Why the preseason is more important than ever for the Miami Heat

Oct 10, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (11) dribbles the ball past Charlotte Hornets forward P.J. Washington (25) during the second half at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 10, 2023; Miami, Florida, USA; Miami Heat guard Jaime Jaquez Jr. (11) dribbles the ball past Charlotte Hornets forward P.J. Washington (25) during the second half at Kaseya Center. Mandatory Credit: Rich Storry-USA TODAY Sports /

This is the Miami Heat’s most important preseason in years.

What became clear in the Heat’s preseason-opening win over the Charlotte Hornets is that this is a team still very much figuring itself out.

Erik Spoelstra used 15 players, and that’s on a night Jimmy Butler and Caleb Martin sat out. Questions about the starting point guard went unanswered when Spoelstra decided to start both Kyle Lowry and Josh Richardson. Tyler Herro used the opportunity to take 22 shots in 24 minutes. It was a fun night, one that was capped with Cole Swider erupting for 17 points in the fourth quarter in a comeback, 113-109, win.

But, when the dust settles, it will be clear just how much more work the Heat have left to do.

Before getting to anything else, it must be said that this is not the team the Heat thought they would have going into the season. Miami’s front office expected to be integrating Damian Lillard with Bam Adebayo, Butler and whatever was left of a supporting cast. That didn’t happen. Neither did a deal for Jrue Holiday. Both trades likely would have helped Miami consolidate a roster overflowing with useful role players. Instead, the roster features at least a dozen players who expect to play.

Making matters more complicated is that there isn’t much of a quality gap between the fifth-best player and the 11th, 12th or 13th-best player on the roster.

Miami’s four best players are Butler, Adebayo, Herro and Martin. Then who? Kyle Lowry? Josh Richardson? Kevin Love? Is there really a big difference between those guys and Haywood Highsmith, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Thomas Bryant?

Playing 15 players in the preseason is fine but, in the regular season, a rotation should consist of nine or 10 players. At least one of the above names will be pushed out.

What became evident in the preseason opener is that Jaquez, Miami’s first-round pick in June’s draft, needs to play. Not necessarily because he’s leaps and bounds better than the fringe role players in front of him, but because he’s ready to play in NBA games and the Heat need to explore his untapped talent.

In 24 minutes against the Hornets, he tallied 13 points, seven rebounds and two assists. On one of his first possessions, he ran a pick-and-roll and served Adebayo an easy dunk. On the next play, he flowed into a dribble hand-off and cooly hit a mid-range jumper. Moments later, he hit Gordon Hayward with a ball-fake-spin-pivot-layup move that looked like it belonged in a Kobe Byrant highlight reel.

In the fourth quarter, it was Jaquez running pick-and-roll and setting up Swider’s open 3-point looks. There will be rookie mistakes, but he also makes stuff happen and can help give Miami’s bench an identity.

By comparison, Nikola Jovic is still a project. Last year’s first-round pick is two years younger than Jaquez but coming off an impressive FIBA World Cup run. His night was cut short by an ailing knee, but he had moments like a come-from-behind block on Mark Williams.

But who can the youngsters play in front of? Without them, Miami’s top 10 on the depth chart might look something like this:

PG: Richardson / Lowry
SG: Herro / Duncan Robinson
SF: Butler / Martin
PF: Kevin Love / Highsmith
C: Adebayo / Thomas Bryant

It could be easy to mark Highsmith as the odd man out, but the Heat are high on him, too. Highsmith had an impressive preseason debut of his own, recording three steals and making all three of his shots, including both from 3-point range.

“This summer, he improved so much,” Spoelstra said.

The Heat need Robinson’s shooting, Love’s size, and Lowry and Richardson’s ball-handling. There’s no clear avenue for playing time.

Part of the preseason will be figuring out the best combinations and what lineups work best. There’s time in the regular season to figure that out, too, but as much work can be done in the preseason the better.

Beyond the top 10 rotation players, the Heat also have decisions to make at the end of the roster. Swider was the only training camp invite to play Tuesday. He’ll be on the roster with a contract when the season begins. The question is: How?

The Heat have two open roster spots but are expected to only fill one of them to reach the 14-man minimum. One option would be to promote one of the players on two-way contracts — Dru Smith, R.J. Hampton or Jamal Cain — and slide Swider into the vacated two-way spot. If none of the two-way guys pop, the Heat could also just sign Swider to a standard contract. The Heat always need shooting, and Swider helps address the loss of Max Strus. But Smith played 18 minutes on Tuesday and the Heat might need his ball-handling for depth behind Lowry, Richardson and Herro.

The Heat have four more games to test, tinker and experiment. These decisions won’t be easy and aren’t the kind of decisions this front office probably thought it would be making. But to be better than last regular season, avoid the play-in, and make another deep postseason run, they need to get them right.