It might feel like an audition on the outside — with three healthy players competing to replace Chris Bosh in the Heat’s starting lineup at power forward this preseason. But to those involved, and the coach making the decision, it isn’t building up to be a one-man job.
Luke Babbitt, James Johnson and Derrick Williams all bring something different to the table, and ultimately whoever ends up earning the starting nod when the Heat opens the season Oct. 26 at Orlando isn’t necessarily going to have the job moving forward.
The Heat, in the midst of a roster rebuild with Dwyane Wade in Chicago and with Bosh’s career in limbo, is more focused on the diversity of its lineups than it is finding a permanent replacement for Bosh.
“It’s more of a developmental phase right now,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Thursday when asked if the starting power forward position is in an audition phase.
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“We’re teaching them how to do things and how we want to play on both sides of the ball, going through all the details and learning and teaching. That’s really the process — even ahead of evaluation, even though I’m doing that as well.”
Babbitt, Johnson and Williams have all had an opportunity to start in Miami’s first three preseason games alongside the Heat’s core of point guard Goran Dragic, forward Justise Winslow and center Hassan Whiteside.
Spoelstra had Tyler Johnson start at shooting guard with three-point specialist Babbitt and defensive-minded James Johnson in the Heat’s first two preseason games. Veteran three-point shooter Wayne Ellington then started alongside the more athletic Williams in Tuesday night’s blowout of Brooklyn.
Whatever combination Spoelstra has gone with, the idea has been to always have three-point shooting on the floor — either in Ellington or Babbitt — to help create space for Whiteside to maneuver in the paint and space for Dragic and Winslow to attack the basket.
When Josh Richardson returns from a sprained MCL (he began taking jump shots on Tuesday for the first time since his injury), he figures to be a strong contender to start at shooting guard because of his three-point touch and defensive ability. Josh McRoberts (foot) could also get in the mix at power forward when he returns with his passing ability a premium.
“We’re all different guys,” said Babbitt, who has connected on eight of his 17 three-point attempts (47.3 percent) and attempted only two shots that weren’t three-pointers this preseason. “I think J.J., Derrick, we all bring different things. So, it’s important that we just develop a chemistry with our teammates.
“Hassan, you’ve seen him in the preseason. He’s been pretty dominant so far in limited minutes. I think him and Goran have a great connection, and they’re relatively new playing with each other still and they’re getting better. So, as they get better it’s going to open it up even more [for our shooters]. Hopefully, guys like me and Wayne will give them opportunities to go two-on-two, to have the middle of that floor wide open.”
At some point over the next five preseason games, Spoelstra said Thursday, he could decide to stick with one starting lineup to allow time for that group to gel. But he wasn’t sure it would happen.
Thus far, Williams has been the most productive of the three power forwards. He’s averaging 10.3 points (42.3 percent shooting, 38.5 percent from three-point territory), with 5.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists, a steal and a block per game. He’s also plus-31 on the court.
Babbitt, meanwhile, is averaging 9.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and is minus-9 overall after the Heat’s rough second quarter on defense against the Nets on Tuesday. Johnson is averaging 4.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and shooting 40 percent from the field.
Williams said while he sees why some people would want the Heat to have just one consistent starting lineup, the Heat has the diversity that makes it unique at power forward. And, he’s fine if he doesn’t start. He has confidence Spoelstra will find the right combinations for the Heat to succeed.
“We have so many different guys on this court that can cause mismatches,” he said. “There’s all types of fours out there. We’re going to be playing a lot of post-up fours during the season with guys like Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin and guys who are a lot bigger than us at the four spot. But I think that’s what coach does best. He puts us in different ways to be successful out there and use our strengths to our advantages.”