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The Miami Heat Act Like They’ve Been Here Before. They (Mostly) Haven’t.

Out of the five teams left standing in the 2020 NBA postseason — a list that includes such heavy hitters as the Los Angeles Lakers and Clippers — the most impressive of all has probably been the Miami Heat. After knocking off the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, the Heat boast the highest winning percentage of any team this postseason (88.9 percent) along with the best RAPTOR rating (+14.9) — and they’ve gained the most points of Elo rating during the playoffs of any team:

The Heat are the playoffs’ most impressive team

Best 2020 NBA playoff teams, according to FiveThirtyEight’s postseason RAPTOR efficiency ratings and Elo rating gains

Best RAPTOR Ratings Most Improved Elo
Rk Team Off. Def. Tot. Rk Team Elo Gain*
1 MIA +9.0 +5.9 +14.9 1 MIA 1639 +82
2 BOS +5.5 +8.4 +14.0 2 BOS 1710 63
3 LAL +5.2 +7.0 +12.2 3 LAL 1660 49
4 LAC +6.4 +4.6 +11.0 4 DEN 1570 19
5 UTA +11.3 -2.2 +9.1 5 HOU 1553 11

*Gains relative to the end of the regular season.

Source: NBA Advanced Stats

The Heat were good enough in the regular season to finish 44-29. But they weren’t supposed to be anywhere near this good in the playoffs — particularly given how they were constructed by team president Pat Riley. Contrary to the accepted narrative about how to build a championship contender, the Heat have gotten to this stage with historically limited playoff experience and an unusually deep ensemble cast of contributors around star Jimmy Butler.

To the former point, Miami enters the conference finals with only seven players on its roster who had any postseason experience before 2020, the fewest of all the remaining teams. The Celtics, Lakers and Clippers all feature 10 or more players who have played in the playoffs at least once before.

In fact, among conference finals teams from the past two decades, only two featured fewer players on their postseason roster who had any previous postseason experience — the 2002 Boston Celtics and the 2007 Utah Jazz:

The Heat are rolling with little playoff experience

NBA conference finalists with the fewest number of players* who had any previous playoff experience, 2000-2020

Players on team with…
Season Team Playoff Experience No Playoff Experience Prev. Playoff WAR** Went to Finals?
2002 BOS 4 7 2.9
2007 UTA 6 7 9.5
2020 MIA 7 5 27.0
2002 NJN 8 4 3.4
2018 BOS 8 4 9.4
2015 HOU 8 4 36.8
2005 PHO 8 2 8.3
2016 OKC 9 5 34.4
2015 CLE 9 5 63.2
2010 PHO 9 4 21.1
2013 MEM 9 4 23.5
2018 CLE 9 4 90.8
2003 DET 9 3 9.3
2008 BOS 9 3 36.9
2002 SAC 9 2 11.7

*Players who played at least one playoff game for the team.
**Total previous career RAPTOR wins above replacement (WAR) for all players on the postseason roster.

Sources: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

The ’07 Jazz were led by the 1-2 punch of 22-year-old point guard Deron Williams and 25-year-old power forward Carlos Boozer, neither of whom had played in the playoffs before that season. They did have a few veterans on hand to maintain a steady example for the young guys, though. Center Mehmet Okur had participated in two deep playoff runs for the Detroit Pistons, while guard Derek Fisher had played 117 previous postseason games for the Los Angeles Lakers during their Shaq-Kobe dynasty era. The ’02 Celtics didn’t even have that much experience to rely on: Only one player on the entire roster (Rodney Rogers) had even 30 previous games of postseason experience, and four of the top five Celtics in minutes — Antoine Walker, Paul Pierce, Eric Williams and Tony Battie — had zero playoff experience.

Of course, it bears mentioning that relatively few of the teams on the list above actually punched a ticket to the NBA Finals. For instance, the Jazz were ousted in five games by the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, while the Celtics lost an ugly six-game affair against the New Jersey Nets. This makes sense — our previous research shows that playoff experience matters a lot in the NBA. But it also underscores the unique nature of what the Heat are trying to accomplish in bucking the trend of a deep playoff run fueled by playoff-tested vets.

The Heat’s contributions during the playoffs have also come from atypical sources. According to RAPTOR wins above replacement (WAR), Butler was Miami’s best player during the regular season (with 8.8 WAR), and he’s still been very productive in the playoffs so far (1.2 WAR in nine games). But his Heat teammates have also given him a tremendous amount of support. By WAR, 83.8 percent of Miami’s total value this postseason has been generated by players other than Butler, headlined by guard Goran Dragić (1.7 WAR), center Bam Adebayo (1.1) and forward Jae Crowder (0.9). Among conference finals teams with a clear-cut No. 1 star1 since 1984, nobody else has gotten as large a share of their playoff production from their supporting cast as these Heat have:

The Heat have gotten a lot from the Other Guys

For NBA conference finalists, largest share of team RAPTOR wins above replacement (WAR) from players other than their top star*, 1984-2020

WAR by supporting Cast
Season Team Star Player* Playoff WAR Total Share of Team
2020 MIA SF Jimmy Butler 1.2 6.2 83.8%
2014 SAS SF Kawhi Leonard 3.5 15.8 81.9
2008 DET PG Chauncey Billups 2.0 8.9 81.4
2019 POR PG Damian Lillard 1.7 7.2 81.3
2016 GSW PG Stephen Curry 3.0 12.6 80.7
2017 BOS PG Isaiah Thomas 1.2 5.0 80.3
2010 PHO PG Steve Nash 2.2 8.5 79.6
2010 ORL C Dwight Howard 2.3 8.8 79.6
2008 SAS SG Manu Ginobili 2.1 7.9 79.0
2020 BOS PF Jayson Tatum 2.0 6.8 77.3
1985 PHI PG Maurice Cheeks 1.7 5.8 77.2
1988 DAL PG Derek Harper 1.9 6.5 77.1
2010 BOS PG Rajon Rondo 3.6 11.9 76.8
1998 UTA PF Karl Malone 2.9 9.4 76.4
1998 IND SG Reggie Miller 2.5 8.0 76.3

*Star status is based on the player who led the team in regular-season WAR. List excludes teams without a clear-cut No. 1 regular-season player (who led the team by at least 2 WAR).

Source: NBA Advanced Stats, Basketball-Reference.com

The Heat’s conference-finals opponents, the Boston Celtics, aren’t far off, in terms of the support their surrounding players have given star Jayson Tatum. Just like Butler, Tatum is second on his own team in postseason WAR, trailing point guard Kemba Walker.

For Miami, these two team-building themes kind of run together: The inexperienced players are also the ones being asked to carry more of the load. Aside from Andre Iguodala — who played 145 previous playoff games with the Sixers, Nuggets and (most notably) Warriors over the years — Butler had the most previous playoff experience (55 games) of any Miami player going into the 2020 postseason. And Butler has had a hand in just about everything good the Heat have done over the past month. But by also relying so heavily on supporting players with little to no playoff pedigree, coach Erik Spoelstra is showing the trust he has in Miami’s entire roster — not just its undisputed best player.

The play from Miami’s youth has proven that Butler and Spoelstra’s trust was not misplaced. Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson are among the six Heat players with double-digit scoring averages this postseason. The trio’s combined 41.5 points per game is over a third of Miami’s scoring average of 112.1.

After establishing themselves as legitimate shooters during the regular season, Herro and Robinson have both carried their hot shooting into the postseason, particularly from behind the arc. Herro is shooting 40 percent and Robinson is shooting 39 percent on 3-point shots. Robinson ranks in the top five among all sophomores in the playoffs in offensive rating (112.9), effective field-goal percentage (60.9) and true shooting percentage (63.2).

Herro, the rookie first-round draft pick, is one of only two first-year performers who has scored over 100 points in the playoffs, and his 41.3 field-goal percentage ranks third among rookies who have attempted at least five shots per game this postseason. He’s also averaged the most minutes per game (32.3) of all rookies in these playoffs, as well.

Meanwhile, Adebayo, a 2019-20 second team All-Defensive selection and runner-up for Most Improved Player, is the team’s third leading scorer in the playoffs with 16.2 points per game and has anchored the team’s defense in the low post. He also leads the team in rebounds (11.7) and assists per game (4.8) this postseason.

In an interview with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols before the start of the playoffs, Butler said he thought the Heat had what it took to win the championship. And throughout the postseason, his confidence hasn’t wavered at all.

Will he be right? If Miami is able to beat the Celtics (which, to be fair, would be an upset, according to our model), it would represent a pretty unprecedented triumph for a team that has broken many of the normal rules of championship roster construction. Simply put, teams like the 2019-20 Heat — with limited playoff experience and inordinate depth — aren’t supposed to vie for NBA titles. Leave it to Riley, who wrote many of those rules while winning nine rings as a player, head coach and executive, to find a way to defy them with one of his most fascinating teams yet.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Meaning their best regular-season player (by WAR) beat the team’s second-ranked player by at least 2.0 WAR during the regular season. (This is to exclude cases where the “supporting cast” simply included a team’s second superstar, thus skewing the data.)

Andres Waters is a freelance writer based in Connecticut. He is a data analyst at ESPN.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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