Guard Dion Waiters is expected to undergo surgery on his problematic left ankle, which will end his season.
Although this has not been confirmed by the Heat, an announcement from the organization likely will come soon. So where does Erik Spoelstra go from here?
First of all, it was 10 games ago when Waiters re-injured his ankle, during a victory over Dallas. Including that game in which Waiters played less than nine minutes, the Heat are 8-2, including a six-game winning streak that has Miami (24-17) in the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference.
Spoelstra immediately turned to Tyler Johnson to fill Waiters’ void in the backcourt and the man who receiving sixth-man of the year consideration last season has played well as a starter, averaging 15.7 points and 4.4 rebounds while shooting 45.5 percent. He did not start the Heat’s wins in Toronto and Indiana this week, sitting out the Raptors game because of a shoulder strain and coming off the bench against the Pacers.
Spoelstra called on Derrick Jones Jr., who was signed to a two-way contract on Dec. 31, as the emergency starter this week and he responded with 16 points and six rebounds in the two road wins. But on Thursday Miami returned Jones and Derrick Walton Jr. to their developmental league team in Sioux Falls.
But Spoelstra likely, at least for now, will return to a backcourt of Goran Dragic and Tyler Johnson to go along with Josh Richardson at small forward and Kelly Olynyk and Hassan Whiteside up front. That starting lineup is 5-1.
But as players get healthy, the coach has options:
* The Heat expect Rodney McGruder back, likely within the month, after he had surgery in October to repair a stress fracture in his left tibia. McGruder had an impressive rookie season last year starting 65 games as a ‘3 & D’ guy. Opponents had to respect his outside shooting as he finished with 73 threes and his hard-nosed defense earn him respect throughout the league.
If Spoelstra prefers Tyler Johnson coming off the bench, he could return McGruder to the starting lineup with him and Richardson being interchangeable at shooting guard and small forward. Put James Johnson at the four and Whiteside at center and that could be the Heat’s lockdown lineup.
* Speaking of James Johnson, now that he has recovered from his right ankle bursitis and will return from his one-game suspension for Sunday’s home game against Milwaukee, if Spoelstra wants to go big he could start JJ at small forward and move Richardson to the backcourt.
This would return Tyler to the bench where he and Wayne Ellington (and Justise Winslow) would serve as the primary guards/wings off the bench and allow for more minutes off the bench for Bam Adebayo.
* Speaking of Justise Winslow, he is expected to return soon after missing the last 14 games with a left knee sprain. That would give Spoelstra another option. Winslow has started 15 games this year, many at power forward. But Spoelstra could use Winslow at his more natural position of small forward, move Richardson to the backcourt and Tyler Johnson to the bench.
With so many options and the way Spoelstra likes to mix and match, the Heat’s starting lineup likely will remain fluid at least for awhile.