The Miami Heat in one year did what the Orlando Magic have been unable to do in eight.
They were rebuilt into a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference.
It was just last March that the Magic and Heat were a couple of sub-.500 teams battling for a playoff spot in what was hailed the biggest Magic game in a decade. It was the Magic who won the game, the Magic who made the playoffs, and the Magic who were seemingly taking the next step in their rebuilding plan.
It was the Magic who returned with the same core, expecting that continuity to translate into continued teamwide progression. Instead, it’s the Heat, a team that last season finished 39-43, a team that failed to make the playoffs, a team that on opening night this season took the court with four starters who weren’t on the previous year’s team, who have emerged as one of the East’s elite.
So, how did the Heat, a team that even after losing LeBron James in 2014, never fully pressed the rebuild button or struggled through 20-something win seasons, manage to surpass the Magic, a team that started rebuilding when LeBron was still on the Heat.
With Orlando on a four-day break that is sandwiched between a home-and-home against Miami, it seemed a good time to look at the path the Heat took to regain Florida supremacy.
The obvious answer would be that the Heat managed to lure a star in what is a star-driven league. The acquisition of Jimmy Butler via sign-and-trade obviously gave the Heat a marquee free agent to build around. While the Heat were recruiting Butler, the Magic used the bulk of their offseason funds to retain their own free agents, a necessary move given Orlando’s ranking as a destination city. Yes, the stars of the NBA would rather spend their nights in South Beach than Disney World.
While Butler is averaging 20.2 points per game, and helped the Heat go from 22nd in free throw attempts to 3rd, he has served as more of a facilitator than most expected.
Butler is taking the fewest field goal attempts per game (13.3) since his third year in the league (that includes taking fewer shots a game than last season when he attempted 13.6 per in a star-studded Sixers lineup) despite posting the second highest usage rate of his career. His 6.4 assists per game and 28.7 percent assist rate easily top his previous career-highs of 5.5 and 24.8 percent set in 2016-2017.
So, it’s clearly not just the star. It’s also those surrounding the star.
The Heat currently own the second-best true shooting percentage in the league at 58.6 percent. Last year they were 27th in the league at 54.2 percent. Their offensive rating has climbed from 106.7 last season (26th), to 111.5 this season (8th).
A large part of that can be attributed to impact rookies, something the Magic have failed to produce, whether due to injury (Chuma Okeke, Mo Bamba, Jonathan Isaac), trade (Domantas Sabonis), or disappointment (Mario Hezonja). The Heat addressed their shooting needs in the 2019 Draft, selecting Tyler Herro earlier than expected with the 13th pick, three picks before the Magic took Okeke, who was recovering from a torn ACL and is being redshirted as a rookie. Herro, who our Aaron Goldstone profiled prior to the Draft as a player who would fill a need for the Magic, has shot 38.8 percent from three while taking 5.5 attempts per. Few rookies in NBA history (granted in a league that prioritizes the three-point shot like never before) have launched and connected at such a rate, with The Athletic recently pointing out that Landry Shamet and Rudy Fernandez are the only other rookies to have shot 38 percent from three on over five attempts per game.
Herro is one of five rotational players on the Heat shooting at least 38 percent from three. The Magic, who in no way addressed their lack of shooting in the draft or with their mid-level exception, have but one: Evan Fournier (39.6 percent). As a result, Miami has seen its three-point percentage climb to second best in the league at 37.6 percent. This after shooting 34.9 percent last season, which was 21st in the NBA.
Duncan Robinson, who worked his way from the G League to the Heat starting five, is taking 7.7 three-point attempts per game and making them at a 43.8 percent clip. A catch-and-shoot specialist, Robinson is averaging 12.1 points a game, 8.8 of which come on catch-and-shoot situations, which is second most in the league. Meyers Leonard, a career back-up center in Portland acquired in an offseason trade package for Hassan Whiteside, has become a starting stretch-four in Miami, shooting 42.6 percent from three on 2.3 attempts per.
The emergence of the undrafted Kendrick Nunn, who went from the Warriors G League team to potentially being runner-up to Ja Morant for Rookie of the Year, has given the Heat an off-the-dribble threat who also has range (16.2 points, 35.6 percent from three on 5.8 attempts per). With Nunn starting at the point, Goran Dragic has bolstered the bench while averaging 15.9 points per and taking (2.3) and making (5.7) more threes than ever before in his 12-year career (39.5 percent from three). With Dragic, Herro and Kelly Olynyk all coming off the bench, the Heat have depth and firepower, two qualities the Magic lack.
The Heat, like the Magic, still play at one of the league’s slowest paces, but they evolved into a team that typically has a least four outside threats on the court at all times, giving them the shooting and floor spacing that Orlando so glaringly lacks in the half-court set.
While the Heat additions have thrived, the Magic returnees outside of Fournier (and Jonathan Isaac prior to his potential season-ending injury), have struggled. Nikola Vucevic, coming off an All-Star season is shooting a career-low 44.2 percent from the field, albeit while attempting a career-high 4.8 three-point attempts per game (accounting for a career-high 35.6 percent of his field goal attempts). Aaron Gordon, with preseason “leap” expectations, is also shooting a career-low at 41.8 percent. Terrence Ross, coming off a season in which he made a career-best 217 threes, is shooting just 32.6 percent from long range, with poor spacing a contributing factor (last season: 22.2 percent of field goals were open threes, 12.2 percent were wide open; this season: 17.5 percent of field goals were open threes, 6.8 were wide open).
THE INTERNAL IMPROVEMENT
The Magic were banking on internal improvement, but so far have largely seen regression, and that has been compounded by injuries that have robbed them of what was already limited depth. The Heat, meanwhile, boast a candidate for Most Improved Player that was just named the newest Floridian All-Star center. While the Magic understandably invested in Vucevic, the Heat also understandably moved on from their incumbent center: Hassan Whiteside. That paved the way for Bam Adebayo in his third season to emerge as one of the league’s best big men.
While Adebayo doesn’t provide the range of Vucevic (more than 60 percent of his field goal attempts come from within five feet of the basket, hence the 58.9 shooting percentage), his guard-like ballhandling and passing ability has added a new dimension to the Heat offense, particularly for their off-the-ball scoring guards. With his athleticism on the defensive end, Adebayo has the ability to take on the toughest of defensive assignments (Giannis), seamlessly switch onto and challenge any perimeter player, and also provide much-needed help on a team that has some clear holes defensively.
Adebayo has taken a leap the Magic hoped Aaron Gordon would take, a leap they started to see Jonathan Isaac take, and a leap they hope Mo Bamba will eventually take. While the theme of the Magic’s eight-year rebuild continues to be patience and hope, the Heat’s on yea rebuild took them from the lottery to a potential two-seed.
Miami’s instant rebuild was the result of embracing modern elements of the NBA: playmaking, outside shooting, switchability. The Magic, with a front office that has prioritized length and defense over shooting and positional balance, simply do not have the personnel to commit to that brand of basketball.
Their top playmaker is Markelle Fultz, who can maneuver through traffic at will but becomes a liability when the ball is not in his hands because of his defender’s propensity to leave him alone at the perimeter and stuff the paint or double without consequence. Their outside shooting, well, the numbers speak for themselves: 28th in the league in three-point shooting at 33.4 percent, 26h in the league in offensive rating at 105.1. Their switchability, bolstered by versatile and athletic defenders like Gordon and Isaac, can be negated by Vucevic, whose switch defense consists of backpedaling toward the basket in hope of not getting beat off the dribble. The Magic strategy is an antiquated formula, one that likely has a ceiling no higher than the first round of the playoffs.
For as much progress as the Heat have made in one offseason, they still seem one piece away from being a threat to the Bucks. With limited draft picks and zero salary cap flexibility following the Butler sign-and-trade, it’s unlikely that piece comes via trade this season unless they part with one of their newfound assets. With Butler now on the wrong side of 30, there will be urgency for the Heat, who should be able to lock-up Adebayo and still be players in the free agent class of 2021.
But over the course of one summer, the Heat acquired an All-Star, developed another, got rookie contributions, found complementary pieces, altered their style of play and found success.
Success that, even after all these years, the Orlando Magic are still searching for.