This isn’t the team Hassan Whiteside envisioned when he announced his return to the Heat on Snapchat, turned up Will Smith’s “Miami” and walked out his apartment door on the morning of July 1.
Five days later, when Dwyane Wade announced his departure from the city where he spent his first 13 seasons, Whiteside’s party in the city where the heat is on record-scratched into confused Mr. Krabs.
Entering training camp, the news got worse for Heat faithful who had come to terms with life sans LeBron James, so long as it still featured two of the Big Three that captured a pair of NBA titles in four straight trips to the Finals. At odds over blood-clotting complications that cut Chris Bosh’s last two seasons short, team president Pat Riley announced the 32-year-old 11-time All-Star’s “Heat career is probably over” following a failed physical, even if Bosh remains confident he can play elsewhere.
I’m not savvy enough to know what the appropriate social media response to that unfortunate news would be, but I’ll assume Whiteside searched online for gifs of somebody’s head literally exploding.
Two years removed from LeBron James leaving, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh aren’t walking through that door, either. All of Miami can relate to Udonis Haslem — the only player left from the last team to feature that trio — who told The Vertical’s Michael Lee of the team’s demise, “My heart dropped.”
Lost in a Heatles band breakup were the departures of veteran contributors Luol Deng and Joe Johnson, among others, who helped build Miami into a longshot contender last season had Bosh ever been able to return healthy. Even without Bosh — and Whiteside, whose knee injury cost him the final four games of the Eastern Conference semifinals — they pushed the Toronto Raptors to Game 7, nearly setting up a riveting conference finals between Wade’s Heat and LeBron’s Cavaliers.
Even before Wade left, though, Deng and Johnson agreed to terms elsewhere, The writing was on the wall. That aging core was never more than a cat toy to distract the Cavs before they got to the real business of climbing the title tree. Riley recognized that, too, chasing Kevin Durant in free agency before ultimately settling on the franchise’s first real youth movement since before Wade arrived.
Of course, Goran Dragic and a few other veterans remain in the Miami mix, but Riley is now building around a core that features two guys who could’ve been had by anybody from the D-League in 2014 — Whiteside and Tyler Johnson, who signed for a combined $148 million this summer — and their impressive 2015 draft class of Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson. Insert sad face emoji here.
2015-16 season in 140 characters or less:
Did the summer help at all?
Miami went from a projected starting lineup with 32 combined All-Star appearances to one with zero.
That is not good.
They spent $98 million on Whiteside, an almost unprecedented rebounder, shot blocker and finisher at the rim whose history of attitude problems raises more than a few questions about whether the 27-year-old can provide the sort of leadership an NBA franchise expects from its highest-paid player.
They then matched the Brooklyn Nets’ $50 million offer to Tyler Johnson, an undrafted shooting guard who’s played just 68 games combined over his first two NBA seasons. Granted, the 24-year-old has shot 38 percent from 3-point range for his career, but that includes only 45 made 3-point field goals. You know how many players made that many 3’s last season alone? A grand total of 173. There’s a reason Johnson literally “threw up a couple times” when he learned the terms of his new contract.
That may not be good, either.
In addition to bringing back those two, Riley replaced outgoing free agents Wade, Deng, Johnson, Gerald Green, Amar’e Stoudemire and Dorell Wright by signing newcomers Dion Waiters, Derrick Williams, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Luke Babbitt and Willie Reed to short-term contracts.
They were smart signings, for the most part. Waiters seemed destined to sign a ridiculous contract this summer, but a $2.9 million commitment for this season is actually underpayment for a 24-year-old former No. 4 pick who played an invaluable role on a team that nearly made the Finals. Likewise, James Johnson contributed to the Raptors’ success the past two years. Meanwhile, Williams, Ellington and Reed played productive minutes for two horrible teams based out of New York.
How they all fit into Riley’s long-term rebuilding plans remains to be seen, but none of them are guaranteed beyond this season, which allows the Heat to chase Miami’s next max contract player.
That is not bad.
Potential breakout stud:
As for those aforementioned long-term plans, Winslow is the most likely breakout candidate, following a rookie season that finished with him playing crunch-time minutes in small-ball lineups. His final averages of 6.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.5 assists, complete with a 48.9 true shooting percentage and 8.4 player efficiency rating, were unimpressive, but his defensive, athletic ability and confidence on offense in the latter half of last season suggest there’s a potential star in there.
The Heat have to hope their logjam at the two-guard position — Johnson, Waiters and Richardson, who will miss at least two months with an offseason knee injury — produces another breakout candidate. Johnson averaged 13.1 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.3 assists per 36 minutes playing behind Wade, so it’ll be interesting to see how he performs as a focal point in the offense. Similarly, can a matured Waiters step forward from the considerable shadows of LeBron James and Kevin Durant?
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Dragic and Whiteside have already broken out, but they’ve taken a backseat to the ball dominance of the Big Three’s last remaining members. Prior to sharing a backcourt with Wade, Dragic was a devastating pick-and-roll ball-handler for the Phoenix Suns. Pairing more often with Whiteside, whose 1.34 points per possession on 199 pick-and-roll opportunities made him one of the game’s best roll men last season, could mean for Dragic a return to his All-NBA Third Team performance in 2014.
After his return to the starting lineup, Whiteside averaged 21.9 points, 19.9 rebounds and 5.1 blocks per 100 possessions in the playoffs, before suffering what amounted to a season-ending knee injury. Now, without frontcourt minutes to share with Bosh and Stoudemire, we should expect monstrous numbers from the agile 7-footer — and perhaps even his first All-Star bid — so long as he can remain healthy.
The absolute best-case scenario for the Heat is the healthy return of Bosh without limitations. That would immediately boost Miami’s playoff odds severalfold. Erik Spoelstra will have his hands full competing for the postseason otherwise. How the head coach performs in his first season at the helm without a superstar at the top of his roster is one of the team’s more underrated storylines of 2016-17.
If Dragic and Whiteside play All-Star-caliber basketball under him, if Winslow and Johnson continue to improve under his guidance and if he can reign in Waiters, maybe this roster can still be coached up to an eight seed. Even that’s a tall order for a team that, following another foot injury to veteran Josh McRoberts at the start of training camp, might be looking at starting Luke Babbitt at power forward.
If everything falls apart:
More like, “Now that everything has fallen apart.”
If Dragic continues his slide after turning 30 years old, if Whiteside and Johnson turn out to be poor investments for whatever reason, be it complacency or a talent ceiling, and if Winslow’s offense hasn’t caught up to his defense, then this roster will look a lot like the 25-win team from 2002-03 the Heat last employed without Wade in uniform. At least Riley actually has his first-round pick in 2017.
Kelly Dwyer’s Best Guess at a Record:
27-55, 13th in the Eastern Conference.
Read all of Ball Don’t Lie’s 2016-17 NBA Season Previews:
Atlanta Hawks • Boston Celtics • Brooklyn Nets • Charlotte Hornets • Chicago Bulls • Cleveland Cavaliers • Detroit Pistons • Indiana Pacers • Miami Heat • Milwaukee Bucks • New York Knicks • Orlando Magic • Philadelphia 76ers • Toronto Raptors • Washington Wizards
Dallas Mavericks • Denver Nuggets • Golden State Warriors • Houston Rockets • Los Angeles Clippers • Los Angeles Lakers • Memphis Grizzlies • Minnesota Timberwolves • New Orleans Pelicans • Oklahoma City Thunder • Phoenix Suns • Portland Trail Blazers • Sacramento Kings • San Antonio Spurs • Utah Jazz
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