Examining Starting Lineup Options for the Miami Heat

Insight3 years ago7 min readNekias Duncan

After Monday night’s loss to the Boston Celtics, the Miami Heat now sit a game under .500 (22-23). They’re 5-5 in their last ten games, though there’s a decent chance they get over the .500 hump over their next four contests.

That’s frustrating for one of two reasons. There’s a strong argument to be made that they could be well over .500 if teams like the Atlanta Hawks didn’t consistently light them up. On the other hand, being a game or two over .500 doesn’t really mean much in the grand scheme of things when they’re still lacking a foundational star.

But that’s an argument — maybe an article! — for another day. Miami will finish however they finish.

For now, they really need to figure out how they should start.

What’s Going Wrong

I have now lost count of how many times Miami’s current starting unit — Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder, James Johnson, and Hassan Whiteside — has put them in a hole. They were outscored by 17 points against the Celtics in their eight minutes together. Their minus-106.3 net rating (yeah, yeah, sample and whatnot) looks like a misprint.

It’s been a tale of two months for Miami’s current starters. When Goran Dragic went down with a knee issue, the Winslow-Richardson-McGruder-Johnson-Whiteside group became a godsend. They generated a plus-24.8 net rating in 55 minutes for the month of December.

The offense hummed (112.4 offensive rating) while the defense (87.4 defensive rating) made games ugly. Miami was able to consistently set the tone by grinding out possessions and forcing opponents to score against their set defense.

The story has flipped entirely in January. They’re hemorrhaging points (113.5 defensive rating), while their offense (97.2 offensive rating) is doing its best “Miami Dolphins on an opening drive” impersonation.

Who Is To Blame?

The popular names to blame here are McGruder and Johnson. There’s still a loud “Bam Adebayo > Whiteside” contingent on Twitter — and probably within the organization, if I had to guess — but Whiteside has been a quiet positive over the last month or so. He should be safe for now.

Johnson has had an up-and-down campaign on both ends of the floor. His rim-finishing numbers are the lowest they’ve been in five years, but he’s also shooting a career-high from three (35.4 percent) on very modest volume. He hasn’t been the versatile stopper we saw during the 30-11 run, but he’s had his moments against stars like Blake Griffin and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

For what it’s worth, Johnson has played well alongside Winslow, Richardson, and Whiteside. The quartet has a plus-3.5 net rating in 230 minutes together on the season. They’ve been awful in January (minus-15.9 in 127 minutes), but that may be more of an indictment of the current fifth guy rather than Johnson.

It’s time we had the McGruder conversation.

It’s easy to understand the allure of McGruder through Erik Spoelstra’s eyes. As cliche as it sounds, he is the embodiment of #HeatCulture.

He’s constantly moving off ball. He flies in for long offensive rebounds and hustles for loose balls. He gives maximum effort defensively, and has defended opposing star wings all season so Richardson wouldn’t have to.

Of course, intangibles aren’t all McGruder brings to the table. His ability to space the floor (37.1 percent from three) and subtle improvement as a tertiary ball-handler makes him a little more than an energy guy. Earlier in the season, McGruder was winning 2-on-1s with timely passes and a surprisingly effective floater:

But teams have adjusted the scouting report on him. Opponents duck under McGruder screens more often, eliminating the advantages he feasted on. He hasn’t proven able to beat teams with pull-ups. That makes him, in essence, a 1.5 trick pony on offense as a shooter and cutter. And if he isn’t making shots, there’s just no value there.

Narrator: he isn’t making shots, and there’s no value there.

McGruder is shooting a putrid 28.1 percent from three in January. He’s averaging 1.5 assists to 0.9 turnovers. He has only taken three free throws all month, and they all came in (what felt like) Miami’s 47th consecutive loss to Atlanta.

The team numbers aren’t pretty. The Winslow-Richardson-McGruder-Whiteside group has been a negative all season (minus-1.5), and has been even worse (minus-17.2) in January.

To the earlier point about McGruder affecting things more than Johnson, there’s this: the Winslow-Richardson-Johnson-Whiteside group has a plus-15.6 net rating in the 68 minutes they’ve played without McGruder.

If there’s going to be a change in the lineup, it has to be at McGruder’s expense.

Possible Candidates

If the Heat decide to move McGruder to the bench (or out of the rotation), his replacement will depend on that Spoelstra thinks Miami needs most. That’s very obvious on the surface, but it also speaks to how many guys could fill in.

Derrick Jones Jr.

Ah, the youth movement option. The reasoning could start and end there, honestly.

Jones Jr. needs all the reps he can get. If the Heat plan on keeping him long term, he needs to be figuring out how to play off of Winslow and Richardson.

Beyond that, his size, length, and athleticism would be obvious upgrades over McGruder. Having four defenders from 6’6 to 6’9 would make the Heat more switchable if they wanted to go that route.

The concern for this unit, and the likely reason they haven’t logged a minute together this season, would be the shooting. Jones Jr. is shooting 36.5 percent from three, but is only doing so on 1.5 attempts. He’s also shooting a completely unsustainable 63.6 percent from the corners.

It’s nice to see him knocking down shots, but those numbers will likely come down. More importantly to the functionality of the lineup, teams haven’t been guarding him like he’s hitting at an efficient clip anyway.

It’s hard to envision Miami generating good looks with Jones Jr, Johnson, and Whiteside on the court. Teams would likely wall off the paint and dare Miami to beat them from outside.

Dion Waiters

Ah, the shot-creation option.

Winslow has done a nice job as the head of the snake. He’s puncturing defenses and spraying it out when necessary. His newfound confidence on floaters and pull-ups is encouraging, even if he isn’t quite there yet as a threat.

Richardson is at his best working off of others. He can attack already-bent defenses. He can make the correct read when set plays — hello, Spain! — are called for him, but he isn’t much for improvisation just yet.

The Heat really need a star, but we knew that already. At bare minimum, they could use a hired gun-type scoring threat.

That is, and has always been Waiters.

He’s the guy that could take some of the creation burden off of Winslow and Richardson. On the surface, taking the ball out of their hands comes at the cost of their development. It isn’t that straightforward, of course. At this stage, giving Winslow more catch-and-shoot opportunities isn’t a bad thing, particularly if the shooting is real (and I think it is).

Waiters has earned more playing time with his play as of late. Beyond that, seeing what he could do may go a long way in eventually moving him if he isn’t part of Miami’s long term plans.

Tyler Johnson

Did you know that the Johnson-Richardson-Winslow-Johnson-Whiteside unit has a plus-48.4 net rating on the season?

You didn’t, did you?

Am I going to ignore the 24 minute sample size to make my case?

You’re darn right I am!

On a serious note, Johnson essentially provides the same skillset as McGruder as a shooter, cutter, and tertiary ball-handler. The difference between the two is that Johnson is better in all three areas.

Johnson could thrive in an off-ball role while defending point guards (as he always should’ve been) on the other end. There’s a natural fit here worth exploring.