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The Shifting Expectations of the Heat and Mavericks

Miami and Dallas came into this season with big goals and aspirations of making deep playoff runs. But now, a month into the season, they’re just trying to get—and keep—their players healthy.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Bam Adebayo considers himself a positive person; a provider of energy for the Miami Heat. That showed itself in two recent games against the Nets, as he dropped 41 points in Saturday’s contest and recorded a double-double on Monday. But not even his usual optimism or the black mask he wears on Zoom calls could hide his frustration after both efforts resulted in losses.

“We are at the bottom of the East right now, it don’t look right being down there,” Adebayo said Monday night. “We’re just down bodies, man. That’s no excuse, but I feel like we could have won that game.”

The Heat are currently 6-11, and though they’re technically only two games out of the no. 8 seed in the East, they have the conference’s third-worst record. After Wednesday night’s 109-82 loss to the Nuggets, Miami has dropped four straight and seven of its past nine games.

For as much as the famed Heat culture emphasizes a mindset of “no excuses,” it’s impossible to ignore the dire situation the team has found itself in over the past month. The Heat’s struggles are not simply a symptom of poor basketball, but rather the fact that a handful of their players—including star forward Jimmy Butler—have been off the court for extended periods of time.

“It’s all pretty nice to say, ‘We stuck with the [Nets],’ but I don’t want to hear that,” Goran Dragic said. “It’s nice to have that grit … sometimes you win with that grit, but you need to execute.”

Butler and offseason addition Avery Bradley had both been out since Jan. 9 due to the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols, though Bradley returned to the floor Wednesday night. Mo Harkless missed two games this month under the same health and safety restrictions. Adebayo himself missed two games due to contact tracing. Both were losses; and in one of those contests, the Heat had only the minimum eight available players required to play the game. (Miami has had only one game postponed so far this season, a Jan. 9 matchup against the Celtics.) This would be a worst-case-scenario start for any team. But for a Heat group coming off an impressive Finals run last season, it’s the opposite of what they expected. Sure, there was a feeling that regression might come this season, but this has been something beyond prediction or control, and it’s introduced a new level of concern for the health of players, too.

“The biggest thing is we want to be safe, first and foremost,” Duncan Robinson said after the Heat played with only eight players against the Sixers on Jan. 12. “It’s certainly frustrating, but everyone is going through it. To say ‘Why us?’ probably isn’t doing anyone any good either.”

Seventeen games into the 2021 regular season, the things that buoyed the Heat in last season’s bubble—culture, cohesion, and chemistry—are exactly the things they’ve been unable to establish. And Miami isn’t the only team experiencing this struggle.

Tim Hardaway knew something wasn’t right. After beating the Nuggets in overtime on Jan. 7, the mood on the Mavericks’ flight to Dallas was not as positive as it normally would have been. The plane was missing three players—Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith, and Jalen Brunson—all of whom had to stay behind in Denver to go through the league’s health and safety protocols.

“It kind of sucked,” Hardaway said after a win over the Magic on Jan. 9. “But right now, that’s the nature of our business.”

While the Heat’s expectations have been somewhat frozen in the East, perhaps no Western Conference team has had a tougher time than Dallas. The Mavericks also have had only one game postponed so far this season, but they have had five important players—Richardson, Finney-Smith, Brunson, Maxi Kleber, and Dwight Powell—out for the better part of the month (Richardson, Powell, and Finney-Smith returned for Wednesday night’s game). While Luka Doncic is still playing at an elite level and will likely be an MVP candidate, the Mavs are a subpar 8-10, have lost three in a row, and are sitting outside the West’s top eight.

The reality of what they’re going through is taking its toll on the court—Dallas has the league’s 16th-ranked offense after having the best last season—and it’s affected the team’s overall demeanor.

“I think we looked like a team that is not energized,” Boban Marjanovic said after the Mavs lost to a James Harden-less Rockets team this past weekend. It was their third game in four days.

League health protocols have had an effect on players’ availability for games this season, but also teams’ routines in between contests. As head coach Rick Carlisle pointed out before Dallas faced the Magic on Jan. 9, the Mavs were not able to have shootaround, a fixture of every team’s day-to-day grind, because of the morning COVID testing and wait times. Teams have had to make many similar adjustments on the spot—for example, Dallas stayed in Tampa overnight after playing the Raptors last week to avoid flying into the location of their next game (Indiana) in the wee hours of the morning.

“Timetables and schedules can shake and dramatically be changed in a very short period of time,” Carlisle said after the Denver game. “We’ve all got to just understand that this is a part of life in the NBA this year.”

The Heat and Mavericks are still more than likely to make the playoffs this year (FiveThirtyEight gives Miami a 73 percent chance and Dallas an 88 percent chance). But in a shortened 72-game season, each game carries more weight. What’s happening now may be long-forgotten history by the time the playoffs start, but right now, the Mavericks’ and Heat’s struggles are real, and the losses they’re accruing could affect the chemistry-building process that is essential for any team with aspirations of making a deep playoff run.

Though every aspect of the NBA’s return to play this season was collectively bargained and agreed upon between players and the league, restrictions have gotten tighter and the league has become more proactive as the season has progressed. Teams like the Wizards and Grizzlies have been forced to postpone multiple games, either because they’ve had too many players in COVID protocols at the same time, or because the NBA has been trying to limit virus spread within teams. And while others, like the Heat and Mavs, have mostly been able to keep going, their depleted rosters have stretched available players to the limit. That’s left players vulnerable not just to losses, but injuries, and having to adjust to new circumstances on the fly.

“I told the team they’re like a bunch of Navy SEALs,” coach Erik Spoelstra said after the Heat’s second Nets loss. “Just drop them in the city, regardless of what the circumstances are, guys are going to go out there and do a job.”

These lengthy player absences have forced many end-of-the-bench guys into the game, and required them to take on outsized roles. The Heat’s Gabe Vincent, an undrafted player on a two-way contract, is averaging 22 minutes a game and put up two 20-point games against the Sixers two weeks ago after having played in just one other game previously this season. Second-year Miami forward KZ Okpala had to guard both Harden and Kevin Durant in spurts. And from his hotel room in Denver, where he had to quarantine for 14 days, Finney-Smith watched Josh Green take on some of his role and wished he could be there to tell the rookie how to defend a certain player or read coverages.

It’s not lost on anyone that these players are getting in the game because others are being physically affected by a virus that has the potential to impact players’ long-term health, as well as the health of their families. Finney-Smith said his symptoms were akin to a really bad cold, but that the mental challenges of quarantining proved even tougher.

“Usually when you’re hurt or something you could be around the team and coach, but sitting in a hotel you kind of feel useless,” Finney-Smith said. “My girlfriend is pregnant, so just knowing that I wasn’t bringing the coronavirus home was kind of my way of staying positive.”

Even after players complete their time in the league’s health and safety protocols, there is a bit of a reintegration process. Brunson, who quarantined for seven days in Denver earlier this month, returned to the Mavs’ active roster this past week. And while Carlisle described him as having fresh legs, Brunson felt the shock to his system.

“I don’t recommend taking 10 days off from playing a game,” he said after playing 27 minutes against the Raptors last week. Brunson was able to have a bike in his hotel room and made sure to beeline to the gym as soon as he could, even if he couldn’t yet play in games. “Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.”

The Heat, for their part, are hoping that despite not seeing results in the win column, the strides they’re making and the habits they’re forming now will give them a boost once Butler returns.

Spoelstra says this stretch of games has shown how much more responsibility players like Adebayo, Dragic, and Tyler Herro can take on. Adebayo, especially, has proved that he’s not done taking leaps, handling the bulk of the Heat’s production on offense while continuing to anchor them on defense. And prior to Wednesday’s game, Dragic had played more minutes per game in the Heat’s previous six contests than he had in a season since 2017-18.

“He just wants to help our team win and he’s laying it all out there,” Spoelstra said of Dragic. “This is where we are right now. It will get better, but we don’t know when.”

There’s a cyclical nature to these struggles that, given the nature of a long season, might affect every team at one point or another. Just as the Mavs and Heat are returning to full strength, both Paul George and Kawhi Leonard entered the health and safety protocols on Monday and didn’t travel with the Clippers for the start of their six-game road trip. Head coach Ty Lue said both players were feeling fine, but the Clippers—who are 13-5 and one of the top teams in the league—promptly lost their first game without both guys.

When asked what, if any, lessons he felt like he had learned from the two weeks in quarantine, Finney-Smith shrugged. “The healthiest team is probably going to have the best advantage in the NBA right now.”