MIAMI – It's a question I never imagined I'd have to ask this season: No matter how different of a looking roster Miami had post-LeBron, making the playoffs in a weak Eastern Conference was never a debate. Yet, now I'm fielding the question daily and asking myself, will the Heat make the playoffs?
Before answering that we have to look at the dilemma the Heat will face down the stretch. Making the playoffs is not only a goal with this franchise every year, but it's also an expectation. A Pat Riley-run team doesn't believe in just building toward the future. The future is always now, no matter how much we all have our eyes ahead to the big offseason of 2016.
Erik Spoesltra himself said this week that he's excited and reinvigorated about the challenge this current roster brings. What he meant is that seeing young guys learn under fire while also trying to make the playoffs is refreshing. Maybe it's not what Miami had hoped for and expected, but it's the reality of what the season has become due to injuries and inconsistent play.
So why not embrace it?
It's a great message to his team, and Spo has become a master of motivating and refocusing his team through tough times. But that won't work with an impatient fan base, and I don't blame those fans. You want to see a better product. Under no scenario does a 21-29 team cut it right now.
The problem is what do you want and expect? Spo to give his young guys a chance or Miami to make a playoff push? Can they do both at the same time? I'm starting to think this is the best option.
I'll exclude Hassan Whiteside from this conversation because I think he's no longer considered a "young guy" needing playing time. He's part of the core. His status and role on the team is a given each night, when healthy.
I'm talking about Shabazz Napier, James Ennis and Tyler Johnson. Should they be rotating guys down the stretch? And how would that work when Dwyane Wade finally gets healthy?
Whenever Wade comes back, he will need the ball in his hands when he's on the court. I still think Miami's best chance to win games is for Wade to be the main ball handler and decision maker. It's a similar role LeBron James had on the team the last few seasons. The question is: how does Spo balance the other guys?
His options are to have Mario Chalmers be the starting point guard and/or the back-up shooting guard. In that case, Tyler Johnson could either be out of the rotation or the back-up shooting guard. That would leave Shabazz Napier either as a back-up point guard or totally out of the rotation.
Meanwhile, where would Ennis get his minutes?
I haven't even mentioned what happens with Norris Cole. I honestly don't know what Cole's role will be with the team down the stretch. He can go anywhere from being traded prior to the deadline to a vital rotation player. These are all difficult decisions for Spoelsta that not only determine if Miami makes the playoffs but what the growth for these players will be.
Finally, this whole conversation could get blown up if Riley decides to acquire a veteran point guard.
Right now, Miami is in the awkward stage of having too many point guards, but not really having one. Wade's status doesn't help because it leaves Spoesltra with the job of trying to find the hot hand each night. And some nights that stunts the development and flow of the younger players.
I'm a firm believer that the only way you get better is by being on the court. All these guys need playing time to gauge what kind of future they have. The problem is that's hard to do in a playoff push, especially since a nucleus or Wade, Whiteside and Chris Bosh should be competitive in almost every game.
I've said multiple times since the emergence of Whiteside that I just want to see what the Heat can be with those three players healthy and on the court. We have barely seen that this season. When we do, Spoelstra will have some other tough questions to deal with in the rotation. How he handles that will help determine if the Heat will make the playoffs.
I'll stick with my honest answer throughout this tough season -- This should be a playoff team. No excuses. Anything else will be an extreme disappointment and underachievement.