Can Haywood Highsmith crack the Heat's playoff rotation?

With 11 regular-season games remaining and a $2.38 million qualifying offer at stake, can Haywood Highsmith crack the Heat's playoff rotation?

Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers
Miami Heat v Philadelphia 76ers / Tim Nwachukwu/GettyImages

After dispensing a team-high 18 points in a blowout win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday, Miami Heat forward Haywood Highsmith reflected on how he did it despite receiving inconsistent minutes recently.

“U.D. (Udonis Haslem) always says, ‘Stay ready so you don’t got to get ready,’” Highsmith told Bally Sports Sun following a perfect 4-for-4 day from three. “I take that to heart.” 

Although it came from Haslem, this mindset is nothing new. It’s how Highsmith overcame a myriad of obstacles to secure a role in the Heat’s 2023 NBA Finals run. From zero Division I offers, to going undrafted, to recently logging back-to-back seasons in Germany – Highsmith always found a way to "stay ready.”

But now, with 11 regular-season games remaining and the rotation tightening, can Highsmith build off Sunday’s performance, obtain a featured role and continue his made-for-Hollywood story? Set to become a restricted free agent this summer, a $2.38 million qualifying offer may hinge upon it.

“At the end of the day, I can only control what I can control,” Highsmith said. 

At this moment, it’s unclear if Highsmith has earned it. He’s averaging just 5.5 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, and his 10.2 player efficiency rating is well below the league average of 15. But with a timely upswing, Highsmith can convince the Miami Heat – or other teams – he’s worth that $2.38 million. 

Unfortunately for Highsmith, there are several factors that stand in the way. 

For instance, he likely won't supplant a healthy Caleb Martin or Jaime Jaquez Jr. to back up Jimmy Butler for that prized wing spot. 

Both Martin and Jaquez have garnered far more playing time at 27.3 and 29.3 minutes per game, respectively, compared to Highsmith’s 19.4. Miami’s offense scores 2.4 fewer points per 100 possessions when Highsmith is on the floor, meanwhile, Martin and Jaquez generate 2.0 and 2.4 more points, respectively. 

But it’s not just players on the court Highsmith has to worry about. 

With three-point shooters Tyler Herro (foot) and Kevin Love (heel) hoping to return before the playoffs, and Duncan Robinson (back) likely to return next week, Highsmith may not get that same volume of three-point attempts. Considering 55% of his points this season have come from three, that could significantly impact his numbers. 

This means that even if Highsmith cracks the rotation, his role may be confined to “janitorial work.” Which is fine. Every team needs that. But for the Heat, who'll have little financial wiggle room, is it worth re-signing Highsmith for a screen-and-D role when they could find a younger, cheaper player to do the same for less?

And there’s the reality that Highsmith has underwhelmed before Sunday night. Before posting his second-most points in a game this season, he scored three or fewer points in 10 of his previous 11 appearances and notched double figures before Sunday only once since Feb. 26.

But what if Sunday marked a new chapter? And if there’s any time for that new chapter to begin it’s right now. On top of the small window of opportunity, Martin has been inconsistent. Before Sunday, he shot a combined 1 of 15 in his previous two games, including 0 for 8 in Friday night’s 110-88 home loss to the New Orleans Pelicans. 

Jaquez, meanwhile, was mired in a mini-slump before he missed Sunday’s game because of knee and ankle soreness. Although not expected to be serious, Jaquez’s absence on Sunday afforded more playing time for Highsmith – which he took advantage of. 

If that continues, then Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has no choice but to consider giving Highsmith more minutes.

But, the reality is, no matter what Highsmith does, it still may not be enough. 

Nonetheless, he must still fight to position himself for a payday. To do that, maybe he should frame this upcoming slate as a 10-day contract. He knows better than anyone how to leverage a 10-day contract it’s Highsmith.

Back on Dec. 30, 2021, as COVID-19 and injuries dismantled the Heat’s roster, they signed Highsmith to a 10-day contract out of pure necessity. More likely than not he would be waived when Zylan Cheatham, Udonis Haslem, Kyle Lowry, Max Strus, P.J. Tucker, and Gabe Vincent returned from health and safety protocols.

But Highsmith, who was languishing in the G-League at the time after that two-year stint in Germany, refused to be just a warm body. 

He played well enough to sign a second 10-day contract … then a third … then a life-changing three-year deal on March 8, 2022, which is now drawing to a close.

By excelling in these next 11 games – accompanied by some good breaks – Highsmith can prove he’s more than a short-lived, feel-good story.