At the midway point of the NBA season, the Miami Heat remain just as much of an enigma as they did when LeBron James departed for Cleveland last summer.
A weak 18-24 record and a seventh seed in the mediocre Eastern Conference accurately reflects the current state of the Heat, but it doesn’t really answer the fundamental question: Just how good can a team led by two-thirds of the Big 3 really be without the best player in the world?
Injuries and illnesses have contributed to the up-and-mostly-down start to the season. It still doesn’t explain the myriad of issues that keep rearing their ugly head — particularly their third-quarter struggles that force them to play catch-up ball down the stretch.
Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade have boosted their production with their bigger roles, but they have missed 20 combined games because of injury and the supporting cast has had difficulty beating superior opponents.
Newcomers Luol Deng, Shawne Williams and Danny Granger have had their moments but have not been consistent enough. The same goes for rookies Shabazz Napier and James Ennis, who have shown promise despite being in and out of the lineup as head coach Erik Spoelstra keeps mixing and matching starting lineups and rotations. Point guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole have also struggled as they alternate between starter and reserve roles.
There is a perception the Heat are a better team than their record indicates and could round into form if they just had some semblance of continuity.
With promising young center Hassan Whiteside now in the fold, there is renewed hope that Spoelstra has found a balanced, versatile starting five that can score reliably from the inside and out on the perimeter and be able to defend capably. Then again, the Heat’s projected starting five of Wade, Bosh, Deng, Norris Cole and Josh McRoberts (lost for the season) only ended up playing 34 minutes together.
Let’s take stock of what happened in the first half of the season before we look ahead:
Any doubts he could raise his game without James around were quickly erased as Bosh has been the steady force on a nightly basis. He has recorded five games scoring more than 30 points after reaching that mark just twice last season — with the Heat a perfect 17-0 all-time when he scores that many.
Bosh is averaging almost five more points, a full assist and a rebound more than last season and has been a reliable threat from beyond the arc. His 52 total 3-pointers halfway through the season surpasses the 50 3s he made in 509 career games over seven seasons with the Toronto Raptors.
Until the Heat plucked him out of the D-Leauge in late November, Whiteside, a second-round pick of the Kings in 2010, had a rather nondescript NBA career.
He has averaged 12.1 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.0 blocks since the calendar flipped to 2015. He moved into the starting lineup after setting a Heat franchise record for a non-starter with five consecutive games with at least two blocks and 10 or more points.
Beating the Cavaliers on Christmas Day
Heat fans were rewarded for their loyalty on Christmas when their team came away victorious on James’ much-anticipated return to the AmericanAirlines Arena. The highly entertaining game also featured a classy tribute video for James and an ever classier response by Heat Nation as they stood and clapped for the player who helped power his former team to four consecutive NBA Finals appearances and back-to-back championships.
It’s been a rough going for Ennis — who played overseas in 2013 after being drafted by the Hawks and traded to Heat — as he adjusts to playing without the ball and not being the primary scoring option for his team.
But he intrigues in a way that few Heat rookies have in seasons past with explosive athleticism and highlight-reel dunks. If he can reign in his talent with what the coaching staff expect of him, he could be a solid rotational player for the Heat for years to come.
Riley won’t hesitate to make a move that could improve the roster in the short and long term and he has a $2.65 million disabled player exception for McRoberts and a couple of assets, such as Chris Andersen, to dangle. His decision to waive rookie Andre Dawkins last month for roster flexibility is a clear sign he’s seeking to make adjustments with an eye for the postseason and beyond.
For now, improvements must come one game at a time. Their defense has steadily progressed after lackluster performances early in the season, with the team holding their last eight opponents to under 50 percent shooting from the field. Only the high-octane Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors have scored more than 100 points against Miami in 2015.