After a six-day All-Star break, the Heat returned to practice on Wednesday without a fully healthy roster, but with interesting looming decisions once that happens.
Kelly Olynyk, who has missed the past four games with a strained left shoulder, participated only in non-contract work in practice and is doubtful for Friday’s game at New Orleans.
“He’s progressing,” coach Erik Spoelstra said, adding the injury won’t require surgery but that he’s unsure how soon Olynyk will return.
Meanwhile, Rodney McGruder – out since sustaining a broken tibia in October – is inching closer to a return. He participated in his second full contact practice but Spoelstra was non-committal about whether he would play at New Orleans.
McGruder said the injury has healed and the only remaining hurdle is getting into ideal game condition.
Once Olynyk and McGruder are back, Spoelstra faces difficult rotation decisions.
“I’ve thought about it,” Spoelstra said. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get there… I would love to have that challenge as a head coach…. That would be different than what we’ve been dealing with.”
Among looming decisions:
• How, eventually, to fit 12 rotation-caliber players into a rotation that assuredly will be smaller than that.
Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside and Josh Richardson will continue to start. Wayne Ellington, Dwyane Wade and Kelly Olynyk also can expect regular minutes, and Bam Adebayo and James Johnson figure to remain in the rotation.
That’s eight players, and that doesn’t even take into account McGruder, Tyler Johnson (who has been starting at shooting guard and figures to continue to get playing time), Justise Winslow (who has started at power forward in Olynyk’s absence) and Luke Babbitt.
Udonis Haslem and Jordan Mickey remain available in case of emergency, with injured Dion Waiters rounding out the 15-man roster.
Could Spoelstra vary his lineup by games? He said he isn’t sure.
Keep in mind that the Heat has outscored teams by 100 with Olynyk on the floor and by 79 with Ellington on the floor, but Richardson (plus 20) and Tyler Johnson (plus five) are the only other rotation players with a positive plus/minus.
The Heat has been outscored by 48 points with Winslow on the court, by 51 with James Johnson on the floor and coincidentally, by 69 points with Whiteside on the court or Adebayo on the court. The Heat is minus 78 with its lone All-Star, Dragic, on the court – more evidence that this statistic shouldn’t be overstated.
“I think it’s a little but tougher on Spo right now,” Dragic said. “We have a lot of guys who can play.... We just need to put aside our personal agenda and just be as a team and it doesn’t matter who is playing a lot of minutes or who’s taking a shot.”
• What to do with Whiteside in the fourth quarter.
Of the 39 games that Whiteside has played, he hasn’t appeared in the fourth quarter of 14 of them.
And when he does play, he averages just 5.7 minutes per game in the fourth – 307th in the league and less than every other player in the top 22 of the NBA in salary this season. (Whiteside is tied with three others for 19th through 22nd on that salary list.)
Some of Whiteside’s minutes have gone to Adebayo; others have gone to Olynyk.
But a clear pattern has emerged: When Whiteside is really good early in the game, he has a decent chance (though hardly assured) of playing in the fourth. But when he’s merely average or less, he has virtually no chance of playing meaningful minutes in the fourth, barring foul trouble elsewhere.
So who has been better in the fourth – Whiteside or Adebayo? Statistically, Whiteside.
If one projects their fourth-quarter minutes over an entire game, Whiteside is averaging 29 points per 48 minutes in the fourth quarter, compared with 18.0 for Adebayo. Whiteside averages 23 rebounds per 48 in the fourth, compared with 12.7 for Adebayo. With blocks, it’s 3.3 for Whiteside, 2.1 for Adebayo.
But Adebayo is eighth in the NBA in fourth quarter shooting percentage at 64.3 (36 for 56), while Whiteside is 23rd at 58.6.
But this works in Adebayo’s favor: In the fourth quarter, the Heat has outscored teams by 28 in Adebayo’s 274 fourth quarter minutes.
Meanwhile, Miami is breakeven (a plus/minus of zero) in Whiteside’s 142 fourth quarter minutes. Miami is plus 22 in Olynyk’s 356 fourth-quarter minutes.
Olynyk has emerged as a valuable offensive component in the fourth; he’s 46th in the league and second on the Heat (behind Richardson) in fourth quarter scoring with 211 points (28.4 per 48 minutes).
• Who should start at power forward and shooting guard?
Spoelstra has been using Winslow at starting power forward but Olynyk could go back into the lineup when healthy.
At shooting guard, Wade said Wednesday that he will continue to come off the bench behind Tyler Johnson. Spoelstra values his ball-handling and tangible and intangible skills with that second unit.
That starting group of Whiteside, Richardson, Olynyk, Dragic and Tyler Johnson – a quintet used before Olynyk’s injury - was a plus one in 75 minutes, and is shooting an impressive 50 percent from the floor.
With James Johnson starting with the four others instead of Olynyk, Miami is minus 25 in 113 minutes. With Winslow at power forward with the other four, Miami is plus five in 48 minutes.
Heat players, for the remainder of the season, will wear a patch on their jerseys to honor victims of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. The organization was working on the design on Wednesday.
Here are more Wednesday Heat nuggets, including Dwyane Wade weighing in on multiple issues, Dragic on if he’s rested and McGruder’s first public comments in months.