The playoffs are coming, and it's time to find out who can really play for you. Thankfully for Miami Heat fans, coach Erik Spoelstra has already done that.
It’s about that time of year, where either you start tightening up your rotation, or you give more minutes to a Tyler Ennis. Thankfully for Miami Heat fans, coach Erik Spoelstra is doing the former. With the Chris Bosh health situation looking murky (recovering from blood clots) and the incumbent post-season, coach Spoelstra is feeling the pressure to solidify the role of his players, and he’s doing just that. On most nights, Miami’s rotation doesn’t exceed eight or nine Heatles. Like a business, a team is only as good as it’s best employees.
(Bosh’s recovery from the blood clot scare has been encouraging, but it’s nearing the point where coach Spo has to make some difficult decisions, even if it means shutting down a perennial All-Star. Life is not worth risking over a game.)
As far as most teams that are jockeying for seed positions are concerned, the playoffs have already begun; the Heat are one of those teams, and a two or three game losing skid can mean falling off a cliff, leaving home court advantage a tantalizing mirage. With roughly nine games left in the regular season, the discrepancy between the No. 5 seed (Miami Heat, 43-30) and the No. 3 seed (Atlanta Hawks, 45-30) is a scant 1 game; and all this while the Boston Celtics are sandwiched between the two at 43-30, clinging to a better division record. There’s no time for caution. Every win counts.
So, who are the Heat’s “No Time For Caution” rotation, and who has been pined?
Since the turn of the new year, Miami has only trotted out three lineups who’ve played over 50 minutes, per NBA.com/Stats. The minutes leaders (149 minutes): The Heat’s new starters -- Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire. Hassan Whiteside is now coming off the bench, a role that he is handling well. Barring a few jungle cats in cages posted on social media awhile back, the Heat’s front office must be encouraged with how the young center is handling his new role [sixthman/heavily used role player]; Whiteside went through his captured cats phase when he was being benched in fourth quarter; now, he's handling the evolution of his role with poise, kind of like a cat. Plenty of players whose talents exceed coming off the bench -- or sixth man -- might raise some hell in the same situation, or start leaning on the organization. Just ask James Harden. Coming off the bench is no pejorative when you do things like this.
In Whiteside’s 30.6 minutes per game since the All-Star break, he’s boasted a 108.1-Offensive Rating and a stout 100.9-Defensive Rating (7.2 Net Rating). Plus, when you’re having seven-dunk games, you can’t complain too much about riding the pine for the first seven minutes of the game.
As for as Miami's contemporary starters go, it's about as good as it get, absent an All-Star (Bosh). The Heat's starting lineup of Dragic, Wade, Johnson, Deng and Stoudemire has posted a 121.6-Offensive Rating with a Net Rating of plus-13. And since we flipped our calendars, both the Golden State Warriors (plus-10.8 Net Rating) and San Antonio Spurs (plus-11.6 Net Rating) have yet to top the Net Rating of the Miami starters.
With Wade taking a patriarchal step back, Dragic and Deng have seized some control of the Miami mob. Very fitting roles for perhaps the team's two hardest hustlers. With Whiteside AWOL from the starting lineup, it leaves Wade with one less lob catcher, but Miami seems to have remedied that problem. Minimum 50 possessions, Stoudemire is averaging 1.25 points per possession when being the roll-man on pick-and-rolls -- that's good for No. 8 out of the 113 players that qualified. And guess who's running the lion's share of those pick-and-rolls? Dragic. The Dragic-Stoudemire pick-and-roll is real, folks.
(The pick-and-roll's other roll-men: The few others who've surpassed Stoudemire's 1.25 points per possession mark: Tristan Thompson, Jonas Valaciunas, LeBron James, Dewayne Dedmon, Hassan Whiteside, Miles Plumlee and DeAndre Jordan.)
It’s not only the Dragic-Stoudemire connection that’s enjoying success in South Beach, either. Luol Deng, one the newly minted leaders of this squad, has been running free since Miami started to involve its players more, allowing them -- especially Deng -- to cut, screen and run more freely. Now, not only does Deng’s on-court play pass the eye-test, it passes the on-paper test, too; most notably, his pre and post All-Star statistics:
Pre All-Star: 10.6 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.5 assists.
Post All-Star: 15.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 2.4 assists (!).
Post All-Star break, Deng is playing like, well, an All-Star; combine that with a dogged effort, willingness to guard multiple positions and his locker room influence, and Miami has a hell of an asset going forward.
Deng might be the poster-child for Miami’s new free-playing style, but he’s not the only Heat member whose life has been made easier since the change. Coach Spoelstra has been noted saying that he’s cut back on the play calling and let the guys out there just play. Who wouldn’t want their job to get done for them and still get paid?
South Beach’s newest addition, Joe Johnson has been red-hot since joining the “Miami Mafia.” And with the losses of both Beno Udrih and Tyler Johnson to injury, Johnson provides some much needed ball-handling ability. But Iso Joe’s biggest contribution has been his lights-out 3-point shooting.
The Miami Mafia Effect: In 57 games with the Brooklyn Nets, Johnson averaged 37 percent from deep; In 14 games with the Miami Heat, Johnson has canned a stellar 52 percent (!) of his 3-balls. 14 games is small(ish) sample size, but he isn’t the only Heatle that has been shooting for the stars.
Rook 1 and Rook 2 (affectionately coined by some of the Heat’s elder statesmen):
Lately, Rook 2, or Josh Richardson has been doing more than matching Johnson and his marksmanship. For the month of March, Richardson is shooting an astronomical 62.5 percent from 3! It’s not just Richardson’s sniper accurate shooting that’s keeping him on the floor, though is helps; Richardson plays competitive defense. He’s a rookie, so he does make mistakes: getting caught in no-man’s land, getting back-cut -- regular rookie stuff; but what’s really enticing of Richardon’s defense is his ability to block shots, especially in transition (a la LeBron James). Since January 1: Out of 172 guards who are 6-foot-7 or less, Richardson ranks No. 7 in blocks (19). Richardson’s teammate, Dwyane Wade ranks No. 3 (25 blocks).
As for Rook 1, Justise Winslow isn’t enjoying nearly as much offensive success, but he's evolved into a multi-tool of a player. Whether it’s guarding the opponent's best wing player, switching on to guards, or banging with power-forwards, Winslow can do it all. If and when he takes his offensive skills to a wet stone, Winslow will be impossible to pull of the court; for now, Winslow’s heady defense and quick hands are keeping him out there.
Dwyane Wade, now called Father Prime, has been as good as Father Time has allowed him to be, and that’s pretty damn good. With more offensive firepower and leadership forged by the Heat, Wade has been able to take a slight step back, allowing his teammates to shoulder some of the load. Wade has only missed six games this season, and surely has his mind set on a deep postseason run. They say Father Time is undefeated, but as his new nickname implicates, so is Dwyane Wade.
Most notably, Gerald Green and Josh McRoberts have been all but nixed from the rotation. McRoberts’ fall from grace is most likely due to his injury troubles (knee/thigh). McRoberts has only played 37 games this season, and barring his start for an injured Deng (March 23), McRoberts has played less than 30 minutes combined, in the month of March. In McRoberts’ final year in Charlotte (the 2013-14 NBA season), he made 36 percent of his 3-pointers on 291 attempts. This season, McRoberts is shooting a hardly serviceable 23 percent from deep on 39 attempts. And now, even if McRoberts gets an open look a 3, he hardly takes them; his best case scenario is a record-scratch pump-fake.
Green has been another anomaly. Like McRoberts, Green’s 2013-14 season (Phoenix Suns) might have been an exception rather than the norm: 40 percent from 3 on 510 attempts (!). That is elite shooting. Green has enjoyed a decline in years since.
2014-15: 35 percent from 3.
2015-16: 31 percent from 3.
Still, Green is streaky. Unlike McRoberts, he still pulls the trigger from deep, even if it’s unwarranted.
On most nights, Miami’s rotation doesn’t exceed an elite eight, but for a few minutes. Coach Spoelstra has made it clear who we’ll see in the postseason's vital minutes, and who we’ll see in the trivial moments of a blowout. Even then, the Heat still have a few roster spots to fill, if they so choose to.