Small Ball 2016-17 Season Previews: Miami Heat

Miami Heat – 48-34

Key Additions: Wayne Ellington -G (FA – 2 years, $12.3M), Derrick Williams – F (FA – 1 years, $4.6M), James Johnson – F (FA – 1 year, $4.0M), Dion Waiters – G (FA – 2 years, $5.9M), Luke Babbitt – F (FA – 1 year, $1.2M), Willie Reed – F (FA – 2 years, $2.1M)

Departures: Luol Deng, Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, Gerald Green, Amare Stoudemire

In 1995, when Pat Riley first joined the Miami Heat, the young franchise was coming off a 32-win season and had little previous success. In his first season with the team, Riley added Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway to the roster and led them to the playoffs. The following season they made the conference finals only to lose to the Chicago Bulls. Riley drafted Dwyane Wade in 2003 and orchestrated the Shaquille O’Neal trade in 2004. Behind the two superstars, the Heat won their first championship in 2006. Winning seasons became the norm and the culture that Riley crafted was so revered that certain teams attempted to replicate it. However, no move helped shape Riley’s reputation more than convincing LeBron James and Chris Bosh to join the team in 2011. James helped the Heat win two more titles but in 2014, he decided to return to Cleveland. It was at that moment when Riley’s previously impenetrable reputation began to deprecate.  James has covertly chastised Riley and this summer, Dwyane Wade shocked everyone around the league by leaving South Beach and signing with the Chicago Bulls. The last piece of the trio fell in late September, when Riley announced that Bosh is once again not medically cleared to play and that his Heat career is likely over. At the same time, Miami was unable to make any major additions to the team during the off season. For the first time, Riley’s ability to convince stars to join his team, as well as his ability to find the loopholes necessary to keep them, is now in question.

It’s hard to write about the Heat and not mention the situation that Bosh has had to go through. He was originally diagnosed with a blood clot in his lung during the 2014 All Star break. He ended up sitting out the rest of that season but came back strong in 2015-16. Unfortunately, the 2016 All Star break revealed further medical complications. Things were looking grim and Bosh and the Heat were both put into an unusual position.  The treatment requires immediate and permanent cessation of almost all activity related to contact sports, so the franchise had to figure out if they should keep Bosh’s contract on their payroll. Things seemed to be looking up this summer. Bosh was optimistic that he would be able to play this season but now faced with the latest setback, it seems that his NBA career is indeed all but over.  According to the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, if the Heat continue to sit CB4 out, they can take him off their books in February or a year to the day since his last game. It is my suspicion that this is exactly what they will attempt to do. On the other hand, if Bosh manages to play at least 25 games for any other team, after he is released from his Heat contract, the contract will immediately be once again added to Miami’s payroll, so it’ll be interesting to see how they handle this issue.

As good as Bosh was, there’s no doubt the Heat actually played better without him last season. In the first 53 games they were outscored by 0.3 points per 100 possessions but in the last 29 they outscored their opponents by 5.5 PP100P. The biggest improvement came on offense where they ranked just 26th with Bosh playing and 6th without him. The additions of Joe Johnson and the emergence of Josh Richardson were obvious factors in this regard but replacing Bosh with Luol Deng seemed to have helped as well. With Deng, the Heat played at a higher pace and his constant off ball movement kept opposing defenses on their toes. Many around the league viewed them as the strongest contender to dethrone the Cavs in the East and pointed to Hassan Whiteside’s untimely injury as the only reason the Raptors were able to outlast them in the second round. However, the Heat roster has gone through some substantial changes over the summer. Along with Wade, Deng and Joe Johnson are both gone. Since Bosh won’t play this year, their lack of depth at the PF position seems like something that will haunt them all year.

Season Outlook

The increased efficiency of Miami’s offense in the second half of last season can also be explained by an emphasis on aggressive interior play. In the 53 games prior to the break, the Heat averaged 16.1 touches that originated within 12 feet of the basket per game, which ranked them 19th in the league.  After the break they averaged 21.8 such touches, which was second in the entire league. They also led the league in points that resulted from these types of touches. A large reason behind this was a team wide effort to involve Hassan Whiteside offensively. Even though Erik Spoelstra brought Whiteside off the bench when the Heat first came out of the break, it was apparent that the big man’s usage was on the rise. Whiteside received 14.9 passes per game before the All-Star break but after the break that number went up to 19.3 per game. Post All-Star break, he was second in the league in post touches per game, and scored more points per such touch than anyone else in the top nine players in this category. . After being rewarded with a huge contract this off-season, Whiteside seems like the future of this team and the player they see as the main building block going forward. Especially after moving on from Dwyane Wade, it seems as if the Heat are also ready to look to the future. Whiteside’s success without Bosh also marginalizes the potential consequences of discarding a player of CB4’s magnitude. They may not have the amount of young assets the Timberwolves or the Jazz do, but there’s some promising young pieces down in the 305. Riley has always been a “championship or nothing” guy, and they probably wouldn’t be a realistic contender, even if Bosh was healthy. Perhaps, looking to the future is their best move.

Doing that starts with Justise Winslow, who fell into their lap as the 10th pick in 2015. His offensive output was somewhat disappointing during his rookie year, however outside a budding jump shot he has almost every tool necessary to be a successful wing for a long time. The good news is there have been plenty of young players that came in to the league lacking a shooting stroke and lots of them improved a great deal. Winslow’s work ethic is unquestionable and he was just a teenager for most of last season. On the other hand, the guys that do improve usually show at least some semblance of ability pretty early. Kawhi Leonard is a player often cited as an example of improvement as a shooter, however it’s important to keep in mind that Leonard shot 37.6% from three-point range as a rookie and made 1.4 three-pointers per 100 possessions. By comparison, Winslow shot just 27.6% from deep and made only 0.7 threes per 100 possessions. In other words, it’s possible that he develops as a shooter, but so far, the signs aren’t great. He is still at the very least a versatile and tough defensive player and seems to have added even more muscle this summer. Spoelstra gave him more and more minutes at PF throughout last season and that trend is expected to continue.

The player that surprised everyone last year by becoming an indispensable part of their young core is Josh Richardson. He was looked at as almost strictly a defensive specialist coming out of college, but what he did as a spot up shooter was key to Miami’s offensive surge late last year. At the same time, his defensive ability was as good as advertised. During the Orlando Summer League, he showed much improved play in the pick-n-roll and now looks like he may become a highly competent play maker too. Of course, both Winslow and Richardson are still inexperienced and as promising as they’ve been, neither one is ready to be a leader for a successful NBA team for now.

PREDICTIONS: 34-48

Miami took a chance on guys like Dion Waiters and Derrick Williams this off-season and considering they weren’t given long term deals or large guaranteed money these were actually pretty solid signings. However, it will be interesting to see what a locker room featuring Whiteside, Waiters and Williams will be like. Even if the personalities all mesh and Riley’s culture overrides any past bad habits, this roster doesn’t have the type of talent necessary to make them as dangerous as they were late last season. Luol Deng and Joe Johnson were playing their best basketball in at least the last 3 seasons. Dwyane Wade held the ball too long and took some bad shots but he carried this team during the playoffs. Clearly, with the younger guys taking the mantle, there will be some growing pains. Will Whiteside be as much of a menace inside offensively with theoretically less dangerous players around him on the perimeter? There is still talent here and they’ll be competitive enough to have a shot at the playoffs for most of the season, only to finish short. Perhaps that’s not the worst thing for the franchise, they’d be served best by the addition of another lottery pick in what promises to be a very deep draft.

 

 

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