Can Justise Winslow Change the Heat’s Ceiling?
After mostly existing as only whispers and pleas on Heat Twitter, the Point Justise experiment is now in full bloom in the NBA. Justise Winslow, Miami’s fourth-year guard/perimeter defender/swiss-army guy, is playing the best basketball of his career since assuming point duties in a Dec. 8 win over the Clippers. After an injury to Goran Dragic, Winslow was deployed as the Heat’s offensive leader, and it’s led to success for both individual and team. The former No. 10 pick looks like a new player, while Miami has compiled a 10–6 record since the switch.
The first thing anyone who’s followed Winslow’s career notices when watching him play over the last month-plus is his confidence. Winslow entered his rookie year with a hitch in his shot, and he would often take a second before launching even the wide-open threes he was gladly gifted by defenses early in his career. That’s a far cry from the current version of Winslow, who’ll run a high pick-and-roll and smoothly pull up for a midrange jumper if his defender slouches off too far. Winslow no longer shoots just to keep the defense honest, he shoots because he wants to. He’s attempting the most three-point shots of his career in 2019, on some occasions pulling up from the outside as well. It was no secret Winslow often grew frustrated with the focus on his shot, but now he looks much more comfortable on the offensive side of the ball.
Winslow’s shot isn’t automatic, but he’s also expanding his arsenal in the paint. With defenses paying more attention to him on the perimeter, Winslow is able to use his athleticism and sturdy frame to find better looks inside. Against the Raptors, he blew by Kawhi Leonard before exploding for a resounding dunk. Winslow will also seal a defender on his back to create space for a floater, or bury his head on the way to the rim before finishing with some touch.
At point guard, all of Winslow’s talents are on display. He’s a willing and capable passer, and while no one will confuse him with James Harden, for his size, Winslow is more than adept at firing off a lob to a rolling big or whipping a pass into the corner. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 2.56 over his last 15 games, and he’s had multiple games this month with double-digit assists and only one turnover.
As Winslow has improved, so have the Heat. Miami is now firmly in the East’s playoff bracket after hovering below .500 for most of the season’s first 25 games. The Heat play much more methodically with Winslow at the helm opposed to Dragic, and the slower pace seems to better suit a team without any true high-volume scorers. Winslow is still incredibly effective on the defensive end, and his emergence means more playing time for him alongside Miami’s other youngsters. The Heat have a 15.4 net rating when Winslow has shared the floor with Josh Richardson and Derrick Jones Jr. since Dec. 8, and a 19.8 net rating with Winslow, Jones Jr., and Bam Adebayo playing together in that same time frame.
The long-term consequences of Winslow’s ascendance are still to be determined. He seems to finally be living up to the potential that Danny Ainge wanted to trade a handful of first-round picks for. Winslow doesn’t look like the best player on a championship contender overnight, but he’s taken a huge leap from role player who could be schemed out of an offense. Since Winslow took over at point, Miami has the seventh-best net rating in the NBA, a better mark in that time than the likes of the Nuggets, Thunder, Sixers, and even Raptors. (It’s a small slice for a sample, okay.)
The Heat still won’t have meaningful cap space until 2020, but right now, their three most promising players—Adebayo, Richardson, and Winslow—are on team-friendly contracts. The 2020 free agency class isn’t heralded, but Miami should have a brief window of flexibility to rebuild the team around an improving and affordable core. And as much as it would hurt Heat fans who’ve always been in Winslow’s corner, sustained excellence from him also makes him a much more attractive trade chip. Already floated in a couple Jimmy Butler rumors, it’s not inconceivable to think Winslow’s name could reappear during the next superstar sweepstakes.
For now, I can’t imagine the Heat wanting to part ways with Winslow any time soon. His competitive makeup seems to be a perfect pairing for Miami’s fabled culture, and his talent has helped propel the Heat to their best basketball of the season. There was some talk amongst the national media over the last few weeks about Miami having a bleak long-term outlook. The Heat are certainly in a tricky situation because of all the money they have tied up through 2020. The organization isn’t all of a sudden in an enviable position, but Winslow’s emergence is a much-welcomed bright spot as the Heat themselves hope to make a leap.