This article is a facsimile of an original version published on The Basketball Writers (TBW), which recently closed its doors.
Last season, the Miami Heat finished the season 29th in half-court offensive efficiency. With an overhaul of the roster over the last five months, the days in the league's scoring basement may come to a close.
After drafting Tyler Herro, trading Josh Richardson for All-Star Jimmy Butler and clearing the paint of Hassan Whiteside, the floor should open for their perimeter scorers.
For as poor as their offense was in 2019, there was no team that got a greater percentage of their offensive output through dribble handoffs. Synergy Sports Tech estimates Miami finished its possessions directly off a turnover 8.3 percent of the time. Five of its top eight recipients of dribble handoffs a season ago are now gone, with Rodney McGruder, Wayne Ellington and Tyler Johnson traded at the deadline, Dwyane Wade retired and Richardson traded for Butler.
It's not just an upgrade overall but the signaling of a complete overhaul within the Heat backcourt.
If we are to put two and two together, coach Erik Spoelstra will likely continue to pound his philosophy of elite half-court spacing into his team, trusting that the overhauled roster will provide enough space and offensive potency to execute his once-championship scheme.
Butler fits the mold as a guy that thrives with the ball in his hands—not just for ball screens and isolations, but through dribble handoffs. That's no accident. He's been top-third league-wide in dribble handoff scoring efficiency for four years running, including a potent 1.123 points per possession (PPP) during 2017-18 with the Minnesota Timberwolves. He's been above 1.0 PPP for three of the last four seasons, which is an astoundingly efficient feat.
In essence, the sample is large enough on Butler to know that he's got an elite feel and scoring prowess in handoff situations.
While with the Philadelphia 76ers, Butler was used on the move a decent amount, engaging in two-man actions with Joel Embiid. Butler's ability to set up his cuts and change speeds is both deceptive and easy to notice:
But the Sixers also often had Butler play back and forth with Embiid in those two-man games. After he would rise to the perimeter, Butler routinely looked into his center, throwing him the ball and darting back off for a handoff.
Few are better at selling a fake cut to the middle before bolting outside and creating space:
This two-man was unique because it was based around Embiid as much as anyone. Jimmy could play off someone who was a dominant post scorer, and the attention paid down low helped him get open.
He will not have that luxury in Miami with the roster as presently constructed.
That's because the Heat utilize dribble handoffs in a drastically different way. Spoelstra's calling card in half-court offense has always been his incredible utilization of space. Those early Miami Heat championship teams with LeBron James were elite floor spacers and pioneered the small-ball 4, corner-shooting and defending forward spot.
Spo's been among the best coaches at designing free-flowing movement while utilizing the corners, stretching all the way to the sideline and keeping the lane open for dribble attacks.
His early offense is indicative of how well they space the floor. Bigs routinely set drag ball screens or stop at the top of the key for reversals. All five players run to a perimeter spot, which keeps the lane free for cutters and drivers.
Such a gameplan lulls the defense into a false sense of security when they scramble to take away the rim. Normal transition defense prioritizes the rim and naturally shrinks the defense closer to the lane. Spoelstra turns that on its head by emphasizing running to spots around the three-point line.
Whoever is the 5 for Miami next season—be it Bam Adebayo, Kelly Olynyk or whoever else is out there at the time—will have a simple job: run to the top of the key and either stand there waiting for a reversal or set a ball screen. Others around them fill the corners and high and wide on the wings.
When a reversal does occur from one side to the other, defenders have a lot of ground to cover with that added spacing.
The perfect foil to late and long closeouts are reversals to dribble handoffs, where players not only have to spring across the floor to find their man but navigate their way through a screen-like action that happens quickly.
Teams will cheat the action by switching against Miami since the Heat have so many wings and interchangeable players. What does a matchup matter if many of the wings are the same makeup?
Whether switching or staying, the action is tough to guard when a shooter is involved:
The Heat are kings of the handoff, but that's not just within their structure. Justise Winslow—the de facto point guard near the tail end of the year—is a beast in transition. He pushes and reads defenses well, routinely guarded by a larger wing.
He's elite at engaging contact and flipping the ball off to a teammate for a three. He and Josh Richardson found a great deal of chemistry reading each other in transition:
There's no reason Winslow and Butler cannot develop that same chemistry. A Butler move to Miami is partially about his desire to be the focal point of an offense and finally choose the environment he plays in.
He did not choose Minnesota, and he did not choose Philadelphia, both places where he often played second-fiddle or had to stand off the ball. In Miami, he'll be the alpha male, but that will be additionally valuable due to his ability to succeed without the ball in his hands.
Let Winslow and Goran Dragic push in transition, and Butler can trust that those guys will get him the ball within Miami's scheme. There's a clear path for him to become successful off the dribble handoff (DHO) action.
Butler cannot do it alone, however. If we learned anything from his stint in Philadelphia it's that he is at his best when surrounded by shooting. Winslow and Dragic are solid, and Olynyk is an effective stretch big. The marriage should work in practice as well as it does in theory.
In the past, Spoelstra has been eager to run plays around attention-deserving shooters. Wayne Ellington was the prime recipient in years past and did a great job not only from handoffs but on screening.
Rookie Tyler Herro should have the biggest role here. With a lack of backcourt depth suddenly an issue for the Heat, the organization is banking on him to have some early impact in his career.
The publishing of this article comes incredibly early in July and before Herro's entire summer league performance is able to be digested. It appears he's already going to be divisive, as some will laud his ability to create off the bounce (which he did not show at Kentucky) and scoring prowess while others will highlight his short wingspan and lack of polish as a playmaker as severe long-term detractors.
I tend to be on the optimistic side.
He's shifty and used to his limitations, as well as a player with a quick release to make up for the lack of length. In college, Herro was great in the mid-range and flashed enough early in his summer league debut to provide confidence he can be a reliably solid secondary playmaker.
What provides the most confidence comes from fit: The Heat are great talent developers and evaluators, and they have the right scheme in place to maximize Herro's value. They surround him with spacing and shooters, which opens the lane for easier reads and finishes while taking weak side defenders away from blocking his shots.
Best of all, they run a ton of dribble handoffs, an area where Herro may have his highest impact.
At Kentucky, he developed an ability to quickly change directions and spring himself open for pull-ups or rim attacks. The Wildcats utilized him there a great deal, and although he's fairly right-hand dominant at the moment, there are ways to effectively trust him as a scorer in the two-man game:
Remember when we looked at the early offense spacing that bled into sideline-bound dribble handoffs for shooters? Herro has experience there, too.
Look at some of the similarities in the spacing and the pace with which he can attack. On an NBA court with deeper three-point lines and greater threats on the weak side, there's no reason to believe Herro won't finish like this:
There is a little merit to the discussions about his ability to separate from defenders with pro-style length and athleticism.
Herro gets open due to his shiftiness and acting before he cuts, not natural athleticism and burst. He's going to improve in those areas, but likely will be saddled for his career in the same ways JJ Redick has been: The guy has to work harder to get open.
Kentucky coach John Calipari would spring Herro free going to his right with down screens into dribble handoffs, a way to add more traffic for his defender and provide the space he needs to cleanly get the ball. That extra room gets Herro to his most dangerous asset, his pull-up jumper, or a clean path driving to the rim:
The harmony between what Herro does well and what the Heat have done in the past is staggering.
Not only do they love early offense handoffs, two-man games and players that shoot, but they set many actions that include a down screen flowing to an immediate dribble handoff.
Wayne Ellington was the primary recipient of these, which is likely the role Herro will fulfill next year. They'll run one of my favorite actions for him, a high post entry that leads into the down screen-dribble handoff continuity:
To blow minds even further, guess who else has experience in this type of set.
Jimmy freakin' Butler:
The Heat are certainly undertalented in comparison to many contenders in the Eastern Conference. They lack depth, have some young pieces they will count on and still need to mesh as a group. But if there's one thing history has shown us, it's that Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley do an extraordinary job getting the most out of their talent.
Every year they outperform expectations based on their talent level. Spo is the game's most underrated and underappreciated coach.
The two newest and most important acquisitions are good fits, not just side-by-side but within the culture and structure of the organization. Give it time, but expect the dribble handoff and spacing the Heat provide to maximize the talents of both Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro.
Head Boys Basketball Coach, Boys' Latin School (MD).