2016-17 NBA Preview: Miami Heat

LeBron won a championship for another team. Dwyane Wade left for Chicago. Chris Bosh’s health concerns (will probably) rule him out for the entire season. This is the dawning of a new epoch for the Miami Heat. And it’s probably for the best: after LeBron James left, they were mired in mediocrity, caught between trying to please and retain the two stars still left, and rebuilding the roster. They couldn’t pull off the feat, and now they’ve been forced to start over.

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” — Shakespeare

2015-16 in review

The Miami Heat probably felt that they reloaded enough with their roster that they could contend in the Eastern Conference. They brought in some veterans, and imagined a full season with their incumbent stars, including Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic would be worth a lot. Alas, they weren’t much better than average — they had a point differential of a 46 win team, and they lost Bosh for a chunk of the season. They were better on defense than offense; Justise Winslow, contributing as a rookie, was one of the key causes. So was Hassan Whiteside, who fixed some of his issues on the finer points of the game and played a full NBA season for the first time in his career. They were defeated by Toronto in the second round of the playoffs, however, as their offense was stuck in post-LeBron decrepitude — Dwyane Wade looked finished from being the superstar people had been accustomed to.

Rotation players in: Dion Waiters, Derrick Williams, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington.

Rotation players out: Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Luol Deng, Joe Johnson, Amare Stoudemire, Gerald Green.

So, yes: the Miami Heat lost five former All-Star players plus one dunk champion. Of course, the emphasis should be on “former,” as they received no All-Star caliber seasons from any of those players. But it’s still a sizable loss across the board, and they won’t be able to recapture what they’ve lost from, say, Dion Waiters. The Heat brought in a few role players, and nothing was too splashy. Derrick Williams is trying to carve out a niche as an energy combo forward off the bench, and it could work in Miami given that they now have a hole at power forward. James Johnson is a similar player though, and I feel he’s the superior version — we’ll see who gets more minutes. Lastly, Wayne Ellington is halfway decent 3-and-D player and his shooting at the very least will probably keep him in the rotation.

2016-17 Projected

With Dwyane Wade gone, the Heat can embrace their remodeling project: they have several young players with promising futures, but they shouldn’t be terrible and could have a better adjusted team rating than their 2015 incarnation. The combo of Goran Dragic and Hassan Whiteside, by itself, is enough to keep them out of the cellar. That pick-and-roll should be a dynamo, since teams don’t want to slack off Dragic near the three-point line or let Whiteside slip inside with his defender distracted. Whiteside is a thunderous finisher inside, and he should be able to help his teammates simply by drawing attention.

Hassan Whiteside’s development will affect the direction the team takes in the upcoming years. There’s still a disconnect between his box score stats and his plus-minus numbers — and I don’t think it’s noise. His block rate is too large to be healthy: he hunts blocks too often instead of making the appropriate decision for the entire team. He’s a notorious black-hole too, and nights where he has multiple assists are rare. If he can control himself, and play more like Tyson Chandler in his prime, someone who focused on protecting the basket and not hunting the stat, he could be very valuable at both ends of the court.

Speaking of a disconnect between box score stats and plus-minus numbers, Justise Winslow was rated near league average by RPM and RAPM, yet his PER was an anemic 8.6, which you usually only see with players who flop out of the league. He’s definitely not awful; his defense was outstanding for a rookie wing. He’s the archetypal defensive small forward with enough size for power forward too, the problem was that he can’t shoot. With Chris Bosh gone, it’s probably best if Miami plays small where Winslow is essentially the power forward.

Miami’s other young players — Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson — are keepers too, and they might form the core rotation for the next few years. Both players are good three-point shooters, which is quite important, not just because of current trends within the league but how much better other payers like Whiteside perform with a spread floor. They’re also good complements to Justise Winslow.

There is actually a lot to like about the team, and they own their 2017 draft pick as well. Miami, just simply, lacks the talent for a serious run at 0.500 basketball or the playoffs, unless luck runs their way. Goran Dragic, for example, is great more in theory than practice — the 2014 version of Dragic is who they need, but sadly that was a once-in-a-lifetime event, like some Dana Barros anomaly. And Whiteside, despite his monstrous stat-lines, has yet to prove he can move the needle on team performance significantly. That’s why projection systems are skeptical.

Dwyane Wade leaving the team for Chicago is ultimately the best thing for the franchise — they can focus on long-term goals now. The biggest question I have with their projection, actually, is if they want to play the lottery game and trade Dragic for young players and/or more draft picks. They have a few leftover veterans, like Josh McRoberts, but there’s nothing else on the roster that’ll keep them competitive.

In retrospect, signing Dion Waiters might be a clever move: he can brick their path to a higher draft pick. Pat Riley is a sage.

Quick graph

One of my biggest statistical obsessions is Hassan Whiteside. He’s a truly unique player, and the fact that he sprung from virtually nothingness just adds to his mythos. He does everything either supremely well or abysmally. He’s like some freakish created player in NBA2K. There are two stats he’s most known for though: his high rate of blocks and his FG%. He has a historically unique combination there. Instead of FG%, if look at how many points a player produces over league average efficiency — which you can view here — you can compare him to past legends. Referring to the graph below, Whiteside’s two seasons are near the bleeding edge of performance. Simply put, the only guys who are that efficiently productive while blocking that often are Hall of Famers.

2017-preview-mia-whiteside

Summary

Miami’s 2017 season is fully transitional, but it won’t be painful to watch, at least with Hassan Whiteside wreaking havoc. Without purposefully trying, they shouldn’t sink to the bottom of the standings — but tanking to stack the lottery odds will be tempting. It’ll be interesting to see how their offensive rating changes without Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in the mix. There might be an implosion, but Goran Dragic is a capable scorer. All told, they should be about as good as the 2015 Miami Heat — but the future from here on out will look quite different.

Win predictions:

Mine: 34.1. A blend of several metrics, including Dredge, with a few other factors considered, like coaching.

Andrew Johnson’s: 36. A combination of PT-PM (a SportVU player tracking metric) blended with RAPM. Two-time reigning champion of the APBRmetrics board predictions contest.

Nick Restifo’s: 31 A simulation using BPM and RPM for player value, which includes game effects like altitude and rest.

Kevin Ferrigan’s: 36. A player projection system with inputs from RAPM, BPM, height, and age.

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