The Miami Heat have questions across their roster and the point guard position is one of the more intriguing battles of the upcoming season. As I pointed out in the first part of this series, only two players are assured of a starting spot barring any unforeseen injuries: Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. With Butler slated at small forward and Adebayo at center, I made the case that Kelly Olynyk’s playmaking and shooting are better suited as the complementary piece in the frontcourt.
The backcourt, and specifically the point guard position, is still an open field with no clear favorite. Goran Dragic would appear the obvious choice, having filled that role throughout his tenure with Miami. But, at age 33 and coming off the worst season of his career, he’s far from assured a place in the starting unit. The other option is Justise Winslow, who started 52 games during the 2018-19 season. Winslow is still viewed primarily as a forward but in many of his starts, he was Miami’s primary ball handler and initiator, posting career-highs in usage rate (20.8%) and assists per game (4.3). The battle between the two is a multi-faceted one, representing not just a stylistic difference between the two but a philosophical one.
Even in his 11th season and after missing 46 games, Dragic still continued to play at a high pace, leading the team in that statistic per NBA.com. While his overall efficiency dropped considerably, Dragic still looked to push the team in transition and outrace opponents. He lacks the burst he once did and rarely got far ahead of the defense but remains wily enough to use the “iron shoulder,” the nickname given to his patented move of leaning into an opponent to create space at the rim and potentially draw a foul. But the injury clearly ebbed away at Dragic’s strengths. Aside from deteriorating speed, Dragic shot just over 41% from the field, the second-lowest mark of his career since his rookie season and his 3-point shooting dropped to below 35%.
Winlsow, conversely, plays at a deliberate pace. He lacks elite speed and his feel for the role of lead ball handler is still a work in progress. Instead of attacking an opponent, he’ll dribble and probe until he finds an opportunity. He showed a good sense of where teammates would be, but his passing wasn’t quite pinpoint, posting a 14.9% turnover rate. Still, there was an expanding offensive repertoire that shows definite progress. A floating layup over unsuspecting defenders. A quick first burst to get to the rim. And, perhaps most importantly, after years of hoisting clunky shot attempts, two consecutive seasons of improved jump shots show that Winslow is a legitimate perimeter threat.
On defense, the two players are miles apart. Dragic has never had a reputation as a stalwart defender but he’s worked hard to change that perspective during his tenure in Miami. Head coach Erik Spoelsta has often remarked that Dragic has improved dramatically as a defender since joining the team in 2015. But given his declining athleticism, he can’t be counted on to keep up with quicker ball handlers, nor is he strong enough to switch onto bigger players. Winslow is the exact opposite in that regard. At 6-foot-7 and 225 lbs., he has the size and length to match up with virtually anyone. Along with Butler and Adebayo, he would form the core of a very switchable defense that could challenge opponents along both the perimeter and interior.
The point guard battle is ultimately about who complements Butler best, as he will carry a fair share of the ball handling duties. Even playing alongside All-Star Ben Simmons in Philadelphia, Butler still averaged 4.0 assists per game. As such, it would be Winslow’s shooting ability that surprisingly provides an edge. Even if Dragic’s shooting suffered due to injury, Winlsow was clearly superior in catch-and-shoot opportunities, posting an effective field-goal rate of 62.1% including an impressive 41.2% from 3-point range. With Butler likely commanding so much attention on drives to the rim, Winslow will have more wide-open opportunities than ever.
Even with the statistical evidence to show otherwise, Dragic might still be the choice to start. He’s experienced enough to modify his playing style and, if healthy, there’s a good chance that his shooting will round into form. With Butler and Adebayo to anchor the defense and force turnovers, Dragic would be able to provide an offensive boost in a way that Winslow cannot. Even Pat Riley, speaking at his end of season press conference, proclaimed that Dragic would be the starting guard.
But it’s the philosophical component that defines the choice between Dragic and Winslow most completely. For all of Riley’s vote of confidence, only weeks later Dragic was reportedly part of a trade to clear salary cap space to acquire Butler. The message, in so many words, was that Dragic wasn’t viewed as part of the team’s future.
Trading Josh Richardson, while necessary to acquire Butler, was also an indicator that Miami wasn’t satisfied with his growth to date. He was given the opportunity to be the team’s go-to scorer during the 2018-19 season and didn’t quite live up to expectations. Dragic, for all his ability, is already a proven player. While Winslow won’t have the same lofty objective as Richardson, he has to prove himself as a capable complement to Butler or potentially be traded himself. He’ll need an opportunity – as a starter – to emerge as a key part of the team’s future.