Hollinger: Victor Oladipo’s emergence adds to Miami rotation and to its looming Duncan Robinson question

ATLANTA – We tend to say depth doesn’t matter in the playoffs, but that isn’t quite true.

Yes, depth matters less in the playoffs, because a team will have its five best players playing a much bigger chunk of the overall minutes. But a great distinction might be that depth matters differently in the playoffs, because the postseason is so matchup-dependent and the playing rotation normally gets cut sharply.

miami Heat‘s Game 4 win over the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday was a great example. The Heat have actually used a pretty unrestrictive rotation by playoff standards, with 10 players seeing action in the competitive portions of the first four games.

yet with the absence of Kyle Lowry because of injury, and the Heat struggling to contain Atlanta bench units once Bogdan Bogdanovic checked into games, Miami took its rotation in a completely different direction on Sunday. After not playing in any of the first three games, Victor Oladipo checked into the game with 7:53 left in the second quarter and played 23 of the game’s remaining 32 minutes. Miami was down six points when he entered; the Heat ended up winning by 24.

The Heat had already pulled off a somewhat similar feat earlier in the series, uncaging Caleb Martin’s defense in Game 2 for 17 minutes off the bench to key a second-half surge to victory; Martin played just five minutes in Game 1 and a mere 50 seconds in Game 3.

However, Sunday’s move took things to another level, as Oladipo effectively leapfrogged three players (Martin, Dewayne Demon and Duncan Robinson) to form a core piece of a five-man small-ball unit that suffocated the Hawks with its defense.

Miami’s ability to do this illustrates the key difference of “playoff-style” depth: It gives you a much better chance of finding the right five players on any given night, in any given series.

On this night, Miami decided it was better off playing small with PJ Tucker at center when Bam Adebayo picked up his fourth foul early in the third quarter. That, in turn, necessitated adding another perimeter player to the mix.

But why Oladipo? In this case, with the Heat being undersized and switching everything, it had to be a solid defender. Enter Oladipo, who still looked rusty on the offensive end (he forced a few jumpers and shot 3 for 10) but nonetheless made himself a factor with energetic defense, eight rebounds and four assists. The net result was a suffocating Miami defense that allowed just 37 points in a span of 27 minutes before calling off the dogs with a 24-point lead and four minutes left.

“There is no nine-man rotation,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra insisted after the game. “It’s a 15-man rotation, things happen, and everybody has to be ready to go.”

Oladipo has been rehabbing a quad injury for most of the season but has kept pushing toward a return, and finally appears game-ready. He only played eight regular-season games, but did enough in them (16.9 PER, 60.5 TS percentage, solid defense) to at least make you wonder: Can he be a playoff X-factor for the Heat? With Lowry’s hamstring looming as a possible issue in the next playoff round, it’s more than an idle consideration.

Oladipo scored 40 points in the season finale in Orlando, an admittedly low-stakes affair with backups playing out the string, and more notably scored 21 (including six 3-pointers) in a late-season road win in Toronto with the A-listers playing.

“I really admire Vic,” Spoelstra said. “A lot of players would have written this season off, it’s the safer play … particularly when you’ve had success. He’s really worked, he has an amazing attitude.”

And while Spoelstra couldn’t circle a specific date or time when they would need to turn to him, “We knew something would happen, in the playoffs” where they’d end up calling his number.

Oladipo, for one, appeared to sense his opportunity was coming. While Spoelstra hadn’t explicitly tipped him off that he’d play, his pre-game workout ahead of Game 4 – closer to tip time, more focused on game situations than cardio – was the routine of somebody who expected to play that night.

Simultaneous with Oladipo’s emergence, another notable trend is also happening in Heatland: Duncan Robinson’s diminishing role. Let’s not overstate things: He scored 27 points in Game 1. But Robinson’s misfortune is that, since he moving to the bench late in the season, his minutes of him tend to come at the same time as another suspect wing defender in Tyler Herro. One of them has had to guard Bogdanović in the Atlanta series, and whoever it was he has been an incredibly popular Hawks target.

That’s what necessitated the move to Oladipo (and to Martin in Game 2) in the first place: Miami can’t play two suspect wing defenders at the same time against most playoff opponents. (Philadelphia may be an exception; Boston surely is not.) That Toronto game referenced above is a perfect example, as Robinson was limited to 12 minutes by a wing-heavy, matchup-hunting Raptors offensive scheme. Enter Oladipo.

The juxtaposition of these two developments creates some interesting issues heading into next season, especially. Robinson is the shining symbol of a Miami player development and two-way system that is the envy of the league, an enduring example of the Heat’s ability to create something from nothing. He went from an undrafted sixth man from Michigan to a starter in the NBA Finals and a five-year, $90-million contract.

That program has churned out four undrafted players (Robinson, Martin, Max Strus and Gabe Vincent) who are part of the current playing rotation for the East’s top seed, and a fifth (Ömer Yurtseven) who may very well be part of it next year.

The ironic butterfly effect of Miami’s continued success in this area is that those very players may be the ones who push Robinson aside. The Heat seemingly generated a better version of the same player for themselves in Strus, a long-range bomber like Robinson but with more strength and quick-twitch athleticism. He’s two years younger, is signed through next season on a minimum deal, and replaced Robinson in the starting lineup late in the regular season. Meanwhile, the defense of Martin and Vincent have made it much easier to concoct functional bench units sans Robinson, especially in pairings with Herro.

As for Oladipo, he’s only 29 (yes, really), and is in a rarely seen contractual situation: He’s on a one-year minimum deal, but the Heat will have full Bird rights on him because they traded for him at the 2021 trade deadline. If he plays well, the Heat will be in the driver’s seat to retain him without cap constraints. Additionally, Strus, Vincent and Yurtseven already are signed to minimum deals through 2023.

(Keeping Martin, incidentally, could get a bit more complicated: He’s a restricted free agent, which theoretically gives Miami the right to match an offer sheet. However, with no Bird rights, the Heat would need to use exception money to match anything more than 20 percent above the minimum).

Robinson, meanwhile, signed his deal this past summer, one that theoretically locked him into this Miami core for a half decade. But it does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that any Miami trade this coming summer will almost certainly need to include his contract with him; the fact that the Heat made a deal at the 2022 trade deadline to free their 2022 and 2023 first-round picks from trade constraints only adds to the intrigue.

For a team like Miami which is famous for its offseason whale-hunting, one can imagine a draft-day deal sending out Robinson, the 2022 first and the 2023 first, to target a big forward who can play between Jimmy Butler and Adebayo. (This normally wouldn’t be allowed by the Stepien Rule, but teams can finesse this on draft night to select a player the other team wants with their first-round pick, and then trade that player and the next year’s first-round pick immediately This is how after the draft Portland acquired Robert Covingtonfor instance, at the 2020 draft.)

This isn’t just the idle speculation of a writer with too much time on his hands, either. Rival front offices are wondering the exact same thing and anticipating where opportunities may lie for them.

All of that is in the future, of course. Right now, Miami has a playoff series it is trying to win, and Spoelstra is going to turn to whatever players give him the best chance to survive in that moment.

In the short term, Oladipo’s strong Game 4 stint gives him one more option, another chess piece to put on the table against the right opponent. Or not… for all we know, Robinson will play 30 minutes a game next series.

Nonetheless, there is a very different, longer-term chess game happening in front offices as teams prepare for the offseason. As Miami contemplates its future beyond this season, it’s fair to wonder whether Oladipo’s Game 4 cameo wasn’t a mere blip of playoff randomness, but rather a harbinger of what comes next.

(Photo: Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images)


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