Pat Riley just rolls one big boffo experiment into another – he can’t help it.
The name (if not “star”)-driven firepower of the 1990s and early aughts Miami Heat bled into a year of almost position-less basketball in Dwyane Wade’s first year, which then allowed Riley to go right back after stars (this guy) names (not stars at the time: Christian Laettner, Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, Gary Payton) to bring in a championship in 2006. This gave both Wade and Riley the capital to clear out and shoot for the moon with LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010.
That trio brought home two titles and four Finals appearances before the top-heavy experiment petered out. Riley, ironically, went in the same oft-criticized direction as the Cavaliers did following LeBron’s move from the Cavaliers in 2010 with his 2014-15 Heat, but that capital (and the presence of three current or former All-Stars) allowed him to elude criticism.
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Unfortunate injuries and a frightening illness also allowed Riley to elude criticism when his Heat missed the playoffs in 2015. The looming presence of the potential to possibly grab enough cap space by the hair of his suddenly-whiskered chinny-chin-chin to go after Kevin Durant in 2016 then allowed Riley to skate through the offseason without a major move.
Will this be the year Riley finally faces the, oh god we didn’t mean to go here but alas here we are, heat?
Probably not. Miami will enter 2015-16 with one of the more enviable starting lineups in basketball, while Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra will be afforded all the patience in the world as a smarter batch of NBA fandom and media are reminded that the lineup – Hassan Whiteside at center, Chris Bosh at big forward, Luol Deng at small forward, Wade at off guard and Goran Dragic at point guard – has yet to play a single minute together.
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And they’ll be given the buffer, knowing that Dwyane Wade always breaks down for certain stretches of the year.
And that Chris Bosh, in his first season back after overcoming a scary pulmonary embolism bout, simply wasn’t the same player away from LeBron James despite what, overall, was a darn good year.
And that Hassan Whiteside will be playing for a contract, and that he might not pass to anyone else all season.
And that the wheels could fall off Luol Deng, like so many Bluesmobiles, at any time.
And that Dragic and Wade, two guys who kind of need the ball, may never mesh.
And that Josh McRoberts may not be the same after a meniscus surgery.
And that, even with the storm and stress given all the credibility it deserves in 2014-15, the team may have underachieved at times.
Riley will take it. He doesn’t know if his latest batch of goodness will turn into a Conference contender, and he doesn’t know how the 2016 offseason will play out once all those cap holds and incumbent free agents are accounted for.
What he does know, with nine rings in as a player, assistant and head coach, and executive, is that he’s going to have some fun with it. And for all the caveats pushing down on the Heat’s collective shoulder right now, this figures to be a fascinating team to watch.
2014-15 season in 140 characters or less:
Did the summer help at all?
In some ways. For the pessimist, all Miami’s summer did was truly lay bare how difficult it will be to sign someone like Kevin Durant to a massive free agent deal in 2016.
After giving up money in 2010 and 2014 to help accommodate LeBron James, Dwyane Wade opted out of his contract to start the offseason. After some consternation, he signed a one-year $20 million deal that would earn him $3.9 million more than the deal he opted out of. A fair move for both sides, no doubt, but one that allows for the nagging realization that Wade isn’t really thinking about that $3.9 million as much as he is the millions that await him as a 2016 free agent, with that salary cap rising.
Had Wade, who turns 34 midseason, signed the long-term deal many thought he would – that Big Final Contract – things would be different. Now there’s the wonder that Wade will try, after giving up cash twice in his career to help the franchise, to make as much as possible or even (shock horror) bolt in 2016, denying Pat Riley a chance at his next Big Three around Durant.
Beyond that, though, the team locked up Goran Dragic for a five-year $90 million deal that won’t be any sort of millstone just as long as the 29-year old plays up to expectation, and will be a downright bargain if he can not only mesh with Wade, but sustain his pell-mell style deep into Wade’s declining years.
Luol Deng exercised his $10.1 player option, Gerald Green was brought in on the cheap, as was Amar’e Stoudemire.
The optimist points to the fact that each of the recently injury and illness-hit Heat – Wade, Bosh, Deng, Chris Andersen, Josh McRoberts – have now had a summer to recuperate. This is a clean slate that is full of familiar names.
Go-to offseason acquisition:
One doesn’t want to burden the rookie with outsized expectations, but Miami hopes they pulled out the steal in the draft in Duke swingman Justice Winslow. The versatile 19-year old can’t help but hear the whispered comparisons to fellow draft drop-ees like Paul Pierce (come on) and Paul George (well …), and though he’ll be working behind Wade and a player in Luol Deng that has twice led the NBA in minutes per game, he’ll have his chances.
Winslow didn’t shoot well from the outside during the Summer League or in his first exhibition game, but his heady style and out and out game should quickly ingratiate him in with his veteran teammates.
“He belongs,” Dwyane Wade said. “He’ll continue to get comfortable with what his role is gonna be. He can play in this league. He has the body for it, he has the talent and he has a team around him so that he doesn’t have to do too much. This is the perfect situation for him.”
There is a lot to choose from, this was a 37-year old team last season for very good reasons – reasons that could sustain through 2015-16.
Continuity is the biggest issue, though. Wade, Deng and Whiteside are playing for contracts. Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem and Stoudemire are playing to extend their careers, while Gerald Green and Mario Chalmers are looking to turn their careers around with one three-pointer at a time. The team’s current big three – Wade, Bosh and Deng – have all dealt with injury and fatigue woes in their careers, and nobody has a sense of Hassan Whiteside even after his breakout half-season.
This group has so much to figure out from stem to stern, from its rebounding woes to pace issues to the pairing of Dragic and Wade. It’s going to take a very good year from Spoelstra to put it all together, but there is the nagging feeling that the two years he’s coached that sandwiched around LeBron’s time in Miami were rife with underachieving turns from players under his watch.
Contributor with something to prove:
Chris Bosh needs to build on his hot start to last season, and not his midseason swoon. Wade needs to prove that he’s being paid $20 million for 2015-16 contributions, and not just because he was a nice guy in two other contract negotiations, and Dragic has to figure chemistry out on the fly even after just about knowing that Miami was going to be his home until 2020 since last February.
It’s Hassan Whiteside, though. It’s always going to be Hassan.
He might come in with a chip on his shoulder even after just a few months’ worth of solid NBA production, chafing at the idea that he’ll jump center for less than $1 million a year. Teams will be loading up on him and daring him to make the open pass to (sometimes) lacking shooters in Wade and Deng, and he’ll be exploited for attempting to go after damn near every block possible.
Teams know he’s gunning for numbers and that contract, they also know that he can be a hot-head, and this will be part of the attack. A consistent, unrelenting attack that Whiteside couldn’t handle after he achieved notoriety after a few fantastic weeks last winter. He’ll be asked to hold off on lashing out from October until at least April, and for as great as his numbers were last year Hassan will have just as much to prove with his game as he does his temperament.
Potential breakout stud:
The idea of a youngster hopping out of semi-obscurity seems laughable on a Pat Riley-driven team. This is the sort of guy that decides that it’s cool to sign 35-year old Rod Strickland and 34-year old Chris Gatling to round off a rotation on a hoped-for playoff team. He just signed Amar’e Stoudemire, if you’re looking for a (barely) modern instance.
With that in place, Hassan Whiteside’s move from minor league journeyman to All-Star level contributor, out of nowhere, just about defines the “Potential breakout stud” category for us, but alas he done broke out in 2014-15.
Gerald Green is a candidate here, but after years’ worth of his every-other-season good-to-bad play, it’s possible that he’s wasted all his “breakout” surprises. Also, rookies don’t count.
What we’re left here with, oddly, is veteran Josh McRoberts. Coming off what could be a damaging meniscus tear, if McRoberts is active and engaged he could be the all-around force this team needs. The numbers won’t be huge, don’t lift him for your fantasy team you degenerate gambler, but his expert passing could be a boon to each of these five starters (especially Whiteside and Dragic, who are fantastic finishers inside) alongside cut-happy types like Deng and Wade.
Mesh, and health. That’s really all it comes down to.
If Stoudemire doesn’t fall apart, McRoberts approximates his previous form, if Gerald Green can be trusted, James Ennis develops as a passable reserve, if Mario Chalmers gets it together and Justise Winslow manages to smooth out his wonky scoring stroke, the Heat could have themselves a bench of sorts (life might be a bit rougher for Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem).
From there, you have a starting five that has genuine “bigger than the sum of its parts”-potential. And in the East, where you can take a couple of months to figure things out, a development stage is passable.
If everything falls apart:
The issue here is that coach Erik Spoelstra, for all his effort and obvious basketball smarts, doesn’t have the greatest success rate at getting his teams to play bigger than they are on paper. You toss in the injury issues to the team’s core and the potential combustibility of Whiteside, and things could go pear-shaped.
Especially if Spoelstra maintains the 29th-slowest pace in the NBA, as he did last season. This plays right into the hands of defenders, who should be caught off guard by the quick hits for Wade and Bosh, the cutting from Deng, and the all-out push from the indefatigable Dragic. Spoelstra, even after knowing for months what his starting lineup would look like, still has his work cut out for him.
Kelly Dwyer's notoriously unreliable crystal ball:
50-32, fifth in the East.
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