Wayne Ellington finally signed with the Miami Heat last month, much to the relief of many who feared the sharpshooter would be a hot commodity in free agency and leave them for nothing in return. ESPN even ranked Ellington as the best free agent still available a week before he re-signed and a reunion simply made sense.
But should the Heat have willingly let him go?
A lot of this discussion hinges on how you envision the 2018-19 Heat team. If LeBron James’ departure from the East makes the Heat contenders in your mind, then keeping Ellington makes sense. But the reality is unless one of the Heat’s young players makes a monumental leap, they simply don’t have enough talent to contend. That first part is important: the Heat’s young players. The ceiling of next year’s team will largely be decided by their development (and the return of Dion Waiters). But in order to develop, players need both minutes and shots. Re-signing Ellington complicates both of those.
With Ellington back, the Heat also have Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson, Dion Waiters, Rodney McGruder and potentially Dwyane Wade at the guard position. That’s a glut of guards, all of whom besides Dragic should be playing the shooting guard position. The Heat can shuffle them around positionally as much as they want, there still won’t be enough minutes or shots for all of those players. But Ellington brings too much production to just let go, right? Well, the Heat have a player ready to step into his shoes: Josh Richardson.
It may sound a bit far-fetched to suggest JRich can replace Ellington’s three-point-draining pedigree. After all, he set the franchise record for threes this past season with 227. But NBA.com’s play type tracking backs up the 24-year-old.
On spot up possessions in 2017-18, Wayne Ellington averaged 1.10 points per play to Richardson’s 1.06. That puts them in the 76th and 68th percentiles, respectively, as spot up snipers. There’s a gap here, but it’s less than you might think. Richardson also did this while using more possessions than Ellington, establishing that he can maintain efficiency with volume.
On shots off handoffs, another lynchpin of Ellington’s offense, the numbers actually favor Richardson. In fact, they flip: Ellington scores 1.06 points per possession, while Richardson scores 1.10. That ranks them in the 80th and 84th percentiles. What Richardson gives up on spot ups, he makes up for on handoffs. That would mean shifting Ellington’s shots to Richardson theoretically shouldn’t hurt the Heat’s offensive efficiency.
So far so good. But, there is one caveat.
Richardson pales in comparison to Ellington on shots coming off screens. He scores just 0.82 points per play to Ellington’s 1.20, the 27th percentile compared to the 86th. That’s an absolute chasm. If the Heat lose Ellington they don’t have anyone to capably replace his production here. Olynyk is perhaps the best option, though he still only scored in the 49th percentile. But so what. JRich can’t be expected to do everything, and Spoelstra tinkers with his offense to fit his personnel, so the Heat would likely run fewer of these plays.
Re-signing Ellington might tack a few more wins onto the Heat’s season tally in 2018-19, but it could be at the detriment to their future. The Heat would still have been competitive without the man with the golden arm, and it would have helped clear minutes for their developing players. JRich wouldn’t have replaced all of Ellington’s jump-shooting production, but he is the better all around player. He flashed All-Star potential at times in 2017-18, and giving him more offensive responsibility could help JRich make that next leap.