The Miami Heat are one of the great mysteries of the 2015-16 season. While there's cause for optimism, last year's disappointing and injury-ravaged season doesn't provide an accurate template of what to expect. Before the midseason acquisition of Goran Dragic from the Phoenix Sunx, the Heat simply weren't very good, hovering just below .500 as they adjusted to the prolonged absence of Dwyane Wade, Chris Andersen and others.
While Dragic was - and is still - viewed as the catalyst for a fast-paced, offensively potent team, the loss of Chris Bosh due to life-threatening blood clots in his lungs erased any realistic example of what the team might look like during the upcoming season.
Still, the starting lineup of Dragic, Wade, Luol Deng, Bosh and Hassan Whiteside seems to be among the best in the league. When pundits evaluate Miami's chances for a title in 2016, it's this group (when healthy) that fuels the highest hopes of what the Heat are capable of achieving.
But what of the remaining members of the roster? While the starting five looks fairly set, there are questions about Miami's depth that remain largely unanswered. It's an odd group, filled with potential for both amazing and disappointing levels of production. Unproven rookies, underwhelming role players or once-talented veterans at the end of their careers - who can say for certain what this cast might accomplish?
And there's Josh McRoberts, who might just be the key to the reserve group being among the most successful in the NBA.
McRoberts, much like the team he plays for, has nearly an equal number of people willing to criticize him or laud his abilities. So here's what we know for sure: a Duke University alum, he was drafted 37th overall by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2007. He played just eight games his rookie season, spending time on-and-off with the Idaho Stampede of the NBA D-League. He was traded to the Indiana Pacers where he spent three seasons and eventually joined the Los Angeles Lakers in 2011. He was again traded, this time to the Orlando Magic (in 2012) and then was sent to Charlotte just six months later.
A strong season with the Bobcats (now the Hornets) helped propel that team to the playoffs under first-year head coach Steve Clifford but McRoberts, a free agent in 2014, thought he'd have a chance of winning more in Miami and signed a four-year deal with the Heat.
Some of this you might already know or merely knew bits and pieces of but it helps, in some part, to see how difficult McRoberts' career is to judge. Much of a player's success can be attributed to their fit on a roster and just the right opportunity; look no further than Hassan Whiteside's emergence as proof of that. McRoberts hasn't been able to fit anywhere for very long, playing for multiple coaches in varying systems in just eight seasons. The counterargument to this is that McRoberts might not be talented enough to warrant a huge investment in time or money; he might do some things well but isn't great at any one thing.
But his time in Charlotte proved that he could be very productive if utilized properly and a significant complementary player.
That will be his role this year, one for which he's much better suited to at this point of his career. In 2014, he was expected to start at power forward for a "position-less" version of the Heat, one that enjoyed great success in recent years because of the incredible individual talents of Wade, Bosh and, of course, LeBron James. McRoberts definitely could not have assumed James' role in this system and might have, once again, been utilized improperly.
But various injuries limited McRoberts to just 17 games last Miami, so we'll never know exactly how the experiment might have turned out.
Now, next season's version of the Heat will run a more traditional lineup, mostly because of the unexpected impact of Whiteside. His development will lead to Bosh sliding to his more natural power forward position, one where he'll be extremely effective considering his athleticism, elite-level defense and proficient outside shooting. While Bosh was certainly a mismatch as a center (on offense, at least), that should still be the case as a forward.
Pointing out Bosh's versatility is important in context of McRoberts' fit; should Whiteside get into early foul trouble (a likely possibility given his aggressive rim protection and, ahem, history with anger management), Bosh would slide over to center and McRoberts would take his place in the lineup at power forward. He has not and likely will not ever play small forward, an option some fans have discussed as part of a potential "big lineup", alongside Bosh and Whiteside; McRoberts would be a defensive liability at small forward, especially with the league shifting more toward small-ish lineups.
Having McRoberts on the floor would likely force Bosh to play more on the inside. McRoberts (a decent outside shooter at 34.5 percent for his career from 3-point range) can space the floor like Bosh does, albeit not as effectively. But it's his playmaking abilities - from the corner, wing or the high post - that would make the tandem of McRoberts/Bosh very effective.
Look at this play from 2014 and how McRoberts cuts toward the basket from the corner, draws a double-team and finds a wide-open teammate for an easy basket:
Bosh is an excellent shooter from midrange and excellent finisher around the hoop; McRoberts is a strong dunker with a 66.2 percent field-goal rate from shots within three feet of the rim. A 1-on-1 matchup will lead to an easy shot against all but the most accomplished rim protectors in the league, a double-team (as in the video above) is an automatic two points.
McRoberts' role wouldn't be limited to just playing next to Bosh. In fact, with four different, viable options at center (Bosh, Whiteside, Andersen and Amar'e Stoudemire), he'd fit very nicely alongside any of these players. It's ultimately why team president Pat Riley has resisted trading away McRoberts despite the clamoring from fans that never saw him in action last season; playmaking abilities like these in a 6'10" forward are rare.
Because of his passing abilities, inserting McRoberts in the lineup might affect other substitution patterns as well. Wade and Dragic are both excellent distributors but having a player like McRoberts allows them to focus more on scoring while still keeping their passing skills on the floor; this is the fast-paced, pass-happy offense that Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra envisioned before last season. Additionally, Deng, who expressed some discomfort with his role being reduced to merely a standstill shooter, would be free to cut to the basket regularly.
Taking out Wade and Deng and substituting them with, say, Justise Winslow and Gerald Green, would give Miami a different, yet still effective, flow on offense. Winslow/Green provide a good mix of the skills that mesh well with McRoberts; Winslow's speed would allow him to get past defenders while Green's outside shooting would continue spacing the floor (perhaps even more effectively than the proposed starting lineup).
One concern with the rookie, Winslow, is how he'll move without the ball; he's best when creating his own shot opportunities, using a speedy first step to blow past opponents. He's not a good standstill shooter at this early point in his career but, presumably, there's room for growth in this area. Still, it's worth keeping an eye on how effectively he plays alongside McRoberts.
Overall, McRoberts' versatility and passing abilities are what will make an impact for Miami this season. He could become the de facto playmaker of a potent second unit and he could possibly emerge as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate. In the true spirit of the award, McRoberts will be counted on to provide a jolt off the bench and keep things moving smoothly.