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Erik Spoelstra, Pat Riley and the great Heat center debate . . . it’s back, starring Bam Adebayo

The last time Pat Riley interjected himself into the discussion about an emerging Miami Heat center and utilization by coach Erik Spoelstra, things got sideways.

“How can Spo transform his thinking when it comes to offense and defense or minutes or whatever?” Riley said during his season-ending media session in 2018. “However he uses him, that’s what you do. We go through this almost every year with players. There’s always a disagreement, a change in philosophy or whatever it is.

“There has to be an intervention and I’m going to be the intervener. That’s real.”

That was then.

When the discussion centered on Hassan Whiteside.

And then came this past week, as Riley reflected on the Heat’s season and another big man and shot totals.

This time with Bam Adebayo front and center in the comments by the Heat president.

“This could be a year, and Spo and I will sit down and talk about it, about how can Bam be developed in a way to improve his consistent shot ability every night, getting 15 shots every night?” Riley said. “Quality shots, you know, that he can get, that he can create, whether it’s in the post, whether it’s the elbow or whatever.”

Adebayo’s shots per game have risen each season since he was selected No. 14 out of Kentucky in 2017, from 4.9 to 5.9 to 11.0 to 12.5 to, this season, 13.0. The scoring average similarly has increased each of his five seasons, to 19.1 this season

But after averaging 14.3 shots in the Heat’s postseason run to the 2020 NBA Finals, that average was down to 9.7 in this postseason’s run to the Eastern Conference finals.

“He can be very prolific at times,” Riley said. “But he can’t always just be on effort, on running, on offensive rebounds, on lob dunks, on little floaters. I do think there’s a part of him that we can grow.”

Which brought it back to Spoelstra, although hardly with the same vigor to the debate as when Riley was decidedly more in Whiteside’s corner in 2018, after Adebayo’s rookie season.

“So that’s dependent a little bit on your overall offensive philosophy and how much you want to change that,” Riley said of Adebayo as a leading offensive threat. “I think there’s another level at his age now, that we need more consistency in his ability to get good shots, create good shots for himself and us and score.”

Spoelstra, who spoke a week before Riley, in the immediate aftermath of the Game 7 loss to the Boston Celtics in the East finals, deferred any comment on future utilization of Adebayo. Typically, he then cedes the floor to Riley, moves past conjecture, and moves forward once such noise quiets, often without further comment.

“He has reinvented himself every offseason,” was where Spoelstra left it. “Every year in the last three or four years he should have been considered Most Improved Player.”

With Kyle Lowry limited in the playoffs with a hamstring strain, with Jimmy Butler dealing with knee pain, there were times during the postseason, when the canvas was Adebayo’s.

Earlier in the playoffs, there was a run of three consecutive 20-point games, then, in the East finals, there were 31- and 25-point performances against the Celtics.

It is why, if the selflessness subsides, or if Riley or Spoelstra opt to stress as much, teammates see the possibilities for even more, even as Adebayo has attempted to mute the conversation of his shot totals.

“I’ve said it all year long, he’s the engine that makes us run on both ends of the floor. He does so many things well,” Butler said. “I’m very grateful to be able to play with an individual like him, along with so many other people on the roster.

“I think the more comfortable that Bam gets, that he knows that he’s a star in this league, you can’t put a cap and a ceiling on his talent and his abilities. As long as he’s comfortable, he’s going to be hell whenever he’s out there on the floor.”

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