane Wade, Hassan Whiteside
The biggest individual addition the Miami Heat made this past offseason was signing Jimmy Butler in free agency, who is expected to drive the Heat to more wins and a playoff appearance that eluded them last year. How he’s expected to do that is by being a tone-setter (#HeatCulture) and the type of scorer the Heat have lacked.
I don’t doubt Jimmy can do that (when he’s on the floor). I just wonder about how the team around him will perform. For example, Goran Dragic, who you pencil in as the starting point guard, is 33, played only 36 games and had some of the worst finishing numbers of his career last year. If that guy just has the normal drop in production you expect from a 33-year-old point guard, who will Miami turn to as a secondary ballhandler behind Jimmy? Is it Justise Winslow, whose best position might be point guard but who lacks the off-the-bounce shooting you normally want out of that position? Is it Dion Waiters, he of the career assist rate of 16 percent? Is it rookie Tyler Herro, who looks good now, but will hit the wall like every other rookie?
Miami just doesn’t have the solidified secondary shot creation that their eastern conference competitors do, and that’s why I’m low-ish on them. The Heat are even aware of this - why do you think there are so many whispers about them trading for a second star? Whether it’s Chris Paul, whether it’s Bradley Beal, or whether’s it Kyle Lowry, the Heat have been openly craving another guy.
Additionally, Jimmy Butler has only played 75+ games once in the last five years. Similarly to Blake Griffin, he’s not necessarily injury-prone, but he plays at a high usage and high intensity and wears down as the season goes on. Also, just like the Pistons will be hard-pressed to create offense without Blake Griffin operating on the perimeter and in the post, Miami will be in dire straits without Jimmy - essentially running last year’s 26th-ranked offense, sans Dwayne Wade. This could especially rear its head in the clutch, where Miami had the lowest-ranked offense and the lowest true shooting percentage last year. If Jimmy’s not playing, Miami could lose a number of tight games they might otherwise win.
Defensively, Erik Spolestra (he of the well-deserved extension) is capable of crafting a top-10 defense out of any five NBA players. (If anyone can make a good defender out of Myers Leonard, it’s him.) And Miami was just that last year - the seventh-best defense in the league. However, they did it in unconventional ways - ocasionally busting out a zone defense, permitting teams to attempt a bunch of threes but rarely allowing shots at the rim as a trade-off.
This year, a focused Jimmy Butler and no longer having to worry about Hassan Whiteside wandering out 20 feet from the rim should mean the Heat no longer have to resort to the zone. The Heat have plenty of defensively versatile wings (Butler, Winslow, James Johnson, Derrick Jones Jr., maybe even my guy KZ Okpala) to throw at teams. Bam Adebayo is a burgeoning switch defender and shot-blocker, and he was much better as a rebounder in the starting lineup.
The Heat will work hard and defend their butts off for Spo, but if the ball doesn’t go in the basket, it’ll be really hard for them to win regular-season games. You saw this in the Pistons-Heat regular-season matchups last year:
- An overtime win for Miami where the Pistons would’ve won had Blake Griffin not fouled out prior to OT
- A win in a slugfest for Detroit despite Andre Drummond getting hurt and only playing seven minutes
- A win for Detroit when their bench went off in the second half
- A blowout win for Miami where they held the Pistons to only 74 points
Miami only scored more than 100 points twice in the matchup, but their defense was solid enough to win two of the four games. Even with Jimmy Butler, that’ll be the recipe for the Heat this season - defend at a high level, score enough points to win.
Is that good enough across the course of a regular season? Perhaps. If Jimmy Butler plays 75 games, it’s probably good enough, and if Butler is healthy going into the playoffs, the Heat have the ability to make life tough for any non-Philly, non-Milwaukee eastern conference team. If he plays closer to 65 or 55 games? It gets a lot tougher for the Heat, from a scoring perspective, to even make the playoffs.
If that sounds oddly familiar, it should - that’s essentially the story for most of the teams at the middle and end of the playoff picture in the East.