WASHINGTON -- The Heat will open the preseason here at the Verizon Center Tuesday night and although coach Erik Spoelstra hasn't disclosed who will be starting against the Wizards, the team's media relations department released a projected starting lineup in its game notes.
As expected, point guard Goran Dragic, forward Justise Winslow and center Hassan Whiteside were in that group. The other two projected starters: guard Dion Waiters and forward Derrick Williams.
Waiters has started 110 games in his four-year career and unless he and Dragic struggle to mesh this preseason he's probably the guy who will be in the Heat's starting backcourt when Miami opens the regular season Oct. 26. Or, at least until Josh Richardson recovers from the sprained MCL in his right knee and pushes Waiters to get into the starting lineup.
While Wayne Ellington will get his shot to impress, he has to prove he can defend better than he has in the past. Opponents shot 3.5 percent better than they normally did last season when Ellington was guarding them. Waiters held the players he guarded to minus 0.5 percent below their season average.
As for Williams, an athletic, former No. 2 overall pick who has started 101 games in his career, he's fighting for a position that ultimately seems wide open with three-point specialist Luke Babbitt (38 career starts) and defensive-minded James Johnson (140 career starts) the other real contenders. Basically, all three together equal what Chris Bosh gave the Heat in one player.
Now, Spoelstra has to decide which of those three and the elements they bring, mesh the best with the starting unit. Then, he's got to figure out if and how he can still get something worthwhile out of the other guys if they are coming off the bench. It won't be easy especially since Josh McRoberts, who could also be in the mix to start, is still recovering from a setback with his broken right foot back in May.
"It's going to be different things with different guys," Spoelstra answered Monday when asked he's ultimately looking for in a starting power forward.
"When Luke is there, he's spacing the floor and I want to him have an absolute green light. Like some of the guys we've had here in the past I don't want him to think about ever hesitating behind the three-point line. Even if he's taking some bad ones I want him to have that green light.
"But Derrick [Williams] has a different skill set. He can knock down threes. But he's an aggressive player that's really effective in the paint. James [Johnson] brings a different dynamic when he's there in terms of his ability to playmake, similar to the way Justise does. They do different things and we want to try to maximize those strengths and be OK with guys playing different roles in that position. They don't have to look the same."
For what it's worth, Spoelstra said he has some idea of the 10 players he thinks will be in the Heat's rotation. But I think health and how guys mesh with one another over these eight preseason games will ultimately determine who those 10 really are. Spoelstra has said on multiple occasions he's happy the Heat are playing the NBA maximum eight preseason games so he can get a good look at this team and evaluate his choices.
While Spoelstra wants to see the Heat remain competitive this preseason, winning will take a back seat to finding the lineup combinations and rotations. After all, that's what the preseason is for.
Ultimately, you probably won't see much of the rookies this preseason except on nights Miami plays back-to-backs. The Heat only have two of those situations: Oct. 14 and 15 when the Heat visit the Spurs and then play the T'Wolves in Louisville, Ky. and then Oct. 20 and 21 when Miami wraps up the preseason at Charlotte and then at home against the 76ers.
"I don't anticipate I'll play guys over 20 minutes," Spoelstra said Monday of the Heat's preseason opener. "We'll have to evaluate and get guys in there. I also won't be able to play everybody. That's pretty obvious as well. How I work that out, I'm not totally sure yet."
As for the starting back court, until Richardson returns to full health and competes, the job is likely Waiters' to lose.
What does Spoelstra like about a Waiters-Dragic backcourt?
"You have two ball-handlers, two guys that can attack in the paint," he said. "They both can spread the floor for the other guy. They're both very capable three-point shooters. So, I do like that dynamic. Each can handle on the pick and roll and we can put a lot of pressure on the defense with those two guys."
Dragic told me Saturday before the Heat left the Bahamas that he feels like he and Waiters mesh well, but that both need to learn to communicate better as the preseason moves on.
"He can shoot the ball. He can space. He plays pick-and-rolls and sometimes that's good," Dragic said of Waiters. "It takes pressure off me a little bit. There's another playmaker on the court too. I already played like that before [in Phoenix] with [Eric] Bledsoe."
Is that who Waiters reminds you of?
"Yes," Dragic answered. "Better shooter though."
> What is Dragic looking for in the preseason opener?
"Just to get organized. We know what to run on a miss and on a make. I feel like when we're communicating and echoing the calls then it's much easier," he said Monday. "Our spacing is much better and then it's really easy to play because the ball is moving and I think the most important thing is going to be that tomorrow."
> Expect Winslow to be all over the court at different positions.He won't just line up at small forward or power forward. He could run the point at times, line up at center like he did in the playoffs and even play some shooting guard.
"That's not realistic for him," Spoelstra said when asked if Winslow would concentrate on just one position this preseason. "And he's better in those kind of situations where you challenge him to do more things and use more of his versatility."
> Here's some video of Winslow today working on his three-point shot. The hitch in his shot is noticeably gone.
FYI, Winslow has been the last to leave the court at almost every practice I've been at. And I haven't missed one.