The Miami Heat missed the playoffs for just the second time in 12 years after losing LeBron James.
But with what appears to be one of the NBA’s deepest rosters, they’re a trendy pick to usurp James’ Cleveland Cavaliers and emerge from the Eastern Conference.
Miami opens its season Wednesday night against the visiting Charlotte Hornets.
James bolted back to Cleveland, Dwyane Wade sat 20 games due to numerous injuries and Chris Bosh missed nearly half the season due to a career-threatening condition. The Heat finished 37-45 – their first sub-.500 record since 2007-08 – though they were only one game behind the East’s eighth-place finisher.
Wade and Bosh are healthy again, however, and new additions have Miami feeling optimistic.
"Coming together and trying to put together a team that can compete for a title, that’s far more motivating and powerful than the pain of last year," coach Erik Spoelstra said. "That lasted a couple weeks. Then every ounce of energy and focus was about trying to do whatever we had to do to build this team up and have an opportunity to do something special."
Wade was more effective than he has been in years when healthy last season. His 21.5 points per game marked his highest average since 2011-12. He flashed his ability to still be one of the league’s most impactful players for multiple stretches, including a seven-game run in March when he averaged 29.1 points on 53.6 percent shooting.
Bosh’s 21.1 points per game were his most since he joined Miami in 2010-11, and he’s back to 100 percent after his career was in jeopardy. Blood clots discovered in one of his lungs sent him to the hospital and ended his season, but he’s OK again after an initially unclear prognosis.
"He’s the same old Chris," Wade said. "Defensively, he’s one of the best bigs in the league. And offensively, he’s one of the most dangerous bigs in the league with his ability to knock down shots, the way he moves the ball on the perimeter, to get guys coming off pick and rolls, etc."
Bosh will be complemented by Hassan Whiteside to form what could be a formidable frontcourt. Whiteside was one of the league’s most surprising players in 2014-15, a virtual unknown before averaging 11.8 points and 10.0 rebounds while shooting 62.8 percent in 48 games.
The Heat will enjoy a full season of Goran Dragic after he averaged 16.6 points and 5.4 assists in 26 games following his acquisition from Phoenix. They also added rookie forward Justise Winslow, who many pundits pegged as the steal of the first round with the 10th overall pick.
Miami’s opening slate should prove to be a good litmus test. The Heat visit Cleveland on Friday before hosting Houston and Atlanta, who combined to go 116-48 a season ago.
The Hornets (33-49) figure to be more of an unknown, though they’re hoping they’ll be improved offensively with the additions of Nicolas Batum, Jeremy Lin, Jeremy Lamb and ninth overall pick Frank Kaminsky.
Charlotte ranked 28th in the NBA in 2014-15 with 96.7 points per 100 offensive possessions but impressed in the preseason, going 7-1 and averaging 100.4 points compared to 94.2 a season ago.
Coach Steve Clifford is still preaching defense, though. The Hornets were already solid there last season, allowing 101.0 points per 100 possessions to rank ninth.
"Potentially we could be a very good offensive team, but if we want to go where we want to go we are going to need to be a good defensive team also," Clifford said.
Miami won 16 straight meetings before splitting four last season.