It’s been one of those burning questions Heat fans have chewed on for the last month while Hassan Whiteside was out nursing a bone bruise in his left knee: What happens to Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo’s minutes in the power rotation when the league’s reigning rebounding champion finally returns?
The answer was simple for coach Erik Spoelstra in Tuesday night’s win over the Orlando Magic. With Whiteside on a minutes restriction (he played only 17 minutes, 42 seconds and none in the decisive fourth quarter), Olynyk and Adebayo got plenty of work.
Olynyk, who started alongside Whiteside on Tuesday at power forward for the first time since the season opener, had 15 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, blocked 2 shots and set 5 screen assists for his teammates in 31 minutes. The Heat’s first-round pick, meanwhile, had 8 points, 9 rebounds, 2 blocks, and a team-leading 9 screen assists and 8 deflections in 25-plus minutes of hustle off the bench.
But going forward as Whiteside’s health and stamina improve — and when James Johnson returns from right ankle bursitis — Spoelstra will be left with an interesting dilemma, one he says will be a good problem for the team in the long run.
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“I hope I have some of these tough decisions now, where we have great options and guys that can produce, guys that are comfortable. That’s the way it should be,” Spoelstra said after Adebayo (2 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists in 10 minutes, 42 seconds in the fourth quarter Tuesday) and Olynyk (2 points, 4 rebounds in 6 minutes, 25 seconds in the fourth quarter) more than held their own in the final period.
“To do what we want to do, it should be very competitive for minutes, and guys shouldn’t just be gifted minutes, but expected to produce,” Spoelstra continued, perhaps tossing a hint at Whiteside and others. “I think it’ll all work out, because of the skill set. I just need to figure out what the best fits are for each guy. Right now, I think it’s easy to see that Bam and K.O. is really a fun dynamic. They play well off each other. Guys like playing with those two guys. Their skill sets complement each other. So we’ll be able to build on the other ones, as well.”
Whiteside, who has missed 18 games this season because of injury (the Heat is 9-9 without him), has played a total of 23 minutes alongside Olynyk this season counting the 13 they played together on Tuesday. The Heat has been outscored by only 2 points during their time on the court together.
Olynyk and Adebayo, meanwhile, are a combined plus-32 (eighth-best among all two-men combinations on the team) in 140 minutes over 13 games together. Whiteside has yet to be on the floor at the same time as Adebayo and has played alongside Johnson (135 minutes, plus-5) more than any other player who has lined up at power forward.
The fact Olynyk and Adebayo have been a productive combination together in the frontcourt surprises none of their teammates.
“It makes sense that they can play off each other because they are both high IQ players,” Tyler Johnson said.
“You can tell they’ve had a lot of reps together now,” Wayne Ellington said. “They’re starting to get used to each other. They both can pass the ball extremely well. It’s fun for guards to play with those guys. They’re always looking to set the screen. Bam can get to the rim and K.O. opens things up with his three-point ability. It’s tough for teams to guard those guys when they’re in there together.”
Goran Dragic, who sat on the bench alongside Whiteside for the entire fourth quarter Tuesday as he tries to recover from strained ligaments in his left elbow, agrees with Spoelstra that in the end the Heat will be better off having to figure out how to divide minutes among its big men.
“It’s really unique,” Dragic said of the Adebayo-Olynyk combo. “When H comes back, then it’s scary because the first unit with H and then I don’t know, Bam coming from the bench and K.O., you have so many weapons on your team that you can play really strong. You can see the second unit, they were amazing [Tuesday]. They just built that lead and that’s what we’re expecting in the future. It’s going to be easier for us.”
Whiteside, who said his health is in the 90 percent range and who will continue to wear a knee brace until he fully heals, believes the Heat can become a dangerous team with its frontcourt depth.
“I will be great man,” he said of a potential big man rotation with James Johnson, too. “It’s a constant really good center regardless — kind of like what we had last year with Willie Reed. Bam comes in and does a lot of the same things and contributes, and then Kelly can come in and play well, too.”
Said Spoelstra: “[Whiteside] brings great size, rebounding, intimidation at the rim. I think once we get a little bit more rhythm offensively we’ll have a lob threat at the rim and just a lot of things that most teams don’t see on a night-to-night basis. And then you have the differing skill sets of the other bigs, which I really like and I think that will make us pretty dynamic once we get this all put together.”