Around the turn of the 19th century, German philosophers developed “Gestalt theory” to explain the unconscious visual connections humans make when confronted with an image. Rather than analyze the constituents of an image, its principles explain how smaller parts form into larger bodies. Basically, don’t look at the individual pieces but instead try to see how they work together. “Gestalt” translates to “whole that is more than its parts,” or for NBA fanatics, “2017-2018 Miami Heat.”
As of January 18th, the Miami Heat have risen to 4th place in the Eastern conference, doing so without an All-Star. In fact, nobody on their roster has ever even been to an All-Star game. A patchwork roster of NBA journeymen and young talent, the Heat are 23rd in offensive rating, 10th in defensive rating and perhaps most shockingly, 27th in pace. Their average scoring margin is 18th in the league at -0.6, sandwiched in between the 18-25 Charlotte Hornets (-0.1) and 20-25 New York Knicks (-0.8). Considering these concerning statistics and their shoddy roster, it’s curious how the Heat have been successful this season.
Every player on the current Heat roster is a misshapen cog abandoned by other franchises, only to be collected by Pat Riley and integrated into his grandfather clock of success. Sitting at a middling .500 for the first half of the season, the Heat have gone 15-5 in their past 20 games, replicating last year’s late season success with stingy defense and balanced offense. Hassan Whiteside is their rock defensively, leading all starting centers in opponents field goal percentage within five feet at 54.5%. He’s lanky and quick enough to defend both players in pick-and-roll situations which gives his teammates valuable seconds to get back into position. Surrounding him are hardworking, athletic guards such as Wayne Ellington, Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson, which makes for a formidable defense. In the 11 games since Whiteside has returned, Miami’s rim defense has dropped from 57% to 56%, a statistic that will become more evident as Whiteside continues to rebound from his knee injury.
Offensively, the Heat run one the most balanced attacks in the NBA. It’s boring but effective; eight players average double digit points, spreading the scoring out across a variety of playmakers. Head coach Erik Spoelstra has gone back to the fundamentals, running simple drive and kicks until the sun goes down. Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters are eighth and ninth in the NBA in drives per game, leading to kick outs and catch and shoot situations, on which the Heat score the third most points in the league. The majority of Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson’s shots are three-pointers and Kelly Olynyk is capable of knocking down outside shots. James Johnson gives the offense a playmaking dimension from the frontcourt position as well. He’s not afraid to put the ball on the floor, averaging the fourth most drives per game on the team. He’s also a willing passer, averaging four assists while making the third-most passes per game on the team.
Losing Dion Waiters to season ending surgery isn’t the end of the world for Miami’s offense either. His driving and playmaking will be missed, but he was shooting 40% from the field and 30% from three. His minutes will be doled out to Johnson, Ellington and Richardson, expediting their development. Spoelstra has proven he’s one of the best tinkering minds among NBA coaches; this will be nothing knew to him.
In late game situations, Spoelstra must choose between Whiteside’s defensive prowess or Olynyk’s polished offensive game. Since Whiteside’s return, Spoelstra has gone with the latter. The lineup featuring Dragic, Ellington, Johnson, Olynyk, and Richardson has lead fourth quarter minutes at 7.7, while Whiteside isn’t included until the fourth-most used lineup. Last Wednesday against the Bucks however, Whiteside finished the fourth quarter in a closely contested game, putting up 27 points and 11 rebounds. As he returns from his knee injury, he’ll see his fourth quarter minutes increase.
Depending on your basketball philosophy, the 2017-2018 Miami Heat are either entertaining or boring as hell. If you want glitz and glamor, maybe go check out another team. If you want a bunch of misfits who are eking out wins by the skin of their teeth, give the Heat a shot. They’ve got the most close game wins–any game where the score margin is 5 or less anytime in last 5 minutes–in the entire NBA. The Heat are achieving what basketball is all about – individuals coming together to form a cohesive unit. Perhaps Gestalt theory really was just about basketball.