Making Sense of the Miami Heat’s Senseless Roster

Insight4 years ago8 min readNekias Duncan

This Miami Heat roster kind of blows, doesn’t it?

To clarify, Miami’s roster isn’t bad. It’s headlined by fringe All-Star talent in Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside when he feels like it, and Josh Richardson, who is a leap away from getting there. There’s also plenty of quality role players and intriguing young prospects. An argument could be made that, on any given night, the Heat could go 12-men deep if they wanted to.

That’s also the problem.

This is the underlying issue to Miami being in the dreaded middle. There’s no true superstar on the team, so there’s a need for a young guy — Richardson, Justise Winslow, or Bam Adebayo — to pop to raise the team’s ceiling. But with so many guys with a legitimate case for minutes, and with so many conflicting skill sets, it’s just … tight.

Richardson has been forced to play down a position. Winslow has played more power forward than small forward — or point guard, darn it. Adebayo is a 5 in today’s NBA, but he has to fight with Whiteside, Kelly Olynyk, and even James Johnson for minutes there. This is before you get into the intriguing potential of Derrick Jones, Jr.

Miami absolutely needs to make a move.

A few moves.

Several even.

For the sake of this piece, and to the chagrin of all seven of you that had to read that intro, let us assume Miami stands pat. How on earth will Miami dole out minutes? How should they?

Well, frankly, I have no clue. I have not talked to Erik Spoelstra, nor would he tell a B-level punster with 37 NBA doppelgängers his rotation plans anyway. I do, however, have a few ideas about what we will see, and some lineup combinations I personally want to see thrown out there.

Projected Lineups & Preferred Rotations

Projected Starters: Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside

There are three reasons why I think this will end up being the starting unit:

1. They’ve been pretty good together in an admittedly small sample. A quick look at the numbers:

• 2016-17: 15 minutes (six games), 116.7 offensive rating, 90.4 defensive rating, plus-26.3 net rating

• 2017-18: 33 minutes (seven games), 133.6 offensive rating, 98.1 defensive rating, plus-35.5 net rating

Again, that is a small sample, mostly hampered by injuries. Richardson was hurt for a chunk of the first half in 2016-17, and Waiters had his season ended prematurely with an ankle injury by the time Richardson made his strides in the second half. In 2017-18, Waiters was pretty much a non-factor before finally having ankle surgery while Whiteside dealt with a variety of maladies.

Still, if you squint hard enough, you can see why the lineup worked. At four positions, there is slightly above-average shot creation, with Whiteside operating as one of the NBA’s best (if not reluctant) rim-runners. Waiters and Johnson each have pick-and-roll chemistry with Whiteside. Inverted pick-and-rolls with Dragic and Johnson typically puncture defenses.

2. It keeps Waiters and Dwyane Wade separated.

It’s just … these two can’t play together. I know the “only one ball” critique is pretty overblown. Heck, in today’s NBA, you can’t really survive without multiple creators on the floor at once. But this is just different. Both guys march to the beat of their own drum offensively, for better or worse. Putting them together is just overkill.

(I don’t even need to mention the defense.)

(It would be bad, too.)

3. It keeps Winslow and Wade together, assuming Wade is back.

Winslow looked a lot more comfortable on the floor during the second half of last season and the playoffs. That coincided with the return of Wade. In general, there aren’t many guards you’d want to be mentored by other than Wade.

I do feel like the “Wade saved Winslow” narrative was a little overblown. The pairing was a net-negative (minus-2.9) in 296 regular season minutes. It was better in the postseason (plus-6.7 in 78 minutes), although Winslow’s per-36 numbers were much better with Wade off the floor (a trend that was also true in the regular season).

There’s also an on-court overlap that needs to be addressed: You can’t really play those two together without high-level spacers to complement them. Still, Wade’s brain may matter more than his body here. He’s one of the best perimeter players ever. And as much as some (okay, I) rave about Winslow’s vision and craft in the pick-and-roll, Wade is still one of the best pick-and-roll creators in the league at age 36. There’s value in having those two play together, even if it doesn’t show up statistically.

Preferred Starters: Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk, Hassan Whiteside

Here, you’d have three plus-shooters in Dragic, Richardson, and Olynyk; three plus-passers in Dragic, Winslow, and Olynyk; two quality drivers in Dragic and Richardson; and Winslow, who can get to his spots. Whiteside would serve as the rim-runner and glass-cleaner here, because duh.

Having Richardson and Winslow hounding the opposing team’s best perimeter scorers is a little unfair, especially with Whiteside on the backline.

That alignment would give Miami (more) opportunities to hide Dragic, something they finally started doing with regularity last season. I would be worried about opposing teams abusing 1-4 pick-and-rolls, but Richardson, Winslow, and Whiteside are all good-to-great help defenders, so that could be mitigated to a degree.

We only saw this group together for 17 minutes last season. They did post a plus-9.2 net rating, but that’s not nearly enough of a sample to draw a conclusion from.

The Closers: Goran Dragic, Ball-Dominant Shooting Guard, Josh Richardson, James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside

Spoelstra normally rides the hot hand in these situations, particularly in the frontcourt. If we’re looking for a default closing lineup, though, this will probably be it. If Wade does return, he’ll likely get that final spot. If not, we’ll see Waiters. Here is how the fourth-quarter numbers shook out last season:

• With Waiters: 17 minutes, 137 offensive rating, 108.2 defensive rating, plus-28.8 net rating

• With Wade: 10 minutes, 87.6 offensive rating, 70 defensive rating, plus-17.6 net rating

We’re dealing with very tiny samples here, but that is, uh, quite a bit of variance. Waiters has, almost inexplicably, been a very good clutch player since joining the Heat. Wade is, well, you know his track record by now. We’ll see.

Preferred Closers: Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, James Johnson, Bam Adebayo

The Heat need to see what they have in their young guys. Accelerate the curve. Give Richardson more on-ball reps. Give Winslow on-ball reps, period. Allow Adebayo to do some stuff with the ball. We’ve already seem Bam defend premier players in big moments.

We can also talk about the wonky two-man game of Dragic and Johnson, as well as the defensive versatility 2 through 4. But ultimately, this is about the youth. Spo, let the kids play!

Oh, by the way, this unit had a plus-22.1 net rating last year. So, you know, it’d be nice to see how it holds over more minutes.

Shooters Shoot Lineup: Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Dion Waiters, Justise Winslow, Kelly Olynyk

Point Justise with three high-level spacers, plus Waiters as a get-out-of-jail card at the end of the shot clock? Sign me up, please.

This would obviously have to be situational — a “first-three-minutes-of-the-second-quarter” type of lineup because they wouldn’t stop a nosebleed.

Youth Movement Lineup: Tyler Johnson, Josh Richardson, Derrick Jones, Jr., Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo

This is, by far, the most athletic unit the Heat can throw out there this season. There’s so much length and explosiveness. Of course, Jones, Jr. and Adebayo could also pick up four fouls in 47 seconds, rendering the experiment useless. BUT HEY. You don’t know unless you try.

In general, the Heat need to be trying to carve out some minutes for Jones, Jr. There’s a two-way wing in there somewhere.

Super Small-Ball Lineup: Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow

Justise at the 5! Can’t you just smell the 2016 playoffs in the air? I’m here for a couple of minutes of switch-everything, attack-the-rim-at-will chaos.

Quick Hitters
• A fun fact that should surprise nobody: James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, and Hassan Whiteside played zero seconds together last season. I … kind of want to see what would happen. Throw the other Johnson and Ellington in there for spacing, then run 17 dribble handoffs in a row.

• Oh, while we’re here: The Ellington-Johnson-Olynyk trio had a plus-13.5 net rating in 401 minutes last year. They should probably get more burn this season.

• The Dragic-Johnson-Richardson-Winslow-Johnson lineup only played five minutes together last year. Five! Cinco! That’s arguably Miami’s best small-ball unit.

• I have no clue where Rodney McGruder fits into any of this. That makes me a little sad.