With several new faces, Heat look to prove they're still a title contender
One look at the roster the Miami Heat has assembled for the 2014-15 NBA season and a constant theme emerges.
From player to player and even to the head coach, each one of them has something to prove.
Chris Bosh has been promoted from the third option on offense to becoming the franchise player of the present and the future. After being handed one of the NBA's most lucrative contracts immediately following the departure of LeBron James to Cleveland, Bosh must now prove he can lead this team to continued success.
For Dwyane Wade it becomes more complicated. His durability has been called into question after his maintenance plan last season didn't translate to a strong NBA Finals performance. After playing in only 54 games to save himself for a healthy postseason run, Wade averaged just 15.2 points on 43.8 percent shooting, 3.8 rebounds and 2.6 assists in the five-game series loss to the San Antonio Spurs.
He's worked hard over the summer to shed some weight in an effort to put less wear and tear on his knees and the results so far have been encouraging. But without James as the Heat's main offensive threat, will Wade be up to the task of raising his productivity while also staying healthy?
Danny Granger will also want to prove he's still a viable scoring threat after injuries slowed him down the past few seasons. Chris Andersen, Josh McRoberts and Justin Hamilton must also stay healthy for the Heat to have an effective power rotation.
New forward Shawne Williams has bounced around the league since he was drafted in the first round by the Indiana Pacers in 2006 and is eager to prove he belongs in the NBA. The same goes for Shannon Brown, who hasn't been able to stick with a team since his stints with the Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns.
The Heat's point guard trio of Norris Cole, Mario Chalmers and Shabazz Napier will need to work together to get themselves and their teammates involved in the offense. Chalmers may still be licking his wounds after being demoted to the bench after the preseason opener in addition to his poor performance in the Finals, but his skills may be better suited in a reserve role. Plenty of analysts before the draft doubted Napier could be an effective NBA point guard, but his tenacity and work ethic have been a good fit in Miami.
Let's not forget head coach Erik Spoelstra either. He somehow still doesn't get enough credit for leading his team to four consecutive NBA Finals appearances while balancing egos and getting the most out of the Big 3 partnership. Now he faces an altogether different challenge, but one that he relishes as he works tirelessly to make this new era of Heat basketball a successful one.
Even with a small sample size, the potential of the Heat's new youth movement with James Ennis, Andre Dawkins and Napier makes the future appear bright for this franchise. For those accustomed to the Heat's preference for veterans on their last legs to round out their bench the last four seasons, the trio has been a refreshing change of pace as they helped power comebacks in the second half of several preseason games with their energy and scoring prowess.
"The process will be what it is," said Spoelstra during training camp. "I'm open to finding out what this team will be and what this rotation will be. But with (Ennis) and all of our young guys, we're committed to investing time in their development."
The bench as a whole appears to be stronger than originally thought. Granger has looked healthy and still has the ability to be a volume scorer. Udonis Haslem can always be counted on to bring his trademark style of play to any game. Williams and Brown add experience and athleticism. Birdman is, well, Birdman.
There's no question that the success of this team is dependent on Bosh having a monster season statistically -- yes, similar to his Toronto days -- to carry the offensive workload but to continue rounding out his all-around game as he was able to do during the Big 3 era. The results in the preseason have tempered any concerns he wasn't up to the task with averages of 18.8 points on 49.5% shooting and 7.3 rebounds while getting into NBA shape.
"The thing I really respect about CB is he understands the big picture," said Spoelstra. "He understands leadership. He's very emotionally stable so he can take on new responsibilities and not let that take him out of his game and his effectiveness. It's not easy to play the role that he's played before and also to play this year. He has a lot on his plate and he has to be aggressive for us to create offense but he also has to facilitate and he has to defend. He has to be a two-way player."
Beyond the four straight losses to open the preseason -- which can be chalked up to unfamiliarity and working out the kinks -- new Heat acquisition Luol Deng has been inconsistent as he finds his way with the Heat. But his up-and-down play is not indicative of his versatility and abilities on both ends of the floor.
"Once he learns what we're looking for on offense, the rotations on defense and getting that fourth position down a lot more, he's going to be a big help for us," said Bosh.
Deng obviously wasn't brought in to replicate James, but the team must get him on track to begin the season.
"We love what he does and obviously we have some work to do to make sure everybody gets in a better offensive flow," said Spoelstra. "He's a recipient of ball movement, of execution, of making the extra pass, of finding him on cuts. He'll get into a better rhythm. We need to work on that."
With the Heat missing McRoberts as he rehabs from offseason toe surgery and back issues, the projected starting five hasn't played together yet. Adding to the uncertainty, Spoelstra constantly shuffled his starting five from game to game with Cole replacing Chalmers as well as Williams and Haslem starting while McRoberts sat.
"He'll definitely help," said Spoelstra of McRoberts. "Josh's game fits into what we're trying to do. I think that'll probably make it look a little smoother."
MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER
How much does Wade really have left in the tank? For the Heat to secure one of the top seeds in the East, they'll need a bounce-back season from their superstar after he averaged the fewest amount of points last season since his rookie campaign.
"What I've seen is just a very heavy workload," said Spoelstra. "He's been very committed to the process. He comes in and really works at his body, his conditioning, his strength, corrective exercises â all of that. You have to spend a lot of time the more years you have under your belt in this league. He's been committed to that. He's in terrific shape."
Wade has been the first to arrive in the gym since the beginning of training camp so the commitment to excel is still there. Flashes of vintage Wade have appeared during the preseason and with capable scorers around him, he'll still be able to pick and choose his spots in order to be as effective as he can be.
There is still a question of how good he can still be on defense, especially out on the perimeter, but even if Wade may never be the same player who led his team to the 2006 title or even the one still in his prime when he convinced James to join him in 2010, he is still a deadly scorer who will need to produce big-time for the Heat to stay competitive.
BEST CASE SCENARIO
If Wade stays healthy and has another All-Star season, the Heat can certainly compete in the wide-open East. Bosh absolutely needs to have a huge season as well, but there is depth and plenty of opportunities for players to perform. The Heat must load up on victories against the weaker teams and try to win at least half of their games against the elite teams in both conferences.
Should all of that happen, the Heat can reach 45-50 victories and secure home-court advantage through at least one round of the playoffs. A truly best case scenario would be a fifth straight appearance in the Eastern Conference Finals and/or eliminating James' Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs.