In the final three minutes of the Miami Heat’s third quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks on Tuesday, something miraculous happened.
Not as miraculous as, say, trading up for a pudgy, yet incredibly talented and intelligent basketball prodigy on draft night, but miraculous, nonetheless.
After Hassan Whiteside bonked the first of two free throws, Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra substituted Bam Adebayo for James Johnson. The substitution itself was uneventful, as the sophomore took the court ahead of Whiteside’s second miss at the charity stripe, but the ensuing 90 seconds of chaos were louder than any airhorn in the Fiserv Forum.
At the time of Adebayo’s substitution, the Miami Heat were desperate. Trailing 81-59 and shooting an abysmal 3-14 through the first two quarters from 3, Spoelstra was looking for something to resuscitate a team frozen by a 27-degree night in Milwaukee.
The Whiteside-Adebayo tandem has been discussed all through the former Kentucky Wildcat’s first two years in the league. Adebayo, despite being just two inches shorter and 10 pounds lighter than Whiteside, is seen as the malleable center of Miami’s future. Where Whiteside is sedentary in his post-pounding, shot-blocking ways, the 21-year-old Adebayo is a basketball neophyte who has tried on different coats during his Heat tenure.
During Summer League 2019, Adebayo flaunted his tuned-up handles by pushing the ball for Miami as a point forward. During the regular season he’s tackled tough defensive assignments, like Anthony Davis or Serge Ibaka, who draw on a myriad of talents to tally points.
So, pairing Whiteside and Adebayo together seemed like an experiment worth pursuing. If Whiteside is the haggard, grey-muzzled greyhound, suited for short trips from the front yard (high post) to the couch (restricted area) then Adebayo is his fleetfooted, racing counterpart. The couple represents the duality of the center position, which is split between low-post heavyweights and do-it-all stretch-5s.
Except they really don’t.
The reality of the Whiteside-Adebayo situation is that the two are missing a dreadfully crucial skill between them: 3-point shooting.
Whiteside’s snapchat wanted to paint the story in a different color this summer, as the center bemoaned not having the chance to test his range during games. But Spoelstra restricted Whiteside and his flat-footed jumper for good reason: he doesn’t really have one.
The same goes for Adebayo. Currently shooting 1-for-15 on 3-point attempts through his career, Miami has been better served by his shot-deterring and lob-finishing capabilities than his exploration of the corner 3.
Returning to the 90 seconds that Whiteside and Adebayo played together on Tuesday night highlighted exactly where the combination falters. Miami only took three shots during that short stretch, but they provide enough of a canvas to illustrate exactly why the tandem falls short.
Following a Milwaukee turnover caused by George Hill stepping out of bounds, Tyler Johnson gives Miami its first taste of a Whiteside-Adebayo offense. Running with Dwyane Wade and Justise Winslow on the wings, Miami’s triumvirate of ballhandlers quickly exposes Adebayo’s vacation in no man’s land.
Adebayo, who starts the set in the corner, plays the role usually operated by a 3-point threat like Wayne Ellington or Kelly Olynyk. With Johnson shading to the left, Winslow darts down to the baseline in what could be an easy, off ball screen to free up the corner man.
However, knowing Adebayo isn’t that shooter, Winslow filters towards the baseline, leaving Johnson without an option and forcing him into a contested floater.
Now, watch that same interaction with Ellington starting in the corner.
Adebayo’s lacking jumpshot isn’t a problem if he’s not compelled to use it. He has converted on hard cuts to the rim that turn into lobs and huge throw downs. But hanging him out to dry in the corner when Whiteside fills the paint immensely limits Adebayo’s effectiveness.
The next play wasn’t much better. In fact, you can argue it was worse because it ended in an Adebayo 3.
Granted, the Bucks aren’t trying particularly hard on defense at this point. And, Ersan Ilyasova isn’t a particularly heady defender in the first place. But to see show nonchalantly he shuffles towards Adebayo’s general area should tell you all there is to know about Adebayo’s influence beyond the arc.
But wait, there’s more!
Here, Whiteside actually converts the play, but the eye is naturally drawn to the fluorescent-yellow pop of Adebayo’s shoes in the right corner. Teetering on the balls of his feet, Adebayo is halfway between eagerly leaning into a cross-court kickout and falling flat on his face while he awaits the pass that he knows will never come.
As quickly as the experiment began, it was over. Olynyk replaced Whiteside at the 1:38 mark of the quarter, and the Heat would continue to score just 23 points in the final inning to solidify a 38-point loss to Milwaukee.
Though Whiteside and Adebayo currently lack the All-NBA passing and spacing talents of a center like Nikola Jokic, who can play beautifully alongside rim-running center Mason Plumlee, all hope isn’t lost for making Miami’s big man marriage work.
Until the Toronto Raptors lost Jonas Valanciunas to a thumb injury back in December, Raptors coach Nick Nurse managed to create a center-focused lineup that was offensively potent, defensively stifling, and didn’t put anyone too far out of their comfort zones.
Toronto fielded Valanciunas alongside Pascal Siakam, a forward who is compiling an articulate case for most improved player of 2018-19. In a lineup with Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Kyle Lowry, the Valanciunas-Siakam combo has posted a 21.4 net rating through 140 minutes played.
Neither Valanciunas nor Siakam are particularly skillful 3-point shooters (admittedly they’ve combined for 40 this season, eight times as many as Whiteside and Adebayo in the entire careers), but Siakam’s willingness to barrel around the court and use his 6-foot-9 frame to create shots for his teammates subverts the need for him or Valanciunas to waste away in the corners awaiting kickouts.
Interestingly, Siakam starts out on the corner, but rather than giving old man Vince Carter an easy play off by shooting a 3, he drives to the paint. In the process he opens up Valanciunas for an easy shovel pass and baby hook finish in Whiteside Territory.
Swap the Raptors’ bigs for Adebayo and Whiteside, and a similar play becomes possible. Unlike Whiteside, who has amassed 175 assists through six seasons in Miami, Adebayo is a willing passer, totaling 191 through his first two years in South Beach. Always improving at playing off the dribble, Adebayo could easily chop up defenses from the corner off the bounce, as ill-prepared defensive rotations would open up easy dimes down low or create his own YouTube highlight ready finishes.
Though Spoelstra has been one to play around with lineups—remember Jutise Winslow playing center in 2016?—the Heat’s current personnel crisis is likely to put future Adebayo-Whiteside experiments on the backburner.
Miami has long been a team known for its ability to entice players to buy into its system, but recent outbursts have said otherwise. Dion Waiters is unhappy. Wayne Ellington might get traded. The sun might be setting on the House That Pat Built, even as Dwyane Wade and the Heat try to salvage one last season together.
Whiteside and Adebayo aren’t going reshape Miami into a long-term winning ball club. It’s likely too late for that. But making better use of their time together might inch the narrative away from the current track towards implosion.