Miami Heat: Erik Spoelstra faces playing time decisions with a healthy backcourt

As the Miami Heat’s backcourt nears full strength, how will the rotation be impacted?

Two weeks ago, with a record of 11-30, the Miami Heat seemed destined for a top pick in this summer’s NBA Draft. They were a depleted, injury riddled team. An easy win on everybody’s schedule–twice losing six games in a row earlier in the season.

Now the Heat are the NBA’s hottest team, winners of nine straight. The latest victory came in a 116-93 route of an Atlanta Hawk team that had won 13 of their last 17. The backcourt play is a major reason for the turnaround.

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Goran Dragic is having a sneaky good season, averaging 19.9 points, 6.4 assists and 4 boards. His fit with backcourt mate Dion Waiters, though, is more notable.

Waiters recently returned to the lineup after missing 20 games with a groin injury. In the last seven games, he is averaging 23.6 points, 5 assists and 4.9 rebounds.

Jan 28, 2017; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters (11) reacts after guard Wayne Ellington (not pictured) made a three point basket against the Detroit Pistons during the second half at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 116-103. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 28, 2017; Miami, FL, USA; Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters (11) reacts after guard Wayne Ellington (not pictured) made a three point basket against the Detroit Pistons during the second half at American Airlines Arena. The Heat won 116-103. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It has taken awhile to click, but there’s no question the duo is working. They play similarly: driving, playing quality defense and shooting from the outside. There’s no question their games mesh well, and the numbers back it up. During this nine-game streak, the Heat have an incredible offensive rating of 116.7 when the duo is on the court, via NBA.com.

Now back playing regular minutes, the duo’s effectiveness isn’t lost on Waiters.

Via Shandel Richardson of the Sun Sentinel“He makes the game easy for me,” Waiters said. “He attacks and keeps pressure on the defense. He’s going to make you work. That opens up the court for me … You’ve just got to pick your poison on any given because we’re going to bring it every night.”

Injuries have prevented Spoelstra from having a definitive rotation all season, forcing him to start and play more three guard lineups. During the streak, guard Rodney McGruder, primarily a defender, started alongside Dragic and Waiters – with shooter Wayne Ellington coming off the bench. James Johnson can also step up and play point forward.

This rotation has been effective and with Tyler Johnson missing five games, he is returning to a backcourt that is ticking. Tweaks to the operation throw off a team’s flow, but if anyone’s up for the challenge it’s Spo:  

In addition to Dragic, Waiters, McGruder, Ellington, and the Johnsons, Josh Richardson is nearing a return.

So how will Spo divvy up the minutes as the backcourt nears full strength? Let’s examine the Heat’s game against the Hawks and how the minutes were allotted:

  • Luke Babbitt started but played only 18 minutes. Whiteside, Dragic, Waiters and McGruder also started, all playing 29-30 minutes.
  • T. Johnson slid back into his usual sixth man role, leading the team with 32 minutes. Ellington played 26, J. Johnson played 23 and Willie Reed played 18 minutes.

As it stands, that’s a pretty good rotation. Babbitt and Ellington spread the floor with their shooting, McGruder is a capable defender, T. Johnson is a playmaker and can shoot, J. Johnson does a little of everything in low minutes and Reed gives the Heat rim protection off the bench sorely missed in recent seasons.

But what happens when Richardson comes back?

Though just one game and a blowout, the Atlanta game is likely a good representation of what we’ll see from the backcourt moving forward. Before T. Johnson returned, Ellington was playing upwards of 30 minutes, and Dragic and Waiters were playing too much as well.

T. Johnson already vultured some of Ellington’s minutes, and as the backcourt depth grows, everyone else’s minutes will decrease as well. Spo knows how much his guys should play and will determine the best rotation moving forward.

As a team getting healthier, the Miami Heat have tough decisions on who gets minutes: a nice problem to have for a team that was recently 11-30.

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