How Tyler Herro’s polarizing game is impacting trade talks for Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell

How Tyler Herro’s polarizing game is impacting trade talks for Kevin Durant and Donovan Mitchell post thumbnail image

What will peak Tyler Herro look like?

Ask 50 executives and coaches, and the gap between answers will be wider than for possibly any other NBA player. You hear everything from “All-Star” to “Lou Williams/Jamal Crawford 2.0” — a one-way bench scorer who will get exposed on defense in the playoffs.

After following his Sixth Man of the Year runaway with a shaky, injury-marred postseason — Herro averaged 13 points on 41% shooting, including an ugly 23% on 3s — Herro is perhaps the most polarizing high-wattage player in the NBA. He has reached this strange point just as he becomes the key veteran in any potential Miami Heat trade package for Kevin Durant, Donovan Mitchell, or whichever star becomes available next. The Heat so far have not gotten much traction on either front, sources say, but they are still trying and can never be counted out.

If Miami pulls off a superstar trade, it’s going to be in part because the team on the other end is higher on Herro than consensus.

The Heat cannot match the New York Knicks or other rivals on the trade scene in future first-round picks. They have little history of bottoming out; would-be trade partners do not expect Miami to ever yield anything like the bounty the Brooklyn Nets coughed up to the Boston Celtics in the disastrous 2013 deal involving Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

Staying good and trading past picks has left the Heat with no real arsenal of high-upside young guys operating on a different timeline than its core — nothing close to the Golden State Warriors‘ contingent of James Wiseman, Jonathan Kuminga, and Moses Moody. Trading anyone from their veteran core beyond Herro and maybe Kyle Lowry for even someone as transcendent as Durant might leave the Heat too thin to win it all.

That concern is mostly about Bam Adebayo. Trading both Herro and Adebayo in some megadeal for Durant could leave the Heat reconfigured around Lowry, Durant, and Jimmy Butler — ages 36, 33, and 32, respectively. Trading the motherlode of picks for guys in their 30s can end very badly.

It’s easier to manufacture semi-workable facsimiles of Lowry and Herro than to replace a switchable force field with playmaking skills like Adebayo. Getting something in addition to Durant could cushion the blow, but it’s unlikely that “something” would be a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate and point-center.

(It’s tempting to suggest Ben Simmons could be that player coming, but that is complicated. Simmons hasn’t played in 13 months. He’s coming off back surgery. He quaked in the postseason — again. His trade value is at an all-time low. For their part, the Nets are wary of selling low on Simmons and cannot afford to view him as mere throw-in.)

Meanwhile, Herro is up for an extension that could start at a maximum salary north of $30 million. Signing a deal close to that level would further blur his trade value, and introduce complex base-year compensation rules.

Since Durant shook the league with his trade request, it has become an insider’s parlor game to compare Herro’s trade value and potential to those of Scottie Barnes and RJ Barrett — two other young players who might swing deals for Durant or (in Barrett’s case) Mitchell. (I have been skeptical since Day 1 that Barrett would be some make-or-break piece in theoretical Mitchell trades.)

Barnes has easily the most trade value and potential of the three. I’ve seen reports that randomly-selected groups of executives value Barrett more than Herro, but I’m not sure how broad that perspective is or whether it’s smart.

Herro almost suffers from his own success, and the Heat’s. He has played 40 postseason games. Barnes has played four, Barrett five. Barnes and Barrett retain the allure of the unknown. They have not faced the best teams, over and over, or been central players in the only game of the night in late May and June. They have not battled the nastiest defenders in the highest-stakes games, been the target of specific game plans, or guarded superstar scorers with everything on the line.

Herro has faced all of that, and the results have been — as you’d expect — uneven. We’ve seen his warts. He feels more like a finished product, but Herro is still just 22.

Skeptics who see the Williams/Crawford “bench gunner” ceiling focus on Herro’s defensive limitations.

Most of Herro’s issues on defense are physical. He’s not an explosive athlete. His first step on defense is slow and heavy; crafty ball handlers shake him with crossovers and head fakes.

Opponents averaged 1.08 points per possession when they shot out of isolations against Herro, or kicked to teammates who fired — 230th among 263 players who defended at least 75 isolations last season, per Second Spectrum.

Herro is the rare player with a wingspan shorter than his height. He has 34 career blocks, and recorded just eight last season — one of only eight players to log at least 1,800 minutes and swat 10 or fewer shots, per Basketball-Reference. Aggressive ball handlers barely notice Herro around the basket. Taller wings launch 3s over Herro as if he isn’t there, even when he rotates to them on time.

Herro averages about 0.5 steals and routinely ranks toward the bottom of the league in deflections.

He’s skinny and light. Physical players just kind of bulldoze through him until they get to their comfort zone, and rise up as Herro stumbles backward.

The Heat sometimes go to such great lengths to avoid switching Herro onto elite wings as to stretch their defense to the breaking point — trapping and over-rotating, leaving gaps everywhere:

They hide Herro on the weakest opposing scorer, even if it means juggling suboptimal matchups elsewhere. Herro also hamstrings Miami’s lineup flexibility; the Heat sometimes can’t survive playing another minus perimeter defender alongside him.

Getting stronger will help. More reps against elite ball handlers will refine Herro’s anticipation and footwork. He might not be able to get faster in the literal sense, but smarts and technique can make a player faster in tight spaces.

Herro is 6-5; Williams is 6-1. Herro is a solid, eager rebounder; his defensive rebounding rate is double the career averages of both Williams and Crawford.

He tries. Herro understands schemes and rotations. He can track the ball and rotate without losing his assignment.

Herro is never going to be a plus defender. The physical limitations are more or less intractable. He’ll always be a target. But there is a big difference between run-of-the-mill below-average and total sinkhole. If he works at it, Herro can be that run-of-the-mill type.

The optimist’s vision is for Herro to be so good on offense as to render these concerns largely moot — and for him to play on a team stout enough on defense to cover for him. (This is why Herro starting next season — something he says he wants — makes some sense, even if it would mean facing more top defenders. A lineup featuring Lowry, Butler, Adebayo, and one more solid defender is well-constructed to protect Herro.)

That’s where the debate focuses: Can Herro become a star-level offensive player, or is he a middling efficiency chucker with average (at best) playmaking skills?

Herro redirected his game to be more of a ballhandling hybrid guard last season. He ran 32 pick-and-rolls per 100 possessions, up from 24 in 2020-21, per Second Spectrum. Only 39% of his shots were 3s, down from 42.5% the year before and 47% as a rookie. The corresponding uptick came entirely in midrange shots; Herro’s attempts at the rim declined.

For all but the very best midrange shooters, that is an inherently less efficient shot distribution. Herro is a solid midrange shooter, but not a great one; he hit about 43% on floaters and 41% on long 2s last season.

There are tricky shots, and there were lots of possessions where the Heat would have benefited from Herro taking one extra dribble:

He’s also not the kind of blow away speedster who can dust mobile big men on switches. That might come. Herro added zip to his first step last season. His shooting amplifies his driving game; defenders have to press him, making them easier prey for blow-bys. Herro will get smarter about leveraging the threat of his jumper with step-backs and fakes to become a more calculating one-on-one player.

But he’s never going to be an emphatic rim finisher. He gets to the basket at a below-average rate, and averaged only three free throw attempts last season.

The difference between Herro and starrier midrange gunners — CJ McCollum and Devin Booker, once a go-to Herro comparison that is probably beyond reach now — amounts to a few percentage points. Why can’t Herro turn into a 48% midrange shooter?

He has good touch, and the craft to generate decent shots in that range. Herro has a slippery change-of-pace game with both hands:

Those liquidy, hypnotic crossovers and hesitation moves should help Herro wriggle to the basket more — and maybe earn a couple more free throws per game:

Herro loves faking toward screens, and then bolting away from them. If defenders sit on that move, he’ll do the opposite — as he does above: fake away from the pick, and then cross back toward it.

Hero can use the same predatory cat-and-mouse game to produce open pull-up 3s:

Herro expected the Philadelphia 76ers to trap him on that pick-and-roll. He baited that trap from Joel Embiid, knowing there would be open space on the other side.

The Sixers and Boston Celtics ambushed Herro with blitzes in the postseason, and he wilted under the pressure — bleeding turnovers. That’s part of the learning curve. That pull-up 3 showed Herro was already learning.

Herro’s playmaking wobbled all season. He would occasionally miss open passes, or slip them a beat late — by which time the defense had recovered into the passing lane. He sometimes meandered into crowds and threaded no-hope, almost semi-blind passes to no one. His assist-to-turnover ratio — about 1.5-to-1 — is way too close to even for a high-usage creator.

Herro getting 5% better at all these skills would transform him into a different player. Such across-the-board marginal gains are hard to make. But Herro will make at least some of them. That’s what good 22-year-olds do. He also hasn’t operated within great spacing; several core Miami lineups featured three non-threats from deep. What would Herro look like with more shooting around him, and wider driving lanes?

He’s already a (mostly) willing passer. He flashes advanced pick-and-roll playmaking — one-handed crosscourt lasers timed to catch back-line defenders lurching the wrong way:

Herro’s statistical profile after three seasons is very similar to McCollum’s. Miami needs Herro’s playmaking. It will invest in honing those skills. But I wonder if all the focus on remodeling Herro into Booker Lite has taken him too far from another useful archetype: Klay Thompson.

Herro has hit 42.1% on catch-and-shoot 3s — a monster number. His release is pretty quick, and he can shoot on the move.

Miami runs Herro off a lot of screens, but they are mostly designed to pop him out into pick-and-rolls — often with some delay as Herro waits for his screener. A lot of those actions are rote and almost casual, spitting Herro out with no advantage.

On too many of those possessions, Herro retreats into some stationary spot up role — almost removing himself from the play:

He even began passing up open catch-and-shoot 3s to drift into nothingness:

Herro has the gravity and skill set to do much more — both as roving shooting threat, and off-ball screener. Sometimes, all it takes is bobbing and weaving when defenders turn their backs:

Herro often draws two defenders while slithering around picks — unlocking easy shots for teammates:

Herro should lean into this more, and moving into the starting lineup — playing more with Miami’s best ball handlers — could nudge him this way. His 3-point rate should bounce back up next season.

This is not to say Herro will ever be Klay Thompson, even just on offense. (Thompson was and is in another universe on defense.) Thompson is a better shooter, with a quicker release and more juice moving off the ball. He’s a stouter and more willing screener. Herro may not even want to become this kind of player; he might crave alpha ball handling responsibility.

But the best version of Herro will improve every part of his game — and be able to assume different roles depending on context.

How good is that player? No one can know for sure. But McCollum feels like a reasonable outcome: second option on decent teams, third option on great ones, maybe never quite an All-Star (though Herro making one or two All-Star rosters would not be a huge shock.)

That is a really good player. It’s not an All-NBA type, but it’s not an empty calories bench scorer either. Herro becoming that player soon — or doing enough to convince the other 29 teams he’ll get there — would change Miami’s trajectory.

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