Transition. That word — transition — should be the most important one in any Miami Heat follower’s vocabulary.
A stoic, highly respected franchise is now in transition. Once seen as “Spurs East” in terms of their reputation, the Heat have taken Mike Tyson blows to their credibility outside of Miami. Whether that’s fair or not is a different discussion — one I’ve had on my timeline (follow me at @NekiasNBA!) almost every day since July — but that’s the reality right now.
Their franchise player is different — literally.
Their bench is different.
Their offensive philosophy will be different.
The expectations are different, if for no other reason than nobody knowing what to think about Miami’s ragtag group of castoffs.
WHAT HAPPENED LAST YEAR?
The Heat had two seasons in one last year.
Before the All-Star break (the defense was stellar, even with Hassan Whiteside leaping all over the place regardless of what the defensive scheme called for). The emphasis on taking away the three worked; they allowed the 6th lowest three-point percentage, and the Heat ranked 10th in defensive rating.
The offense was a work in progress.
The two-big lineup of Chris Bosh and Whiteside had minimal success. The Dwyane Wade and Goran Dragic was a my-turn-your-turn proposition that mostly left Dragic with the short end of the stick, especially late in games. Luol Deng, a shifty cutter, was pigeonholed in the corner to provide “spacing” for the guards.
The pace was sluggish, and the shooting had a Cheddar Bob level of competency:
The Heat entered the All-Star break with Whiteside giving Boban Marjanovic the People’s Elbow, and Bosh being shut down during All-Star Weekend with another bout with blood clots.
With Bosh out and Whiteside coming off the bench, the Heat downsized, sped up their play, and racked up wins after the break.
Deng was back to slicing and dicing, giving tradition power forwards fits.
Dragic was able to handle and push the ball more, with Wade still closing the deal late in quarters.
Whiteside became a more disciplined defender and learned how to shoot free throws almost overnight.
Josh Richardson came out of nowhere, transitioning from wet-behind-the-ears rookie to the NBA’s deadliest three-point shooter. His rookie counterpart, Justise Winslow, quickly earned the rep as one of the NBA’s best young perimeter defenders.
The addition of Joe Johnson, thanks to
a wink-wink deal between the Heat and Beno Udrih being hurt and incredibly kind, gave Miami a much-needed boost in the form of perimeter shooting. Suddenly, the Heat were a dangerous team on both ends of the floor and were gaining confidence at the right time.
The Heat lost to the Boston Celtics on the last night of the regular season but were able to snag the third seed thanks to outside help.
The Heat defeated the 48-win Charlotte Hornets in a tough seven-game series, one that saw Dragic and Wade find their strides in the back-end of the series.
In the next round, the Heat faced off against the Toronto Raptors. Despite losing Whiteside for the series in Game 2, the Heat managed to push the Raptors to seven games before bowing out in blowout fashion.
Despite Miami’s problems in the first half of the year, and the injuries to Bosh and later Whiteside, Miami’s season turned out to be a successful one.
WHAT HAPPENED THIS SUMMER?
This is when it all came crashing down.
Miami entered the summer with five key free agents: Wade, Whiteside, Deng, Joe Johnson, and Tyler Johnson (RFA), with a little north of $40 million to spread around. Only Wade had bird rights, but his $30 million cap hold and his $25 million annual asking price made it nearly impossible for the Heat to field a competitive roster.
For better or worse, the Heat essentially chose maxing out Whiteside — and chasing the wet dream of Kevin Durant — over giving Wade the money he wanted, which pushed Wade “home” to the Chicago Bulls.
Deng and Joe Johnson signed multiyear deals worth north of $10 million annually in Los Angeles and Utah respectively.
Tyler Johnson signed a four-year, $50 million offer sheet with the Brooklyn Nets, but the Heat matched.
The Heat filled out the roster with superstar talents (hard sigh) like Dion Waiters, Wayne Ellington, James Johnson, Derrick Williams, Willie Reed and Luke Babbitt while bringing back Udrih
as part of the wink-wink deal for his veteran presence.
As if that wasn’t depressing enough, the Bosh situation came to a head. Bosh failed a physical; Pat Riley put the nail in Bosh’s comeback coffin in a press conference, and things have progressively gotten uglier since.
KEY QUESTION: WHO THE HECK IS PLAYING THE 4?
I don’t mean to be inflammatory, but the Heat shouldn’t have much issue replacing Wade. None of the guards on the roster are as talented or accomplished as the future Hall-of-Famer, but the stable of Richardson, Johnson, Waiters, and Ellington are all solid spot-up shooters that don’t mind filling the lanes in transition with Dragic. Added shooting plus higher usage for Dragic should negate the loss of Wade, at least to a certain extent.
Miami’s biggest question mark surrounds the power forward position. The Heat have two “true” 4s on the roster: the corpse of Udonis Haslem (love ya, UD!), and Josh McRoberts, who is the human embodiment of this guy:
The Heat have tried out Babbitt, Williams, and James Johnson (so many Johns- never mind) at power forward this preseason with some success, but the fact remains that all three are one-way players, and are ill-equipped to deal with some of the beefier forwards in the league.
If I had a guess, I’d imagine Williams has the fast track on the starting job as of now.
If I had a choice, I’d probably give Babbitt the nod because he’s easily the best shooter but worst defender of the bunch. He needs to be flanked by Whiteside as much as possible defensively, while his gravity on the other end could help open up the floor for everyone.
Ultimately, the Heat need a healthy dose of internal improvement from their young core of Winslow, Richardson, Tyler Johnson, and Whiteside. That’s the most important thing.
Beyond that, it depends on how you think the Heat should handle this season.
Considering the roster construction, this team fits Dragic and head coach Erik Spoelstra very well. The Heat gelling, running and defending their tails off could net them 42-45 wins this season and a 6-8 seed.
The playoffs are where Miami’s gaping hole at the 4 could and likely would be exposed, so it’d be hard to see them advancing towards the first round. At the very least, this would be the feel-good scenario and validation for the #LetWadeWalk crew.
If you’re of the mindset that Miami should embrace the tank, then the best case scenario would be the same internal improvement from the young core, but with the hole at the 4 being too wide to overcome.
This would likely mean that the Heat flip Dragic at the trade deadline for a pick or two, letting Tyler Johnson run point guard — an idea that failed miserably last season — and the Heat ending up with a very good lottery pick.
The worst thing that could happen to the Heat would be injuries to Winslow and/or Whiteside. That would help the Heat lose, which isn’t a bad thing considering how deep this year’s draft is supposed to be, but taking a year of development away would be less than ideal.