Anxious. Nervous. Optimistic. Confident. These are few words that could describe the current state of Miami Heat fans entering one of the most pivotal years in the franchise’s history.
After dealing with a little bit of everything in a disappointing campaign last season, things seem to be looking up after an off-season filled with activity, healing, and reflection. But with that porous season came the realization that, no matter how good things look or can be, it doesn’t take much for things to fall apart.
Deep. Talented. Determined. Old. Unorthodox. Fragile.
These are few words that you could use to describe this current Heat team. Any combination of these words would work, depending on your angle.
If your glass is half-full, you see “elite” written all over the likely starting five of Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh, and Hassan Whiteside—a starting five that played a whopping zero seconds together last season. Drafting Justise Winslow, a projected top five-to-seven pick, was a blessing in and of itself, but combining that with also drafting Josh Richardson, signing Gerald Green, Amar’e Stoudemire, and adding Josh McRoberts back to the fold has Miami looking like one of the best teams in the league on paper.
If your glass is half empty, you see a lot of wild cards on this roster and questionable fits—two things you don’t want to have on a potential contender.
Can Whiteside repeat his shockingly good performance from last year, or will he fade back—or even worse, ruin himself—with his history of a questionable-at-best attitude? With a head coach that preaches pace-and-space, and a league that emphasizes floor spacing and three-point shooting, how can the Heat really contend without much spacing on the roster?
Banking on Dragic, Deng, Bosh, McRoberts, and Gerald Green to provide enough shooting to win isn’t necessarily a bad bet, but it surely isn’t ideal. On top of that, exactly how fast will they play? They surely have guys that can play up-tempo (Dragic, Green, Whiteside, Winslow, Stoudemire), but how much strain do you want to put on Wade and Deng?
Erik Spoelstra offered a bit of clarification on both fronts at Heat Media Day:
“The operative word I’ve used all offseason is pace. This team has to play at an appropriate pace. We want to play at a pace that gets us up the court quickly to take advantage of the strengths that we have with this roster. How that translates necessarily to what other people think pace is, I don’t know and really I don’t care. I don’t necessarily know whether that will translate into fast break points or how somebody else may translate pace. I know we have to get the ball up the court and get into attack positions as quickly as we possibly can; get to some spacing and play out of the strengths of our offensive players. That’s going to be vital for the success of our offense.”
Regardless, Miami will certainly be one of the most interesting teams to follow in the NBA. They seem to be, on paper, one of the few teams that can actually match up relatively well with the Cleveland Cavaliers, undoubtedly the top dogs of the conference.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR?
Basically, whatever could go wrong, did go wrong. The most notable problem, outside of replacing LeBron James with Deng (no disrespect, Lu), was the injury bug running rampant. Miami’s Big Two of Wade and Bosh missed a combined 58 games. Miami’s top two free agent signings, Deng and McRoberts, missed 10 and 67 games respectively. For the math majors out there, that is a combined 135 games lost between 4/5 of the projected starting lineup (pre-Whiteside signing, pre-Dragic trade).
There was also the issue of the Heat outright blowing games. 10 of Miami’s 45 losses came with the game decided by five points or less. But it’s not even about the deficit of some of these games — it’s how the Heat lost some of these games.
There was the Khris Middleton game-winner:
There was the Alexis Ajinca game (with no Anthony Davis, mind you):
Then there was this…….utter……foolishness…..
An absurd amount of injuries, starting lineups, and end-of-game stupidity led to a lot of frustration from Heat fans. Nobody wants to go through that again.
On a more positive note, the Heat did discover a couple of possible diamonds in the rough in Whiteside (whom I wrote about here) and Tyler Johnson. Pat Riley was also able to turn failed signing Danny Granger and bench fodder into Dragic. Dragic and Whiteside figure to be big parts of Miami’s future moving forward while Johnson could certainly be a spark plug off the bench if the Heat eventually move on from Mario Chalmers altogether.
WHAT HAPPENED THIS SUMMER?
First and foremost, Miami arguably selected the steal of the draft in Duke forward Justise Winslow. Projected to go as early as fourth to the Knicks, Winslow inexplicably slipped to Miami in the 10 slot. In Winslow, the Heat have, at “worst”, a successor to Deng as the starting small forward of the future. At best, he’s a rugged, versatile two-way player with a hybrid Jimmy Butler/James Harden flavor to his game:
In the second round, Miami was able to add a combo guard out of Tennessee by the name of Josh Richardson. He’s athletic, versatile, and also projects as a solid two-way player if he continues to develop. He showed flashes of his potential productivity on Miami’s Summer League roster:
There was also plenty of drama surrounding the Wade/Heat contract negotiations. Wade wanted to get paid for his on and off court contributions, and rightfully so. Pat Riley and the Heat wanted to bring Wade back but also wanted to maintain flexibility for the summer of 2016. Luckily, the two came to a compromise, with Wade eventually agreeing to a one-year deal worth $20 million. Dragic re-signed at a bit of a discount, signing a five-year deal worth around $85 million instead of pushing for the over $100 million agreement he was allowed.
In addition to retaining their backcourt, Miami added former All-Star Stoudemire and ridiculously athletic wing Gerald Green for the vet’s minimum—which is absolutely absurd value even if they don’t pan out. If they do, though, Miami certainly addressed their depth. It’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that Wade will miss some games this year, although he does look pretty slim compared to years past. Adding Winslow and Green was a smart short-term (Green) and long-term (Winslow) move, as both players can start at the 2 if needed.
KEY PLAYER TO WATCH: LUOL DENG
The obvious choice would be Wade, who’s health has been a question mark since, well, probably his fourth or fifth year in the league honestly. Whiteside is a major wildcard both on the court and financially. Bosh is coming back from a major health scare, and his fit next to Whiteside will be a significant factor to Miami’s success. However, I think Deng’s importance to the Heat’s starting lineup is being undersold.
**NOTE: Dragic’s numbers are only from his stint with the Heat**
Don’t let Wade’s numbers or Dragic’s extremely small sample size fool you — trust me, I watched him. As much as I love D-Wade, he wasn’t Miami’s best defender last year; that title and responsibility rests on the shoulders of Deng. And as you can see in the first two columns of the chart, nobody shot particularly well from deep outside of Deng and Bosh.
With Wade getting a year older and Dragic certainly not getting faster, all of a sudden, more of a burden is going to be put on Deng to return to form as a lockdown defender instead of “only” being a good one. Miami will also be banking on Deng to bump his three-point shooting up from his slightly above-average mark of 35.5%. Hopefully, the penetration of a healthy Wade (oxymoron, I know) and Dragic will open up more looks for Deng.
Let’s not forget, this is a contract year for Deng as well. While him playing well would obviously help the Miami Heat and their championship aspirations, Deng will be looking to cash in on perhaps his last big payday next summer.
On paper, this Heat team could win over 50 games in the regular season, then challenge or even beat the LeBron-led Cavs if Dragic cancels out the scoring of Kyrie Irving (neither would be able to really guard each other), Bosh outplays Kevin Love (plausible), and Wade turns back the clock for a few games (not impossible!).
Realistically, the Heat have a bit of an older roster with talented players that don’t necessarily mesh well together. Contrary to popular belief. Erik Spoelstra is a good enough coach to fit these pieces together and play a style and pace of basketball that can maximize most of the roster.
With that being said, I do expect the Heat to struggle initially on the court, but you may not notice it in terms of wins and losses because of how easy their schedule is early on (again, on paper). Wade will likely miss a chunk of games, and the Heat obviously did something to piss off whoever is over the NBA scheduling committee because their January is straight from the fiery depths of…..yeah. To be more specific about their January:
- 17 games in 31 days
- Only five of those games are at home
- Four sets of back-to-backs
- Between January 8th and the 29th, Miami will go on a six-game road trip (PHX, UTA, GSW, LAC, DEN, OKC) in nine days, play the Bucks at home, then go on a five-game road trip (WAS, TOR, CHI, BKN, MIL) in nine days, with the Chicago and Brooklyn games representing one of Miami’s four sets of back-to-backs
So, if you have Wade in fantasy, just prepare yourself for some poor production or even an injury during January. It probably won’t be a fun month.
Ultimately, I think Miami will win 46 games. Assuming Cleveland leads the East in wins and depending on how the Washington Wizards, Chicago Bulls, and Toronto Raptors perform (and no, I didn’t forget about the Milwaukee Bucks), that should put Miami in play for the 2nd (extremely optimistic), 3rd, 4th, or 5th seed. From there, Miami’s playoff success will depend on health and how long they can avoid Cleveland.
Forty-six wins and at least a second round appearance is a reasonable range for Miami. If they catch favorable seeding, they could set themselves up for a match-up with the Cavs in the Eastern Conference Finals, where they’d probably lose but who knows? If any team has the talent, depth, coaching (Spo coaching LeBron for four years would certainly help), and motivation to knock off Cleveland, it’s the Miami Heat.