The Miami Heat are deeper than they were last season. Nobody doubts that. But what is becoming a question is whether that’s a strength or an obstacle.
When healthy, the Heat have 11 players with a sensible claim to rotation minutes: Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, Caleb Martin, Nikola Jovic, Kyle Lowry, Duncan Robinson, Jaime Jaquez Jr., Haywood Highsmith, Kevin Love and Josh Richardson.
And though the Heat haven’t been healthy all season (even now Jaquez is out with a groin strain, with no timetable for a return) this is the closest Miami’s roster has been to complete.
Rather than being a strength, the Miami Heat's depth could be a problem as Erik Spoelstra tries to keep everyone happy in their roles.
But the Heat are 1-4 since Butler returned from a right foot injury last week, including Sunday’s loss to the Orlando Magic that marked the Heat’s first three-game losing streak since November.
“This is literally one week after we felt that our season was starting to turn,” Spoelstra said. “Jimmy’s coming back, feeling like we’re getting healthy, we’re seven games above .500. This happens in the league and it’s all about how you respond to it.”
Because of the injuries, much has changed with Miami’s rotation over the course of the season. The Heat have used 23 different starting lineups in their first 43 games and don’t have a single five-man group that has cracked 80 minutes together.
The latest iteration of the starting lineup is Herro, Martin, Butler, Jovic and Adebayo as Spoelstra has notably moved Lowry to the bench for the last two games.
Lowry has made it clear through the media that he’s disappointed in the decision, but he also hasn’t been playing well. Lowry, 37, ranks last among starting point guards in points, shot attempts and assists.
The new starting lineup offers a higher ceiling on offense, where the Heat rank in the bottom 10 in efficiency this season.
But even with Miami’s top three scorers playing together for just the 12th game this season, the Heat could only muster 87 points against the Magic on Sunday. The Heat have failed to score 100 points in four of their last six games.
“I feel like we just get stagnant,” Adebayo said. “We got guys coming back, we’ve had guys in and out of the lineup, we’ve had I don’t know how many different lineups. But the biggest thing for us is we’re in a rough patch right now and we got to dig our way out of it.”
Spoelstra was quick to dismiss the changing roles of his players as a reason for his team’s struggles (“That’s not an excuse”), but players after Sunday’s loss acknowledged the team’s injuries – and now the overall health – as a factor.
“Coach gotta make difficult decisions,” Adebayo said. “Getting guys in and out, trying to figure out a rotation where everybody can be happy, and it’s difficult right now.”
That word – “happy” – stands out.
Added Lowry: “I think that’s part of it. We haven’t had a full slate of players for a while, we’ve had [a lot] of lineups and adjustments so it’s one of those things where guys are finally getting back and we gotta try to get a rhythm.”
Lowry is the latest Heat player to see his role change dramatically, but there have been concerns about role and minutes for several players this season.
When Herro missed a long stretch of the season with an ankle injury, some questioned if he should return to the starting lineup or come off the bench behind the surging Robinson.
And what about Jovic, who before starting the last 10 games wasn’t even in the rotation?
The Heat have cycled through different power forwards all season, including Love, Highsmith and Jovic. The same can be said about the backup center job, which has changed hands from Thomas Bryant and Orlando Robinson before the team seemingly settled with Love.
Lowry is just the latest player to sacrifice his role, but there’s another tough decision looming when Jaquez returns.
If the Heat suffer no other injuries between now and then, Spoelstra will have to cut someone out of the rotation altogether. Richardson and Highsmith appear to be most at risk of losing their minutes, but a case could be made for another change to the starting lineup that would move Jovic back to the bench.
The trade deadline may offer a reprieve. The Heat need a consolidation trade. Not only to clear up the rotational logjam, but also to upgrade the roster’s top-end talent.
Spoelstra can use 10-11 players on a regular-season night, but rotation shortens in the playoffs. Who are Spoelstra’s best eight players? Who can he trust in crunch time in April, May and June?
These questions, too, are looming.