Barry Jackson

Jimmy Butler said situation is not fixed. And Heat’s Spoelstra, UM’s Larranaga face tough decisions

‘Better have some versatility,’ Miami Heat Erik Spoelstra talks about what his expectations for the team

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra shares what he is expecting from his team for the new season during media day on September 24, 2018 held at the American Airlines Arena.
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Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra shares what he is expecting from his team for the new season during media day on September 24, 2018 held at the American Airlines Arena.

Please see below for a 7 p.m. Jimmy Butler update

In one regard, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and UM basketball coach Jim Larranaga share one challenge in common: They have three certain starters but need to decide on two others – one at shooting guard and another in the power rotation.

In Spoelstra’s case, he will need to select two if James Johnson isn’t ready for the Oct. 17 opener at Orlando; that’s iffy at best. He also needs to find a shooting guard to replace Dion Waiters, who will be out until mid-November if he misses the full 10 months he mentioned last year as the maximum time he might be sidelined after ankle surgery.

Unless there’s a trade for Jimmy Butler – and the Heat remains interested in a deal - two appealing options have emerged for the Heat’s starting shooting guard spot: Rodney McGruder, who’s averaging 15.2 points in preseason and has diversified his offensive game, or shifting Josh Richardson to shooting guard and inserting Justise Winslow at small forward, as the Heat did Monday.

Asked if he has made a decision on his starting shooting guard with what’s on the roster, Spoelstra said: “Not totally yet. I am going to leave some room to make another decision if I need to. I feel comfortable with all those guys.”

Tyler Johnson, shooting 5 for 27 in preseason, isn’t a solution and the Heat likes Dwyane Wade and Wayne Ellington coming off the bench.

The McGruder and Winslow alternatives are appealing in different ways. McGruder has played very well alongside Goran Dragic in preseason, scoring 15, 12 and 15 in his three starts and chipping in 19 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists in just 27 minutes off the bench Monday.

He’s 8 for 18 on three-pointers in preseason but also has displayed an improved offensive game off the dribble, including floaters.

As Erik Spoelstra noted via Fox Sports Sun’s Jason Jackson, Winslow can get the best of both worlds by starting; he can be aggressive offensively with the first group and then be the primary ball-handler when Dragic goes out. Plus, that allows Richardson to play his more natural position of shooting guard.

McGruder didn’t play shooting guard alongside Dragic last season, and McGruder was mostly at small forward in 2016-17, finishing with a modest plus/minus of plus 7.

And Richardson played mostly small forward last season, so there isn’t much data on a Dragic/Richardson backcourt either. (Richardson and Winslow are pretty much interchangeable in that lineup Miami used Monday.)

Here’s a look at how the Heat fared when the other four others alongside Dragic last season, in order of most successful to least successful:

Ellington: The Heat is highly unlikely to move him into the starting lineup, but the Dragic/Ellington pairing was by the far the Heat’s most successful backcourt pairing involving Dragic. With those two on the court, the Heat was a plus 4.5 per 48 minutes and averaged 108.5 points per 48 minutes. They played 772 minutes together.

Wade: In the 130 minutes that Wade and Dragic played together, the Heat was plus 1.4 per 48 minutes and averaged 104.5 points per 48 minutes. But Miami shot just 16 of 59 on three-pointers (27.1 percent) with those two (16 for 59).

Tyler Johnson: The Heat was a plus 1.8 per 48 minutes and averaged 104 points per 48 minutes when Dragic and Johnson played together. They played 1153 minutes together.

Derrick Jones Jr.: When paired with Dragic, Miami was outscored by 22 points in 106 minutes and averaged 89.6 points per 48 minutes. But Jones has missed the past three games because of an injury.

So McGruder or Winslow makes the most sense.

As for power forward, the options – until Johnson returns – appears to be Kelly Olynyk, who has played substantial minutes alongside Hassan Whiteside in preseason – or going undersized with Winslow at power forward.

For now, Olynyk appears to be the most likely option. As a scout said, that’s a slow frontcourt, but it has been effective in spurts.

As for UM, Larranaga will spend the next month trying to determine who’s best suited to play alongside Dewan Hernandez (formerly known as Dewan Huell before changing his name to honor his mother), Anthony Lawrence and point guard Chris Lykes.

Unless opponents have big lineups, Larranaga appears inclined to play Lawrence mostly at small forward (he played more power forward last year) and Hernandez at power forward (instead of center) and use a natural center, with Ebuka Izundu likely the front-runner over improved Rodney Miller (who has gone from 275 to 250 pounds) and Deng Gak.

But Larranaga will go small, with Hernandez at center and Lawrence or Sam Waardenburg at power forward, when matchups call for that.

There are three options for shooting guard alongside Lykes: Florida Gulf Coast transfer Zach Johnson (who has been sidelined recently with a knee injury), D.J. Vasiljevic or Wyoming transfer Anthony Mack.

“That [starting job] won’t be answered for a long time until Zach knows our system,” Larranaga said. “We need Zach Johnson back because he can create shots for others. DJ never turns the ball over but doesn’t get a lot of assists.”

Vasiljevic shot 67 for 163 on threes last season (41.1 percent) but isn’t much of a facilitator who could take ball-handling pressure off Lykes. Lawrence could help in that regard. Johnson averaged 16.2 points and shot 39.2 percent on threes last season.

7 PM JIMMY BUTLER UPDATE

Four-time All Star guard Jimmy Butler returned to Minnesota Timberwolves practice on Wednesday for the first time since asking for a trade, and ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported Wednesday that “after talks fell apart over the weekend, Miami’s still pursuing discussions with Minnesota on a Jimmy Butler trade.”

And Butler told ESPN on Wednesday night that even though he returned to practice Wednesday, his situation with Minnesota is “not fixed. It’s not fixed. It could be. It could be. Do I think so? No. I’m being honest with you. Do I think so? No. But is everybody going to be honest? No.”

Asked what Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau has told him, Butler told ESPN: “That everything is moving along. we know where your mind is at. We’re doing everything we can. Yada, yada, yada.”

Butler said he’s not seeking a trade because of dislike for teammates.

“I love the team I’m on; this has nothing to do with the players,” he said. “It’s that nobody wants to tell the truth. It’s that nobody wants to be honest. If somebody makes a mistake, they look the other way.”

Butler said he’s not the most talented player on the team; he said Karl Anthony Towns is. But “who plays the hardest? Me,” he said.

ESPN said the Heat “remain interested in restarting talks with Minnesota” after the teams nearly struck a deal over the weekend, before the Wolves came back and asked Miami for more.

Meanwhile, Wojnarowski reported that Butler, during Wednesday’s practice, was “vociferous and intense throughout scrimmage sessions, targeting president of basketball operations and coach Tom Thibodeau, general manager Scott Layden and teammates.. As the GM watched on the sidelines during a scrimmage, sources said that Butler yelled to Layden: “You [expletive] need me, Scott. You can’t win without me.”

Butler, asked about that by ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, said: “A lot of it is true, but I haven’t played basketball in so long and I’m so passionate and I love the game and I don’t do it for any reason but to compete and go against the best. All my emotions came out at one time. Was it the right way to do it? No, but that’s raw me, that’s me at my finest, me at my purest.”

Does he regret anything about his practice comportment Wednesday? “I think I was honest. Was I brutally honest? But that’s the problem. Everyone is so scared to be honest with one another. I am passionate about it. Ilove to play. I love to win.”

Wojnarowski also said Butler “participated in multiple intrasquad scrimmages, where he joined the bench units against the starters and went out of his way to challenge the team’s two young stars, Karl Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, league sources said. Coaches and players were largely speechless at Butler’s tour de force throughout the workout, league sources said.”

Meanwhile, the Timberwolves have once again begun engaging other teams in trade talks.

ESPN’s Stefano Fusaro reported that Minnesota reached out to Houston on Tuesday, asking for Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker, but the Rockets are adamant about giving up Tucker.

The New York Times reported Minnesota rejected a Heat offer for Butler that was headlined by Josh Richardson and a No. 1 draft pick, along with another player.

Minnesota is prepared to start the season with Butler if it doesn’t get better value for him in a trade, according to The Athletic. But some around the NBA are skeptical of that. One NBA official in direct contact with Minnesota said he would be shocked if Butler remains with the Wolves for very long.

“It’s fluid,” Wolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We’re always going to do the best for the team. If that means he’s here, he’s here. If not, he’s not here. The one thing about Jimmy is if he’s here or somewhere else or here, he’s going to give you everything he has. He’s a competitor.”

Here’s my Wednesday piece with TNT analysts Reggie Miller and Chris Webber offering advice on who the Heat should not trade for Butler, plus Heat injury news.

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