2014-15 Miami Heat: What went wrong, what went right
The Miami Heat began the 2014-15 NBA season ready to put LeBron James’ departure behind them with a dynamic roster expected to battle for one of the top seeds in a wide-open Eastern Conference.
All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh — two-thirds of the Big 3 — along with Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen returned. Versatile, two-way player Luol Deng signed as a free agent to claim the now-vacant small forward spot and playmaking big man Josh McRoberts had also signed on, with his expert passing and long-range shooting expected to add several new dimensions to the Heat offense. Rookie point guard Shabazz Napier was acquired on draft day and deemed NBA-ready after an illustrious collegiate career with Connecticut to help add depth at a position of need.
Out of the gate, Miami started the season 5-2 despite the early loss of McRoberts, who was expected to miss several weeks recovering from offseason toe surgery and a sore back. Encouraging victories against the Washington Wizards, Toronto Raptors and the Dallas Mavericks gave further proof that the Heat would remain relevant in ways that the Cleveland Cavaliers could not match after James left them in 2010.
"That was good," said Dwyane Wade of the hot start. "It went downhill from there as soon as we started dealing with things we couldn’t control. It started off okay for us early in the season knowing that Josh (McRoberts) was coming back. We were excited about our opportunities early on, that’s even before Goran (Dragic) was even a possibility, we were still excited about (our chances) in the Eastern Conference. We felt we were good enough but the game had other plans for us."
From that convincing 105-96 road win in Dallas, where Deng led the team with a season-high 30 points, Bosh and Wade each contributed 20 points and Mario Chalmers came off the bench to contribute 18 points, the Heat would never be the same again. Injuries, inconsistent play and late-game collapses dragged the Heat down in the standings.
The three consecutive wins to open the season would only be matched once during a stretch in March and the losses instead piled up as they faded out of the playoff picture. With coach Erik Spoelstra and his team not knowing who would be available on a game-by-game basis, the team’s chemistry and cohesion correspondingly took a big hit.
"You just never know what to expect when you come into a training camp," Spoelstra said after the team wrapped up their exit interviews Friday. "Obviously we had different expectations for the end of the season but you learn, you grow from all of your experiences. So when we came out of training camp, we had a team that we felt could build and grow as the season went on. We were met with some adversity early on and the team changed course three or four times during the course of the season."
But it wasn’t all just doom and gloom for the Heat either. Quite the opposite, the events that unfolded along the way could swiftly set the Heat up back to playoff contention by next season.
Along the way, Heat president Pat Riley managed to address the team’s two biggest roster needs by plucking Hassan Whiteside from the NBA Development League, and trade for Goran Dragic to form the most talented point guard and center tandem in Miami since the days of Tim Hardaway and Alonzo Mourning.
Four significant chapters marked the dramatic highs and lows through the course of 82 regular season games and a final, desperate attempt to climb back into playoff contention:
CONSTANT INJURIES DERAIL PLANS
From the start of training camp when McRoberts closed out on Bosh during a drill and tweaked his back to the very end of the season, the Heat never had anything close to a healthy roster. Miami ended up setting a franchise mark with their 31st different starting lineup of the season in their season finale, surpassing the 2007-08 season which was the last time the Heat missed out on the postseason.
In addition to constant injuries, medical conditions and illnesses that never went away, the starters were the most affected. The projected lineup of Wade, Chalmers, Deng, McRoberts and Bosh ended up playing less then 24 minutes together before McRoberts was lost for the season with a torn right meniscus. The next projected lineup of Wade, Chalmers, Deng, Bosh and Whiteside were only on the floor for 28 total minutes.
"It’s just how it was this year," said Bosh. "Even before I went down, we had our struggles and that was wearing on everybody around here. Just not being able to get out the blocks and really be able to compete at a high level and build continuity. Forget winning games, let’s just have the same guys out there and at least learn our plays or learn the ins and out of the defense and really learn each other.
"Unfortunately, we didn’t have that time but our guys fought and we never made excuses and I still believe we’re going to use this as a positive."
In all, the Heat suffered season-ending injuries to Bosh, McRoberts and Napier while Wade missed 20 games due to a variety of injuries and rest. Unsurprisingly, no Heat player suited up for the entirety of the 82-game season.
Miami made what appeared to be a developmental move for the future in late November when they waived guard Shannon Brown in favor of Whiteside, an obscure journeyman center who was toiling in the D-League after stints in Lebanon and China. The move was originally necessitated because of an ankle injury to Andersen, but no one could have predicted the Heat had picked up a double-double machine with legit offensive skills and a huge wingspan to help grab rebounds and swat shots.
Whiteside and Bosh only ended up playing about 300 minutes together and it’s no coincidence that Whiteside was at his best when the opposing defense had to also be mindful of Bosh’s gifted offensive game.
His most impressive game was his triple-double performance on Jan. 25 against the Bulls in which he recorded 14 points, 13 rebounds and a franchise-best 12 blocks in less then 25 minutes. Despite playing with a lacerated right hand that required 10 stitches and a protective covering, Whiteside still closed out the season by averaging 16.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 3.2 blocks for the month of April.
"Just commit, and it’s really as simple as that," said Spoelstra of what he expects out of Whiteside. "That was really my message to him the first day when I met with him before we signed him: ‘We have an opportunity here for you. It won’t be about the minutes, the shots, the opportunities, or the role. It will be about committing every single day to our player development program and to a consistent program every single day.’
"He was great with that. Even with the games and even with the success, he was still committed to that program."
HOPES RISE WITH DRAGIC TRADE, THEN INSTANTLY DASHED
Eager to boost the Heat towards their playoff goal, Riley cobbled together enough pieces, along with two future first-round picks, to acquire Goran Dragic and his brother Zoran in a three-team deal with the Phoenix Suns and the New Orleans Pelicans at the Feb. 19 trade deadline.
Miami’s final projected starting lineup of Dragic, Wade, Deng, Bosh and Whiteside would have been a dangerous combination of size, playmaking, slashers and post game would never have a chance to play together. That starting five had the potential to boost the team in the standings and face an evenly-matched opponent like the Chicago Bulls or Toronto Raptors, but it never came to fruition with the news of Bosh’s season-ending medical condition made public hours after the Dragic trade.
Dragic, who averaged 16.6 points and 5.3 assists in 26 games with the Heat, did go on to form a deadly duo with Wade over the course of the two months they played together. The two combined to shoot 48.5 percent from the field — the highest mark among all starting backcourts in the NBA.
Though he will opt out of final year of his contract to become a free agent, Dragic continues to state his preference is to re-sign with Miami.
"I had a great time here in Miami," he said. "I want to come back and it’s great but we’ll see what happens. To make the next step in my career, I’m looking at how I’m going to fit in with the players, with the team, and of course what kind of style of the game we’re going to play. The last two months, I felt really great here but unfortunately we didn’t make the playoffs.
"If I’m going to stay here, I would be looking forward to playing with all of those guys, especially Chris Bosh and Josh McRoberts because they are two big parts of this team. So probably it’s going to be a different situation."
FINAL PLAYOFF PUSH FALLS SHORT
The Heat’s final projected lineup of Wade, Dragic, Deng, Haslem and Whiteside went a respectable 9-7 and the team posted a 8-2 home record in March, but it wasn’t enough to keep pace with the late season surge of the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics. To make matters worse, Miami suffered late-game collapses and inconsistent play against key opponents to further damaged their playoff hopes.
By the time the season ended with a meaningless 105-101 win against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, reserves James Ennis and Udonis Haslem were the only active players on the Heat’s opening day roster left standing.