Miami Heat: Without Whiteside, should James Johnson start?

MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 15: James Johnson
MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 15: James Johnson /

In a continued search for consistency, should the Miami Heat promote James Johnson to the starting lineup?

The Miami Heat are at a loss. Although still within the playoff race with an 11-13 record through two months of action, Miami has yet to hit their stride. Balancing convincing victories with embarrassing losses, for a season that’s thus far birthed questions of the team’s trajectory.

Head coach Erik Spoelstra is aware of the challenges facing his team, and directly addressed them with his lineup changes in the December 6 contest against the San Antonio Spurs. Lacking franchise centerpiece Hassan Whiteside, Spoelstra injected James Johnson and Kelly Olynyk into the starting lineup, alongside Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson and Dion Waiters for the first time this season.

To an extent, the new lineup paid off. The Heat never trailed until the Spurs wrangled the lead in the third quarter, and never looked back. Spoelstra acknowledged the experiment in an interview with the Sun Sentinel.

"“Nothing is in concrete right now while Hassan is out,” said Spoelstra. “I felt that we needed to get a little bit bigger with J.J. in there, and K.O. obviously brings some things to that starting group offensively. I don’t know if I’ll stay with that group for the Brooklyn game, but we’ll see.”"

Despite the resulting loss, adding Johnson to the lineup, particularly in Whiteside’s absence, was a healthy experiment. With Whiteside, the Heat had shifted to running a group of Dragic, Waiters, Richardson and Justise Winslow to start games. Winslow, slotted in as a power forward, made strategic progress in his new role. Learning how to match up with oversized talent such as Karl-Anthony Towns and Kevin Durant.

Johnson however, at six-foot-nine and 245 pounds, is a more natural option to cover the league’s plethora of stretch fours and mobile fives in the vein of Kristaps Porzingis, Ryan Anderson or Carmelo Anthony. Though he was limited to nine points and six assists in 23 minutes due to foul trouble, Johnson proved a mobile option against the Spurs frontcourt of Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge.

Teasing out Johnson in the starting five could serve Miami in the long run. Coming off the bench, for much of the season, Johnson has been searching for consistency.

That said, Miami’s four best lineups in net points per 100 possessions all include Johnson, whose modest 11 points per game this season has included three 20-point games when he either starts or plays over 30 minutes.

Additionally, swapping Johnson for either Waiters or Winslow could aid Miami’s continued second-half struggles. 24 games into the season and Miami ranks 29th in second-half scoring, despite being 12th in defensive rating in the last 24 minutes of play. Considering Waiters lust for big fourth quarter moments, saving some Philly Cheese Swag for late game, while letting Johnson direct the offense early, might signal a positive shift in South Beach.

Next: Miami Heat: Fans may be critical of Hassan Whiteside, but he's missed

Regardless, the good news for Miami is that they aren’t afflicted by egos large enough that would lead to Allen Iverson levels of pushback about starting lineup choices. The Heat can test out their next starting five when they suit up in Mexico City to face the Brooklyn Nets, on Saturday, Dec. 9.