Why the Heat's rebuild is anything but clear-cut

Chris Mannix

MIAMI – They don’t like using the ‘R’ word here. Not with three championship banners hanging from the rafters, not with the hallway walls papered with photos of recent success, not with 71-year-old Pat Riley roaming the halls, eager to add one more title to a Hall of Fame career. Rebuilding? That’s for other organizations.

Only it’s not: The Heat are rebuilding. The defections of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, coupled with the franchise-altering injury to Chris Bosh, have gutted the roster, leaving Miami with an awkward mix of established quasi-stars, promising up-and-comers and anonymous rotation players.

Coach Erik Spoelstra, once the youthful overseer of the most stable lineup in the NBA during the Big Three era, has been forced to mix and match lineups, reinventing a system on the fly while committing to player development more than ever before. Miami’s stars of today are Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, but the Heat’s ability to contend in the future hinges on Spoelstra’s ability to develop Justise Winslow, Tyler Johnson and Josh Richardson into players on that level.

Do the Heat have a franchise player in Hassan Whiteside? (AP)
Do the Heat have a franchise player in Hassan Whiteside? (AP)

Winslow has the most potential. The 6-foot-7 swingman is a bulldog of a defender who appears to relish the toughest challenges. He can be overeager — Evan Fournier taught a clinic on how to use Winslow’s aggressiveness against him, repeatedly burning Winslow off screens in a 26-point performance on Tuesday night — but the skills are there.

Offensively … let’s call it a work in progress. Winslow has his James Harden moments. He goes hard to the rim and has shown a knack at drawing — and scoring through — contact. His perimeter shooting — a mediocre 40.3 percent from the floor and a downright abysmal 26.5 percent from 3-point range — leaves a lot to be desired. Riley called Winslow “a Udonis Haslem-type player,” a backhanded compliment to a 20-year-old whom Miami coaches privately believe can be a lot better.

Dragic is a dilemma. When Dragic forced a trade to Miami two years ago, he thought he was joining a team one piece away — him — from being a conference contender. Today he’s leading a roster that’s a couple of losses from falling below Philadelphia in the East basement. Dragic is open to a trade, league sources told The Vertical, and Miami has pursued that option. An early season swap with Sacramento for Rudy Gay fell apart when the Heat sought Darren Collison, sources said, and teams that have probed Miami about Dragic have found the Heat open to offers.

And why not? Dragic is 30, and if Miami is going to maximize its return on an All-Star-level point guard having another strong season, now is the time. He’s a depreciating asset, a bona fide star, to be sure, but one who doesn’t draw fans (the announced “sellout” of 16,700 on Tuesday was laughable; there were maybe 5,000 in the seats) and who will likely be in decline when Riley is able to remold the Heat into a contender. The value of the assets Dragic could fetch in a trade could exceed the immediate value he has to the organization.

In an interview with WQAM radio in Miami this week, Riley acknowledged the Heat’s position while vowing to move swiftly to change it. “We’ve [rebuilt] twice, first with the addition of Shaq back in 2005, then again in 2008,” Riley said. “And we’re in it again. In this league, you need flexibility. And we have that, so we’re able to make a move quickly. We’ve rebuilt before and we’re going to do it again quickly.”


How quickly Riley can rebuild may hinge on the answer to this question: Is Hassan Whiteside a franchise player? On Tuesday, he looked like it. The 7-foot center banged in 18-footers over Bismack Biyombo and tossed in jump hooks over Nikola Vucevic, all while terrorizing would-be paint penetrators on the other end.

Other nights — like an early December loss to Atlanta — he doesn’t. Whiteside’s eight-point, 12-rebound effort wasn’t awful, but scouts noted that it looked like Whiteside let Dwight Howard get in his head early and affect his play the rest of the game.

It’s not particularly troubling. Whiteside is paid like a franchise player — a four-year, $98 million contract the Heat handed him last summer — making it easy to forget that he’s two years removed from suiting up for the Iowa Energy of the NBA Development League. He has developed rapidly, but the Heat still see him as something of a project — one with limitless potential.

Miami has been thrilled with his progress, both on the floor (18.1 points and an NBA-best 14.1 rebounds per game) and off it. Take Tuesday. Hours after a double-overtime loss to the Magic, Whiteside made waves when he declared that, as a so-called franchise player, he needed more touches. It was the kind of comment that would rankle some organizations.

Not Miami. Miami loved it. Its interpretation: Whiteside wants to win. And that attitude has been evident all season. Heat staffers will admit: They didn’t know what to expect from Whiteside. Would the money dull his edge? Or would it motivate him to continue a startling ascent?

It’s been the latter. Whiteside, team officials say, takes losses personally. Last month in San Antonio, Whiteside was despondent after a narrow loss to the Spurs. He did his part — 23 points, 16 rebounds and two blocks. But in the locker room he went to the coaches and asked: What can I do more? It was exactly the reaction the coaching staff wanted to see. Wanting the ball against Orlando? To them, that was just Whiteside badly wanting to win.

“I’m OK with that,” Spoelstra said. “It matters right now to him. He’s learning how to impact winning. His instinct, and all great players’ instinct, is ‘give me the ball.’ There’s myriad plays you can make to impact winning. But these games matter, and it frustrates him not being able to help the team get over the hump and win. And I think that’s great progress from his standpoint.”

Added Riley: “I think as he matures more to be a franchise player, you have to be an all-of-the-time franchise player. And I think he’s on his way to becoming that. The more he goes through this kind of adversity and the sting of losing, the more he’s going to make sure we don’t lose those games, and he’s going to be the difference-maker at the end.”

Nothing subtle there. Riley’s message: Whiteside looks like a franchise player, often plays like one but isn’t as consistent as one needs to be. Including defensively. Whiteside puts up gaudy numbers and finished third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting last season. But Miami is better defensively when Whiteside sits. Opponents’ offensive rating is eight points better when Whiteside is on the floor, per Basketball Reference. For context, Jazz opponents rate 4.1 points worse when Rudy Gobert is on the floor. You can see how that’s a problem.

Stars want to play with other stars, and Whiteside has the talent to be a magnetic draw. The Heat will have $16 million in cap room this summer — $41 million if Bosh comes off the books. On Feb. 9, Miami can request a review of Bosh’s medicals, and if an independent doctor determines Bosh can’t continue his career, the Heat can wipe Bosh’s contract off the books. Miami may elect to keep Bosh until March 2, eliminating the possibility — however remote — that Bosh signs and plays 25 games somewhere else. If he does, his salary goes back on Miami’s cap this summer.

Cap space, a destination city, a Hall of Fame general manager and a coach likely to one day join him in that honor. Whiteside’s talent will make him an All-Star. His ability to help attract free agents will make him a winner.


The Celtics have an interesting collection of guards that includes (from left) Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley. (AP)
The Celtics have an interesting collection of guards that includes (from left) Isaiah Thomas, Marcus Smart and Avery Bradley. (AP)

3. Boston’s brewing problem
The Celtics have one of the NBA’s better backcourts, a nice blend of offense (Isaiah Thomas), defense (Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier) and a burgeoning star capable of both (Avery Bradley). It’s also one of the league’s most affordable, with Bradley ($8.3 million) and Thomas ($6.6 million) making well below market value, and Smart and Rozier on rookie deals.

That will change soon. Smart is eligible for an extension in 2017. A $10 million-plus offer will be the starting point of negotiations. Thomas and Bradley will be free agents in 2018, eligible for max salaries of $32.4 million per season. Neither will likely come near that, but understand: This is the ballpark Boston is playing in.

The Celtics won’t pay all of them. They can’t pay all of them, not if they want to continue to pursue another impact player. If the Celtics make a significant trade, it will undoubtedly include one or more of their star guards.

Who has the most value? A survey of a half-dozen general managers, team executives and pro personnel scouts yielded some interesting responses.

Bradley: By far the most popular. Bradley’s two-way game is oft cited, as is his ability to seamlessly assimilate into a new situation. “There wouldn’t be much adjustment bringing Bradley in,” said a team executive. “You don’t have to change the way you play. I love [Isaiah Thomas], but he is a ball-dominant guy. You bring him in, you change your offense to fit him.”

Thomas: Execs who loved Bradley were quick to add that they would jump on a deal for Thomas, too. “So dynamic,” said an exec. One concern: Thomas’ ability to assume a lesser role on a different team. “Boston plays through him, and it works,” said a scout. “But would he be happy scoring 12 points a night and winning, or does he need to put up All-Star numbers? I just don’t know.”

Smart: Uncertainty over what exactly Smart is limits his value, execs say. “He’s not a point guard and he’s not a good enough scorer to be a two guard,” said an exec. Still, several Western Conference officials chimed in with a theory: If Smart can develop into a competent point guard, his defense would be invaluable in a conference headlined by Stephen Curry, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. “I’d sacrifice scoring for what he can bring defensively,” said a scout.

A wrinkle to watch: Boston can renegotiate Thomas’ and Bradley’s contracts in July. But would GM Danny Ainge sacrifice future cap space to lock in his starting backcourt?

Reggie Jackson hasn't yet jelled with the Pistons this season. (AP)
Reggie Jackson hasn't yet jelled with the Pistons this season. (AP)

2. What’s with Detroit’s poor play?
There is probably never a good time to face Golden State, but Detroit, which welcomes the Warriors to town Friday, may have found the worst one: Losers of four straight, its defense shredded by the likes of Washington, Indiana and Chicago, the Pistons must attempt to slow the most explosive offense in the NBA.

“Golden State,” Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy deadpanned, “I haven’t done my film on them yet, but I heard they are pretty good.”

Detroit showed some defensive life in a 98-86 loss to Memphis on Wednesday, but offensively the Pistons continue to be a disaster. The return of Reggie Jackson to the lineup was supposed to push the Pistons up the conference standings. Instead, it’s had the opposite effect: Detroit has lost seven of the 10 games Jackson has played this season, while the offense has struggled to adapt to the return of the ball-dominating guard.

Is it Jackson? Yes and no. No doubt, swapping Ish Smith for Jackson changes the dynamic. Smith is a pace-setting point guard who sees his role as a playmaker; Jackson is a scoring guard who attacks the rim relentlessly. And Jackson’s shot has been rusty (38.7 percent) since his return from a knee injury.

But if Jackson is a problem, it’s unlikely to be a long-term one. This is the same Jackson who averaged 18.8 points per game last season and powered the Pistons into the playoffs. At 26, Jackson is a rising star. And while Detroit is struggling to adapt to his style, the bet here is it eventually does. And when the offensive frustrations dissolve, the defensive lapses will improve, too.

Jackson needs to be more mature; his shot-less first quarter against the Bulls this week appeared to be a reaction to his teammates’ gripes about the ball not moving. But the core of this rising team is too talented not to figure it out.

1. Should the media vote for All-Stars?
The NBA announced a change to its All-Star voting this week. Fan voting would be replaced by a multi-factor formula. Effective immediately, the fans will account for 50 percent of the vote, with players and a media panel accounting for 25 percent each.

My opinion: The media shouldn’t be anywhere near this. Players have bonuses for All-Star appearances. Utah’s Rudy Gobert earns $1 million if he is an All-Star next season; Deron Williams and Thaddeus Young are among those who have escalators, too. Reporters covering the game should never be able to directly impact — however minimally — the money players make in it.

And before you ask: I’m against the media voting for end-of-season awards, too. Anthony Davis stood to earn $24 million if he made an All-NBA team last season. The media — which fills out the All-NBA ballots — should not have that kind of power.

Besides, shouldn’t players and coaches be charged with this? The most deeply embedded NBA reporters don’t know more about the inner workings of a season than those involved in it. To me, awards have more validity if players and coaches are the ones voting for them.

As for the All-Star vote — let the fans keep it. The uproar over Zaza Pachulia coming within 14,000 votes of overtaking Kawhi Leonard last season is goofy. Sure, Pachulia benefited from a chunk of the 4.5 million people in his native Georgia stuffing cyber ballots for him, and Wyclef Jean — Twitter following: 4.2 million — campaigning for him on social media didn’t hurt.

But is there really a fear that could become a trend? Is the NBA afraid of incidents like the John Scott situation in the NHL? It shouldn’t be. A popular international import will always be an All-Star presence (see Yao Ming) and stars like Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade ride reputations to appearances late in their careers.

But really … who cares? The All-Star game is an exhibition. It’s a fan-centric event. Players go for the parties. Reporters go because they have to. The NBA uses the platform to showcase its most fan-friendly talent, and if that means Vince Carter gets a nod, so be it.

And if that helps you out, Vince: You’re welcome.

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