Do Rotation Answers Matter?

Erik Spoelstra Has Plenty Of Answers, But We Might Be Asking The Wrong Questions
by Couper Moorhead

It’s the question on many minds as the Miami HEAT begin training camp at Florida Atlantic University.

When you have more quality players than you have realistic rotation spots, what exactly is the rotation going to be?

If you ask Erik Spoelstra that question, you get a response with the same contemplative fervor as you would any other question asked of the coach during training camp. Each camp presents its own unique puzzles to piece together, and this one is no different.

“We have more talent. That’s a good thing,” Spoelstra said. “We’ve been working to get this kind of dilemma, or challenge, I wouldn’t call it a dilemma. We were working for several years to get this kind of environment again. I love it. I embrace it. I want our players to embrace it. Things are going to have to be earned, that’s the way it should be.”

Run down the list of returning players, many of them on the team at least partially because they fit a specific competitive mindset, and they’ll echo much of the same sentiment.

“You earn what you get around here,” says James Johnson.

“Everything is going to have to be earned,” says Justise Winslow.

“It’s going to come down to who is playing well. I don’t think anybody has earned anything on this team,” says Tyler Johnson.

You get the picture. A few years in, many of the guys are a reflection of their coach and so they answer questions in kind. Despite the legitimacy of the concerns regarding scarcity of minutes facing as many players as could deserve them – we could spend forever making spreadsheets of possible lineups, detailed down to each second of each quarter – perhaps we are asking the wrong questions.

Maybe what we should be asking is: when was the last time the HEAT actually had a set rotation?

Let’s quickly go back to the 2014-15 season, the year after LeBron James re-joined the Cleveland Cavaliers. The HEAT made multiple trades that year, first to increase roster flexibility by getting below the luxury tax and then to acquire Goran Dragić. On the day Dragić arrives in Miami, excited to play with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, Bosh is hospitalized with blood clots. The same happens the following season, with Amar’e Stoudemire jumping into the starting lineup during the second half of the season and Joe Johnson signing after the trade deadline. Then, after Wade goes to Chicago, the HEAT begin 2016-17 with injuries to Josh Richardson and Wayne Ellington, followed by a lengthy absence for Dion Waiters and shoulder surgery for Justise Winslow. Last year begins with an injury for Rodney McGruder, Waiters has ankle surgery midway through the year and Wade re-joins the team at the deadline. All along, the HEAT dealt with the normal wear and tear injuries, with Spoelstra trying to work through various combinations to find the right mix.

All together, it’s been more than five years since the HEAT had fewer than 11 players start at least five games in a season.

“Unfortunately [after] what happened with [Bosh], every season somebody is out. I’m already used to it,” Dragić said.

No, the HEAT haven’t exactly had an actual rotation in quite some time. With Waiters and possibly James Johnson missing time in at least preseason, that will only continue for the short term.

The second layer to all of this preseason talk – the only conversation more preseason-y than sussing out the rotation is finding out who is in the best shape of their lives – is to ask whether the rotation really matters all that much.

Players thrive with stability and consistency, yes. Playing extended minutes with various combinations, like Dragić and Waiters two seasons ago when they developed precise drive-and-kick timing, offers a foundation for the players. The stronger that foundation, the better chance you have of your team’s identity holding up when the postseason threatens to snap everything you’ve built out of existence.

Injuries are going to get in the way of that. That’s the nature of the beast.

“It’s funny how the NBA season works itself out,” Wayne Ellington said. “We’re all preaching how deep we are right now. Preferably we stay that deep all year, but realistically we probably won’t. That’s just the truth of the matter. Different things happen.”

Where Miami’s general rotation might be at least partially irrelevant beyond mere injuries is that their coach is as far from stuck in his ways as is humanly possible. Even if the team was healthy and managed to firm up the rotation for the first couple weeks of the season, it wouldn’t particularly matter. This is Spoelstra we’re talking about, a coach with a long history of lineup experimentation. One day you could be wearing a suit and the next you could be starting against one of the league’s best teams.

Spoelstra is no longer as fond of saying, “The rotation is the rotation” as he used to be, but it applies today all the same. The soup du jour is determined by the chef. The rotation, as Winslow says, is “constantly evolving”.
“You can be at Game 81 and nothing will be set in stone with Spo,” Kelly Olynyk said. “It’s fun. It keeps you on your toes.”

None of this is to say that Spoelstra ignores the value of consistency. He’ll tinker, but he won’t do it so often that he throws all the parts of the machine out of whack. Players are coached to know their roles no matter who they are playing with, and the systems on either end of the floor are designed to reflect that same flexibility. It’s easy to plug-and-play when everyone knows what it expected of them.

“At the end of the day, if you’re going to find the good chemistry, everybody can play together,” Dragić said. “You just rotate players. Everybody knows the system.”

Having a ton of options to work with, and through, opens you up for both criticism and praise. Even if you make the best decision you can possibly make, process-wise, one loss offers anyone else the opportunity to say you chose the wrong combination of imminently capable players. There’s always a backup quarterback, so to speak, and Spoelstra has never shied away from saying when he might have made a mistake.

We’re being mildly facetious when we say the rotation might be irrelevant. When we say that, we’re really just talking about the regular season. Where the rotation really matters is in the playoffs, which is why Spoelstra tends to settle into something more solid in the final two months of the season or so. Even then, the players that play are going to be the ones that match up best with the opponent.

So, in the end, here we are talking about preseason things just as we always do about this time. The rotation is worth talking about, but whatever it is in three weeks doesn’t have much of a chance of being in the same in three months, unless of course it works to a high degree right out of the gate. Either Spoelstra will make changes or the basketball gods will make changes for him, players will adjust, and we’ll soon forget these conversations of summer.

“This league is crazy. You never know,” Dragić said.

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