This year's Heat team could surprise people -- as long as everyone can stay relatively healthy.
Steve Mitchell/Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Pat Riley doesn’t let his teams fall off for more than a couple of years. Luckily for the Heat, it only took one down season for Miami to bounce back this time.
Sure, the Heat won only 37 games last season But it was a funky, post-LeBron James transition year. Now, after a restock that included trading for Goran Dragic, discovering Hassan Whiteside, and drafting Justise Winslow, Miami has a team that can compete in the East. And if all goes right, it could find a way to squeeze past the Cleveland Cavaliers. Everything just has to go as planned for Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the Heat.
Here are three reasons Miami is a more legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference than you think:
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1. They had training camp to get to know each other
This isn’t baseball. Yoenis Cespedes can’t just jump onto Miami’s roster, plug into the 2-hole in the lineup and clear up all the issues with the top of the order. Basketball isn’t a game of individual matchups. It’s more cohesive, and because of that, there were times last year when Dragic looked a little out of sorts in his new home.
As Dragic’s former teammate, Isaiah Thomas, was tearing up the Eastern Conference in Boston after coming over from the Suns, Dragic was taking longer to ease into the Heat’s system. The ball-screen-reliant point guard didn’t have the bigs who could dominate in the pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop. Although Whiteside improved throughout the season, he doesn’t always finish his screens and give his guards the room they need, a common flaw in young big men. The chemistry was building between the two, but there wasn’t enough time to work things out by season’s end.
This year, though, it’s all different. Even as shortening the preseason becomes an increasingly popular idea, training camp remains just as essential. Players and coaches will tell you that training camp is where they can best prepare for the upcoming season. It’s where guys learn sets, where coaches implement new schemes, where players can actually learn each other’s tendencies. With all of the travel time and obligations during the regular season, training camp is some of the only real practice teams will get.
That’s what Dragic needed: Time. Learning the tendencies of Bosh, with whom he didn’t play last year; reestablishing an on-court relationship with the ever-improving Whiteside; working out ball-sharing duties with Wade; generally finding his own niche within the offense — these are all things Dragic had time to work on during training camp.
The 29-year-old was an All-NBA performer two years ago when he was in a far better situation than the ones he found himself in last year with Phoenix and Miami. A return to that altitude as his comfort level evolves is by no means out of the question.
2. The bench is a different animal
We do realize the Heat were giving Henry Walker playing time at the end of last year, right? Oh, how things can change.
Miami can now bring Mario Chalmers off the bench for a full season. It has Josh McRoberts back as a stretchy 4 who can create for teammates. It signed Gerald Green, who will have 0-for-12 nights and 9-for-13 nights, but will always do it all in ways that make you and me question our purposes in life. And then there’s Amar’e Stoudemire, who might wreck his own defense (Dallas was more than five points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor last year), but who can still contribute offensively. Justise Winslow doesn’t look like much of an offensive threat yet, but he’s already a skilled and muscly defender on the wing, and he’ll have plenty of support to teach him the ins and outs of the NBA.
Most importantly, this roster can help coach Erik Spoelstra experiment with loads of different types of situational lineups.
If he wants shooting, he can throw any mix of Dragic, Wade, Green, Chalmers, Luol Deng, McRoberts and Bosh to play a legitimate 5-out unit. He can play small with Bosh at the 5, or big with Whiteside there. He can create lineups that zoom with Green, who took over the second unit in the preseason through sheer force of his play. Giving one of the NBA’s best coaches a bevy of options is never a bad thing.
3. With improved health, the starters are a potential powerhouse
OK, so you can look at this in one of two ways: Either, “The Heat had tons of injuries last year and now they’re back to full health” or “The Heat have old guys who get hurt and they just added Amar’e Stoudemire.”
Let’s go with the former. Why? Because many of those injuries had a sniff of flukiness to them.
Bosh is now back and thankfully recovered from the blood clots in his lungs that ended his season last year. McRoberts is returned from the torn meniscus that cut his 2014-15 into just 2014. Chris Andersen is in uniform, again. And Wade, meanwhile, is on a team that’s deep enough for him to put up as many "DNP — Rests" as he did a couple years ago when LeBron was in town and the regular season was a mere inconvenience.
Don’t underestimate McRoberts’ potential impact, either. There’s a reason the Hornets’ offense took such a dive once he left, and it wasn’t just the Lance Stephenson Effect. McBob might have been the best passer within that Charlotte attack. That won’t be the case in Miami, with Dragic and Wade in town, but his abilities to work big-to-big actions or facilitate around the free-throw line add a new dimension to this offense, something that hasn’t been present in Miami recently.
The healthy Heat will have some of the NBA’s prettiest pick-and-roll actions — and one of the league’s best crunch time lineups, even if shooting might be a concern. Whether it’s Dragic and Bosh working magic in the pick-and-pop or the Slovenian point guard and Whiteside impersonating 85 percent of what Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan can do, Miami is going to spread the floor from the inside-out. And the floor spacing provided by Deng—who still hits shots from the corner and more importantly, whom defenses still guard—is going to make the middle of the floor that much more spacious.
So, yes, Miami wasn’t very good last year, but it only had Bosh for 44 games, McRoberts for 17. Meanwhile, Dragic only showed up at the end of February, and it wasn’t until January that Whiteside started consistently eliciting those “OMG DID YOU SEE HASSAN WHITESIDE’S LINE LAST NIGHT????” texts from your nerdy-basketball-fan friends who you like but maybe need to take it down a notch.
This is a different team if fortune holds out over a full season. Surely, this Heat team isn’t divergent enough from last season’s to say they’re better than the Cavaliers. But crazier things have happened than a hypothetical Cleveland upset, particularly since the Cavs have injury concerns of their own. Kyrie Irving’s status has been continually uncertain for months, and, for some reason, we haven’t been collectively freaking out about it. Heck, the Heat might be one LeBron injury away from leapfrogging over their former leading man in the line to take the East.
It’s the Dumb and Dumber Theory. It’s not the most likely scenario, but after a strong Miami offseason, I’m sayin’ there’s a chance.