It’s always satisfying when two players with agreeable games end up on the same team, under a coach who understands their symbiotic energy and optimizes their creativity inside the right system.
My favorite example is Duncan Robinson and Bam Adebayo, a two-man basketball opera who might also represent the NBA’s most potent 1-2 punch. They pass, cut, float, feint, screen, shoot and dunk like the personification of teamwork in its most merciless and committed form.
Miami’s offense averages 114.8 points per 100 possessions when the pair shares the court — a mark that would lead all teams except the Dallas Mavericks — and when you look at the various and often subtle ways they interact, it’s obvious that efficiency isn’t a coincidence.
Sometimes, a basic arrangement blossoms into something else. Cross Robinson’s catch-and-shoot threat with Adebayo’s rare ability to dice set defenses up as a high-post delivery man, and the result is peanut butter and jelly: two delicacies that are slightly more enjoyable when smashed together.
The two complement each other in several different ways, but nothing is more mutually beneficial than their dribble handoffs. According to Second Spectrum, no pair other than the Denver tandem of Monte Morris and Nikola Jokić has hooked up on more direct handoffs since the restart, and on those plays, Adebayo and Robinson rank in the 71st percentile in points per chance. (We’re working with a small sample size, but according to Second Spectrum, whenever Adebayo’s defender is in “soft” coverage on these handoffs, Miami averages 1.79 points per possession.)
And of the 162 different combinations that have at least 200 actions this season, Robinson and Adebayo’s dribble handoff averages the most points per chance (1.22). Many times it’s nothing out of the ordinary: Robinson zips up from the baseline to retrieve the ball from Adebayo, who can either keep the ball and pivot toward the rim for his first step toward a potential dunk, or flip it to Robinson, set a screen and prompt an immediate three from one of basketball’s premier outside shooters. (According to PBP Stats, Adebayo has assisted more of Robinson’s threes this season than any other player in the NBA has fed one of their teammates’s downtown conversions.)
Regarding the first scenario, Adebayo has executed the most fake handoffs this season, while the Heat generate 1.38 points per possession on those plays — good for the 93rd percentile among the 65 players who’ve pulled off at least 25 of them, according to Second Spectrum. That number rises to an unconscious 1.42 points per possession when Robinson is his dance partner. The gravity is bone crushing.
And the attention drawn by their collaboration yields opportunities for everybody else. Imagine being Wes Matthews in the play below: You anticipate everything Robinson wants to do, and Brook Lopez even lends you a helping hand higher up on the floor than he typically wants to be, but in the end it doesn’t matter.
The pair places immense pressure on defenders. Here, when Kemba Walker falls trying to chase Robinson around a stagger screen, Marcus Smart instantly abandons Kendrick Nunn so he can switch onto Bam and let Jaylen Brown snuff out Robinson’s potential three. But in that chaos, Nunn springs free near the top of the arc. Robinson swings him the ball, and he’s able to blow by Walker’s hard closeout for a layup.
In this next example against the Denver Nuggets, Adebayo actually keeps the ball and draws a foul at the rim, but he could have easily kicked it out to either corner. These two are simply reading the defense and then bursting off a coordinated reaction. It’s basketball ecstasy.
The Heat utilize this dribble-handoff partnership more as a delicious side dish than an entree — it accounts for 7.6 actions per 100 possessions, which is pretty scarce when lumped in with pick-and-roll pairings, according to Second Spectrum — but that limited dosage makes sense for a variety of reasons. To start, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has almost too many ball-handling options, with Jimmy Butler, Goran Dragić and Nunn all touching the rock in an offense that utilizes all the space that’s provided by shooters like Robinson and Tyler Herro. Adebayo is also useful as a traditional big man who rolls to the rim, and Robinson is more than adept at spacing the offense.
Defenses that can switch all five players can frustrate the duo. Watch what happens when OG Anunoby glides off Adebayo to smother Robinson in the corner.
But handoffs are not the only way these two attack. In fact, their primary entry point into Miami’s offensive scheme usually comes away from the action: Miami averages 1.20 points on possessions where Bam sets an off-ball screen for Robinson, which is in the 81st percentile among duos with at least 50 direct off-ball screens. Moreover, among the 139 duos that have engaged in at least 50 direct off-ball screens this season, Robinson and Adebayo’s 1.40 points per direct off-ball screen ranks first.
On their own, Adebayo and Robinson are both important, skilled, highly valuable players that every NBA team wishes they had. But together, they unlock something even more special. They may not throw knockout punches by themselves, but they do represent a tenacious setup combo that’s peppered throughout Miami’s 48-minute fights.
If the Heat set forth on a playoff run that includes more than one upset, Robinson and Adebayo’s collaborative magic will be a key factor.
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