Heat’s Caleb Martin reflects on adjustment to power forward role as trade deadline looms

Nell Redmond/AP

The Miami Heat’s current starting power forward is Caleb Martin, but it remains to be seen if that will still be the case past Thursday’s NBA trade deadline.

The Heat has prioritized adding frontcourt reinforcement with size before the deadline, whether that’s a power forward who can start or play as Martin’s backup and/or another reserve big man option behind starting center Bam Adebayo.

Following the departure of P.J. Tucker in free agency this past offseason, Martin has filled in admirably as the Heat’s starting power forward this season despite being undersized for the position at 6-5 and 205 pounds.

Power forward is a position that Martin wasn’t too familiar with after playing mostly as a wing in his first three NBA seasons. He logged at least 75 percent of his minutes at either the shooting guard or small forward positions in each of his first three seasons before playing 92 percent of his minutes as a power forward this season, according to Basketball Reference’s position estimate.

“It was one of the biggest surprises because we obviously didn’t think he would be able to get out of what he was so used to doing and be able to adapt this fast,” starting center Bam Adebayo said, with the Heat (29-25) returning to practice Tuesday before opening a quick two-game homestand Wednesday against the Indiana Pacers (7:30 p.m., Bally Sports Sun). “He actually committed to this and sacrificed. The fact that you can tell a guy, ‘You’ve been this so long. We want you to become this.’ And for him to just buy in obviously has made our team better.”

When Martin has been healthy, he has provided quality minutes at his new position. He’s averaging career highs in points (10.2 per game), rebounds (five per game), assists (1.7 per game) and minutes (30.5 per game) this season, while shooting 37.7 percent on a career-high 3.7 three-point attempts per game and posting a positive plus/minus of plus-22 this season.

“He’s a really important guy to our success,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He does a lot of little things. His activity defensively when he’s at his best fits so well with Jimmy [Butler] and Bam, and the rest of the guys, but those two guys in particular. And he fills in a lot of these intangible gaps. A lot of times it doesn’t necessarily lead to what shows in the box score.”

There have also been injuries along the way that have slowed Martin this season, as he missed nine games in a 14-game stretch that began in mid-December and spilled into January because of a sprained left ankle and strained left quadriceps.

When asked if those injuries are a result of playing up a position that has required him to set more screens and grab more rebounds, Martin made it clear that he did not see a correlation.

“I think it’s just knickknacks, honestly,” said Martin, who was re-signed by the Heat to a fully guaranteed three-year deal worth $20.4 million as a restricted free agent this past summer. “The stuff I’m doing is like a rolled ankle in transition, jumping and trying to be athletic. It’s not really the bumps and bruises. There aren’t a ton of fours that I’m guarding and we’re switching. I start on the four, put myself in a position to run certain sets and stuff like that. But overall, I don’t catch myself playing a four every time. So I don’t find it like I’m getting bumped around and bruised and whatever. I don’t think it’s that.”

But playing as a power forward has forced Martin to adjust his game to fit more of an off-ball role. While he’s averaging career highs in field-goal attempts and three-point attempts this season, his usage rate (an estimate of the percentage of team plays used by a player while on the court) is down from 15.8 percent last season to 14.4 percent this season because that uptick in shots has come mostly because he’s logging more minutes this season.

“It’s definitely a little different, just knowing I’m playing more of a sacrificial role,” Martin said. “I think initially it was tough because when you come into a new year, you’re wanting to improve in every aspect and obviously move up. But I just knew that being in that position, being in that group, I just had to kind of take a backseat to things and do all the other little things and it would come full circle.”

As part of a starting lineup that includes ball-dominant players such as Adebayo, Butler and Tyler Herro, Martin understands his main responsibility on offense is to help provide space for them to operate with his outside shooting. Martin is shooting 34.4 percent on 2.8 catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per game this season compared to 40.2 percent on two catch-and-shoot three-point attempts per game last season.

“You got guys like Tyler and all the guys, they create so much attention when they have the ball, it’s just opening a lot of spot-ups,” Martin said. “I think I’ve been able to show that I can shoot at a high clip and also at a high volume. And I think one of my main knocks coming into the league was being able to hit the open shot as a shooter. So just being able to show that and then add in getting to the rim whenever it’s needed.”

Martin has embraced the starting power forward role, even as he admits it feels strange to play in the frontcourt instead of as a wing.

“It’s a little different because just being an undersized four in this lineup and playing bigger guys,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a little weird being a wing and you’re screening. You’re not really used to it, but I think that’s kind of expanded my game off the ball.”

Martin also makes sure to correct those who say playing power forward means he’s guarding bigger players. He points out that he’s sometimes used on the opponent’s best perimeter player because of his defensive versatility and the Heat’s switch-heavy defensive scheme has him guarding different players on different possessions.

But one of the many questions the Heat’s front office must answer before Thursday’s trade deadline is: Should Martin continue playing as the starting power forward or is he and the team better suited if he returns to a bench role to play his more natural position as an athletic two-way wing? A potential trade for a power forward could also simply be to provide depth at the position behind Martin.

“I mean, he has played guard his whole life,” Adebayo said of Martin. “And to put him at the four spot and tell him he’s got to screen and roll, and he’s so used to coming off screens. I feel like that’s a whole different dynamic for him to learn.”