Barry Jackson

Answering pressing Miami Heat questions with camp opening Tuesday

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside walks to the bench during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Wednesday, March 12, 2017.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside walks to the bench during the first quarter of an NBA basketball game against the Washington Wizards at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Wednesday, March 12, 2017. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Asking and answering Heat questions heading into the start of training camp on Tuesday:

• So who starts at small forward?

We’re told this is a complete toss-up, with Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and dark horse Rodney McGruder all having a legitimate chance.

Though the Heat in the past has spoken of McGruder ideally as a bench player long term, Miami was 36-29 when he started last season and he cannot be discounted.

Though Winslow has as good a chance as any of the three, he will not be gifted the job. It was telling that unlike in the summer of 2016, Pat Riley declined to answer directly in July when asked if he views Winslow as a likely starter. Or more likely, coach Erik Spoelstra, who is proficient at accentuating players’ strengths, must craft a different type of game for him that works effectively alongside teammates.

Miami was 3-12 when he started last season, and he must prove he can fit into the style that worked so well for the Heat after the All-Star break, with one big and four floor-spacers who can shoot.

Richardson, a natural guard, has become a viable option because the Heat believes he has the size (6-6) and length to defend opposing small forwards, something he has done in large doses in the past. In fact, he played 80 percent of his minutes at small forward last season, according to basketballreference.com.

And keep in mind that Spoelstra likes playing three guards. That approach is justified when you consider this:

Of the 17 lineups that produced the Heat’s best plus/minus numbers after the All-Star break last season, 13 included three guards. A lineup of Wayne Ellington, Tyler Johnson and Richardson (plus James Johnson and Okaro White) was No. 1 among all Heat lineups, outscoring teams by an absurd 35 points in 28 minutes.

• So who starts at power forward?

We hear James Johnson is the clear favorite. The Heat likes how Kelly Olynyk played off the bench with Boston and was impressed with how Johnson played as a starter late last season, when Luke Babbitt was injured.

One scout said he would opt for Olynyk as a starter because he’s the better shooter than Johnson, with Olynyk shooting 35.4 percent on threes last season (36.8 career average) and Johnson 34 percent (29.6 percent career average).

But another scout said the Heat’s frontcourt would be slower and not as good defensively if Olynyk starts ahead of Johnson.

Couple things to keep in mind:

1) Johnson and Hassan Whiteside played 1042 minutes together last season, eighth-most on the team for a two-man pairing. And the Heat outscored teams by 104 points in those minutes, which was third-best on the team for two-man combos.

The Heat shot 47 percent from the field and 37 percent on threes when they played together. So those two have good chemistry and the coaching staff knows it.

2) Olynk has started 36 games and come off the bench in 242. His scoring and rebounding numbers are slightly better as a starter, which is mostly a byproduct of playing more minutes as a starter.

But it’s notable that when he starts, he shoots about one percentage point better (48.7), two percentage points better on threes (38.4) and five percentage points better on free throws (78.4). That could be merely a coincidence.

The Heat believes he will thrive off the bench if they go that route.

• Will rookie Bam Adebayo crack the rotation?

There could possibly be limited minutes at backup center or backup power forward, depending not only on Adebayo’s progress but also matchups and foul trouble.

But Spoelstra also could opt to stick primarily with three power rotation players (Whiteside, Johnson, Olynyk), with spillover power forward minutes to Winslow, allowing Miami to play small at times. That decision hasn’t been made.

We hear Adebayo has looked very good in team workouts in the past month and has been very coachable, absorbing what Juwan Howard and the other coaches tell him.

• What young players have impressed in workouts and who’s likely to win the last roster spot?

We hear Michigan point guard Derrick Walton Jr. has looked good, but he’s on a two-way contract, limiting him to no more than 45 days in the NBA this season.

White and Jordan Mickey are favorites for the 13th and 14th jobs, and A.J. Hammons has the slight edge for spot No. 15.

But Hammons’ work ethic is a question and don’t rule out ex-UCF shooting guard Matt Williams Jr. for the 15th spot.

• How does Spoelstra create playing time for five guards?

Using Waiters or Richardson some at small forward is one solution, and Spoelstra is comfortable with how both of those players defend opposing threes. But these sort of things usually work themselves out because of injuries or other factors.

One thing is clear: Ellington needs to play, not only because his shooting stretches the floor but also because of this: Of the Heat’s 16 best lineups in terms of plus/minus after the All-Star break last season, 10 of them featured Ellington.

And if Dwyane Wade gets a Bulls buyout? Miami would have interest but there isn’t unanimity internally about whether he would be a great fit, with his defense one concern. And Wade has spoken publicly of wanting to play for a championship contender again.

Here’s my post from late last night with Jarvis Landry’s comments to me about the Dolphins never making him a contract offer. Here’s my Saturday column with lots of personnel notes from the UM game. Here’s my Saturday post with a Heat executive talking about the team’s young prospects. Twitter: @flasportsbuzz

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