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Who played small forward for Miami Heat’s 3-guard lineup may surprise

While Josh Richardson played small forward last season, other main choice isn’t obvious.

NBA: New Orleans Pelicans at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Miami Herald wrote Josh Richardson might see a lot of minutes at small forward next season, even if Justise Winslow is healthy.

Though he’s a guard by trade, people around the Heat expect Josh Richardson to emerge as a serious challenger to Justise Winslow and Rodney McGruder for the starting small forward job.

Winslow, who is back from shoulder surgery, will not simply be gifted a starting job, the Heat has said.

Figures from the basketball-reference.com Position Estimate table reveal Erik Spoelstra used small forwards and shooting guards interchangeably: they differed in name only. In his system, he had a point guard, two wings and two forwards.

Last season Richardson played 80% of his minutes at the traditional small forward spot, versus 84% at shooting guard the season before, because then Winslow was available at SF. Unexpectedly Dion Waiters spent 66% of his time at small forward in Miami, versus 88% at shooting guard the season before with the Thunder. Spoelstra views those two positions as having essentially the same role due to players switching coverages.

Small Forward Position Table

PLAYER POS PG SG SF PF C game +/-
PLAYER POS PG SG SF PF C game +/-
Dragic, G. PG 100% -0.2
Johnson, T. PG 53% 47% -0.8
Ellington, W. SG 12% 68% 21% 3.1
McGruder, R. SG 7% 62% 31% 1% -1.3
Richardson, J. SG 1% 16% 80% 4% -1.4
Waiters, D. SG 2% 31% 66% 1% 2.6
White, O. PF 27% 72% 1% 9.7
Johnson, J. PF 91% 9% 3.5
Whiteside, H. C 100% 2.6
Winslow, J. SF 2% 73% 25% -2.6

Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside played 100% of their minutes at point guard and center, respectively, while James Johnson was the power forward 91% of the time.

Inserting Tyler Johnson and/or Wayne Ellington into lineups without Winslow or Richardson, slid Waiters into assuming a nominal small forward role for an astonishingly high 66% of the time, which is twice as much as the Position Estimate had him being at shooting guard (31%).

What Dion gives up in size he more than makes up in quickness and agility, built into a solid and strong 225 lb, 6’4” body. With a respectable 3-point shot he draws the larger forwards away from the paint, allowing J. Johnson and Whiteside to dominate inside. In the video below, notice Waiters rarely dunks the ball, but uses his speed and below the rim moves to score.

In addition to SF, Winslow might get minutes at center because, out of all the Heat players (including Whiteside at 56.2%), he held opponents to their lowest FG% within 5 feet of the basket. NBA stats reveal that, despite their smaller stature for typical 5’s, Winslow (52.8%), J. Johnson (55%), and Waiters (55.3%) are the top three Miami defenders in part of the court, perhaps due to their quickness in stopping today’s elite, fast guards from finishing at the rim.

The replacing of Willie Reed by Bam Adebayo and Luke Babbitt by Kelly Olynyk changes the picture this season. The newcomer’s skill set may create even more powerful opportunities as they become integrated with the style of Heat Culture. For example in the report below, Olynyk passes and runs the court more than Babbitt, who relied mostly on his catch-and-shoot skills.

Just as last season people counted Rodney McGruder out, he proved one tough hombre to overlook. Same can be said for Okaro White, AJ Hammons, Matt Williams, who might provide some surprises of their own during training camp. As Riley says, nothing is a given.