5-on-5: Heat’s February Run, Joe Johnson’s Impact & The New Whiteside

Commentary

February has passed and our expert staff at Miami Heat Beat along with a few guests from the local media are here to tell you how to think! Exciting right? We’re borrowing on ESPN’s 5-on-5 idea where we take five of our staff writers – with the possibility of guest columnists – and ask them all the same questions to hear their different opinions (hot takes) on what’s going on with the Heat. So without further adieu, let’s get started.


1. Who has benefitted the most from Chris Bosh’s absence?

Ryan Yousefi: I don’t like this question. This is like asking who benefited most when the hot wife’s husband died. Technically, someone will eventually benefit, but it’s horses*** to phrase it that way because A MAN IS DEAD! Since I am under oath here (I’m assuming every blogger at Miami Heat Beat is under oath), my answer would have to be Goran Dragic because he hates big people that get in the way of his Sonic the Hedgehog-ass.

Harrison Cytryn: Fortunately for the Heat, a ton of guys have benefitted from Chris Bosh being out. The Heat’s “next man up” mantra has allowed the stocks of Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside and Josh Richardson to rise significantly after the All-Star break. But no player has benefitted more than Luol Deng. Deng has mostly been the scapegoat when things went awry the last two years in Miami, but his move to the 4 has opened up the Heat’s offense. They can play faster, with a more wide-open style, and Deng is a mismatch nightmare for opposing power forwards. He’s become a walking double-double since the All-Star break, and defensively, he’s matched up well against much bigger opponents. The question now isn’t “will the Heat re-sign Luol Deng?” It’s how much will the Heat pay him?

Jack Alfonso: It’s hard to say that anyone has benefitted from Chris Bosh’s absence because he’s such an incredibly unselfish player who makes everyone around him better. However, Luol Deng has definitely shined in his new role as the starting power forward on a smaller, faster Heat team. Since the All-Star break, Deng’s numbers have improved dramatically.

Deng is averaging 16.9 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists on 48.5 percent shooting in comparison to his 10.6 points per game, 4.7 rebounds per game, and 1.5 assists per game on 43.1 percent shooting before the All-Star break. His true shooting percentage has also risen slightly despite his increase in usage (20.2 usage rate post-All-Star break as opposed to 15.8 percent pre-All-Star break). Miami’s recent commitment to small ball has seemed to help everyone, but Deng, in particular, has stepped his game up.

Chris Cochran: Well, when a team has gone on a five-game winning streak and took the Golden State Warriors to the final minutes of a game, I would say the whole team has benefited but that is not a shot at Bosh. It could be a small sample size or it could be the players roles have adjusted. Whiteside, who’s still coming off the bench, fell short of Player of the Week honors, which is amazing. The pecking order has changed in Miami which might be the reason why the team has played great, or it could just be a mirage and the players are still learning how to play together.

Alf: Erik Spoelstra. Just like in the 2012 playoffs, a Bosh injury has forced the Heat coach to get creative with his lineups. And this time, I think, it gives him an excuse to play a style of basketball he’s wanted to play all season. The problem is when Pat Riley works all Summer to hand you a starting lineup that should be top-two in the East “on paper,” you have to do everything in your power to make it work.

That means suffering through segments of the game with two seven-footers on the floor and with a point guard who is built to run. Spoelstra tried valiantly and even built a decent record to boot. But now with Bosh out, he has no choice but to play the “one big” lineup that has proven the most effective this season. Suddenly, “pace and space” is a thing again and Spoelstra is being heralded as an innovator.

5-on-5 bosh health scare


2. Is the “Joe Johnson” effect sustainable?

Yousefi: I’m assuming you mean the spacing because he can hit threes, not like some global warming thing I’m not aware is happening, because I’ve been watching House of Cards on TV with the Heat game on my laptop on mute. Yeah, I’d say at the very least it will be sustainable this season until the Heat doesn’t play the Suns or Sixers, and then we’re going to fire him on Twitter.

Harrison: The “Joe Johnson Effect” is real and it’s sustainable. Yes, the Heat haven’t faced the best competition recently, but it’s more the way “JJ” has been playing that makes me optimistic this can continue. I was nervous about Johnson as he’s been the number one or number two option on his team for nearly the last decade, but his transition to the Heat has been nearly flawless. The key is that he isn’t forcing anything. Since arriving in Miami, he’s taking 9.6 shots per game at a 60.4 percent clip, while also hitting 66.7 percent of his three-point attempts. Johnson moves the ball well – “hunts” for his shot (similar to Shane Battier) – and takes the big shots when he needs to. His defense hasn’t been too shabby either. He has been a godsend for the Heat and the “Joe Johnson Effect” is a sustainable one.

Jack: I definitely think Joe Johnson’s effect on the team is sustainable. The things he has done to help this Heat team are things that he has proven to be able to do consistently over his career. Johnson has shot 37 percent from beyond the arc for his career, and that consistent shooting touch has done wonders for Miami’s offense. His ability to drive and work from the post occasionally also seem sustainable. Joe Johnson has fit in with this Heat team perfectly so far and I do not expect that to change.

Cochran: I think it is. Yeah, the Heat will have some off nights and they’ll lose a couple games in a row, but the Heat aren’t asking Joe Johnson to do too much. He is just another weapon to play through and possibly take a last second shot. I am all for bringing good players to mentor Justise Winslow while contributing to the team at the same time. Can’t forget Tyler “Bumpy” Johnson has a chance to come back and we’re all optimistic when it comes to Chris Bosh.

Alf: It would seem so, wouldn’t it? One thing that’s evident from watching Joe Johnson over a small sample size is that he knows how to play. Fast? Slow? Post? Perimeter? Facilitator? Scorer? He can do a little bit of everything. And for a Heat team, that always seemed to be missing a little bit of something, he’s a great fit. But is Johnson at the point of his career where he’s okay with being the fourth and sometimes fifth option? That remains to be seen. But so far so good. If nothing else, it’s just nice to have a guy who, when he shoots from three, inspires even a little bit of confidence.

022816-fsf-nba-miami-heat-johnson-PI.vresize.1200.675.high.64


3. What is Luol Deng worth this Summer considering his increased role?

Yousefi: Luol Deng is a zombie. He was dead, now he is alive. Do you watch Walking Dead? When is the last time you saw anyone on that show pay a zombie? I’m no Albert Nahmad, but I’m pretty sure every NBA player will make at least $45 million per year soon. So, I’d say he’s worth at least another two-year, $16 million deal. But I’m also convinced the Hornets or some other sleepy team nobody cares about will give him double that because they need to replace Gerald Henderson. All of them. They all have a Gerald Henderson.

Harrison: Luol Deng was going to cash in this summer regardless. Even if he would have opted out of his contract last year, he was going to get paid, but he did the Heat a huge favor by opting in for $10 million. With Deng’s recent play at the 4, he could command a lot of money on the open market. Deng will be 31 in August, which is relatively young for the free agency market, but he has a lot of miles from his Chicago Bulls days. I think a three-year deal in the $36 million range is his market value, but I could see him cutting the Heat a deal and re-signing in the three-year, $24 million range, even with the cap explosion. We’ll just have to see how much Luol really likes playing in Miami.

Jack: Luol Deng’s worth is difficult to gauge right now. As I said earlier, his play as of late has been phenomenal and he seems to be a great fit as a small-ball power forward in today’s NBA. He isn’t getting any younger, but if he can sustain his recent level of play I could see him generating a fair amount of interest this summer among hopeful contenders looking for a solid veteran role-player.

Cochran: This is a loaded question and an awful one at that. I might have changed my answer nine times, but it boils down to bringing back Luol Deng. If you’re invested in Winslow and you want him to get better, there is no better player to learn from than Deng. The cap is rising and Deng will be a value contract and who wouldn’t want to finish their career in Miami? Crap, Deng is only 30-years old. I hate Thibs, but it’s the smart move to bring back Deng.

Alf: This is tricky because it depends on who else is available. If the choice is Al Horford or Luol Deng, what’s the answer? Does a Horford/Whiteside front line slow you down again? Nic Batum? Is Batum an 82-game answer at power forward? What if the Heat go on a deep playoff run and a Bosh return looks likely? What would Deng’s role be? Has Deng’s recent resurgence taken him out of the Heat’s price range completely?

The way I see it, if the Heat wants to continue to play to Dragic’s strengths and commit to Whiteside long-term, there really might not be a better option. Deng has proven himself to be a viable stretch four and seems to enjoy playing in Miami. Bottom line: Can Heat GM Andy Ellisburg make the numbers work and can Pat Riley convince Deng to sign the deal?

trade deadline 2016


4. Is there a correlation between Whiteside’s new public attitude and his better play, or does it just feed into the sports mythology of attitude winner guy?

Yousefi: I think he sees the finish line. Imagine walking on a highway and knowing your exit was very far away, you’d get tired after awhile. There would be issues along the way. But then imagine you can see your exit in the distance, and at that exit, strippers are dancing inside of one of those machines where dollar bills are blowing around. You’d start to get your sh** together. You’d be visibly happier. Whiteside sees the strippers.

Harrison: I don’t know if there’s necessarily a correlation between Whiteside’s reduced time on social media and his improved play, I just think something finally clicked with him. There was a Barry Jackson column that said Spoelstra sat down with Whiteside for a 90-minute meeting and told him he’s a top-15 talent in the league, but he just really needed to apply himself. Since the All-Star break, he’s been a monster on both ends.

He’s playing smarter defense while still blocking everything and everyone, his picks are better and more impactful, he’s very technical with his rolling to the basket and he’s become a pretty good free throw shooter. I’ve never seen any player make this drastic of an improvement in the middle of the season. Props to Hassan! And if it has to do with him buying more into the team or spending less time on Snapchat, I’m all for it. I just hope he can keep it up.

Jack:  I’m not sure if there is any connection between Whiteside’s new public persona and his improved play. And I think it would be somewhat lazy and reckless to assume for certain that there is a connection. It could definitely be possible that Whiteside has transformed overnight from a knucklehead that many Heat fans were losing patience with into a perfect Pat Riley disciple who has completely bought into the championship culture.

It is also possible that people were being too hard on him when he was struggling, and his recent play is nothing more than a natural progression of a still young and very inexperienced player. I am neither Whiteside’s psychologist nor a psychic, so I cannot testify to what happened. What I do know is that if Whiteside continues this level of play, Pat Riley will have no choice but to give him a fat paycheck.

Cochran: As far as Whiteside’s play, I don’t think there is a correlation between his play and public attitude. He’s the same guy on Snapchat talking to his French Bulldog or trash talking people playing pop-a-shot. I think once your coach tells you that you’re a top-15 player, and knowing your Head Coach has been surrounded by plenty of players who were top-15 in their eras, it means something.

It gives you a rational confidence that you can make an impact whenever you step on the court and be the best player on the court. Not to mention the pecking order has changed in Miami and Whiteside coming off the bench allows him to feast on the scrubs of the second unit.

Alf: I think the only thing that has changed about Whiteside’s attitude is his public statements. He’s finally learned how to play the game with the media and give the answers that make Heat fans swoon. It’s all crap that makes the social media psychologists run to their keyboards to give their personal half-assed diagnosis. So here’s mine: When Whiteside was benched he saw how quickly it could all be taken away, couple that with a suspension and closed door meetings with Spoelstra, Riley and Alonzo Mourning (who may or may not have been brandishing a blunt instrument), and the light came on.

If Whiteside wants his contract and long-term security, nothing but a consistent effort will suffice. He has not proven enough in this league where he can take a single play off. Someone got through to Whiteside and let him know the that everyone is watching, especially the ones who write the checks.

whiteside sets pick


5. Do you think what Miami has done since acquiring  Joe Johnson is diluted by their easy schedule?

Yousefi: Yes. I think we are all such dummies, honestly. If the Dolphins murder a 1-14 team at the end of the year, it means nothing to us. If everything was equal and this stretch happened on that damned Circus Road Trip, the Fire Spo crowd would be posting d*** pics to Snapchat in celebration. Do people celebrate that way? I still haven’t figured out Snapchat. I’m assuming that happens. Reality falls in the middle. The Heat are a good four seed, probably a bad three seed, but definitely a team nobody wants to have to deal with because they have the guts.

Harrison: Sure, the schedule has lightened up for the Heat, but that makes sense after they went through the gauntlet in January. The Heat is fortunate to have the third easiest schedule left in the NBA, but I don’t think that dilutes what they’ve done since Joe Johnson came aboard. Plus, the Heat has some good teams left on their schedule (at Tornoto, home vs. Cleveland, at San Antonio, at Portland and at Boston), which will all be great playoff litmus tests for this team.

Let’s hope the Heat can continue on the roll they’ve been on, and try and get the three seed in the Eastern conference. It would set them up pretty nicely for the playoffs.

Jack: It is certainly possible that Miami’s easy schedule has helped them look better than they really are, but it’s undeniable that this is a completely different looking Heat team than it was at the beginning of the season. Dragic has finally found his rhythm, Whiteside is doing all of the little things he needs to do to be successful, Joe Johnson and Josh Richardson have provided a much-needed boost in the outside shooting department and the ball is moving freely and purposefully.

Every player on the team seems to have bought into their role, and the new small lineups are flourishing. Miami may not be the Golden State Warriors, but they are certainly a force to be reckoned with in the East if they can keep this up … actually, forget what I just said.

THE HEAT WILL NEVER LOSE AGAIN! MIAMI IS ON A WARPATH TO THE FINALS! JUSTISE WINSLOW IS GOING TO DUNK ON KLAY THOMPSON SO HARD HIS STUPID LITTLE GOATEE FALLS OFF! LET’S GO HEAT! LET’S GO HEAT! LET’S GO HEAT!

Cochran: No, I do not think what the Heat have done since acquiring Joe Johnson is diluted; the reason being is it take times for players to adjust. Yes, Johnson is a good player but I can’t fathom how difficult it can be for a team/player to arrive in New York City and get inserted into a starting lineup and contribute.

Yes, it is basketball and some of these guys have played together in the past and Johnson knows what to do when you simplify things, mainly in transition and running the break. But look at is this way, the easy schedule is giving the Heat the extra reps to get acclimated with Johnson and the absence of Chris Bosh while still competing.

Alf: I remember losses to the Nets and Knicks during the first half of the season that had Heat fans contemplating tanking. So, forgive me if I bask in the glory of a five-game winning streak built on the corpse of Elton Brand. Before this recent run, when was the last time you went into a Heat game feeling supremely confident of the outcome? The answer: Not since Mario Chalmers left. I’ll take the blowouts against the bad teams as long as it comes with strong showings against the league’s elite. I want to be cocky Heat fan again, even if it’s against glorified D-League competition.

NBA: Miami Heat at New York Knicks


Want more Miami Heat Beat commentary and insight? Follow our writers and guest columnists on Twitter:

Ryan Yousefi (@Rizzmigizz), Chris Cochran (@Cochran790), Harrison Cytryn (@hlcytryn), Jack Alfonso (@alfonsohoops), The Greater Alf (@Alf954).

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