The Miami Heat have dealt with having no point guards by playing two point forwards

Miami Heat v Detroit Pistons

The Miami Heat began this season with only two experienced NBA point guards, one of whom they often start at shooting guard. Behind kind-of star Goran Dragic, there existed only combo guard Tyler Johnson, and yet Johnson’s versatility and all-around game has seen him start a chunk of the season alongside Dragic.

Miami’s only other point guard on the roster was undrafted rookie Derrick Walton, a two-way contract recipient who was expected to (and who has) spent the majority of the season on assignment at the Heat’s G-League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce. Perhaps they thought a third conventional point guard would not be needed all that much.

Normally, that would be the case. But in the Heat’s last two games, both Dragic and Johnson have been out. To cover for them has relied upon a by-committee approach that speaks to the Heat’s positional versatility, and the unique way in which they are built.

As a guard, Johnson combines a solid catch-and-shoot three-point stroke with the occasional pull-up two, crafty forays to the rim, solid decision making and defensive competiiveness. Johnson is not dynamic or explosive, but he is useful in the pick-and-roll, solid with the ball in his hands and getting involved anyway even when without it. And alongside him, the other starting wing is Josh Richardson, who shares some similarities with Johnson and who has become one of the league’s best role players.

Richardson plays every game and is among the league leaders in minutes played per game at 34.0. The peers he has in that sort of range - the three players immediately ahead of him are John Wall, Klay Thompson and Victor Oladipo - have much greater name recognition than he does, but Richardson earns his minutes just as much. Richardson plays this often on account of not only his consistency, but his versatility. There is always a role that he can fulfill every night, especially currently amid all the injuries.

Richardson often played point guard in college, and can do so at the NBA level, yet he is not the type to drive the lane and collapse the defence. The closest he comes to that is getting into the mid-range area and shooting a pull-up, a shot that is quickly becoming his calling card, especially when shooting from the left elbow after driving to his favoured side. Richardson is one of the better mid-range players in the game, at least from the wing positions, and he has added a good quality catch-and-shoot three-point shot to go with that in his NBA career.

As a point guard, he is a reliable enough ball handling option who rarely makes errors, and his versatility particularly shines through defensively. A wall of limbs, Richardson can switch onto bigs and hold his own, and track ones, twos and threes with consummate ease. When the Charlotte Hornets tried to draw up a last-minute game-winning play for Kemba Walker two games ago, the Heat knew Richardson would be the guy to best smother him into an impossible look. Richardson did just that, and, flanked with James Johnson's late heroics, the Heat won the game.

[Kemba, incidentally, now moves to 0-14 lifetime on last play situations. In these moments, his size really does become a problem.]

Miami Heat v Chicago Bulls

It is not just the wings, however, that are helping the Heat with the handle. Starting power forward James Johnson is currently living a dream.

Johnson has come a long way since his early years in the NBA. He still is prone to some wild decision making when on the move, still overhelps defensively in the pursuit of blocked shot opportunities, and still is not the calibre of shooter that his confidence in his shot suggests. Nevertheless, it is that confidence that also defines all the strengths in his game as well.

Quite quick and well built, Johnson confidently grabs the rebound and goes coast to coast in the way that Royce White was meant to, but few can actually do. When attacking downwind, he barrels confidently into the paint, come what may, and this offensive aggression and confidence can depressurise an offensive unit that can otherwise get bogged down. It is not a burden for Johnson to be asked to play the point forward role and take on playmaking responsibilities – it is what he has always wanted.

The ball handling responsibilities have been varied in this two-game stretch, then, and not only with the above. Reserve forward Justise Winslow has also run the point forward role for stretches despite his own halfcourt limitations, and even reserve big Kelly Olynyk has had a couple of goes at bringing it up, despite Walton being in the game at the time. Miami’s offence lacks for star power, but what it does have is a plethora of secondary and tertiary creators, and not a single player who contributes nothing offensively. 

Up front, this offensive utility continues. The case of Hassan Whiteside, however, is concerning. While still a dominant-looking player in his raw numbers - 14.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game -  Whiteside’s play is considerably slower this season than in his prior ones with the Heat. He can still be a significant threat to any team that does not defend the post well nor clean the glass sufficiently, yet he could be more of a threat than he is if he can regain his previous footspeed and hustle. Suffering with a bad knee and a large brace, Whiteside is not at the level he was for at least half of last year.

Eric Spoelstra still gives Whiteside post touches as some kind of appeasement that Whiteside, with his limited post skills and lack of poise on the interior, tends to do badly in. He is no Jonas Valanciunas on the interior, ranking among the league's worse players in the post despite his high touches in that area. Whiteside rewards those possessions only with poor scoring efficiency and a high turnover rate, time and possessions that would be better served becoming an excellent roll man instead, akin to the permanent frustrations of Dwight Howard's forced post play.

Defensively, Whiteside is still good, if slowed by the injury and frustratingly unable to contest everything on the interior like he once did. Once criticised for overly focusing on blocks to the deteriment of team defence, Whiteside perversely now needs to pursue blocks more often. His rebounds come anyway through playing only in the post and his natural combination of length and spring, and the knee injury has factored, but the knee injury is not the reason Whiteside freelances so many offensive possessions and passes so little.

However, even in this department, there is a cheaper replacement on hand. Last year’s first round pick Bam Adebayo started the season out of the rotation altogether, but got an opportunity to play when Whiteside was injured, and did sufficiently well in his first NBA minutes to have stayed in the rotation even with two senior centres ahead of him.

Adebayo shows similar defensive potential to Whiteside - perhaps moreso, as his better lateral quickness suggests he can be a better defensive candidate on perimeter bigs than Hassan - and can also pass the ball far better. He has taken on a bigger role and a bigger offensive role as the season has gone on, aided by Olynyk's move to power forward in a bit to improve the shooting, and while the occasional bump fouls, drives to nowhere and lost balls show the rawness he still needs to develop out of, the future for Adebayo looks bright.

Miami Heat v Brooklyn Nets

As a team, the Heat need more offensive firepower, ranking only 24th in the league in offensive rating and thus not capitalising fully on their tenth-ranked defence. Stacking the bench with versatile defensive players and athletes such as Derrick Jones, Jordan Mickey, Okaro White and Rodney McGruder helps with the team's defensive identity, but more scoring is needed. Especially outside shooting, as one man currently does the bulk of it on his own.

Should the offence bog down, Wayne Ellington is on hand to bail them out of it. Ellington entered the league as a good shooter, accurate on a low volume of attempts, yet not a good ball handler who struggled to create his own shots. However, over the course of his career, he has turned into Kyle Korver. Confident from anywhere up to 30 feet, Ellington is always in motion, running off curls, able to get outside looks away quickly yet still prepared to drive overplays and open lanes if given them. He is now not just a high-efficiency shooter, but also a high-volume one, and a payday is coming soon.

Ellington's slump-busting range, James Johnson's unique desires, Richardson's ability to sub in wherever is needed, Olynyk's floor spacing and the barrage of defensive length have kept the ship afloat. Indeed, more than merely keeping it afloat, the Heat are up to fourth in the East with a 27-20 record despite an expected win-loss record of 22-25, on account of the way they always seem to sneak out the win in close games. This is very much to their credit.

More is needed, however, to sustain this level and get to the next couple above it. And it might be hard to come by.

Notwithstanding the above, it is very difficult to foresee any kind of path for the Heat in their current guise that could lead to championship contention. This is simply due to a lack of those two great modern-day buzzwords; 'assets' and 'flexiblity'.

Much as they are replete with good role players, and much as they are an excellent example of what can happen once traditional roles are dispensed with and the versatile skillsets of players are embraced, the team has neither the internal potential nor the future assets to wet the palate. This is particularly true of the future assets; Miami owes seven future draft picks to other teams, including two first-rounders given up for Dragic, and have no picks outstanding to them from others, while also being very capped out for the near future. Barring a significant salary dump of one of the higher salary players, Miami is looking at the luxury tax, and maintaining what they have will be difficult enough even before any additions.

Miami and their fans pride themselves on their ability to find sneaky good pick-ups, regardless of their assets situation. Legitimately, too. The fact that all of Tyler Johnson, Rodney McGruder, Okaro White, Derrick Jones, Derrick Walton and Udonis Haslem were all undrafted players speaks to that, as does the finding of Richardson with a lowly #41 pick, bringing Whiteside back from Lebanon, and striking some reclamation gold with Waiters and James Johnson. It is very much to their credit that they can do these things. It does however significantly temper the upside of all future projections.

San Antonio Spurs v Miami Heat

Nevertheless, live for the moment, and all that.

In the moment, Miami are a plenty solid team with an interesting combination of versatile players that are positionally flexible, defensively versatile and offensively variable. The big contracts they give out rarely seem to work out, yet the constant hits with the inexhaustible minimum salary can largely offset that. While star power is still needed, particularly offensively, and while a big franchise-changing move will be very hard to come by, the Heat have nevertheless stayed relevant through their own judiciousness, good scouting and willingness to experiment.

This team will not contend in the East as constructed. But whoever does contend in the East will not enjoy facing them.

News Now - Sport News