Apr 4, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; Minnesota Timberwolves guard Ricky Rubio (9) and forward Shabazz Muhammad (15) during the second quarter at Oracle Arena. Mandatory Credit: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports
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The Miami Heat often sign low risk, high reward players to their roster. Shabazz Muhammad fits this profile and would improve their bench unit.
Last summer, after missing out on Kevin Durant, Pat Riley filled the Miami Heat roster with cast-offs who had a point to prove. The likes of Dion Waiters and James Johnson were not wanted by anyone, so Riley took chances on them with one year “prove it” type deals with a team option for the second year. This made a lot of sense at the time as team options make players valuable trade chips, and they also gave the Heat a lot of flexibility moving forwards.
Miami will no doubt target the likes of Gordon Hayward this summer, but the Heat’s policy of signing misfits is something they should continue to do. The Heat went 41-41 last year largely because they got career years from people who were really on their last chances in the NBA.
The Miami Heat signed five non-rookie players in the summer, and every single one of these players (Luke Babbitt, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Dion Waiters, Willie Reed), posted career highs in Value Over Replacement Player, which shows the dramatic improvement the players made in Miami. The Heat gave a last chance to the majority of these players, and the result was incredible production, and players who fully bought into Erik Spoelstra’s system.
Even if the Heat do land a big free agent such as Hayward and therefore lose a sizable amount of cap room, they should continue their policy of signing misfits, as they have proven in the past decade that role players win championships.
Schematically, Shabazz was not a great fit in Thibodeau’s offense, which wasn’t a particularly dynamic system. Thibodeau utilized a lot of offensive sets that were designed to get one-on-one matchups for LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Thibodeau also figured that Minnesota should play a slow game in order to maximize Ricky Rubio‘s half court vision, and the approach worked on the whole as Minnesota’s offense was very effective.
Ian Levy of Nylon Calculus profiled the ‘dynamism’ of each NBA teams offense in a revealing article, and he concluded that the only team with less offensive movement than the Minnesota Timberwolves was the Dallas Mavericks, which makes sense given the age of their roster. Minnesota’s offense was not built on ball movement, and for a guy like Shabazz Muhammad who is at his best off the ball, this made him a square peg in a round hole.
Shabazz can be a useful scorer for any NBA team, but on a team with Andrew Wiggins, Karl-Anthony Towns and Zach LaVine, he wasn’t going to get many touches. Luckily for Shabazz, the Miami Heat run an offense that is more tailor-made to his skillset. The Heat bench was good last year, but Muhammad is a versatile scorer who could quite easily become a top bench option for the team.
Shabazz’s offensive versatility and pure scoring ability is undoubted, and he was really the only spark on a Timberwolves bench that was not good enough. Muhammad hit double figures in 40 of his 77 appearances for Minnesota, and he provided a spark in multiple ways for the young Timberwolves.
Muhammad was also a plus defender for the Timberwolves, as they were defensively three points better when he was on the court. Muhammad would be a good fit in the Heat’s defensive system because he plays harder than his athleticism should allow him to, and he can defend guards and forwards to an acceptable level.
Erik Spoelstra likes to use small lineups, but he will not do this without wings who can defend power forwards, as he does not want to leave Hassan Whiteside overworked inside. Shabazz isn’t a lockdown defender, but he is a plus defender who can hold his own, which make him a better fit for the Heat than a lot of the so called spark players on the market.
He would be able to score in multiple ways, and he would not be part of a logjam, as Spoelstra spreads the offense around as opposed to Thibodeau, who has built the offense to play through a couple of players.
Shabazz isn’t a misfit because of his own faults, he just finds himself on a limited role because of a team that simply has better young players than him. He is still talented, but he needs to be playing in a more dynamic offense, and an offense that spreads the ball around a bit more, as Shabazz can be a devastating off the ball threat.
The Heat also like to run a lot of pick-and-roll action in their small-ball sets, and this is an area where Shabazz potentially has room to develop and help the team. Shabazz rarely attempted pick-and-rolls because of the nature of the Minnesota offense, but when he did, he was in the 58th percentile. This isn’t an amazing number, but as someone who watches a lot of Timberwolves games, there is potential for him to be a valuable pick-and-roll player.
Shabazz is smart and decisive, which are the two most important attributes needed in the pick-and-roll. The threat of him slashing into the paint and scoring will open up space on the perimeter, which is where the likes of Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson would be better utilized.
Miami’s biggest problem on the bench was that Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson struggled to create for themselves and others, which left James Johnson taking on a huge role. Miami’s bench unit uses a lot of pick-and-roll, and adding someone such as Shabazz on a short-term deal could help their bench unit be more unpredictable.
At present, Shabazz is just a spark, but with good coaching, he could become a plus player at both ends of the court. Erik Spoelstra’s system would give him some freedom, and with extra responsibility given to him, I believe Shabazz would thrive and get close to his full potential.
Muhammad is only a restricted free agent this summer, but Minnesota would not handicap their future flexibility, as they will eventually need to bring back LaVine, Wiggins and Towns. Unless Shabazz accepts a miniscule contract elsewhere, it is unlikely that general manager Scott Layden would match any offer sheet. An offer of $30 million over four years would probably not be matched by Minnesota, who need outside shooting more than Shabazz’s slashing to the paint.
Tom Thibodeau recently told reporters he is “optimistic” that the Wolves can re-sign Muhammad, but the small forward would be foolish to not explore other options. He isn’t a great fit in Minnesota’s offense, he would likely gain a bigger role on another team and he deserves a shot in an expanded role.