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Caleb Martin’s playoff legend makes no sense, and that’s why it’s beautiful.
Six months ago when you heard someone say “Miami Heat” your immediate thoughts would be about Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Tyler Herro. Now as the Heat face down the Nuggets in the 2023 NBA Finals there’s a new name synonymous with this team’s fortunes: Caleb Martin. Martin has gone from a barely-considered rotational player to emerge as one of Miami’s most dangerous weapons in the playoffs. Martin’s endless string of incredible performances and ruthless efficiency legitimately put him in contention to win the MVP of the Eastern Conference Finals series.
Two years ago he couldn’t get minutes with the woeful Charlotte Hornets and eventually got cut. Now he’s one of Miami’s biggest hopes to win the championship as a No. 8 seed. How does something like this happen?
A tale of two brothers
Caleb and Cody Martin’s basketball careers have to be discussed together, because the twins did everything together when it came to their ascent. North Carolina natives, the Martin brothers showed tremendous promise and relocated in high school to the legendary Oak Hill Academy in Virginia, a prep school incubator for college and NBA superstars. Caleb and Cody were recruited by Mark Gottfried at NC State, and both elected to attend university at home. It was poised to be a dream come true, but quickly ended when Gottfried was fired in 2017.
Deciding it wasn’t worth trying to make an impact on a new incoming head coach, the Martins transferred to Nevada to play for Eric Musselman, who heavily recruited the duo two years earlier. It was here they found success, getting more minutes and opportunities — showing the basketball world they could be effective.
The twins had fairly different games. Caleb was more of a volume shooter, and the more gifted scorer of the two — while Cody was better defensively and had a more complete all-around game, but without the flashes of scoring brilliance Caleb had.
It seemed destined that the duos basketball careers would forever be intertwined when the Charlotte Hornets drafted Cody Martin with the 36th pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, before signing Caleb as an undrafted free agent. Both were assigned to the Hornets’ G-League affiliate, and had great success. When they made it to play for the Hornets they were stunningly similar players. Cody had grown as an offensive player, while Caleb was still the same streaky shooter he was in college.
With a roster full of stacked developmental players the Hornets had a tough call to make, ultimately deciding to part the brothers — keeping Cody and waiving Caleb. For the first time in their lives the twins were split up.
Caleb Martin didn’t have to wait long before there was interest. A month later the Heat signed him to a two-way contract. After a short stint in the G-League once more, necessity called Caleb up and he exploded. On December 8, 2021, against the Bucks, Caleb scored 28 points and grabbed 8 rebounds in a win. Miami converted his two-way contract into a standard deal, and Caleb was poised to stick.
From here he was a solid role player. A guy Eric Spoelstra used to spell Tyler Herro when he needed a more athletic lineup. Martin’s minutes continued to increase, and with it his consistency. Up to this point Martin has been a sub-.400 shooter who never saw a look he didn’t like, however under Spoelstra and the Heat’s tutelage he learned shot selection, which turned him into a reliable bench option that could knock down good looks, and knew when to role play for the Heat’s bigger stars.
The 2023 playoff explosion
If you’re looking for a reason how or why this happened — sorry, there isn’t one, not really. Outside of Herro’s injury forcing Martin to get more minutes there’s nothing about this explosion that makes sense — and that’s why it’s so beautiful.
Martin is a hyper-athletic, albeit small wing who doesn’t really have the handling skills to run in the backcourt. However, none of this matters when you’re scoring with the efficiency Martin has shown during this playoff run. It’s tantamount to watching a mediocre player who’s on fire in NBA Jam.
So far in the 2022-23 playoffs Martin is …
- .566 from the field: Second only to Devin Booker among non big men who have played over 200 minutes.
- .438 from 3P: Better than Steph Curry or Klay Thompson
- .8 in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP): Tied with Kevin Durant and better than James Harden
- .704 in true shooting percentage: Better than any player left in the NBA Playoffs
In short: We’re comparing the best players in the NBA to CALEB-FREAKING-MARTIN! This playoffs has been an absolute masterpiece by a rotational player and there’s no schematic or tactical reasons to justify it. Martin has ascended past the point of metrics and is simply having a moment unlike anyone else.
This is a perfect storm
The Hornets are deservingly the butt of a lot of jokes right now. When you cut a player and they explode into a playoff mega-star when you kept his brother, well, you have it coming. That said, Caleb Martin’s explosion is really a confluence of factors.
If you look at the trends the Hornets cut Caleb Martin because he was really struggling and taking a lot of bad shots. That wouldn’t have changed if he stayed in Charlotte. A lot of the credit goes to Spoelstra for understanding how to harness Martin and mitigate his bad traits, while also needing to plug him in for an injured Tyler Herro.
However, there’s also just the unknown element to all this. Martin was pretty mediocre throughout the regular season, despite getting a lot of minutes. He was 16th on the team in per-36 scoring and shot attempts. Martin found a role as being an athletic wing who would rarely do anything on offense, which hid some of his worst tendencies.
What happened in the playoffs is that Caleb Martin married the efficiency he learned in Miami, with the shot volume he displayed in Charlotte. This isn’t something that should mesh together, but it has — and it’s made Martin the Heat’s biggest x-factor entering their series against the Nuggets.
If he can keep up this streak while Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo keep doing their thing, well, in a few weeks we might be talking about this being one of the biggest breakout performances in NBA history.
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