Miami Heat: 2017-18 NBA Season Preview

The Miami Heat pulled off perhaps the greatest turnaround in NBA history this past season, following up an exasperating 11-30 first half with an 30-11 second half that was good for second-best in the league and made it the first team to ever fall more than 12 games under .500 and climb all the way back to even.

During those final 41 games, despite the lack of a (current or former) All-Star anywhere in the rotation, the Heat posted an astounding offensive efficiency (109.7 points per 100 possessions) that would, projected over the course of a full season, have ranked second best in its history.

They did it by trading star power for depth.

Lacking an All-Star caliber playmaker, they replaced it with a bunch of quality ones. Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters and James Johnson each excelled at breaking down defenses, and then either finishing strong at the rim or passing out to open teammates along the perimeter.

Lacking a star three-point shooter to space the floor, they replaced it with a bunch of guys who had atypically strong shooting seasons. Luke Babbitt, Tyler Johnson, Waiters and Wayne Ellington each shot 40%+ plus from 3-point range after the All-Star break.

And they made it all coalesce by employing one of the most fundamental of basketball principles: drive, and kick.

The Heat drove to the basket more than any other team in the NBA last season (35.1 times per game). They became exceptionally proficient at collapsing the defense to stop their penetration, then passing back out to create open looks for teammates — which for the Heat led to numerous easy chances at the rim for Hassan Whiteside, and tons of open 3-pointers for its well-spaced perimeter shooters. When they knocked them down, they won. When they didn’t they lost.

The players that made it all happen? An unlikely collection of former D-Leaguers, second-rounders, and beaten-up first-round retreads performing collectively well above their individual talent levels. Perhaps unsustainably so.

Which made the Heat’s summer priority rather obvious: Identify that elusive All-Star who could would fit within the Heat culture and carry the team deep into the playoffs.

But when Gordon Hayward rejected his overtures this summer, Pat Riley was left with a decision to make: continue to roll the team’s cap space forward as he had done in each of the prior two summers, or use it to commit to his overachieving core and maybe squeeze out enough room for something extra.

Tyler Johnson’s contract, which explodes to $19 million next season, factored heavily on that decision. Riley had tried to offload it throughout the course of the past season, offering Johnson as the centerpiece of a proposed trade with the Orlando Magic for Serge Ibaka. The Magic quickly rejected. Johnson’s contract is essentially untradable.

Which effectively meant that Riley would be choosing between $40+ million of cap space this summer, or around half that much next summer. Which isn’t really much of a choice at all. So he went all in.

The Heat went on to use its cap space to lock in four players: Waiters, Kelly Olynyk, James Johnson and Wayne Ellington.

Waiters locked in a four-year, $47 million deal, with up to another $5 million in potential bonus money if he is able to play in 70+ games each season. It would seem like an imminently reasonable contract if the 25-year-old is able to replicate the success he discovered during the second half of last season, perhaps trading a bit of his likely unsustainable efficiency from behind the three-point line with an increased efficiency at the rim. But he reported to training camp complaining of continued pain in same the left ankle for which he chose to bypass corrective surgery last March, which would’ve sidelined him for 8 – 10 months. This will be a major concern throughout the upcoming season (if not beyond). The Heat could come to regret this decision.

Olynyk signed a 4-year, $46 million deal, with up to another $6 million in potential bonus money if he plays 1,700 minutes per season. He should have no problem achieving that if he remains healthy. He’s a far more impactful and versatile version of McRoberts — a strong shooter, passer and play-maker with the potential to provide the type of spacing the Heat crave for its drive-and-kick offensive mentality but presumed initial starter Johnson struggles to provide. He should excel in Miami, and could ultimately transition toward a starting role. The Heat could come to really like this decision, particularly if he improves his defense.

Johnson locked in a four-year, $59 million deal, with up to another $1 million in potential bonus money if he meets certain conditioning related milestones. He can take over a game on offense in short bursts with his ability to put the ball on the floor and finish strong at the rim or make the quick pass, but on the whole his offensive impact is limited. He’s not the best floor spacer, which means he’s either dominating the ball or not doing very much at all. He’s an awesome defender — maybe the only person in the NBA capable of shutting down a player with the size, strength and speed of a LeBron James — but it doesn’t justify his contract. While the $14 million starting salary seems reasonable, he’ll be collecting $16 million as a 34-year-old by the time it’s all over. That’s be tough to swallow. Two years feels about right. It’s hard to justify anything more than three. The Heat could come to regret this decision.

Exercising Ellington’s $6.3 million team option took some salary cap genius, but it was well worth it. His three-point shooting efficiency isn’t quite among the league’s best, but that’s only because the shots he takes — and often makes — are incredibly difficult. He’s constantly moving without the basketball and shooting on the run when he gets it, which makes you sometimes wonder how he can even spot the rim let alone shoot a 30-inch basketball into the middle of it from 24 feet away. He is instant offense, and, for a team lacking a true star, at times its only offense. Even when he’s not firing, his mere presence on the court demands the respect of opposing defenses and therefore creates space for his teammates. Even as a soon-to-be 30-year-old, he remains a critical component for the Heat. The Heat will retain his Early Bird rights as a free agent next summer, which will surely be more than enough to retain him in the future. But that’s far from guaranteed at this point.

After all of its cap space was used up, the Heat leveraged new rules from the recently-executed 2017 collective bargaining agreement to give Josh Richardson a 4-year, $42 million extension, which kicks in for the 2018-19 season. It’s a sound investment (particularly when considering that interested parties with potential cap space (e.g., the Philadelphia 76ers) could be lurking). Richardson is already an All-NBA caliber defender — he leverages his long, wiry frame and quick feet to stifle his defensive assignment, having held the man he was guarding to 41.0% shooting (215 for 524), ninth-best among 135 NBA guards who defended at least 300 shots, last season — which alone is worth many millions. The progression of his offense game, however, will determine the arc of his career. He shot 46% on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers in 2015-16, positioning himself as a potential powerhouse 3&D role player, but he followed it up shooting just 34% in twice as many such situation last season. If he levels off at around the midpoint, he’ll be a perennial starter. If playmaking skills emerge as the Heat envision they will, he could become much more. But, to find success, he’ll need to overcome continued positional problems for the Heat. Having not addressed the small forward position in the offseason, Miami will force Richardson into the role — which will force him to fire his shots over taller defenders on offense, and force him to guard more physical players on defense.

***

Riley has locked in a solid and deep nucleus, which includes Goran Dragic, Dion Waiters, Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Josh Richardson, Rodney McGruder, Justise Winslow, James Johnson, Kelly Olynyk, Bam Adebayo and Hassan Whiteside. All except Ellington are either under contract or Heat control for at least the next three seasons (when including options). Any way you mix and match it — and Erik Spoelstra will try just about everything — it should produce a solid starting unit and a deep bench.

But he’s also locked in a very expensive nucleus. The cost of depth is, well, the heavy cost. The guaranteed money alone already causes the Heat’s payroll to cross the projected luxury tax line for 2018-19, more-so if Waiters and/or Olynyk were to earn their bonus money, and that’s before even contemplating Ellington, whom the Heat surely don’t want to lose.

But Micky Arison doesn’t want to be paying the tax either. Not for this team anyway. It’s a playoff team, and a potentially exciting one at that. But it’s also one without a bona fide star, with an offensive philosophy to which defenses will surely adjust.

To avoid the possibility of paying the tax, the Heat will likely need to dump several million dollars in salary. To do so and retain Ellington, they’ll likely have to dump salaries into the eight-figure range.

Expect Pat Riley to be active on the trade market as a result.

He doesn’t have much in the way of draft picks to facilitate any such trades — he won’t be eligible to trade any first-round picks until 2023 during the course of the upcoming season (a result of having traded away the team’s 2018 and 2021 first-round picks to the Phoenix Suns) or any second-round picks until 2022 (a result of having traded away each of its second-round picks through the 2021 draft).

What he does have is a collection of youngsters on what could be considered bargain contracts if they have breakout seasons. After years of protecting cap space, he’s hoping that becomes his new version of “flexibility.” But whether he can leverage that “flexibility” to achieve his objectives is unclear at this point. He’s probably looking to add star power and dump substantial salary. Which won’t be easy.

Things will get a bit easier after the upcoming draft in June, though, when the Heat’s 2019 first-round will become tradable(1). If he’s not able to complete any trades during the course of the season — expect Tyler Johnson to once again be made available in trade, with the Heat potentially even willing to take back a bad contract to partially offset his subsantial future cap hits — it’s not all that difficult to project him using it, if necessary.

It feels as if this team was constructed as the hopeful prelude to something more. But in the absence of that, it’s still an intriguing team to evaluate, given that the whole is so incredibly much more than the sum of its somewhat imbalanced parts.

The Heat has a ton of playmakers, but none to really count on to lead the offense over the duration of a 48-minute basketball game. The Heat has a ton of youngsters with the potential to develop into awesome three-point shooters, but none of whom who has consistently proven it and all of whom (other than Ellington) who require set feet and space to launch.

Offensive output will be choppy at times. Defense will carry it through.

This is a 45-win basketball team on shear effort alone, with the potential for five or so game swing depending upon how things break. It’s not a powerhouse. But it will be fun. And it will be entertaining.

It’ll also be expensive. That is what the Heat has now seemingly locked in for the next several years. If it wants to be more, Riley will have to pull out some trade magic.

Can he? Will he? Only time will tell.

Notes:
(1) This assumes the Heat’s 2018 first-round pick, which is top-7 protected, is conferred. 

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