The Heat doesn’t yet have a set rotation or set late-game lineup it turns to.
That’s why it came as no surprise when coach Erik Spoelstra made it clear he’s not ready to make a long-term commitment to Miami’s new starting lineup, even after another positive performance in Friday’s win over the Cavaliers.
“I just want to be open to it right now,” Spoelstra said, with the Heat (23-24) closing its quick two-game trip Sunday against the Knicks (10-37). “I’m not making any definitive determinations or conclusions on that.”
The Heat has used the starting lineup of Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson, Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Justise Winslow in each of the past two games. It’s a very small sample size, but the group is a plus-8 in those two contests.
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This five-man combination, with Tyler Johnson recently replacing Rodney McGruder in the starting lineup, is a plus-32 in 49 minutes together this season.
“There are some things that look like could be advantageous for us,” Spoelstra said of Miami’s new starting group. “[Tyler Johnson] has got a pretty good chemistry, obviously, with JJ. But I’m open to it and I want that unit to play better.”
That unit has been one of the Heat’s most effective this season, with the second-best plus-minus among five-man Miami lineups behind only the Dwyane Wade-Kelly Olynyk-McGruder-Winslow-Bam Adebayo lineup that’s a plus-41 in 48 minutes together.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Heat is going to play any of these five-man combinations for heavy minutes. In fact, only four Miami lineups have logged more than 50 minutes of playing time together this season.
With the Heat now 47 games into its season, that’s a bit of a surprise considering only a few other teams have four or fewer lineups that have played more than 50 minutes together — the Hornets, Bucks and Raptors.
And there’s one big difference between the Heat and those teams. Those teams have found a lineup it can rely on and it’s playing that group so much that it’s taking away minutes from other combinations.
The Hornets’ most used lineup has played 461 minutes together and is a plus-65, the Bucks’ top combination has logged 428 minutes together and is a plus-42, and the Raptors’ go-to group is a plus-67 in 385 minutes.
The Heat’s most used lineup is Whiteside, James Johnson, McGruder, Winslow and Richardson, and it’s a minus-8 in 162 minutes this season.
When asked about Miami’s rotation, Spoelstra said earlier this week he’s “trying to stabilize as much as possible particularly because we’ve had some changes the last few weeks.”
It’s just not an easy task.
“I think it’s just tough because we have so many guys who do so many things,” Tyler Johnson said when asked why the Heat hasn’t found its go-to group yet. “So it’s hard to find like certain combinations that if you’re going as hard as you really need to be going, especially with the way we play and how much we focus on defense, it’s hard for you to be able to play long stretches with the same lineup if your guys are playing their minutes hard.”
Another reason for the Heat’s ever-changing rotation is injuries, with 12 players combining to miss 155 games this season because of either an injury, illness or a personal reason. Starting point guard Goran Dragic has missed the past 21 games because of a right knee injury that required surgery and shooting guard Dion Waiters returned earlier this month after missing the first 35 games of the season because of ankle surgery.
Miami’s roster construction has a lot to do with it, too, with 13 rotation-level players vying for minutes in a crowded rotation.
“I feel like I’ve had this conversation every year about different lineups because of injury, because of guys being sick, because someone is earning more minutes,” Wade said. “Whatever the case may be, you’re going to play with different lineups in this league. There’s going to be times where the continuity is going to be off.
“You see in December, it seemed like, ‘OK, the Heat is turning the corner and they’re playing together.’ Well now in January, we’ve added different people in the lineup, we’ve had people out of the lineup. It’s changed a little bit of that continuity that we had that was working for us. We got to get back to that and we got to get back to being reliable to each other. … A lot of that could be a lot of things, but those are just excuses. We have to figure out ways to win ball games.”