When the Miami Heat and New York Knicks square off in Saturday’s Game 3 of their conference semifinals matchup and beyond, it will be a battle between the lefties and the undrafted stars.
The Heat and Knicks both feature lineups that highlight players that go against the NBA norm. In New York’s case, it’s a heavy reliance on southpaws — starters RJ Barrett, Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle plus reserve Isaiah Hartenstein. The Portland Trail Blazers, with five, were the only team with more left-handed shooters this season. Three of those were players signed in the final week of the season.
Meanwhile, after losing lottery picks Tyler Herro and Victor Oladipo to injuries in the first round, Miami’s rotation in this series features five undrafted players out of the 10 to see action: Starters Max Strus and Gabe Vincent plus key reserves Haywood Highsmith, Caleb Martin and Duncan Robinson.
This week’s mailbag puts both teams in historical context.
Throughout the NBA season, I answer your questions about the latest, most interesting topics in basketball. You can tweet me directly at @kpelton, tweet your questions using the hashtag #peltonmailbag or email them to [email protected].
“When was the last time an NBA team had three left-handed players (or more) in their starting lineup like the Knicks do currently? Let alone their top three leading scorers.”
— Thomas Shields
It’s been nine seasons since we’ve seen a team start three southpaws as part of their primary lineup. Back in 2013-14, both the Detroit Pistons (Brandon Jennings, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith) and Memphis Grizzlies (Mike Conley, Tayshaun Prince and Zach Randolph) qualified.
That Pistons lefty trio was also the team’s leading scorers. Using handedness data from Basketball-Reference.com, they are apparently the only two teams in NBA history with this distinction. However, Detroit had a relatively balanced attack where no player scored more than 16.4 PPG and five players averaged at least 13.5 PPG.
When it comes to overall production from lefties, the Knicks stand apart. New York’s 5,406 points by lefties were the most ever by a team based on Basketball-Reference’s data.
The Knicks also had the highest percentage of points by lefties (57%), surpassing the 51% by the 1976-77 New York Nets (who got a record 10,238 minutes by lefties Tiny Archibald, Tim Bassett, Robert Hawkins, Kim Hughes, Al Skinner and Dave Wohl) and the 2014-15 Houston Rockets (primarily James Harden, but also Terrence Jones, Donatas Motiejunas, Kostas Papanikolaou and Smith).
While we’re here, the four left-handed All-Stars this year (Randle, De’Aaron Fox, Domantas Sabonis and Zion Williamson) was a high number but not record-setting. Just two years ago, we had Randle, Sabonis and Williamson joined by Conley, Harden and Ben Simmons for six All-Star lefties, matching the record set in 1973 by Nate “Tiny” Archibald, Dave Cowens, Gail Goodrich, Bob Lanier, Jack Marin and Lenny Wilkens.
“How much of an outlier are the Heat in relying on undrafted guys?”
— Andrew Patton
A substantial one. Undrafted minutes have reached a modern high the past three seasons (peaking as a percentage of all minutes in 2021-22, presumably because of absences due to the NBA’s health and safety protocols during the omicron wave) and Miami is at the forefront of that trend.
Naturally, the number of undrafted players in the NBA has increased dramatically since the league shortened the draft from seven rounds to three in 1988 and two thereafter. I don’t really have a good explanation for why this trend briefly reversed in the mid-2000s, but the introduction of two-way contracts has made undrafted players a bigger part of the league than ever.
This season, 46% of the Heat’s minutes were played by undrafted players, the fourth-highest percentage since the NBA-ABA merger by my calculations — just ahead of last season’s Heat. With Robinson in a larger role a year ago, Miami actually had a higher percentage of points by undrafted players at 40% as compared to 36% this season.
Despite the growing usage of undrafted players, the team most reliant on them was the 1999-2000 Orlando Magic, who featured three of the top undrafted players in league history — Hall of Famer Ben Wallace plus longtime starters Darrell Armstrong and Bo Outlaw. They were joined in Orlando’s most common starting five by undrafted John Amaechi, with Chucky Atkins as a key reserve.
Altogether, undrafted players contributed 52% of the Magic’s minutes — the only team in modern history with more than half — and 47% of their points.
The other two teams to use undrafted players more frequently than the Heat were the Dallas Mavericks in 2016-17 and 2017-18. Those teams both featured J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Dorian Finney-Smith, Wesley Matthews and Salah Mejri. After losing Seth Curry in the summer of 2017, the Mavericks added Maxi Kleber to the mix, giving them four undrafted players over 1,000 minutes both years.
In terms of percentage of points from undrafted players, the 2014-15 and 2015-16 Philadelphia 76ers and 2021-22 Rockets were also over 40%. Those teams represent the struggles most teams which rely on undrafted players face.
The Magic just missed the playoffs at 41-41 in 1999-2000, the year before they added Grant Hill and Tracy McGrady in free agency. None of the other teams in this group finished better than 33-49.
In that context, the Heat stand alone as having the highest percentage of minutes played and points scored by undrafted players among playoff teams. And although Miami reached this year’s playoffs through the play-in tournament, the Heat were the No. 1 seed a year ago and have won a combined three series — and counting — over that span.
As ESPN’s Andrew Lopez detailed in a story last year, undrafted players have proven a perfect fit for Miami’s famed “Heat culture” of hard work and development. The current generation of Miami players needs only look at elder statesman Udonis Haslem, a starter on all three of the Heat’s title teams, to see how far they can go in the organization.
Miami has also done exceptional work using their two-way spots to develop contributors in the G League. Martin, Robinson, Strus and Vincent all started on two-way contracts before graduating to full NBA deals. Adding so many useful role players to the mix has helped the Heat get this far despite key playoff injuries.