Heat focused on forging a legacy after LeBron

Yahoo Sports

MIAMI – The annual Bosh family tour was granted an extension last summer after Chris Bosh overcame a potentially life-threatening bout with blood clots in his lungs and decided to take full advantage of his longest offseason since arriving in Miami five years ago. As he recovered from a health scare that ended his season in February, Bosh and his wife Adrienne planned a tour through England, France, Germany, Italy and Peru.

Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are leading an interesting collection of talent. (Getty)
Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are leading an interesting collection of talent. (Getty)

Bosh can't choose the most memorable stop because each carried a uniquely exciting experience – from observing Stonehenge to walking the streets of one his favorite cities, Paris. But taking the hike to observe the ancient Incan ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru was easily the most challenging and rewarding given the steps required for Bosh to regain his lung capacity this year. The breathtaking views of the sacred city and the surrounding mountains had Bosh frozen in awe.

"It's awesome up there. It's very peaceful and you'll be crazy to think about something else besides what you're seeing. It was kind of a special moment," Bosh said of the overall trip with his wife and three kids. "I knew it was going to be the last [lengthy tour] of my career."

The last one?

"I expect to be in the playoffs every year from now on," Bosh told Yahoo Sports. “We want it. After my ordeal last year, it's a lot easier grinding it out, having a good time, playing out your dreams. It's tough, but it's a lot of glory in it. That's what we're about. People remember your name. And for me personally, it's a chance to write our legacy without Bron, to be honest.”

"We have a lot of potential"
LeBron James was better off without Miami than the other way around in their first season apart. While James flourished in his return to Cleveland, making his fifth consecutive NBA Finals run, the Heat floundered through an injury-plagued campaign in which trouble lurked around nearly every corner. Despite unearthing a rebounding and shot-blocking gem in Hassan Whiteside and trading for Goran Dragic, a third-team all-NBA guard two years ago in Phoenix, the Heat were doomed to the lottery once Bosh's season came to an end. But the playoff reprieve had a surprise on the other side as Miami landed a seemingly ready-made contributor in promising rookie Justise Winslow, a defensive menace who won a national title at Duke and was available with the 10th overall selection in the draft.

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The Cavaliers at full strength don't appear to have a capable challenger to supplant James' reign, but the Heat are certainly one of the more intriguing candidates in a much-improved Eastern Conference. Miami usually finds a way to avoid the recidivist rate of most non-playoff teams, making repeat trips to the lottery once in Pat Riley's 20 years with the franchise and winning a championship within four years of its past two lottery appearances.

“If you’re not going to win a championship, that whole run through June sucks anyway,” Wade said earlier this season. “We weren’t going to win a championship last year, so it wouldn’t matter if we went out in the first round or April 17, when our last game was. That’s kind of what I think at this point in my career. I don’t play to get into the first round of the playoffs. We’re still a young team, together trying to grow. We have a lot of potential and we see that.”

The Heat have the sort of talent that has the potential to be sensational or go sideways.

Wade and Bosh, neighbors and partners on two championship teams, are still capable of special nights but both are north of 30 and can no longer consistently carry teams as they have in the past. Dragic, whom Miami awarded with a five-year, $90 million extension last summer, is still navigating how to be aggressive while serving as the point guard on a team with multiple offensive options. Veteran Luol Deng, 30, has a résumé that includes two all-star appearances, but Tom Thibodeau may have squeezed out the best years of his career in Chicago. Amaré Stoudemire, 33, signed with the Heat believing they gave him the best chance to grab that elusive title, but he is being used sparingly to save him for the postseason.

“If we would’ve been together in our 20s, it would’ve been a real problem,” Stoudemire told Yahoo about teaming with Wade and Bosh, “but as we’ve gotten older, we’ve found ways to still be successful.”

The youth movement
The upside of the franchise for this season and beyond depends on the development of the team's youngsters, Winslow and Whiteside.

Justise Winslow plays some tight defense on LeBron James. (AP)
Justise Winslow plays some tight defense on LeBron James. (AP)

Winslow perhaps has higher expectations than most players chosen at No. 10 because he probably shouldn't have slid that low and there has been a history of success with players chosen in that spot (Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson, Eddie Jones and Caron Butler). But Miami can afford to be patient and bring him along slowly with experienced veterans in front of him. Though he comes off the bench, Winslow is a net positive on the season, with the Heat outscoring opponents by a team-best total of 88 points when he's been on the court this season.

“I think whatever team I would've gone to, I would've found my role,” Winslow said. “Other teams, my role might've been to score more, but I'm here so I think it's a great fit. A team or an organization that has a winning culture, I think it's probably the biggest thing – winning habits on and off the court.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra hasn't asked Winslow to be a scorer but has tasked the 19-year-old with being a defensive specialist. Wade said Winslow's 6-foot-7, 225-pound physique and mentality on the defensive end reminds him of Los Angeles Lakers forward Metta World Peace. Winslow has already been asked to defend James, James Harden, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony and others through the season's first month. He hasn’t been the least bit overwhelmed.

“At this point, we're peers. I don't put those guys on a pedestal,” Winslow said. “Obviously, they are very talented, but it's me and my teammates versus him and his teammates. It's about competing and going out there and battling.”

Whiteside has been the clean-up man on the defensive end, leading the NBA with 4.71 blocks per game – an average that exceeds the total of 11 teams despite Whiteside playing fewer than 30 minutes a game. “I think y’all used to it now. At first it wowed y’all, now it’s … another one,” Whiteside said, using the catchphrase of hip-hop producer DJ Khaled, a noted Heat fan and courtside ticketholder. “It’s weird because it’s two different types of teams. It’s teams that stay away from Hassan. And it’s teams that don’t care if Hassan [is] down there, attack Hassan teams. God bless them coaches that do that. I love them teams.”

A surprise last season when he was plucked from the NBA Development League and frantically chased double-doubles and a better NBA 2K rating, Whiteside is determined to show that his success is sustainable. Before the season, Heat executive and Hall of Famer Alonzo Mourning told Whiteside that he should try to win Defensive Player of the Year.

“Kid is for real,” Wade said. “You see something for a short period of time, you’re like, ‘Can he keep it up?’ The kid is for real. He’s one of the most dominant big men in today’s game. And he takes pride in it.”

Sacrificing again

Miami found success during the James era by ushering in the type of "positionless" basketball that has since propelled the Golden State Warriors to a championship. Now utilizing a more traditional lineup, the Heat have, however, brought back the buzz word used throughout James' time in Miami – sacrifice. Spoelstra requested it at the start of training camp, and Wade believes that the players' willingness to adjust – while committing to a defensive mentality – is what will determine how good the Heat will be. At 9-5, the Heat are tied for the third-best record in the conference, but they are just 1-3 on the road, including double-digit losses in Cleveland and Detroit.

Hassan Whiteside (R) leads the NBA in blocks with 4.71 per game. (AP)
Hassan Whiteside (R) leads the NBA in blocks with 4.71 per game. (AP)

“We’re still working our way there, but once we get there where absolutely no one cares about the statistical part of the game, we’re going to be very successful,” Wade said. “Individually, you want to prove something, whether it’s a contract year, or it’s, ‘I just got a big contract,’ guys are individually trying to prove something. But once you understand, as long as you have team success, you’re going to get what you want from the game.”

Dragic, 29, never got to play with Bosh when he arrived after a trade deadline deal last season, feasting on a buffet of pick-and-rolls that aren't so readily available now. Dragic has been working with Whiteside on setting effective screens to break him free, and Spoelstra acknowledged the effort Dragic is making to fit in Miami.

“He wants to win,” Spoelstra said. “That's the overwhelming factor with all good teams. If you want to win, you'll sacrifice things. You'll go through the process of some frustration. We've been through that before.”

Bosh had to make the most concessions of the Big Three during those two title runs in 2012 and 2013 – “Just a little bit,” Bosh said with a laugh – and has accepted that more will be required for the Heat to once again become playoff contenders. Nearly losing his basketball career, and potentially his life, has made Bosh relish even more what remains of his time as a professional athlete. “Thankful to be alive, man,” Bosh said. “Shoot, everybody doesn’t get to see it. I’ve seen guys that have passed from that same situation. So, what it means, I have no idea. I just know I’m lucky, and I’m glad to be here.”

After gazing at a mountain landscape last summer, Bosh wants a return to the peaks he has already reached as a player.

“[LeBron] is there and he's going to be trying to get to the mountaintop every year. Why not us?” Bosh said. “We might as well challenge him and see what we can dig out of ourselves before our careers are over.”

 

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