The Miami Heat have struggled to find their footing this season after securing the 1-seed and advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals last year. Currently, they sit in sixth in the Eastern Conference at 25-21. They’re nine games behind the current 1-seed, the Boston Celtics, which defeated Miami in the 2022 postseason.
Miami has forged their hashtag Heat Culture into the league’s sixth-best defense this season, but a myriad of injuries to key players has submarined its offense to 23rd in the league. With Jimmy Butler sidelined for 14 games and Tyler Herro for 12, Miami has funneled its offense through Bam Adebayo to keep things afloat.
If maintaining your efficiency while increasing your production is the mark of an All-Star, then Adebayo should make it to next month’s game for the second time in his career. Adebayo is averaging a career-high 21.5 points per game. His usage percentage of 26.5 percent is, again, a career-best mark, while his 54 percent clip on field goals is just a hair below his career average. The usage has ticked up bit by by for Adebayo in his five seasons with the Heat, and this year, he has the highest mark on the team.
Adebayo is no longer a complementary piece in the offense meant to facilitate dribble handoffs at the elbows or use his gravity as a roller to create open corner 3s. He’s now the engine driving the Heat offense by dominating the middle of the floor with an isolation game that’s both delightful and quirky.
Of the record-breaking 43 players scoring 20 points per game or more this season, I would argue Adebayo paints the most unique shot map of anyone. He’s one of the few volume scorers who doesn’t even look at the three-point line — he’s shot 10 triples this year, about one every five games. Any shot that extends horizontally from the paint is basically hot lava for Adebayo despite having a feathery touch on his jumper. Just look at where he shoots, and how rare it is that he tries to punish teams from outside of the key.
Per Cleaning the Glass, Adebayo is in the 99th percentile for percentage of shots taken in the short mid-range area; he hasn’t finished lower than the 95th percentile since 2019. With Kyle Lowry on an athletic decline and Butler’s nagging injuries, the Heat offense struggles to generate drives to the paint that are initiated from the perimeter, leading to possessions where they play hot potato around the arc until the shot clock gets low. Miami has subsidized their lack of drive-and-kick juice by generating a high volume of paint touches for Adebayo, who leads the league with 7.8 shots in the paint non-restricted area.
The constant attacks into the paint through catches on the roll, fake dribble handoffs, and isolations by Adebayo put pressure on the defense to collapse towards the rim, which explains why the Heat have attempted the sixth-most corner threes in the league despite lacking a high-level playmaker on the roster.
Adebayo does not need to become a lethal three-point shooter to expand his game. The real evolution will be dominating that area between the free throw line and the top of the key. Let’s call it the Dirk Nowitzki zone — in his prime, Nowitzki dominated the zones in and around the free throw line because that is the hardest place on the floor to send a double team. If Adebayo can force defenses to guard him tight in the Nowitzki zone, it should open up his drives to the rim and make the Heat’s dizzying array of dribble handoffs more potent.
This season, Adebayo is shooting 43 percent on shots between 15-19 feet, which is a significant improvement from the 29 percent he shot last season. Teams are more than happy to allow him to walk into an open 18-footer if it means they avoid an open three on a handoff to, say, Max Strus. As Adebayo improves from this area, that calculus will prove to be more difficult for the defense.
After a 12-15 start, the Heat have gone 13-6 in their last 19 games with the 8th-best net rating during that time. Adebayo has been the driving force behind the run as the Heat get healthier going into the All-Star break. The increased offensive load has not hampered his efficiency or his otherworldly defensive presence — Miami is 10.4 points per possession better when he is on the floor, per Cleaning The Glass. Miami is always on the hunt for a star, and even as Butler and Lowry both get older, the team can take solace in knowing they have one already on the roster.