You can point to a lot of disappointing statistics for the Heat this season (last in free throw shooting, 28th in scoring), but there is one number more depressing than the team's 7-15 record heading into Friday night's game against the defending world champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
It’s a stat coach Erik Spoelstra knows before I can even finish asking him about it.
“1.8 or something?” he responds as I start to tell him about the eye-opening number of minutes (2) – or lack thereof – Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson have played together on the floor this season.
“Obviously you would love to see that group together,” Spoelstra continues. “We've all been around long enough in this business to know it doesn't always work out as planned. But, the train keeps on going and you have an opportunity to continue to build and grow and get better as a team, and I think we have.”
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Spoelstra is never one to make excuses. It’s only a way to feed self-pity and to get a team to quit. He learned that from Pat Riley.
Nobody cares, Spoelstra says, that the lineup he planned to close games with and potentially win with has two members currently shelved in Richardson and Winslow.
So, in his eyes, why cry over it?
To Spoelstra, there’s still more than enough time to get those guys on the court together. This season is as much about the core five growing together (and finding out if Justise Winslow can shoot or Josh Richardson can be a dependable starter or Hassan Whiteside can be more than just a shot-blocker or if Tyler Johnson was worth the $50 million deal) as it is finding other pieces already on the roster that could be a part of the future.
Injuries have slowed the primary goals of development down, but it hasn’t closed the window on other good, meaningful things happening.
Wayne Ellington and James Johnson look like they fit in perfectly within the Heat’s culture and they can help be valuable rotation players. But there have been bigger developments.
“There isn't one biggest [development],” Spoelstra said when I asked him what he feels he’s learned about this team that could mean something for the future. "But [rookie] Rodney [McGruder] has stepped up and absolutely made the most of his opportunity to prove that he's ready now, not just for the future, whatever that role would be.
“We look at Rodney as a Miami Heat veteran player. He’s been in the system. You can’t discount how much time he’s been in our system with two summer leagues, a training camp and playing a full season in Sioux Falls for us. So when he came in I look at him as a veteran. I have that kind of confidence in him. And, he’s earned his opportunity right now. It’s not just because of the circumstances.”
Spoelstra said McGruder reminds him of two of Riley’s favorite scrappy players.
“In a different way he's a throwback to the Bruce Bowen’s and Dan Majerle’s especially with his toughness,” Spoelstra said. “His toughness, relentlessness, consistent competitiveness.
“He makes you have to play him. That's what you want all your players to do regardless of who is available or not. With your play and competitiveness, make the coach have to make decisions.”
Spoelstra won’t come out and say it flatly, but the way Whiteside has responded after signing a four-year, $98 million deal this summer has eased his mind some. The conversations are different between him and his star center. It’s no longer about his attitude and where his mind is. It’s deeper and more pointed toward winning, more towards what a player making the kind of money he is should be.
“I think Hassan has shouldered much more responsibility and also understanding more of everything else and how important that is to impact a win,” Spoelstra said. “It's what I've been talking about – the daily approach, consistent effort and attention to detail, his leadership, every single time and how he plays, how that can inspire his teammates. It's a much bigger responsibility than he's ever had before in his career and I've enjoyed seeing him understand that and embrace it.”
So, while the losses have piled up and Spoelstra is still waiting to put his best lineup on the floor, there has at least been some growth and a greater understanding of what the Heat has as it rebuilds toward the future.
“We see better days coming,” Spoelstra said. “We're building a foundation. We feel guys are on their way to getting back healthy. And, we like a lot of the things that are going on. For a team with this kind of record, it has an incredible cause and spirit and fight from within guys, and that's because they see the optimism of what we have.”
Richardson, who rejoined his teammates Friday in Chicago, leaving behind four injured teammates in Miami including Winslow, said he’s looking forward to when the Heat finally has a complete team and the lineup it’s always wanted to have on the floor. The run of bad luck you might remember started with him when he sprained his MCL before the preseason ever began.
When he finally did come back, it wasn’t long before Winslow (sore left wrist), Dragic (ankle, elbow) and Johnson (tooth) were all shelved with injuries.
What little time Miami’s young quartet of Winslow, Whiteside, Johnson and Richardson had together when Dragic was out was fairly productive. In 29 minutes, they combined to go plus-21 on the court. So, it gives him a sense of confidence that once all the pieces are in place, things for this team will change.
“I feel like we still have another level we can go to,” Richardson said Friday.
“I feel like we have a couple 10-game stretches where we can go 7-3, 8-2. I feel like we have a couple good runs in us. I think once everybody gets back we can give it a little push.”
It may not be enough for a playoff push in the end, but at least the kind of push you would feel better about heading into the off-season.