The Miami Heat return from the All-Star break Friday for the final 23-game sprint before the postseason. What are a few of the biggest storylines heading into the homestretch — let’s find out below!
1. Can Miami get off to a strong start?
Miami is projected to have T-8th-hardest schedule the rest of the way — per Tankathon — with six of their first 10 games against current playoff teams, including two apiece against the red-hot Philadelphia 76ers and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Miami has yet to face Philly, but they’re 5-4 against the rest of the East’s top-4 and are an even 13-13 against squads above .500, so they haven’t fared terribly.
But the Heat are a half-game out of the New York Knicks for sixth-and-final non-play-in spot and 2.5 back of the newfound Brooklyn Nets, who they lost to before the All-Star break. A pivotal start to keep itself out of the play-in is important, and it begins with the Giannis Antetokounmpo-less Milwaukee Bucks on Friday.
2. What does the starting lineup look like?
Amid the addition of Kevin Love poses an important question: Does the starting lineup change? If so, how?
I’ve been on-record saying it eventually will shift to a Love-Bam starting frontcourt. Love offers floor spacing, rebounding and playmaking in multiple facets that could buoy a Heat offense that’s bottom-five in the league. Love’s started just seven games over the last two seasons, primarily coming off the bench for the Cleveland Cavaliers in lieu of wunderkind Evan Mobley alongside Jarrett Allen.
In Miami, Love would be expected to start ahead of Caleb Martin, who’s 6-foot-5 and playing out of position, respectfully. Martin’s filled the role admirably, all things considered, but he’s not the long-term answer at the position. Love’s dealt with injuries, averaging 8.5 points and 6.8 rebounds in 20.0 minutes per game, but would almost certainly have a bigger role in Miami.
That would ultimately plug one hole for the Heat, but they also have another (slight) question mark at the point guard spot between Gabe Vincent and Kyle Lowry, with the former looking as the current favorite.
3. What role does Kyle Lowry have?
Speaking of Lowry: What will be his role moving forward?
Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported Thursday that Lowry will “remain sidelined indefinitely,” after it was previously reported he would return in March “at some point.” That could still be true, but the Heat don’t
Lowry, who’s dealt with an ailing knee, missed the team’s final six games before the All-Star break and has unproductive over the last two months when he was healthy. The biggest cloud surrounding Lowry’s future is if he accepts a bench role behind Gabe Vincent — the presumptive starting point guard moving forward.
Lowry would theoretically have the ball in his hands more often than he would with the first unit, being able to create and set up the offense more attune to his skillset. Though there’s still uncertainty for how big of a role he would realistically have moving forward, even though that question might’ve been answered indirectly by the additions of Love and Zeller for their final two roster spots.
4. Does Love’s thumb injury affect his shooting?
How does Love’s fractured thumb (on his shooting hand) suffered last November, affect his play?
In his 15 games before the injury, he was averaging 11.3 points while shooting 40.9 percent from 3-point range (5.9 attempts). In the 26 games post-injury, he was averaging 6.8 points on 30.8 percent shooting from distance (4.1 attempts). He was eventually phased out of the rotation amid the return of Dean Wade and has not played in a month.
There might be rightful optimism since he hasn’t played in a month, allowing his thumb to heal. He was still going to provide size, spacing and rebounding that Miami hasn’t had at the power forward position at all this season — which, frankly, is a breath of fresh air — even at 34-years-old. But his shooting will be something to monitor, as Miami is currently the third-worst shooting squad leaguewide right now.
5. Do the Heat keep Orlando Robinson on the roster?
The Heat have a few options here.
Robinson, on a two-way contract, has four games left until his games limit is reached. If he meets that mark within the next couple of weeks, Miami can either send him to Sioux Falls to get extra work in, keep him on the 15-man roster or release him of his two-way contract — opening up another roster spot.
Miami still has roughly $2.95M (and decreasing) of its mid-level exception to use if it hypothetically wanted to sign another buyout player, though they are about $1.1M away from the luxury tax threshold. Plus, said player must also agree to a buyout with his current franchise by March 1 to remain playoff eligible.
They have options available, but what they do with Robinson’s roster spot — if anything — will be one to monitor, though one could assume the Heat would’ve already acted if it had any previous doubts of Robinson’s roster spot.