Erik Spoelstra has spent the first three games of this preseason mixing and matching lineups and rotations to prepare himself not only for the regular season, but what could lay ahead if the Miami Heat ends up playing like the team that went 30-11 over the second half of last season.
While the rest us are penciling in what we think he’s going to do with his starting lineup when the Heat opens the regular season Oct. 18 in Orlando, truth be told, the coach with three NBA championship rings (one as an assistant) remains very much undecided.
And it’s clear last Saturday’s starting lineup of 7-footer Kelly Olynyk at power forward and last year’s leading rebounder Hassan Whiteside at center has given Spoelstra something to chew on. While most expect James Johnson, who signed a four-year, $60 million deal to stay with the Heat this summer, to be the Heat’s starting power forward, Spoelstra said that decision isn’t set in stone.
“Whoever starts I’m not there yet right now,” Spoelstra said Monday shortly after morning shootaround.
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“When I play James Johnson at that position I do not feel that we’re small. Ever. His wingspan is over 7 feet. He’s every bit a 7 footer as everybody else. Kelly has a different skill set and his ability to shoot and make plays off the dribble, we like that. We feel that’s a great fit and can be a good fit with our group of a second unit or he can play alongside Hassan.
“It’s not like we went with two power centers [Saturday in Orlando] and are trying to beat somebody up down low circa 1995. That wasn’t the lineup at all. The more important thing was I thought their skill sets complement each other, and having Kelly out there regardless of the lineup helps your flow because of his IQ and his unique skill set.”
Saturday’s starting lineup of Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder, Olynyk and Whiteside played seven-plus minutes together in the opening quarter and was outscored by the Magic 18-12. In the second half, the results were better. Miami went on an 11-0 run early in the third quarter and the group outscored the Magic 17-8 before Spoelstra went to the bench.
Johnson, who was a revelation last season off the bench, started the Heat’s first two preeason games and struggled. He scored just four points (2-9 shooting, 0-4 three-point range) and had as many turnovers (3) as he had assists in 39 combined minutes. He was also a team-worst minus-19 in plus/minus.
In 27 minutes off the bench Saturday in Orlando, Johnson was 4-of-12 shooting (0-4 three-point range), but finished with eight points, four rebounds, four assists and one turnover.
“I really liked his last game, very good defensively,” Spoelstra said. “He came in with a tremendous amount of energy and showed his dynamic versatility. He was making plays off the dribble. He was setting other guys up. He was guarding 1 through 4. JJ at his best does so many different things that help your team. Some of them show up on box scores, some of them don’t. He was much more comfortable last game.
“I’m not concerned about JJ. He’s so selfless right now. He’s trying to make sure everybody else feels comfortable.”
Johnson, who played in 76 games last year and started the final five, said he felt in his comfort zone Saturday coming off the bench.
“I think in all three preseason games so far I felt the best in the last one against Orlando,” he said. “It’s something I’ve got to work on. I’ve got a new role when I start and I’ve just got to figure it out, figure out how to be better.”
Johnson, 30, said when he starts the challenge for him is different than when he comes off the bench.
“More rebounding,” he said. “I’ve got to do more, different things to contribute to that first unit. That’s what I’m talking about working on. I need to help Hassan rebound. That also allows my bust outs and lets [Goran Dragic and Waiters] run the floor. Then I can get us into sets from there. Other than that, [I’ve got to] let them handle the ball and be who they are.”
Johnson said he feels like where he’s struggled the most thus far in the preseason has been on defense.
“I’m very comfortable on the offensive end,” he said. “I move the ball. I handle the ball, I bring it up. That’s not the problem. The problem is our culture. We want to be the best defensive team and we’re locked in and we have habits we've been building since last year. It’s just getting better on that. There’s a lot of mistakes I've made on the defensive end that I’m trying to clean up.”
As for the lineup of Whiteside and Olynyk starting together, consider Johnson a fan.
“I love it,” he said. “I love the way Kelly plays and I think he’s a good [compliment] to Hassan out there. He rebounds, plays hard, he’s physical. I think that’s the main reason why Hassan was able to get a lot more rebounds [Saturday in Orlando]. Guys are trying to keep Kelly off the boards.”
Ultimately, Spoelstra will have to decide what’s best for the Heat at the start of games. Clearly, though, he likes the fact he’s got options.
“Head coach has to do his job,” Spoelstra said. “I’d much rather have this where you have tough decisions. That means you have some talent.”
Honestly, Spoelstra said, he could be closer to having a ‘closing lineup’ than a starting lineup.
“Even that will be difficult as well because we have a lot of guys who are super competitive and fearless and love that moment,” he said. “There were a lot of guys that had opportunities last year to close games for us and we added players that are used to having an opportunity or thinking they’re going to be in there at the end.
“But yeah, it’s almost reverse engineering to get to the [starting] lineup because there are some lineups I already know that we like, everybody can see it, even some closing lineups. Those answers are probably more available right now than who’s going to start the first five minutes of the game.”