Shabazz Napier is rejoining the Heat when it begins its five-game road trip Thursday in Portland, and this much is clear: Whether Napier plays much or not, the Heat’s point-guard play must improve considerably for Miami to climb higher than the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.
Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers are struggling through two of the worst shooting seasons of their careers, and Napier has the worst assist-to-turnover ratio of any NBA point guard who has played at least 10 games. The Heat also has had trouble keeping quick point guards from penetrating.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra hadn’t used Napier in six games in a row before he was dispatched to the Heat’s NBDL affiliate in South Dakota for the past three games, where he averaged 18.6 points and 4.0 assists.
Spoelstra was told that Napier, in his NBDL stint, was “better as he went along in every part of it in terms of his attitude, leadership, defense, work ethic. He got something out of it.”
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Spoelstra never explained why Napier lost his rotation spot, but shoddy defense and his poor 1.1-to-1 assist to turnover ratio assuredly contributed.
“He’s having moments where he has to learn the game,” Dwyane Wade said Tuesday. “He makes mistakes, but he does some great things as well. He’s not going to get bigger or faster, but he has talent. He has ability to be a good point guard in this league.”
Cole, who will be a restricted free agent if the Heat makes him a $3 million qualifying offer by July 1, has seen his shooting percentage dip to a career-worst 38.5 percent, down from 41.4 last season. He’s shooting 25 percent on threes (19 for 76), which is down from 34.5 last season.
Cole has had stretches of impressive three-point shooting, including making 17 of 32 in the 2013 playoffs. He has been working recently with former NBA guard Sedric Toney, who has served as his shooting coach over the years.
“I’ve been struggling shooting the ball lately, but it’s going to come,” he said. “I know eventually I’m going to have a stretch where I get rolling. I’ve been in the gym working on my shot every day.”
After starting just 12 games over his first three seasons, Cole began the season as the Heat’s starter and started 23 games before Chalmers replaced him in the lineup seven games ago.
Among 48 qualifying point guards, Cole is 25th in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.51 to 1) but 36th in assists (3.3 per game).
“There are times when I make good plays and times I make plays I can learn from,” he said. “That’s a microcosm of what happens in our games this season.”
Cole is handling the ball “a little more” with LeBron James gone and said: “I like to have the ball in my hands.”
He admitted: “I’m not pleased about my play. Have I done some things well? Yes. But there are also some things I haven’t done well.”
Chalmers, meanwhile, flourished early in the season while adjusting to playing primarily backup shooting guard. But he’s back to playing more point guard and his 1.75 to 1 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks just 43rd among 48 qualifying point guards.
What’s more, Chalmers has shot just 33.9 percent over his past 21 games, which has dropped his season percentage to 40.4, fifth-worst among starting point guards and down from 45.4 last season.
A career 36.7 percent three-point shooter, Chalmers stands at 29.4 percent (32 for 109). His 11.0 scoring average is the highest of his career, but that’s a function of taking more shots.
“I’ve just got to find a rhythm somehow,” he said.
Asked if the Heat’s point guard play needs to improve, Chalmers said: “I don’t think so. Everybody was talking about how [the point guards] were scoring early. But most of the time, we were scoring when D-Wade or [Chris Bosh] was out. Our job is to distribute the ball and take shots when we get them, and that’s very few.”
Wade cracked that the Heat needs its point guards is “to take care of the ball. Leave the turnovers to myself! ... [And] try to contain the other team’s point guard.”
The Heat released guard Andre Dawkins a day before NBA contracts become guaranteed for the season. His agent, John Spencer, said the Heat expressed interest in signing Dawkins to a 10-day contract “down the road.” Dawkins scored three points in 22 minutes over four games for the Heat.
The contracts of Hassan Whiteside, Justin Hamilton and James Ennis become fully guaranteed after 5 p.m. Wednesday.
Hamilton, who has missed nine games dealing with the effects of a concussion sustained Dec.17 against Utah, said he’s ready to play. “I had headaches, trouble concentrating,” he said.