Miami Heat: 2017-18 NBA Season Preview

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The Miami Heat pulled off perhaps the greatest turnaround in NBA history this past season, under perhaps the most challenging of circumstances. After losing Dwyane Wade to free agency and Chris Bosh to a possible career-ending medical condition, it was always going to be an uphill battle. Persistent injuries along the way only increased that burden.

And yet, despite an exasperating 11-30 start to the season, the Heat pulled off an unprecedented reversal in its final 41 games, posting a 30-11 mark 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 bulk.

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, 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. The Heat as a whole shot 38.3%, fifth best in the league.

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. Miami shot what would be an NBA-best 41.0% on 3-pointers in its 41 wins, and what would be an NBA-worst 31.7% in its 41 losses.

The players that made it all happen — an unlikely collection of former D-Leaguers, second-rounders, and beaten-up first-round retreads – bonded within the Heat culture along the way. They maximized their talent level. It was awesome basketball.

So 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 the two prior 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 re-sign Waiters and James Johnson to perhaps questionable long-term deals.

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. Which would seem like an imminently reasonable contract if the still 25-year-old is able to replicable 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 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).

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. The $14 million starting salary seems imminently reasonable. But he’ll be collecting $16 million as a 34-year-old by the time it’s all over. That could prove tough to swallow.

The Heat also jettisoned Josh McRoberts to clear the way for two less heralded but perhaps even more critical moves – grabbing Kelly Olynyk, and retaining Wayne Ellington.

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. He’s essentially a more impactful (and versatile) version of McRoberts. He should excel in Miami. His shooting has the potential unleash a far more effective Whiteside pick-and-roll this season. That ability alone could ultimately merit a starting role.

Ellington is the Heat’s only capable three-point shooter on the run. Exercising his $6.3 million option took some salary cap genius, but it was well worth it. He is instant offense, and, for a team lacking a true star, oftentimes its only offense. And even when he’s not, his mere presence one the court creates space for his teammates. The Heat will retain his Early Bird rights as a free agent next summer, which will be more than enough to retain him over the long term. But that’s far from guaranteed at this point.

The Heat rounded out the summer by giving Josh Richardson a financially-prudent 4-year, $42 million extension, that kicks in for the 2018-19 season. Richardson is already an All-NBA caliber defender. The progression of his offense game 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.

***

Riley has locked in a solid and deep nucleus, including: 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, 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.

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

He won’t have cap space with which to work in the foreseeable future. He doesn’t have much in the way of draft picks either (Miami owes its 2018 and 2021 first-round picks to the Phoenix Suns, and has traded each of its second-round picks through the 2021 draft). But he does have a collection of youngsters on what could be considered bargain contracts if they have breakout seasons. It’s his new version of “flexibility.”

Whether Riley can leverage that “flexibility” to achieve his objectives is unclear at this point. He’s probably looking to add star power and dump salary. Which won’t be easy. He’ll need to do it without the ability to trade any first-round picks until 2023, and any second-round picks until 2022. Things will get a bit easier after the upcoming draft in June, though, when the Heat’s 2019 first will also become tradable(1).

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 50 if things break right. 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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