The Heat’s Biggest Strength Is Also One of Their Biggest Weaknesses
Every NBA fan has heard the Golden State Warriors’ “Strength in Numbers” catchphrase. It’s on t-shirts and social media, and frequently uttered during broadcasts. Head coach Steve Kerr first came up with the phrase in 2014, his first season in the job.
It wasn’t particularly popular or noteworthy at first, but has become an essential manta for Golden State’s team culture. “Strength in numbers” is a mindset; the team is more than the sum of its parts. The Warriors roster has always enjoyed good depth dating back to their first championship season, and their team-first approach has been essential.
It is crazy to think that a franchise with so many elite players – including the best shooter of all time and an all-time scorer – would rely so much on team basketball. We’ve seen the Dubs struggle more than ever this season, and that may be because Golden State is betraying its “Strength in Numbers” identity.
Down in South Beach, the Heat may not have the same All-Star talent as Golden State, but Miami is regardless one of the deepest teams in the league. You could make a case for almost every player on the roster to be a starter on at least one or two other NBA teams.
Roster depth is always considered as a strength in the NBA. With such a long season and with players suffering from injuries daily across the league, it is always ideal for front offices to accumulate as many talented and capable contributors as possible. Head president Pat Riley and the top decision-makers in Miami have long excelled in this. But it seems like the teams’ depth - their own take on strength in numbers - is bringing more problems than solutions this year.
Nobody is having a harder time than head coach Erik Spoelstra, who is tasked with figuring out what is working best on a game-to-game basis and making lineup decisions from there. Franchise legend Dwyane Wade knows better than anyone else how hard those decisions are.
"Very tough, very tough," Wade said of Spoelstra's dilemmas, per Ira Winderman. "I mean, you got a lot of guys on that sideline that can play. Obviously, there's been talk that Wayne Ellington hasn't played and he can play for almost every team in this league and he hasn't got in with us. And obviously, when you've got guys coming back, you've got Dion coming back. And at some point you're going to have Goran come back."
Having a player like Wade on the roster in his last season does not help matters either. Sure, he sometimes showcases his bag of tricks and recreates some older, good memories with vintage performances and clutch shots. But there are also other nights where his shot is just not falling and he is unable to have a positive impact on the floor, despite logging north of 25 minutes per game off the bench; at this stage of his career, it is also safe to say that he will never give Miami consistent defense at any time.
Tyler Johnson, one of the Heat’s youngsters who has seen his playing time fluctuate all season long, believes he and his teammates are aware of the minutes issue and are remaining patient.
“The fact of the matter is,” Johnson recently explained, per Barry Jackson, “there are basically 14, 15 guys on the team that can really play basketball, can impact a win. We were talking about it the other day that pretty much up and down the roster, anybody on our team can give you 20 in a night. That’s very unique to have on the team.”
That depth has been both a strength and a weakness. Because while pretty much everyone is capable of giving the team a lift, players do not always find the idea of an uncertain role appealing.
Think about how negatively a brief cold stretch could impact a player on a team where everybody is battling against each other for minutes and where you have a tiny margin of error; make a mistake and you might soon find yourself replaced by any of your other not so erratic teammates.
"Everyone wants to get to a short rotation, right?” Wade continued. “Everyone wants to get to, like, a nine-man rotation. But we've got multiple guys that can play, and it's a long season […] Coach has done a good job so far, especially getting Dion back in the rotation and playing multiple guys and figuring out time. But it's not going to be ideal, it's not going to be perfect.”
The future Hall of Famer appreciates getting a chance to have a big role in his last season and gives his all on the court every second.
"You play your minutes hard. We have a lot of light guys, so you just keep bringing in more and more and more to a team. I enjoy it. I enjoy seeing everyone — not everybody — but for the most part, most guys being a part of it."
Perhaps Wade summed it up best with this quote:
"It's a team sport and only five guys can play at a time. We've got a lot of guys on our team. So we've got to stick with it and be prepared and ready if things change.”
This situation is indeed a big headache for Spoelstra, but it also allows him to build immensely versatile lineups on the fly, perhaps more versatile than any other coach can form. While most teams usually have a set rotation, Spoelstra can easily swap players depending on their abilities and how they match up against the opposition.
For instance, Coach Spo went 11 men deep into his rotation during a recent win against the Boston Celtics. Kelly Olynyk, who averages about 20 minutes of playing time this season, saw just five minutes of action against his former team.Spoelstra talked about how he needs to make quick decisions based on who they are facing.
“The strength of our roster is our depth and sometimes on different nights, it requires different strengths of our team,” the coach said, according to Anthony Chiang. “That’s not a criticism on anybody. I probably feel most empathy right now for [Olynyk]. This is his former team. I know he would have loved to be out there competing. But the lineup, I looked out there and I saw a bunch of two guards, either All-Stars or future All-Stars at swing positions.”
Spoelstra knew Olynyk would struggle guarding Boston’s more athletic players, and instead opted to play the more versatile Derrick Jones Jr. and Bam Adebayo. It was all worth it at the end, as the Heat earned a dominant 16-point win.
Two days later in a game against the Grizzlies, Olynyk was a key contributor off the bench. He played 25 minutes, and scored 13 points along with four assists on 5-for-7 shooting.
The coaching staff noticed their Canadian big man had a chance to thrive against a much-slower Memphis team. Olynyk did not disappoint.
That is what Tyler Johnson meant when he said everybody on the team can come in and score 20 just like that. Said Johnson:
“Sometimes there is a little bit of impatience that comes with that. But when we’re going, we’re really going, it’s finding the balance of being able to be mentally stable and understand it’s not always going to be your night. Some nights, it’s other people.”
Even when everybody is desperate for more playing team, there have been enough openings this year to allow everybody some time to shine. Whether it was due to injury, illness, or having a newborn child, these small opportunities have provided most everyone a small window to prove their worth. It is clear, everybody on this team can play.
That is the reason why, instead of creating unnecessary locker room drama and tension, Heat players are happy when their colleagues have success on the court. They all know they are part of a team that, when one particular player is not feeling it, somebody else will always step up for the squad.
If the Heat wants to keep their depth a strength – and I am sure they desperately want to – they need to make sure everybody understands that for this team to succeed, it needs 110% commitment and patience from all of its players. Some teams will get the job done with their star player posting stellar performances; Miami can only get the job done if it works as a unit.
You can follow Jorge on Twitter @CantuNBA