Despite the absence of four-time All-Star Jimmy Butler, the Miami HEAT have gotten off to a hot start this season. There are several reasons as to why Miami has looked so good, but it all starts with their dynamic backcourt rotation.
More specifically, it has to do with the play of fifth-year wing, Justise Winslow.
In his first game of the season, Winslow was sensational as he posted 27 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists against the Memphis Grizzlies. He also added a steal and a block while he shot 48 percent from the field and fueled the Heat to a 19-point victory.
Entering Tuesday night’s game against Atlanta, Winslow has averaged 19 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 6.7 assists. While these numbers likely won’t remain this high as the season pushes on, it’s safe to say that things have worked out quite well for the HEAT with him at the helm.
Miami’s two rookie guards have also been outstanding thus far. Kendrick Nunn’s explosion into the national spotlight has been one of the biggest stories of the season’s first week. Meanwhile, Tyler Herro came into the season as a strong candidate for Rookie of the Year based upon his play in the preseason and Summer League; so far, he has backed up that talk. Both of them went off Tuesday night as Nunn finished with 17 points while Herro led the way for the HEAT with 29 points on just nine shots.
But their success is tied directly to Winslow, who took a back seat to his teammates in that game. Five players scored at least 17 points in the contest, which was Butler’s Miami debut.
Winslow’s ability to run the offense as the point guard is one of Erik Spoelstra’s biggest advantages on that side of the court, as is using him anywhere he’s needed on the defensive end. His large, athletic body can be used to guard almost any opponent on the floor. This versatility has allowed Spoelstra to mix and match his lineups for strategic advantages.
Another benefit of Winslow’s ascension is the new role for Goran Dragic.
Instead of sulking in a reserved role, Dragic has taken advantage of his skillset in a way that has ultimately made Miami a much better team. As their spark plug off the bench, Dragic was responsible for 15 of the HEAT’s points during their 24-1 run in the second half of the Memphis game. Against the Hawks, Dragic hit five three-pointers and scored 21 points. His contributions and veteran presence should pay dividends for this young team both now and down the road.
Spoelstra’s Winslow experiment actually began late last season, as Winslow finished the year with career highs in scoring, rebounds, assists, and overall shooting percentage. His new role as a floor general had been carved out, and the fit was even better than anticipated.
Winslow has greatly improved his touch and efficiency from the paint and all the way out to the three-point line. The latter has been a crucial element for his playmaking, as it has provided ample opportunities for Bam Adebayo to shine inside. While the two appear to have a great rapport going, that will be put to the test with the return of Butler.
Butler has always been the guy that had the ball in his hands at the end of games; his skillset and reputation warranted that treatment in Chicago, Minnesota, and Philly. And, of course, Miami will be no different.
Butler’s return on Tuesday night provided a look as to how the HEAT should look for the rest of the season. Dion Waiters still hasn’t seen the floor, but they didn’t really need him. Still, Butler’s presence dramatically reduced Winslow’s usage rate, which should come as no surprise.
With that being the case, it will be important for Winslow to figure out how he can be effective without the ball. Posting up on smaller guards and cutting to the basket are just two ways that he can help and continue to lead on that end of the floor. His defensive prowess is obviously one of Miami’s biggest strengths, and pairing him on the wing with Butler and having Adebayo inside will give opposing teams nightmares.
The biggest area of concern remains his free-throw shooting. Winslow has never excelled in that area, with a career average of just 64.2 percent at the line. If he can improve that part of his game, it will allow Spoelstra to keep him on the floor more often than not at the end of close games.
Since they brought Butler in via free agency, the question that has surrounded Miami has been when would they land another star player for him to partner with? The simple answer, however, is that they might not need one.
With Winslow in place as the HEAT’s rising star, solid depth may actually trump the need for someone like Chris Paul or Blake Griffin. As long as their core guys remain consistent contributors, it will make everyone more difficult to guard. With that depth, Miami would also be better equipped to withstand an injury or two, as the long season progresses. Besides, developing their young talent is something that they have prided themselves on.
Butler, Waiters, James Johnson, and Derrick Jones Jr have all missed time this season, which has required heavy minutes out of Winslow; heading into Tuesday’s matchup with Atlanta, Winslow has averaged 40 minutes per game, highest in the league. With their respective returns, that number should ease up as the games go along.
That said, the former 10th overall pick out of Duke has stepped up to the challenge, and should continue to shine in his new featured role for the surging HEAT.
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