Should the surprising Heat go star hunting?

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NBC Sports

Should the surprising Heat go star hunting?

The Miami Heat have never gotten off to a better start. Not the Heatles, not the Shaq-led teams, no team in the 32-year history of the franchise. At 18-6 through 24 games, none have won more games than a ragtag team led by the 30th pick of the 2011 draft, Jimmy Butler.

This Heat team fully embodies the underdog mentality of Butler, whose ESPN recruiting page still reads NR -- for Not Rated. Two of the team’s starters, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, spent last season in the G League. Meyers Leonard, who’s starting at power forward, was iced on Portland’s bench last season until Jusuf Nurkic broke his leg in late March. 

Then there’s Miami’s affinity for late-game heroics. Led by the best closer in the NBA, Butler and the Heat are 6-1 in clutch situations this season, trailing only James’ Lakers for the best record in the league in those moments.

But the biggest revelation has been Bam Adebayo, who, similar to what Butler did in Chicago, patiently bided his time on Miami’s bench behind the Heat’s $100 million man, Hassan Whiteside. Few would blame Adebayo if he checked out while watching Whiteside’s listless play be rewarded with a starting gig. Instead, the former No. 14 overall pick is dazzling alongside Butler.

Following the surprising start and with Butler and Adebayo already racking up triple-doubles, is it time for the Heat to go big-game hunting in the trade market? Miami has all the markings of a classic “one player away” team and several league executives have pegged the Heat as the East’s most interesting team as the December 15 landmark approaches, unlocking 2019 free-agent signees to be eligible for trade. 

Is Chris Paul in their sights? Is Kevin Love or Blake Griffin? Let’s take a look at the NBA’s most surprising contender and whether they need to trade for another big-name player.

Adebayo is already Butler’s co-star

I mean, where to begin with this guy? Adebayo might be the best quarterback in South Florida, which, granted, isn’t saying much these days. But no team in the NBA has scored more points off of handoffs than the Heat, with Adebayo at the forefront of most of them, per Synergy Sports tracking. In a departure from Whiteside, Adebayo actually seeks bodily contact with opposing defenders on these handoffs, flicking the ball to shooters in the pocket as they curl around Adebayo’s Mack-truck-like hip-checks.

But Adebayo isn’t just a hand-off quarterback. Like Nikola Jokic does for the Denver Nuggets to much greater fanfare, Adebayo also runs Miami’s offense often. Five of his 11 assists against Atlanta on Tuesday night came after he started his dribble beyond halfcourt. Point guards almost never make an outlet pass to their center, but this happens all the time with Nunn and Adebayo. With Adebayo regularly playing the “point center” role, it’s downright dizzying for defenses to figure out who’s running the fastbreak. In fact, Adebayo has assisted more of Nunn’s baskets than the other way around.

No one’s prouder of this development and the changes in Miami this year than Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. The man who popularized the term “positionless basketball” is seeing his versatile dream come to life. His power forward, Leonard, is shooting 50 percent from downtown. His center, Adebayo, is second on the team in assists. If Adebayo added a 3-point shot, he’d be the basketball antithesis of Whiteside, whose tunnel vision and me-first mentality weighed heavily on the locker room, league sources told NBC Sports. 

Heading into this season, Heat officials privately raved about how different the locker room felt compared to years past. Players were genuinely playing for each other. They were having fun again. And while that’s a common preseason refrain across the league, Miami’s 5-1 start and wins over the Milwaukee Bucks and Houston Rockets showed that there was something different happening in Miami this season.

While Butler has gotten the headlines, Adebayo might just be Miami’s difference-marker. As of Wednesday, Adebayo ranks 10th league-wide in win shares, making him and Butler one of two team pairings among the league’s top 10 (the other duo was featured in Wednesday’s Haberstat). The Heat are also 7.5 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor, per NBA.com. And those 11 assists from Wednesday night? More than Whiteside tallied in all of his 17 starts last season combined.

Just 22 years old, Adebayo has already developed into one of the most untouchable young players in the NBA. Unless someone like Giannis Antetokounmpo is put on the table, don’t expect the Heat to take trade talks involving Adebayo seriously -- not even for a future Hall of Fame point guard.

Should the Heat go after Chris Paul?

It’s not hard to talk yourself into Paul on the Heat. Who is more hell-bent to win a championship than Pat Riley? It could be Butler, who has never even reached the conference semifinals. It could be Paul, who, along with Steve Nash, might be the best player ever without a Finals appearance. Theoretically, those ultra-competitive spirits could fuse a bond between Riley, Paul and Butler.

Also, Paul is still playing at a high level and could really help the Heat with Goran Dragic battling nagging injuries. You need high-IQ grown-ups to win in the playoffs and Paul is definitely that (almost to a fault at times). Sharing the ball with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has hurt Paul’s box-score numbers, but the 35-year-old’s positive impact is undeniable. The Thunder are plus-59 with Paul on the floor and minus-44 with him on the bench. (Sidenote: Gilgeous-Alexander has seen the opposite scoreboard impact). 

There’s also the Banana Boat factor. The transitive property of NBA friendship suggests that Butler would get along with Paul. Butler is close with Wade. Wade is close with fellow Banana Boat member Paul. Therefore, a Butler and Paul pairing would work out, right?

Don’t hold your breath. Before trading Russell Westbrook to Oklahoma City, the Rockets tried to engage the Heat on a three-team deal to reroute Paul to Miami, but the Heat resisted, multiple sources told NBC Sports. The Heat’s desire for Westbrook was “a level above” their interest in Paul, according to one high-level source involved in those talks. 

As it stands now, the Heat aren’t expected to make a run at Paul, per multiple sources. They like their locker room chemistry and aren’t actively looking to shake it up. More importantly,  Paul’s contract complicates Miami’s potential future. Paul will be 35 years old in May and is due $41.4 million next season and will be 37 when he’s due $44.2 million. A glamour market like Miami doesn’t need to make trades to acquire a star. Smaller markets like Utah, Charlotte and Portland do.

The same goes for big-name players like Kevin Love and Blake Griffin, each of whom, like Paul, are due north of $30 million 2021-22. Reminder: Antetokounmpo could be a free agent in 2021.

After polling executives, the league-wide sense is that Paul will remain with the Thunder this season simply because of his enormous contract. While it’s theoretically possible that Paul could agree to turn down his $44 million player option for 2021-22 to grease the wheels on a potential trade, right now, that is the longest of long shots. Besides overcoming the idea of giving up 44 million buckaroos, Paul is also the president of the players’ union and it would be a bad look to set that precedent of turning down that amount of money to make it more palatable to a team. 

If Paul were younger and didn’t have that price tag hanging over his head, he might be Miami-bound. But at the moment, it doesn’t look like a Paul-Butler partnership is in the cards, leaving Miami to hunt for help on a different level.

What about smaller fish?

Butler may not be an ideal fit with Paul, but there’s one name to watch as Dec. 15 approaches: Kyle Lowry. By extending his contract to 2020-21 last summer, Toronto made him more palatable to teams like Miami that want to keep their options open for the summer of 2021. Lowry would be an title-tested upgrade over Dragic and has looked strong this season following offseason thumb surgery. 

As of this writing, it’s unlikely Toronto cuts bait on Lowry with the Raptors playing this well. Alongside MVP candidate Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, Lowry might actually be closer to a title in Toronto right now than he would be in Miami. But if Toronto’s season began to sour or if president Masai Ujiri wanted to get ahead of an offseason remake of the Raptors, the Heat could be an enticing dance partner. Would a package of 23-year-old Justise Winslow and Dragic’s expiring contract be enough to open a dialogue? It’s worth keeping an eye on.

If not Lowry, then New Orleans Pelicans guard JJ Redick could be a target of the Heat. Despite going separate ways this summer, Redick and Butler grew close in Philadelphia as like-minded competitors and, per a source, to this day they maintain regular communication through a group chat forged in Philadelphia.

Redick signed a two-year, $27 million contract this past summer to act as NOLA’s floor-spacer and veteran mentor. Things haven’t gone to plan. Redick may have joked at media day about Zion Williamson messing with his postseason streak, but at 35 years old, Redick didn’t exactly expect to be 6-18 at this point in the season. No one in New Orleans did.

Redick would thrive in Miami. He’s shooting a blistering 44.9 percent on 3-pointers and would be a sniper in Miami’s hand-off offense. Redick and Joel Embiid cooked teams with that action last season, making Redick an ideal fit next to Adebayo (Philly ranked No. 1 in points off handoffs last season).

The problem with Redick is that New Orleans might not be ready to flip that switch just yet. There’s still time for Williamson to return and right the ship before the Pelicans are forced to make a drastic change. They didn’t acquire Redick for him to be a two-month rental. But the Heat have five players -- Justise Winslow, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard -- near Redick’s salary number to make salary-matching easier and a few young assets that could entice New Orleans to act. Would the Heat put Nunn on the table to acquire Redick? I’d do it if I’m the Heat.

Another floor-spacer to monitor is Davis Bertans, who is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player alongside Adebayo, Siakam and Charlotte’s Devonte’ Graham. Bertans makes the Wizards competitive, but he could make a borderline contender like Miami into a legitimate Finals threat. 

With a $7 million contract that expires in the summer of 2020, Bertans would be more affordable salary-wise than Redick. It also means the Heat would have to toss more sweeteners into the deal to make it palatable for Washington. The Heat only have two of their next seven second-rounders and can’t trade a first-round pick until 2025.

Teams like Miami will be making calls on Bertans, who figures to be the Nikola Mirotic of this year’s trade deadline. But the Latvian may be playing his way off the trade market. At 27 years old, he fits in line with Bradley Beal and John Wall’s long-term trajectory. Don’t be surprised if Wizards GM Tommy Sheppard signs him to an extension and keeps him for the long haul. He’s been that good. 

Whether Bertans remains available or the Heat chase someone like Redick or Lowry, it’s clear the Heat are better positioned to add a solid rotation player than a max-salaried All-Star like Paul, Griffin and Love. It’s tempting for Miami to go all-in and try to load up for the 2020 NBA Finals, but that route makes more sense for a small-market team.

The allure of a 2021 free agent class that could feature Antetokounmpo, Paul George, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Donovan Mitchell and Victor Oladipo is too good to pass up.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Is Rockets' James Harden really having the best scoring season ever?

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NBC Sports

Is Rockets' James Harden really having the best scoring season ever?

James Harden is doing some crazy stuff this season. The former Sixth Man of the Year is nearly averaging an unfathomable 40 points per game. He just scored 60 points in a little more than 30 minutes of game action and hasn’t scored fewer than 25 points in a game since opening night. Defenses are now trying to trap him before halfcourt.

Is he the best scorer of this generation? Probably. Three straight scoring titles would cement that status.

But is he the best scorer ever? Well, that gets a little more complicated. We could simply list the best scoring seasons by points per game and leave it at that. But as you’ll see below, that would be short-sighted.

Why? Let’s start at the basics.

Harden is currently averaging 39.5 points per game. If it holds, that would rank third all-time on the scoring leaderboard for a season. The only name above him? Wilt Chamberlain, who of course sees your 40 points per game and raises you 50.

Case closed. Chamberlain is the best scorer ever, with the best scoring season ever, right? 

Not so fast. Let’s zoom out and look at the top 20 scoring seasons in NBA history. 

Notice anything odd? Hint: Look at the season column. Yeah, that’s a lot of of the 1960s. Eleven of the top 20 scoring seasons of all time came within an eight-year span. What’s up with that? 

Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Rick Barry were incredible scorers, to be sure. But it has to be mentioned that they played in an era where teams regularly took over 100 shots per game. In an eight-team league playing at a crazy-fast pace, and in which Chamberlain was one of three 7-footers playing in the league, the NBA was ripe for an outlier season. 

Though we didn’t have a complete picture in the box score (turnovers didn’t become an official stat until 1973-74), we can get a pretty good idea of how “fast” the league was in that season by using Basketball Reference’s best estimates. We find that Chamberlain’s team, the Philadelphia Warriors, played a whopping 131.1 possessions per game, the fastest of the eight teams. The slowest team, the Chicago Packers, played at 122.9 possessions per game. Even taken as a ballpark figure, that’s a Formula 1 race car compared to the speed of the modern era.

If you thought today’s pace-and-space era was fast, the back-and-forth NBA of the 1960’s leaves them in the dust. The fastest team this season, according to Basketball Reference tracking, is the Washington Wizards and they churn out 105.2 possessions per game. To put it in perspective, the slowest team in 1961-62 played almost 18 additional possessions per game than today’s fastest team.

That’s almost an entire quarter’s worth of extra hoops in which to rack up points. You might be asking yourself, “Well, what what happens when we take that same top 20 and adjust for pace?” 

Good question! I tweaked the per-game numbers by normalizing it to a 100-possession environment. Players that played on a slow team (below 100 possessions per game) will get a boost and players that played on a fast team (above 100 possessions) will have their numbers fall back down to Earth a bit. 

After making this adjustment, we get an entirely new leaderboard. Lakers fans, you might want to sit down for this one.

Holy, Kobe Bean Bryant! After adjusting for pace, Bryant’s 2005-06 campaign floats to the top of the list, up from his previous spot of 11th-best. It’s one thing to average 35.4 points per game, but it’s another to do it while playing at a snail’s pace. In Phil Jackson’s return to the Staples Center bench after a one-year hiatus, the Lakers barely cleared 90 possessions per game, over 40 fewer possessions per game than Chamberlain’s record-holding ‘61-62 campaign.

A comparison between Bryant’s 81-point game and Chamberlain’s 100-point game -- the two highest-scoring individual performances in NBA history -- further illustrates the difference in eras and playing styles. In Chamberlain’s infamous 100-point outing, the Warriors fired up 118 field goal attempts, which is 30 more scoring opportunities than the Lakers had when Bryant went for 81. (Chamberlain’s Warriors scored 169 points in that game, which was only the sixth-highest scoring game in NBA history at the time. Again: Pace.)

Bryant has always been considered one of the best scorers of all-time, but he happened to rule during the NBA’s Deadball Era, in which point totals slumped across the board. The 2004 Lakers scored 68 points in an entire Finals game for crying out loud. Under the terms of our exercise, Bryant would average an extra 4.4 points per game simply by adjusting to a pace of 100 possessions per game. 

And Harden? He’s still near the top of the list. His current season is docked 1.8 points per game because the Houston Rockets have stepped on the accelerator this season with Russell Westbrook on board. The Rockets’ pace, according to Basketball Reference tracking, sits at 104.9 this season, up from 97.9 last season with Chris Paul running the point. By this measure, Harden’s season is almost a mirror image of last season’s scoring campaign.

More importantly, even through this new lens, Harden’s ‘19-20 scoring binge is still not superior to Chamberlain’s monster '61-62 season, but the gap is smaller. Once we put the era’s pace into context, Harden and Chamberlain are less than one point per game apart. If Harden’s season average surges to 40.3 points per game, that would put him on par with Chamberlain in adjusted points per game. (He’d need to finish at 40.6 and 40.8 raw points per game to catch Jordan and Bryant, respectively).

Is Harden having one of the best scoring seasons ever? Most definitely. It’s right up there with the legendary scorers in NBA history. If he starts regularly putting up 42 points a night in this environment, he’d have the best scoring season ever in my book -- better than Wilt’s 50.4 season -- but it’s hard to see Harden pulling that off. Then again, no one saw a Sixth Man of the Year averaging nearly 40 points per game, either.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.