Even with 11 players back from last season, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra warned in the preseason he would tinker with Miami’s starting lineup as much as he needed to.
The Heat has rolled through five different starting lineups through its first nine games as three core players have all missed time: center Hassan Whiteside (five games with a bone bruise in left knee), forward James Johnson (missed Wednesday's win over the Bulls with knee tendinitis) and guard Dion Waiters (Sunday's win over Clippers to be home for the birth of his daughter).
Over the Heat's last two games, though, even with Johnson back, Spoelstra has opted to start Okaro White at power forward, a sign he could be interested in having White play a similar role to the one Luke Babbitt did for Miami last season, which allows for Johnson to come off the bench and handle the ball more with Miami’s second unit.
Sunday, White made his third consecutive start and did a decent job defending Blake Griffin early in the game. White finished with three points (he was 1-of-3 all from three-point range), three rebounds, an assist and charge drawn in nearly 18 minutes.
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Last season, Babbitt, a better three-point shooter than White, made 55 starts and had a similar workload, averaging 4.8 points and 2.1 rebounds in 15.7 minutes per game. If White can continue to connect on three-pointers (he’s 4 of 9 to start the season) he can provide some value.
“You can absolutely bank on what ‘Ro will bring every single night,” Spoelstra said of White, who worked this off-season on having a quicker release to his three-point shot. “And that’s what we want out of all of our guys, that you can check that box and know exactly what you're going to get. You're going to get toughness. [He’s] going to give attention to detail. You’re going to get a guy that’s accepting of his role.
“It’s not about whether he makes threes or not, that’s what probably everybody else is watching. In short minutes, particularly in the right lineups, his defensive energy and his commitment to do all the little things, that matters and that helps certain lineups. So, I really like the minutes that he's been giving us.”
The Heat’s bench, which was one of the best in the league last season (it ranked eighth in scoring with 38.6 points per game and sixth in plus/minus at +0.8), has been up and down this season, but continues to be one of the better collection of reserves in the league. Sunday's 52 points off the bench were the most this season for Miami, which ranks 12th in bench points (38.2 points per game) and 13th in bench plus/minus (+0.7).
“I feel like we’ve proved that last year,” Wayne Ellington said of the Heat having one of the best benches in the league. “It’s just a matter of this year continuing to put it together and grow together. It’s just a matter of time. We have some serious weapons.”
White, for his part, is amenable to whatever role Spoelstra needs him to play.
“Whatever position I’m placed in to help the team out I’ll do,” White, 25, said before Sunday's game. “Whether it’s starting or playing two minutes or no minutes, however I can help my team physically or emotionally that's what I'm here for. We're still figuring everything out. We're trying to figure out what works.”
RICHARDSON LEADS IN PLUS/MINUS
Even though Josh Richardson (10.4 points per game) has struggled offensively, shooting 37.5 percent from the field, 32.0 percent from three-point range and having nearly as many turnovers (23) as he has assists (24), the Heat's starting small forward enters Monday's game at Golden State a team-best +33 in plus/minus. The rest of Miami's regular starters and core players are well behind Richardson: Whiteside (-2), James Johnson (-15), Goran Dragic (-16) and Dion Waiters (-39).
Richardson leads the team with 12 steals and is limiting opponents to 32.9 percent shooting on shots he's defended (27 of 82), 10.1 percent below their average, a mark which is the best on the team. By comparison, Kelly Olynyk is the team's worst defender with opponents scoring 54.9 percent of the shots they've taken on him (45 of 82), 7.8 percent better than than their regular field goal percentage.