The Justise Winslow era wasn’t supposed to go like this.
When he fell to the 10th pick in 2015, the consensus was that Pat Riley and the Miami Heat got the steal of the draft in the form of a teenage wing with promising offensive potential and rare defensive versatility. He was a champion, a product of the Duke program that the Heat organization has been so fond of. Under the tutelage of Dwyane Wade Justise was supposed to blossom into stardom and take the torch from his mentor, leading the team into the next era.
None of that worked out quite right. After an impressive rookie year his mentor left, injuries cut his sophomore season short, a crowded backcourt forced him to play out of position more frequently than was preferable, and the holes in his offensive game made it difficult to fit him back into a rotation that was largely constructed in his absence.
When he was on the floor and not squeezed into an awkward spot in the lineup, he was undeniably good. He had his shortcomings, sure, but his defense was as good as advertised and his playmaking ability shocked a lot of fans. Before the acquisition of Jimmy Butler there wasn’t a player on the team who could make some of the passes Justise made with relative consistency. Winslow made huge strides as a shooter in a relatively short amount of time, and at times it looked like he was becoming the borderline all star everyone wanted him to be. If he had been able to stay on the court for a prolonged period he would’ve been incredibly valuable to a young competitive Heat team that struggles to defend the perimeter at time. Unfortunately, for Justise, that was a huge if.
Justise Winslow hasn’t had one recurring injury that would raise a huge red flag like in the case of Greg Oden or Joel Embiid (who has been successful despite health concerns), and it is difficult to know how serious his recent injuries are. What we do know is that he couldn’t stay on the floor for an extended stretch and it didn’t look like that was going to change in the near future. As fans and media members, we can talk about whether what they got back in the Grizzlies trade was an adequate return but, at a certain point, that’s all irrelevant. It has become clear that the Justise Winslow era in Miami ended some time before Pat Riley got on the phone with the Memphis front office. To fault either party for the deterioration of the relationship would require knowledge we don’t have. The only certainty is that the relationship was over.
The Grizzlies got a great young talent. If Justise Winslow thrives in Memphis, it should be a surprise to nobody. But his shortcomings as an off-ball offensive talent will always make it complicated to cleanly slot him into a rotation and Pat Riley understandably decided that a competitive Miami team didn’t have the time to continually work the oft-injured Winslow back into a rotation that is running relatively smoothly. Memphis is still young, they can afford to have the patience that a player like Justise necessitates.
Many Miami Heat fans (myself included) were attached to Winslow. He’s a promising, personable young player who has been refreshingly open about his mental health. Any success he has in Memphis should delight the fans who loved him. It should not necessarily serve as an indictment of the Heat organization. Miami needed the flexibility and Justise Winslow needed the fresh start. Best of luck to both parties.