Usually when an NBA team returns virtually its entire roster, coaches already have a good handle on the rotation and players already know their roles.
Usually, but not always. The Miami Heat is proof of that.
Unless the Heat pulls of a trade to land Jimmy Butler, it returns 14 players from last season’s roster and almost the entire team will be competing for spots in the rotation during training camp this week at FAU. That’s because there are — as Heat president Pat Riley put it this offseason — “too many good-to-great players” on the roster.
“We’ve been working to try to get this type of environment again. I love it. I embrace it,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said following the first practice of camp Tuesday. “I want our players to embrace it. Things are going to have to be earned. That’s the way it should be in this league. To beat really good teams in this league, you have to have depth, you have to have talent, you have to have versatility. We’re checking some of those boxes off and I just love the competition when the guys are fighting for opportunities.”
Among the 14 Heat players under guaranteed contracts, 13 are rotation-level players. Only 38-year-old team captain Udonis Haslem enters camp without the expectation of making the rotation, as he’s logged just 202 minutes over the past two seasons.
“It’s going to be some times where some guys are left out of the rotation,” guard Tyler Johnson said. “It was kind of like that last year, too. It was always a staple of the Heat to have 13, 14 guys who can be ready to play at any time. It really is going to come down to matchups and how Spo sees fit that certain guys match up with certain players and who’s playing really well at the time.”
Spoelstra used a 10-man rotation at times last season, and that seems like a realistic prediction for how deep he will go this year, too. The issue is, when everybody is healthy, there will be quality players left watching games on the bench.
With Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson, Dion Waiters (when healthy), Kelly Olynyk and Dwyane Wade pretty much locked into seven spots as part of Miami’s rotation, it leaves Tyler Johnson, Justise Winslow, Rodney McGruder, Bam Adebayo, Derrick Jones Jr. and Wayne Ellington competing for the final three openings.
But the Heat believes its depth is a strength, not a problem.
“I think it’s one of our strong points,” Ellington said. “I think obviously how deep we are at positions is going to make us a better team. It brings out the best in guys, competition always does that. I think guys just got to be prepared for whatever comes this season.”
This logjam isn’t new, though.
With almost the same exact roster last season, Spoelstra was faced with difficult rotation decisions then, too. Injuries that sidelined players like Waiters, Whiteside and McGruder for extended time last year made those decisions easier, clearing up space in the rotation for others.
And the Heat is already faced with injuries to key players at the start of camp. James Johnson has not been cleared for contact work after surgery to repair a sports hernia in May and isn’t certain that he will be ready for the Oct. 17 regular-season opener at Orlando, and Waiters is likely to miss the start of the season as he recovers from January ankle surgery.
“It’s funny how the NBA season always works itself out,” Ellington said. “We’re saying this stuff now how deep we are at every position. And a month or two from now, we can be saying, ‘Hey, guys go down, things happen, guys are out.’”
One thing is for sure, it’s going to make for a competitive training camp.
“As a staff, we’re going to have to make some evaluations pretty quickly,” Spoelstra said. “It’s going to be competitive. Guys are fighting for minutes, fighting for opportunities. We’re going to have to see things a little bit quicker.”