The Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks — two teams expected to be among the NBA’s fringe contenders — are both third from the bottom in their conferences and in growing danger of missing the playoffs entirely.
There are plenty of legitimate reasons why the Heat and Mavericks have underperformed, but just as many to prove they are more fragile than we thought, so at what point do we throw in the towel on their chances?
The Mavs returned the same rotation that produced the best offensive rating in NBA history last season (115.9 points per 100 possessions) and gave the Los Angeles Clippers a serious scare in the first round, save for the swap of Seth Curry’s 3-point marksmanship for Josh Richardson’s supposed two-way ability.
That would explain a slight dip in offensive efficiency, especially considering Richardson is shooting sub-30% from distance this season, but it does not cover a nearly seven points-per-100 possessions drop to 21st in offensive rating. Richardson is not the sole reason Dallas rates as the worst-shooting team in the league. Four of its top five 3-point shooters in volume are making a combined 30% on 331 attempts.
That includes Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. The former showed up to training camp out of shape and is somehow still averaging 27.3 points, 9.4 assists and nine rebounds per game. He will be fine. The latter is of far greater concern. He missed the first nine games of the season recovering from a second season-ending knee surgery in the past three years, and he has looked nothing like the floor-spacing and rim-protecting force the Mavericks thought they were getting on a five-year, $158 million max contract.
Confidence is dwindling that the 7-foot-3 25-year-old can return to All-Star form over the course of that deal, but he better, because Dallas has hitched its wagon to him as Doncic’s costar for the foreseeable future. The Mavs will have cap space in free agency, but they have struggled to lure big names before in loaded classes, and this year’s crop is far from abundant. But enough worrying about their long-term future.
The Mavericks are in trouble now, but it is nothing a hot streak cannot fix. At 7-13, they are three games out of a play-in bid and four back from fifth place in the West. Respective six- and seven-game win streaks recently catapulted the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies from similar spots to playoff positioning.
It is still substantial ground to cover a third of the way into the season. The Mavericks have to finish 28-23 over their final 51 games — a win percentage not so dissimilar to last year — just to claw back to .500. That would likely be enough to secure a play-in spot for one of the final two playoff seeds, but it is no guarantee.
Dallas is banking on a return to its mean after COVID-19 ravaged the roster and resulted in a 2-9 record since Jan. 15. Five rotational players have missed nine or more games, accounting for the Mavericks’ four positive coronavirus tests and forcing coach Rick Carlisle to play 12 different starting lineups in 21 games.
This presumes, though, that there will not be another outbreak, that those who did catch the virus will not experience lasting effects, and that they will be otherwise healthy. The Mavs have been left with no wiggle room, and Doncic’s recent comments implied this is not a team that is prepared to operate in that space.
“There’s really not much to say,” he said after the fourth of their six straight losses. “I’ve never felt like this, and we’ve got to do something, because it’s not looking good and we’ve got to step up. ... It’s mostly effort.
“Right now, it’s looking like we don’t care, honestly, if we win games or not.”
With J.J. Barea gone, the leadership void in the Dallas locker room has been left to the 21-year-old Doncic, but it is way too early in a season that was expected to be wildly unpredictable to draw any correlation between his vocal and visible frustration and his team’s poor performance through a third of the season.
As long as Doncic stays healthy, the Mavericks should be confident his steady hand will guide them past at least five of the seven teams ahead of them. It is fellow preseason MVP picks Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard who stand in the way of a repeat sixth seed or a spot in a play-in tournament, and that is concerning.
The Heat returned the heart of a roster that came within two wins of the title last season, but they have been forced to make some tweaks to the fringes of their rotation. Stalwart wing defenders Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones Jr. left in free agency, replaced by Avery Bradley, who has missed 10 of the last 12 games with a COVID-19 diagnosis and a knee injury. And Meyers Leonard, who started at center for much of last season before being benched in favor of a small-ball playoff lineup, just had season-ending shoulder surgery.
Jimmy Butler has played just eight games after missing three weeks to the league’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols. The Heat were 2-8 in his absence, which means they are 5-5 with him in the lineup. Protocols and injuries have also cost Tyler Herro and Kendrick Nunn seven games apiece, forcing Goran Dragic — a 34-year-old point guard recovering from a plantar fascia tear — into more minutes than Miami would have liked. It is perhaps no coincidence he suffered a groin strain that has hampered him for a week.
The three stars who carried the Heat to the Finals — Butler, Dragic and Bam Adebayo — have been on the court together for 66 possessions this season. They played nearly 700 as a trio in the playoffs, outscoring opponents by double digits per 100 possessions and transforming Miami from a fifth seed to a contender.
Dragic’s dependability has to be of concern, and Crowder’s absence removes another key cog in what was a prolific 3-point attack down the stretch last year. He shot 38.8% on seven 3-point attempts a game, a decent chunk of Miami’s second-ranked 3-point percentage in both the regular season and playoffs. The Heat rank 24th in that regard this season. Improvement on Herro’s slow start (31% from 3-point range) will help them climb the rankings, but a team that so rarely generates attempts at the rim has to be elite from 3.
Butler’s return should propel the Heat enough on both ends of the floor to get back into the playoff picture. They are two losses back from a play-in spot and three behind the sixth spot. Again, though, the Heat have to finish the season 29-23 — a stellar .558 win percentage — just to get back to .500, and that will not be good enough to avoid the play-in tournament in an Eastern Conference that is deeper than years past.
Five of the six teams between them and seventh place right now are ripe to fall back to earth. It is a Toronto Raptors team that has improved since its own slow start and the young Atlanta Hawks that stand in the way of assurance that Miami can defend its conference crown. You would like to think Butler’s will to win will overcome the risks of further injury and obstacles, but Heat culture better start climbing that steep hill soon.
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