Miami Heat 2020-21 NBA preseason evaluation: A contending team built for the long haul

The Miami Heat concluded their NBA Preseason play Friday night with a win against the Toronto Raptors. Here are the main takeaways from Miami's preseason games.

By Austin Konenski
Dec 14, 2020; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat forward Precious Achiuwa (5) passes the ball against the New Orleans Pelicans during the second half at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Heat completed their two-game preseason schedule with a win against the Toronto Raptors on Friday night. The time between Game 6 of the NBA Finals and the first game of the NBA preseason was only 64 days, which is the second shortest official offseason of any NBA team ever.

This event caused Jimmy Butler to sit out both games in preparation for the start of the regular season. Even though Miami didn’t have its leader, there were still many outstanding performances by players with something to prove.

What follows are the main takeaways from the Heat’s short preseason. Despite the small sample size, there was still enough to solidify Miami’s status as a deep team that will again compete for a championship this season — and is built to contend for many years to come.

KZ Okpala’s performance deserves recognition

Miami Heat preseason: KZ Okpala flashes supreme defensive upside
Dec 18, 2020; Tampa, Florida, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Fred VanVleet (23) makes a basket over Miami Heat forward KZ Okpala (4) during the second quarter at Amalie Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

KZ Okpala went into the preseason with a chance to prove his worth after the Miami Heat lost forwards Derrick Jones Jr. and Jae Crowder to other teams in free agency. Okpala, the second-year forward out of Stanford University, accomplished exactly that Friday night.

After a slow and underwhelming first game, Okpala showed out in the Heat’s final game of the preseason with a stellar performance against the Toronto Raptors. Okpala compiled 24 points, five rebounds, and two assists while shooting 9-of-15 from the floor. He also sank six out of 10 attempts from the 3-point line.

Okpala showed his impact offensively and defensively with a stellar shooting performance, combined with strong defensive possessions against players such as Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam. This type of effort earned notice from fellow teammate Bam Adebayo, who sung praises about Okpala’s potential and compared him to Andre Iguodala.

“If you watch prime Iggy, active hands, always in the passing lane, always getting quick strips, I feel like if Iggy takes him under his wing, and really hones in on becoming a lockdown defender, I feel like he can be one of the best defenders in the league.”

– Miami Heat forward/center Bam Adebayo, per SI.com’s Shandel Richardson

Many within the Miami Heat organization have raved about the upside of the 21-year-old forward. Some thought Okpala had more long-term potential than fellow Heat teammate Tyler Herro. Even though some in the organization may disagree with that take, Okpala showed Friday night why the Heat traded three second-round picks to draft him with the 32nd pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.

Max Strus: Miami Heat’s next undrafted success story?

Max Strus seemingly came out of nowhere — like every other undrafted player who became a key contributor within the Miami Heat organization. Strus had a brutal start to his first game this preseason, yet he bounced back in the second half to finish with 11 points, eight rebounds, and four assists.

The 24-year-old only improved as he locked in for the final contest of the preseason. Locked in a battle against B.J. Johnson, with Miami’s last two-way contract at stake, Strus turned heads and proved he deserves a place on this Heat roster one way or another.

Strus put up 22 points, two rebounds, and one assist while shooting 8-of-11 from the floor. He also shot made six of eight shots from beyond the arc in a game where it seemed like he couldn’t miss. Strus all but locked himself into the final two-way contract alongside guard Gabe Vincent.

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra was impressed by Strus’ performance, but it’s not the first time he has seen this from the former DePaul University star.

“(Strus) has had like three of these days where he didn’t miss…he’s ignitable much like a few of our guys,” Spoelstra said. “He’s not just a shooter.”

The Heat have hit on undrafted players before and shown their ability to develop them. Duncan Robinson and Kendrick Nunn are two prime examples of that. Robinson represents a similar comparison to Strus, given that both can get incredibly hot from 3-point range. It looks like Miami might have found another sharpshooter to add to its collection.

Precious Achiuwa showed promise in many areas

The Miami Heat have hit on many of their draft picks recently, and if the preseason is any sign of what’s to come, they hit gold once again with Precious Achiuwa. After an extraordinarily short offseason, many wondered whether Achiuwa would be ready for the next level, considering he is a rookie.

Achiuwa’s first preseason game was an encouraging start. He put up eight points, two rebounds, and one assist on an efficient 4-of-5 shooting in 20 minutes. While it wasn’t flashy, Achiuwa showed movements similar to teammate Bam Adebayo in his first preseason game.

The 21-year-old forward’s performance during Friday night’s victory against the Toronto Raptors is what left people buzzing. Achiuwa had 13 points, 15 rebounds, and two assists while shooting 5-of-8 from the floor in 23 minutes of game action. The statistics don’t show justice to how good he looked, though.

Achiuwa’s ability to crash the boards was very impressive. He had three offensive rebounds and was a presence in the paint on the defensive end as well. The speed of Achiuwa was also very noticeable. It seemed the former Memphis Tiger showed faster movements than Adebayo at times, which boosts his defensive ceiling.

The comparison to Montrezl Harrell is not that far off if Achiuwa can continue to improve his game. In fact, the comparison of Harrell could be his floor based on how the Heat are able to develop their players. Although it may take some time, the Heat may have another Adebayo-type player on their hands.

Tyler Herro picked up right where he left off last season

Miami Heat: Tyler Herro and Erik Spoelstra
Oct 11, 2020; Lake Buena Vista, Florida, USA; Miami Heat guard Tyler Herro (14) talks with head coach Erik Spoelstra during the third quarter in game six of the 2020 NBA Finals against the Miami Heat at AdventHealth Arena. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Herro showed the Miami Heat that he’s still capable of playing at the level he performed in last season’s NBA playoffs. With rumors of a potential James Harden trade coming soon, Herro couldn’t have played much better than he did in Monday night’s preseason opener.

Herro compiled 17 points, five rebounds, and six assists while shooting 50% from the floor on 14 attempts in 28 minutes of action. One of the most impressive statistics from Herro during the preseason opener was the number of turnovers he committed: zero.

The second-year guard looked very comfortable running the point and may have solidified his starting role there. Most notably, Herro’s defensive leadership is something that he feels is improving. Spoelstra noted how Herro is progressing there.

“(Herro) still needs to get louder, but he’s definitely making strides in that area. There aren’t many players in this league that are comfortable really being vocal. But it can be a learned trait. Not everybody is going to be as loud as Jimmy (Butler), but you can improve in those areas.”

– Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, per Sun-Sentinel.com’s Khobi Price

There are still weaknesses to Herro’s game, such as his ability to consistently create separation in isolation, and his defense is indeed a work in progress. However, the young guard who turns 21 next month is way ahead of the curve in his development as a pro. Herro definitely seems on the verge of becoming one of the league’s brightest young stars.

Miami Heat: Potential rotation for the regular season

The Miami Heat may have a problem on their hands when it comes to this. They rolled out a starting five consisting of Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn, Duncan Robinson, Maurice Harkless, and Bam Adebayo in their first preseason game.

Herro, Robinson, and Adebayo managed to have good games, but Harkless and Nunn struggled to make a positive impact. Harkless fouled out in only 14 minutes with five points, while Nunn scored 11 points on 5-of-14 shooting. The Heat’s second preseason game didn’t go any better, as Nunn sat out with a groin injury and Harkless had five fouls in 17 minutes with only three points.

The performance of Harkless may force the Heat to look at other options at starting power forward. KZ Okpala showed promise in the time he was on the floor and could be a possibility for Miami. Precious Achiuwa is more unlikely than Okpala, but his performance over the last two games suggests he could make a more instant impact than expected.

While Miami has some things to sort out at the 4 — given that Kelly Olynyk and Meyers Leonard still factor into the equation, too — the perimeter platoon has a lot of capable contributors and only so many minutes to go around.

If the expected started lineup is Herro-Robinson-Butler-Okpala-Adebayo, there are many ways to look at it. Goran Dragic, Avery Bradley, Iguodala, Harkless, and Nunn are all possible options off the pine. Dragic is the go-to sixth man as long as he’s healthy, and Nunn is a wild card after a strong rookie campaign preceded a lackluster Orlando bubble showing.

Depending on whether you include Max Strus or not, Miami has no less than 13 to 14 very capable players. There are bound to be two or three who receive minimal minutes.

This is why a James Harden trade wouldn’t be one that completely tears the roster apart. If the Heat sent four to five current roster members in exchange for The Beard, they’d still have around nine quality rotation players, with heavier star power at the top.

What a good problem for an experienced leader like Spoelstra to have. He most likely wishes he could’ve had this issue in previous years of being Miami’s head coach.

The bottom line

The Miami Heat couldn’t have asked for much more than what happened in their two preseason games. Young players such as KZ Okpala, Precious Achiuwa, and Max Strus showed their potential, while veterans such as Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic got much-needed rest.

It’s great for the organization to see what they have in players far down the rotation due to the uncertainty surrounding a possible James Harden trade. The Heat have always been great in the development of their young players, and that could be one of the biggest advantages they have to pull off a blockbuster deal.

If Miami decides to keep its young core moving forward, there is so much to be excited about it you are a Heat fan. The long-range outlook is very bright for a franchise with short-term title aspirations as well, as there are players who should contribute at a high level now and well into the future.