In 2015, it was widely reported that the Boston Celtics offered four first-round draft picks in their pursuit of Justise Winslow during that year’s NBA Draft. Boston’s advances were rebuffed by both the Charlotte Hornets and Miami Heat, the team that selected Winslow 10th overall out of Duke University.
Less than three years later, the clamor that once surrounded Winslow has died to a murmur and the Miami Heat find themselves searching for a place for a player that once drew comparisons to James Harden.
Heat head coach Erik Spolestra has always complimented Winslow, calling him “adaptable” and “a winning-plays player” as recently as last Friday. Spo commends Winslow’s “versatility,” going as far as labeling the third-year pro a “Swiss Army knife guy.” Spo has said Winslow finds “a way to make an impact on the game.”
These positive platitudes have been Spo’s go-to over the last three years whenever talking about Winslow’s statistical production. The book on Winslow seems to read that the 6’7″ swingman is a good ball-handler, and a skilled, physical defender who can slide between all five positions. Winslow’s biggest weakness? Shooting.
While Winslow is shooting 42.2 percent from the field this season, he’s registering career-highs in True Shooting percentage (49.1 percent), Effective Field Goal percentage (47.6 percent) and 3-point percentage (43.5 percent). As a rookie in 15/16, Winslow made only 27.6 percent of his threes. Winslow credits Heat assistant coaches Rob Fodor and Chris Quinn with his improvement in this facet of his game.
The eye-test shows teams are leaving Winslow open behind the three-point line despite his improvement there, and Heat fans have begun to notice Winslow’s struggles finishing around the basket. Winslow has made only 43 of 82 attempts inside five-feet this season (52.4 percent). He’s also been terrible in the midrange, hitting only 26.3 percent from 5-9 feet, 29.4 percent from 10-14 feet, and 11.1 percent from 15-19 feet.
According to Spolestra, Winslow makes “winning plays.” He’s a “utility-type contributor.” He leads the team with a 2.1 Assist-to-Turnover Ratio and is one of five Heat players to average over five rebounds-per-game (5.2). He’s averaging a career-high 11.1 rebounds-per-48-minutes, and career-highs in both Offensive Rating (101.1) and Defensive Rating (106.1).
So the question becomes, what to do with Justise Winslow?
Winslow has been part of the top-3 most used 5-man lineups by Spolestra over the last four games, when Winslow returned from a 14-game absence resulting from a strained left knee. Winslow has come off the bench during those games.
Despite the usage, Spolestra has deployed Winslow with care these days. He’s seemingly always on the floor with some combination of Wayne Ellington, Kelly Olynyk, Josh Richardson, and Goran Dragic, all shooters. He’s played less than 15 minutes over the last four games with both James Johnson and Hassan Whiteside on the floor with him.
The worry is that Winlow’s skill set seems to be a duplication of what Josh Richardson and James Johnson bring to the floor. Both Richardson and Johnson are physical players who can defend multiple positions and who both can be secondary ball-handlers. Richardson brings the added benefit of being a good shooter and Johnson brings with him a wealth of NBA experience and maturity.
During this position-less basketball era, having a player like Justise Winslow would seem to be boon for many teams. But Miami’s salary cap situation and the redundant skill set with players who just received longterm contracts makes Winslow’s future in Miami uncertain.
Richardson seems to be Miami’s small forward of the future (though his contract makes him a valuable trade asset). Johnson seems best suited as a small-ball power forward, a role in which Winslow once flourished as a rookie and for a time last season before a season-ending injury.
It’s unlikely the team will trade Winslow this season, considering his value might be at an all-time low. And it will be interesting to see how Spolestra elects to incorporate the 21-year-old swingman in the coming weeks. Spo’s deliberate use of Winslow with shooters should continue, but it’s hard to envision Winslow cracking a crunch time lineup that should probably include some combination of Dragic, Ellington, Richardson, Johnson, Whiteside, and Olynyk.
So where do you put Winslow? For now, Winslow will continue as a utility player off the bench, either as the de facto backup point guard or as the secondary ball handler with a group of shooters. At 21-years-old, it’s hard to imagine the Heat giving up on a once-bluechip talent.
The Heat enter their Saturday night contest in Charlotte with a 26-19 record, which is good for the No. 4 seed in the Eastern Conference, 1.0 game behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite a 101-95 loss in Brooklyn on Friday night that saw the Heat surrender a 16-point lead, Miami continues to confound pundits. Over their last 82 games, the Heat has a 52-30 record, which would have been good for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference last season, one game behind the Boston Celtics.