MIAMI — The Miami Heat found themselves in an unfamiliar setting when they cleaned out their lockers and conducted exit interviews Friday, just two days after the conclusion of the NBA regular season.
Already eliminated from playoff contention by the time they suited up for one final game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, the team had already faced the harsh reality that their season would not be extended. Even still, the final day of the team being together Friday elicited raw emotion.
After routinely playing deep into June since the 2010-11 season and having only missed the playoffs just once in his career, Dwyane Wade was struggling to put a wild season into a proper perspective.
"Obviously it’s still fresh and this is uncharted waters for this organization," he said. "I’ve been here for 12 years and I’ve never been accustomed to (this). We were dealt a certain hand throughout this season and we played it the best we could. So it’s no disappointment from that standpoint. This is not an end that we want to become accustomed to as an organization but we did the best we could this season. It wasn’t what we wanted. It wasn’t what our fans wanted and what they’ve come to expect of us but sometimes it’s like that."
There was plenty of heart and determination to forge on through an injury-riddled season that saw many players come and go without much in the way of team chemistry or stability. Many of the setbacks were self-inflicted, such as their costly late-season losses to the Detroit Pistons and Milwaukee Bucks after epic second-half collapses.
The offseason loss of LeBron James hurt the most, but the absence of reliable long range shooters Ray Allen, Shane Battier, James Jones among other battle-ready veterans from the Big 3 era also severely limited the Heat’s offense.
Long before Miami limped to the finish line with a disappointing 37-45 record, the team had already taken full responsibility for the final outcome no matter how many hits they would take along the way.
"We’re a bottom-line business so we do have to own that," said head coach Erik Spoelstra. "We’re not making excuses for the season."
Looking back on the whirlwind events of the season, Spoelstra ultimately viewed it as a learning experience for his players as well as for himself that can only benefit them in the future.
"I learned a lot this season," he said. "I know our players did but what we can take from it probably more then anything was learning how to deal with adversities together and how to get stronger and tougher together. Not making excuses for it but work for solutions and I commended our group the entire year for committing to that."
The Heat’s front office also solidified the roster with the in-season acquisitions of Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic to bolster two positions for the future and they enjoyed a successful partnership with NBA D-League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce, that helped bolster the bench.
Viewed strictly with the team’s stated goal of reaching the playoffs as a measure of success, the Heat’s season was undoubtedly a disappointment for the team. The situation could get worse if there are unforeseen setbacks in the recovery of Chris Bosh (blood clots) or Josh McRoberts (right knee) or if impending free-agent Dragic walks and the franchise is left with nothing to show for trading away Norris Cole and two future first-round picks.
While missing out on the playoffs for just the fourth time since 2000 and after four consecutive trips to the NBA Finals certainly set the franchise back, the consolation prize is that the Heat will have an excellent chance of retaining their first lottery pick since 2008. An impactful player from a deep draft could help set up the team for years to come, or it could fall out of the top 10 after the draft lottery and instead be forwarded to the 76ers as part of a prior trade obligation.
Should the Heat keep their pick, they will be adding a key piece to a young core among second-year players James Ennis, Shabazz Napier and Tyler Johnson, who each showed promise with extended minutes. Spoelstra even categorized the growth of the rookies as a silver lining of the season.
"I think it shows that I belong," said Johnson of his expanded role deeper into the season. "I think I’ve had moments where I’ve shown that I can be a real player in this league. Obviously as a rookie I went through a lot of highs and lows so I’ve just got to learn from those lows and make sure we can minimize them for this upcoming year."
On paper, the Heat should be well-equipped to battle for a top seed in the East should Dragic and Luol Deng, who holds a player option, return. But the biggest x-factor will be how Bosh comes back from his season-ending medical condition. He left a huge void on both ends of the floor without his steady presence and never got a chance to play with Dragic. His offseason will be all about continuing a workout plan to get him ready in time for training camp.
"Square one," said Bosh when asked of where his progress was at the moment. "That’s really where I am and that’s how I’m taking it. I just look at it as a blessing that I have time to work on my body and work on the things I need to work on for next year. I’m just taking those steps slowly. I never have the time. Usually in the offseason we have to hit the ground running but this year I have the opportunity to really build slowly, correct some things I need to correct, and come back next year in the best shape of my life."
Although Spoelstra would much rather be studying playoff opponent scouting reports right now, he appeared to be relishing at the chance of finally having enough time to adequately prepare for the draft and the offseason with his staff.
There is plenty of work to be done to bounce back from this season, but this team appears more then ready to put it all in the past and look ahead.