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Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Barry Jackson

Barry Jackson: From Steve Kerr to Erik Spoelstra to Stan Van Gundy, perspective on 12 lessons learned from Heat run

MIAMI — Coach Erik Spoelstra has said there are life lessons to be learned from this Heat team, in terms of resilience and persevering through adversity and not being dragged down by the doubters.

Even though Miami fell short of a championship, here are 12 other lessons to draw from this nine-week playoff run:

— Yes, the Heat ultimately lost to a more gifted Denver team. But talent doesn’t always trump everything in every series.

To some, the Heat’s talent has been underestimated, to an extent.

But TNT’s Stan Van Gundy said that’s not what was at play here.

“There is a lot that goes into making winning players and teams,” Van Gundy said via text message during the Eastern Conference finals. “Toughness, competitiveness, unselfishness, discipline, etc. The Heat players, to a man, have demonstrated all of those things. I don’t think their talent is underrated. Their overall talent [in my opinion] is not to the level of the better teams.

“But they play winning basketball. At or near the top of the league in deflections, loose balls recovered, box outs and defending, rebounding (despite being small). Plus they take care of the ball, get back in transition and usually don’t foul, though this has been a problem in the playoffs.

“They make it hard on teams. They don’t give games away. And they have a great coach and [Jimmy] Butler is a legit star and closer. So no, I don’t think their talent has been underrated. I think people underestimate the role of other factors in what makes a winning team.”

— A team especially reliant on (sorry, undrafted) role players can get farther than many might have thought, but they ultimately can push your team only so far if your best players aren’t playing at an elite level.

In the Heat’s case, the role players helped take the Heat pretty far - the NBA Finals, but without the ultimate goal achieved.

Most role players, by nature, have ups and downs in their play. While the peaks and valleys with Max Strus’ shooting can frustrate, that’s usually what you get with role players, even if they’re cast into larger roles than perhaps appropriate.

But a team particularly reliant on role players needs extraordinary play from its stars in the Finals, and Miami didn’t get that.

ABC’s Jeff Van Gundy repeatedly said during Game 5 that Miami’s role players were being asked to do too much on a night Jimmy Butler shot 2 for 10 through three quarters and 5 for 18 for the game.

The Heat know they need another star and will go big-game hunting this offseason, with Damian Lillard and Bradley Beal drawing Heat interest. The talent issue wasn’t a problem until the Finals, against a team built around a generational player (Nikola Jokic) and a wing arguably more skilled offensively (Jamal Murray) than anyone on Miami’s roster.

The important caveat here is that the Heat were without Tyler Herro, perhaps their most gifted scorer. So after injuries in two consecutive postseasons, we’ll never know if Herro’s shooting and off-the-dribble gifts would have been enough.

— Having two stars who play defense as well as Butler and Bam Adebayo; a supporting cast that shoots 3s at incredible levels during a couple of series; and a star who plays out of his mind (at times) can trigger long playoff runs. But another natural scorer is needed to augment this roster.

That was obvious last summer, too, but let’s correct a misperception: The Heat never had the opportunity to acquire an elite scorer without dealing Adebayo. Not a single All Star player was made available to the Heat last summer for a package built around Herro.

The question now becomes whether any team with a disgruntled star will take Herro and first-round picks as the centerpieces of a deal, or whether the Heat can acquire Beal without including Herro.

— The importance of having selfless players who don’t complain about playing time or roles shouldn’t be understated.

“None of those guys on Miami are sitting there saying, ‘Well I didn’t play’ or ‘Man, they put in so and so,’” Golden State coach Steve Kerr said on Warriors forward Draymond Green’s podcast. “They’re just all about winning.”

Kyle Lowry never pouted when moved to the bench; Love and Duncan Robinson never griped when shuttled in and out of the lineup. The Heat avoid signing selfish malcontents and that helps the locker-room dynamic.

The key, Spoelstra said, is to “buy into something that is bigger than themselves. That’s arguably the most important thing when you’re trying to build a team that can contend for a championship. You try to get guys that really care about winning more than anything, even if they have to sacrifice, or also understanding that that’s a prerequisite, that you have to sacrifice.

‘We have a lot of guys that have excelled in different roles, but have had the emotional stability that when their roles have had to change that they’re still about the team.”

— If your owner is willing to spend, there’s generally no need to sacrifice draft picks to unload bad contracts, unless it keeps your team from signing a key player.

The Heat had a chance to move Lowry or Robinson at the trade deadline by attaching first-round picks.

Instead, Miami smartly held onto its draft inventory.

Without Robinson’s 10-point run early in the fourth quarter of Game 2 in Denver, perhaps Miami wouldn’t have headed back home with a split.

Without Lowry’s 18 points and six assists, perhaps there would have no series-tone-setting Game 1 win in New York.

The Heat can free up as many as four first-round picks to trade, as long as they make the selection at No. 18 on June 22 before trading that player, and provided the Heat and Oklahoma City agree to remove protections on a future first-round pick owed the Thunder.

— Don’t make conclusions about a good shooter after a down year. It could be an outlier.

Robinson, who shot 44.2% on 3s in these playoffs, looks like the guy who was a 40%-plus 3-point shooter over his first three seasons, not the 32% shooter who was yanked in and out of the rotation this season.

— The Heat’s philosophy of not dramatically changing a roster that was one win from a Final berth was largely validated, even if it seemed short-sighted through the slog of a 44-38 regular season.

When a Heat team seemingly on a road to nowhere didn’t make a move at the trade deadline, Spoelstra explained it this way: “This has basically been an organizational philosophy since Pat Riley got here. You see it through. Each team has a lifespan to it and we have not seen this one through.”

That patience paid off, considering there’s nothing the Heat could have realistically done last summer that would have put Miami over the top. The goal now is to find that piece this offseason, perhaps Lillard or Beal.

— Even in a player’s league, coaching matters.

Several decisions by Spoelstra — toggling between Kevin Love and Caleb Martin as starters, making smart and selective use of zone defense, among others — tangibly impacted winning. Not everything worked (including the Cody Zeller minutes in games in Denver), but most did.

“Spo’s been phenomenal,” Strus said last week. “He knows what it takes to win in these moments.”

As the Heat continued to advance, “this is when he really gets comfortable,” Adebayo said. “This is when he doesn’t really get really rattled.”

— Don’t throw your hands up about Adebayo after he misses a bunch of shots.

Here’s the thing about Adebayo’s shooting slumps: He usually snaps out of them pretty quickly.

During the regular season, 11 of his 13 worst shooting games were followed by very good games offensively; his 5 for 15 against Washington was followed by a 38-point night, as an example.

His 8-for-26 stretch over two games against Boston was followed by 47 points (on 21-for-39 shooting) in Games 1 and 2 against Denver.

He followed 7-for-21 and 8-for-19 games against Denver with a 20-point, 9-for-20 night in Game 5.

— Even with the injuries to Herro and Victor Oladipo, the curious decision to sign two bigs in the buyout market, as opposed to a power player and point guard, helped more than hurt.

For all of Zeller’s struggles against Denver, his minutes backing up Adebayo were generally productive through three rounds.

And if the Heat had signed Russell Westbrook, would Vincent — among the league’s best 3-point shooters for all but the final three Finals games — have even had a chance to play this much? (Probably not.)

And if Reggie Jackson or John Wall been the choice over Zeller, would either have even cracked the rotation? That’s highly debatable.

— Prioritizing Martin over PJ Tucker was the right move.

There wasn’t a realistic path to keep both.

Though Miami made an offer to Tucker, it never offered the full non-taxpayer midlevel exception over the maximum three years (at $33.2 million) — which Tucker sought — because it would have left Miami hard-capped and in no position to keep Martin.

Instead, Miami used its full $6.5 million taxpayer mid-level exception to sign Martin to a three-year deal worth $20.4 million.

Using the taxpayer mid-level doesn’t hard cap a team; using the non-taxpayer mid-level does. (Neither exception likely will be available to the Heat this summer because of the size of its payroll.)

Though Tucker’s game has never been measured by statistics, Martin — factoring in his playoff run — emerged as the better player this season.

Tucker, 38, averaged 4.9 points and 4.5 rebounds and shot 37% from the field and 35% on 3s for Philadelphia this postseason.

Martin, 27, closed the postseason with averages of 12.7 points and 5.4 rebounds and shot 52.9% from the field and 42.3% on 3-pointers.

— Allow a season to play out before calling for major changes.

That’s the biggest lesson to be taken in this space, and elsewhere.

For as bad as it looked during the season — and it was plenty bad, with blowout home losses to Detroit and the post-Kevin Durant Nets, plus three combined losses to doormats Charlotte and San Antonio — any temptation to call for major changes should be resisted until a season plays out, especially for a franchise that has earned the benefit of any doubt.

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