Miami Heat Enter 2015-16 Season As Most Enigmatic Teama in the NBA

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The Miami Heat may well be the most enigmatic team in the league, as we head into the 2015-16 NBA season.

It is difficult to tell whether Pat Riley is building something special, or relegating his team to the atrocity of mediocrity. The current Heat incarnation is both supremely talented and deeply flawed. It is as promising as it is susceptible to the cruelties of age, injury, poor spacing and poor shooting. It has within it the potential to challenge the Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy and the combustibility to ignite a second straight pre-playoff collapse.

Riley has tossed away multiple first-round draft picks in its effort to chase down LeBron in Cleveland, much like he did to snag him and Chris Bosh five years ago. Only this time around, there is no underlying guarantee that it is going to work.

It is as possible that the Heat has mortgaged its future to build an unremarkable team that will die a slow death as it is that the Heat is in the midst of spectacular turnaround that could vault the team into the realm of the game’s elite. Where within that range the Heat will fare is not yet clear.

Any thoughts of a Heat turnaround start with center Hassan Whiteside.

Plucked from obscurity last September for training camp by the Memphis Grizzlies after years of banishment to places like Lebanon and China, Whiteside was released before the season started. He went to the D-League’s Rio Grande Valley Vipers, but was quickly traded to the Grizzlies’ affiliate Iowa Energy, where he got off to an incredibly hot two-game start to the season.

Whiteside says he then leveraged those performances to call every team in the league to ask for a workout, and all but the Heat turned him down. The Heat brought him in for a workout on Nov. 17. But while the organization was thinking it over, they lost him. The Grizzlies signed him to a second contract on Nov. 19. As luck would have it, he was cut a day later when Memphis needed to open a roster spot, and returned to the Energy.

After a third consecutive cornea-etching performance for the Energy, this time against Miami’s own D-League affiliate on Nov. 22, the Heat, in need of healthy bodies, simply couldn’t refuse.

Out went Shannon Brown. In came Whiteside, on a two-year minimum salary contract.

Now, he is perhaps the Heat’s most vital player.

Whiteside has become the poster child of a fan base seeking out hope for the future in the post-LeBron era. He has rewarded us all with boundless energy, youthful exuberance, and quick ascent. In his limited time last season, Whiteside rampaged through the NBA with reckless abandon, utilizing his massive 7-foot-7-inch wingspan to throw down monstrous alley-oop dunks, snatch rebounds out of the sky from high above the rim, swat basketballs as Godzilla would planes, and generally wreak havoc on both ends of the floor. His potential in the pick-and-roll and on the glass is undeniable. But his skills extend far beyond that. His low-post game is still developing, and has the potential to make him one of the elite low-post scorers in the whole of the NBA.

By the end of January, Whiteside was posting daily double-doubles and swatting everything that didn’t have a pulse.

Perpetrating perhaps the greatest mid-season signing in team history emboldened Riley to push further. As the February trade deadline approached, with other suitors backing away sensing his determination, Riley pushed to the edge of sanity, throwing two first round draft picks at the Phoenix Suns to bag a younger, though not entirely young himself, version of his team’s own Dwyane Wade, in Goran Dragic.

Dragic loves to attack the basket. He’s an aggressive guard who keeps defenders backpedalling as he slashes to the rim. He has excellent body control and does a tremendous job of slipping past defenders and finishing through contact. He is the only guard in the NBA to have shot better than 50 percent from the field in each of the last two seasons. If the defense collapses to stop him, he is just as likely to hit his corner three-point shooters as he is his roll-man on the pick-and-roll or a big man down low.

And so, for all of its disappointments on and off the court during the 2014-15 season, the Heat did get a gigantic head start on the rebuilding process. They addressed, and rather emphatically, the two positions – point guard and center – that had been haunting them since the year after their 2006 title run.

There is some risk in signing a 29-year-old Dragic to a five-year, $85 million deal (which Riley rightfully denies having negotiated before Dragic was acquired, since that would be a violation of cap rules), but it’s a whole heck of a lot better than we were all envisioning. There is some risk that Whiteside can leave as an unrestricted free agent next summer, but the Heat is in position to offer him a bigger contract and a better environment than can any other team in the NBA.

At the time, he wasn’t banking on another fortunate twist of fate. But when Chris Bosh suffered a pulmonary embolism the very day Dragic was acquired, he got one.

Bosh’s heart-breaking misfortune and the ensuing underperformance that followed turned into the No. 10 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, and Riley turned that into Justise Winslow.

Winslow’s fall was so unexpected that Riley’s first words ever uttered to him were spoken over the phone after he was drafted. The versatile swingman never even worked out for the Heat. But he is a Riley kind of guy. Riley loves tough, athletic players who get it done on both ends of the floor. At 6-feet, 6-inches, Winslow is a gritty driver of the basketball, a strong rebounder, and a great defender. He has star potential.

Riley’s vision: Use a Dragic, Winslow, Bosh and Whiteside core to entice a big-name free agent to push this team over the top when the cap explodes in 2016.

To do that, though, meant hoarding the team’s summer of 2016 cap space during the 2015 free agency period, which didn’t sit so well with Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng, who aren’t ideal fits within that vision.

Dragic and Whiteside figure to become focal points of the Heat offense for years to come. They figure to be highly successful in plying their trade, but only if they have the floor space with which to do so. Whiteside needs it to maneuver freely down low. Dragic needs it to create clear driving lanes for himself and open looks for others.

Floor-spacing is a critical determinant of success in today’s NBA. The best teams have it. The not so good ones don’t.

The Heat need players who can knock down open outside shots when Dragic and Whiteside collapse the defense. Bosh is an ideal fit in such an approach. But Deng isn’t. And neither is Wade.

Deng knew he had no choice but to exercise his $10.2 million player option. He knew full well that neither Riley nor anybody else was about to give the 30-year-old with diminishing defensive effectiveness the long-term deal he sought if he tried his luck in free agency. Winslow is the Heat’s small forward of the future. He should quickly start to steal increasing minutes from Deng, and eventually overtake him in the starting rotation, if not during the coming season then certainly by the start of the next. Which makes this Deng’s final season in Miami.

But things got testier with Wade, who refused to do the same with his $16.1 million option. Amidst his desire for a lofty three-year contract that reflected his contributions to (and the sacrifices he’s made for the benefit of) the organization, what was best for Wade was no longer best for Riley, who was determined to preserve maximum cap space for the 2016-17 season. It took an Arison-sized intervention to extinguish the ensuing hellfire, which ended with Wade signing a one-year, $20 million deal that affords the Heat maximum flexibility for next summer.

But neither it nor Deng’s option exercise did anything to solve the Heat’s most significant flaw: Outside of Bosh, they simply can’t shoot. For as talented as a Dragic-Wade-Deng-Bosh-Whiteside starting rotation might appear, it isn’t all that hard to imagine why they might struggle.

Winslow does little to address that concern either. In his lone season at Duke, he attempted 110 three-pointers and made them at a 41.8 percent clip which, quite frankly, is elite for a college player. But his ratio seems to belie his true ability. He has a slow, flat release with inconsistent mechanics that does not figure to translate well to the deeper NBA three-point line. Of his 110 three-point attempts, 52 were from 24 feet or more, and he shot just 31 percent on those attempts. He also shot just 29.9 percent on three-point attempts during his four years of high school.

Winslow may improve in that regard but figures to have limited desire or ability to develop into that type of player whose passion it is to hunt three-point shots and, with his deadly precision, strike fear into the heart of his opponents in a way that would create space for his teammates.

So, even if at first glance the starting five of Dragic, Wade, Deng (and ultimately Winslow), Bosh, and Whiteside looks like a like a talented offensive group, there will be many nights when it struggles to score, as defenses do the one thing they know will stress the Heat offense: collapse.

The Heat did make one key free agent addition to address that concern, signing Gerald Green to a one-year, $1.4 million minimum salary contract. Green is a career 37 percent shooter from 3-point range, and is just two years removed from knocking down a career-high 40 percent alongside Dragic in Phoenix. He is a firecracker offensively — a streaky shooter who can ignite an offense at times, but exhibit poor shot selection at others. He will be a welcome addition for a Heat team that desperately needs his skill set (even if it isn’t among the game’s elite). But he’ll likely be a one-season fix.

The Heat also has a potential long-term solution already on the roster, in Tyler Johnson. Johnson is short (6-foot-3) and slight (190 pounds), and at times miscast by the Heat as a point guard, but he makes up for it with serious hops and sweet shooting. He’ll throw down a highlight-reel dunk just as easily as he’ll swish a three-pointer when his feet are set. But he’ll also do the little things you may not notice — like play the game with a tremendous energy, or snatch a rebound typically reserved for a player twice his size. If the Heat does not ask him to extend beyond the scope of his natural skill-set – at shooting guard (where he can play off the ball, enabling him to set his feet) as opposed to at point guard (where he is forced to handle and distribute the ball) – he could well have a breakout second season. The best news of all: if he does, he’ll be with the Heat for many years to come.

If Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra needs shooting, he’ll turn to Green or Johnson.

And he should.

Dragic and Wade are both masters at slithering past defenders, creating easy shots for themselves and open looks for teammates. They both excel at what they do, but perhaps not so much when paired together, since neither has the shooting proficiency to leverage the space created by the other. Therefore, one’s dominance at any particular time tends to leave the other largely inefficient, or entirely uninvolved.

The statistics bear that out.

Wade played 555 minutes with Dragic last season. In those 555 minutes, he scored 23.3 points per 35-minutes on just 42.2 percent shooting, while the Heat limped to a minus-28 scoring margin. But in the 320 minutes that Dragic was on the bench, Wade scored 24.9 points per 35-minutes on 48.2 percent shooting, while leading the Heat to a plus-24 scoring margin.

In the 555 minutes Dragic played with Wade, he scored just 14.6 points per 35-minutes on 50.0 percent shooting, while the Heat limped to a minus-28 scoring margin. In the 351 minutes that Wade was on the bench, Dragic scored 20.0 points per 35-minutes on 50.3 percent shooting, while the Heat produced a significantly better minus-4 scoring margin.

Wade performed better without Dragic, Dragic performed significantly better without Wade, and the Heat performed significantly better when the two were staggered. Spoelstra might be better served staggering Dragic and Wade, alongside Johnson and Green. As shocking as it may seem, the Heat’s most effective starting lineup could well be: Dragic, Johnson, Winslow, Bosh and Whiteside.

That, however, would effectively mean designating Wade a bench player. And while doing so could produce some substantial long-term benefits for Wade – reducing his minutes, improving his health, and potentially extending his career – stripping the face of the franchise of his starting position is never going to happen.

Which effectively means that the Heat’s best defensive player (Winslow), two best shooters (Johnson and Green), and three most youthful, athletic and energetic players (Johnson, Green and Winslow) will all be coming off the bench. The bench could therefore become a strength for this Heat team.

***

And so enter the Miami Heat into the 2015-16 season: supremely talented but deeply flawed, going only as far as Whiteside’s offensive and defensive development will take it in what figures to be a crowded paint.

It feels like a team good enough to make some noise in the East, but perhaps not good enough to take down the Cavaliers or contend for a title.

Of course, adding a star next summer could change everything.

The Heat, as of now, projects to have Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Josh McRoberts and Chris Bosh under contract next summer, an ability to re-sign Tyler Johnson to a contract that exceeds the salary cap, and, at a projected $89 million cap, up to $37 million of cap space for Dwyane Wade, Hassan Whiteside and another player. And if the Heat were to trade McRoberts, it would increase to $42 million. That’s a ton of room, but perhaps not as much is it would appear.

If Whiteside has another breakout season, it is conceivable that he might command anything up to his $21 million maximum starting salary. Subtract whatever Whiteside gets from as much as $42 million, and that’s how much you have left for Wade and another player.

There are creative ways, however, to maximize that number. Consider this: If Wade truly wanted something like $45 million over the next three years, accepting his single-season $20 million deal leaves him $25 million short. If the Heat were to renounce Wade, it could use the entire up to $42 million on Whiteside and an outside star. The Heat could then circle back to Wade once all of its cap space is used up and utilize the mid-level exception for room teams to give him up to $3 million. It could then leverage his Bird rights to give him as much of the remaining $22 million as it desire in 2017-18.

Likely? No. But possible.

The larger problem seems to be the lack of star available for the taking that would entice him to do it, with Kevin Durant and LeBron James likely to return to their existing teams. Which could leave the Heat rotation substantially similar to how it will be this season (less Green and Deng), and the $37 million allocated largely to Wade and Whiteside.

Is that enough to make the Heat an elite NBA team?

Riley surely hopes so. If it doesn’t work, he may have left the Heat without many alternatives.

Miami’s stockpile of future first-round picks is severely depleted. The Heat owe a future first-round pick to the Philadelphia 76ers (likely in 2016) from the LeBron James sign-and-trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers in July 2010, as well as a pair of future first-round picks to the Phoenix Suns (likely in 2018 and 2021) from last season’s acquisition of the Dragic brothers. That leaves the Heat with no first-round draft picks in 2016, 2018 and 2021. And, by virtue of the Ted Stepien rule (which states that a team cannot trade all of its first-round picks in consecutive future seasons) and the Seven Year Rule (which states that draft picks can be traded no more than seven years into the future), Miami does not currently have a single future first-round draft pick in its possession that can be offered in trade.

Miami’s stockpile of future second-round picks is also severely depleted. The Heat owe its aforementioned 2016 second-round pick to the Celtics, a top-40 protected second-round pick to the Atlanta Hawks (likely in 2017) from the James Ennis draft-night acquisition in June 2013, its 2019 second-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves from the draft-night acquisition of the since-traded Shabazz Napier from the Charlotte Hornets in June 2014, and its 2020 second-round pick to the Celtics from the Zoran Dragic trade in July. That leaves the Heat with no second-round draft picks in 2016, 2017, 2019 and 2020. And, by virtue of the Seven Year Rule, Miami’s only second-round picks available for trade would be a conditional pick in 2018 and unconditional picks all the way out in 2021 and 2022.

The Heat does have a certain degree of tradable roster depth (e.g., Josh McRoberts), but the biggest asset in most trade scenarios is first-round draft picks, and the Heat won’t have those for many years:

  • From now until before the 2016 draft: Heat is not allowed to trade any first-round picks, no matter how far into the future.
  • From after the 2016 draft until before the 2017 draft: Only first-round pick Heat will be eligible to trade is its 2023 pick.
  • From after the 2017 draft until before the 2018 draft: Only first-round pick Heat will be eligible to trade is its 2023 or 2024 pick.
  • From after the 2018 draft until before the 2019 draft: Earliest first-round pick Heat will be eligible to trade is its 2019 pick, but only if the first pick obligation to the Suns (which is top-7 protected) was already satisfied in 2018. If not, the earliest would be its 2023 pick.
  • From after the 2019 draft until before the 2021 draft: Earliest first-round pick the Heat will be eligible to trade is its 2023 pick.
  • From after the 2021 draft onward: Heat will be eligible to trade all of its future first round picks (including its 2022 pick) without restriction.

***

Pat Riley has gone all in with his attempt to build a winner in the Heat’s the post-LeBron era. It’s difficult to predict how he’s done.

This could just as easily be a low-40s-win team that is one injury away from being bounced out of the playoffs as it could be a low-50s-win team that is one injury away from bouncing out on the Cavaliers on its way to the NBA Finals.

As to which one it is, only time will tell.

But it sure as hell is going to be fun watching the development of Johnson, Winslow and Whiteside develop into future stars!

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