Erik Spoelstra is not allowing the NBA’s turn toward small ball to shrink the Miami Heat’s possibilities — even if it means playing 6-foot-10 first-round draft choice Bam Adebayo alongside 7-foot Hassan Whiteside.
In fact, as the Miaimi Heat prepare to unveil Adebayo’s pro promise in the Orlando Pro Summer League starting Saturday, Spoelstra said there might be outright defiance of the small-ball approach that has helped make the Golden State Warriors the NBA champion two of the past three seasons.
“I think a lot of it is so overstated. I think the narrative changes very quickly in this league,” the Heat coach said, with his team holding a private summer camp this week at AmericanAirlines Arena that will feature Adebayo, returning forward Okaro White and other young prospects.
“We don’t care about conventional boxes, where players fit in. We may play — who knows? — five guys over 6-9 next year in certain segments of a game without a point guard, and make teams adjust to us.”
With last July’s signing of Whiteside to a four-year, $98 million free-agent contract, and then with the selection of Adebayo ahead of perimeter prospects such as Justin Jackson, Terrance Ferguson and OG Anunoby, the Heat have shown that the franchise of Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O’Neal and Whiteside continues to value might and height, just as Heat president Pat Riley did in previous career stops with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Patrick Ewing.
“We’re lacking depth in the front court,” Riley said of turning toward Adebayo, with Willie Reed, James Johnson, Luke Babbitt and Udonis Haslem impending free agents. “When he was on the board at 14 we felt just compelled to take him — shot blocker, explosive jumper, leaper. He’s a lob threat, runs rim to rim, can guard one through five.”
It is that versatility, Spoelstra said, that made the selection more than a referendum on the place of a big man in today’s NBA. For all the bulk and fast-twitch muscle, Spoelstra said there also is adaptability.
“There is a place, certainly, for a player of Bam’s skill set and ability and physicality, that he can also make teams and players actually adjust to him,” Spoelstra said. “But we love his work ethic. We love how he’s developed, how he’s improved from the very first day at Kentucky to the end of the year. We think that he has an incredibly high ceiling.
“And we have an open mind of where we can develop him, and where he can fit in, and how he can develop. I don’t even want to say, necessarily, OK, what box that will be. That will be too restricting right now. You know us. We don’t care about positions.”
Adebayo said the approach was similar during his lone season at Kentucky under John Calipari, where a switching defense left him stepping out during practices against the likes of Malik Monk and De’Aaron Fox, the two other Wildcats he joined as lottery selections.
“Cal made me switch every day in practice and made me switch in games,” he said. “So just having that coming into the league gives you instinct.”
The offensive approach at Kentucky in recent years has been domination by perimeter players, with Adebayo, during his season, left to clean up matters inside. But during the workout process and from what the Heat gleaned during the scouting process, there is a conviction of greater possibilities than just offensive rebounds and dunks.
“We love the versatility he brings, and you can define versatility in so many different ways and I think that’s where sometimes the narrative gets a little bit lost or lazy,” Spoelstra said. “People think the league is only going to three-point shooting. It will still always be about the paint. It will always be about the rim and there’s two sides of the floor.
“So you need the versatility to be able to defend out on the floor. You need guys that can defend multiple positions. I’m still stunned by a young man this large and athletic and explosive that can move his feet and be that light on the ground. We think that fits to our defensive system, our style. And the way the league is going you need guys that can show that kind of quickness.”
While most of the nation was fixated on the three-point shooting of Golden State’s Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson during the NBA Finals, Spoelstra said a deeper inspection of that series showed the possibilities of athleticism in any form.
“We think he fits with the way the league is going,” Spoelstra said. “Just look at the Finals. You saw guys of his athleticism out there running around and making plays at the highest level.”
To Riley, it’s just another case of good things in big packages.
“You talk about small ball,” he said, “he’s not small. But he can play quick and he has speed and he’s explosive.”