When the Miami Heat traded for Goran Dragic, many thought it would catapult the team into Eastern Conference contention. That is, until Chris Bosh was diagnosed with a blood clot in his lungs, ending his season. With the best (or second best, depending on whom you ask) player on the team sidelined, the Heat went from a sleeper pick to a team that might not make the playoffs.
Fast forward to today, and Miami is still alive in the playoff race despite a litany of other injuries. As it stands, the Heat’s first-round opponent would be a date with old friend LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. And what’s even more remarkable is that Miami has been a better team since the Bosh injury.
That isn’t to say that playing without Bosh has helped the Heat, because he’d be a huge asset to the Heat right now. But with Dragic and Hassan Whiteside on board, Miami has been able to withstand the blow of losing Bosh on offense and they’ve actually improved on defense.
Miami looked like it might be in trouble offensively without Bosh on offense, as his ability to stretch the floor was a key part of what the Heat liked to run. The offense relied so heavily on Dwyane Wade and Bosh that losing one of them seemed like it would doom the team, but Dragic and a rejuvenated Wade have carried the team to offensive respectability. On the season, the Heat are 19th in offensive efficiency, but Miami has actually been 16th since the Dragic trade and Bosh diagnosis, per NBA.com.
Since acquiring Dragic, the Heat’s guards have gotten into the lane more often. The Heat relied too much on mid-range action throughout the season, and the lack of another offensive player capable of getting to the rim alongside Wade hurt them. Miami is fifth in the league in shooting percentage on shots inside of eight feet, but attempt the third-fewest shots (tied with Portland) from that area, per NBA.com. Since the Dragic trade, however, the Heat are up to 21st in shot attempts within eight feet per game and tops in the league in percentage on those shots.
With Wade and Dragic attacking the rim, Miami has also been able to get to the line more often. The team is 11th for the year in free throw attempts per game, but sixth since Dragic came aboard.
Dragic wasn’t getting to the line as often in Phoenix, where he ranked 44th among guards in FTA/game. However, Dragic is 17th among all guards who have played 15 games since his trade. With Wade getting to the line even more frequently, Miami is one of only two teams who have two guards getting to the line over four times a game in that span. (minimum 15 games played)
By redistributing mid-range shots to the lane and the line, Miami has shown slight improvement on offense. But the real improvement has come defensively. Miami ranks 18th in defensive efficiency on the year, but sixth since the Dragic trade, per NBA.com. Despite losing an elite defender in Bosh, the Heat have been an elite defensive unit.
Obviously, Whiteside has been the key. His long arms allow him to erase a lot of defensive mistakes. Watch this defensive sequence to see Whiteside’s impact (via YouTube):
Dragic is late getting around the screen, causing Udonis Haslem to help in the lane. Whiteside has the length, athleticism and understanding to help on Haslem’s man (Carlos Boozer) and recover and block a mid-range jumper from his man. (Ed Davis)
Pairing Whiteside with a good team perimeter defender in Luol Deng has been great for the Heat. In fact, the Heat are outscoring opponents by 4.1 points per 100 possessions with Wade, Deng and Whiteside on the court together, per Basketball-Reference.
Dragic has helped too in the sense that he’s not a total disaster on defense. Miami has been 0.6 points better defensively with Dragic on the bench, per Basketball-Reference, so they haven’t gone off the rails with him at the point of attack. Contrast that with Norris Cole, the player who was in the rotation before Dragic came over. The Heat were 6.3 points worse defensively with Cole in the lineup. Sometimes, an upgrade from a terrible defensive player to an average one is overlooked, but Dragic has been significantly better in the defensive scheme than Cole.
Obviously, the Cavaliers would be the overwhelming favorite in a potential playoff showdown with the Heat, but Miami can at least make it interesting if its key players can stay in one piece. Cleveland has had some difficulty defending the paint this season, and Dragic and Wade would make life difficult for any Cavaliers defender. If Miami can keep upping its frequency of shots in the paint and continue to play defense at an elite level, it would at least be an entertaining opening series. And in the Eastern Conference, that has to be considered a win.