Heat Check: Is Pat Riley’s Rebuilt Squad the Most Intriguing Team in the NBA?Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images
“If they weren’t the Miami Heat, we’d all be laughing at them.”
It’s a tribute to the Heat, the league’s most intriguing team heading into the 2015-16 season, that skeptics of Pat Riley’s post-LeBron retooling feel the need to lace their doubt with a tinge of fear.
A few rival executives delivered some version of that line, and it subsumes all the uncertainty of an expensive on-paper powerhouse that feels vulnerable to age, injury, poor shooting, shaky defense, and the whims of a combustible center who flamed out everywhere else. The Heat are flinging away first-round picks to chase LeBron in Cleveland, just as they flung away four of them to get LeBron and Chris Bosh five years ago. Only this time, there is no guarantee that Miami will pick so low it won’t matter. There is a real chance Miami has mortgaged its future to build a 45-win team that will fade with Riley, leaving his successor to cobble together a new team from the rubble while the Suns — courtesy of the Goran Dragic trade — use the Heat’s picks.
“If they weren’t the Miami Heat, we’d all be laughing at them.” Ah, but they are the Miami Heat. Good things happen to them, and the Heat make good things happen for themselves. Twenty-nine teams rolled their eyes in June when Justise Winslow fell to Miami at no. 10 in the draft. Winslow may never become a star, but he has a chance at it, and he blew away executives during the draft interview process. That kind of upside is rare in the no. 10 slot. It is the kind of upside that can change the course of a franchise.
In signing LeBron and Bosh, Riley engineered the greatest free-agency coup in sports history, and as February’s trade deadline approached, other suitors for Dragic backed away, sensing the Heat’s don had the Suns point guard in the bag for the long haul, according to sources across the league. The Heat deny they discussed Dragic’s next contract during trade talks — “There was no deal,” a Heat spokesman says — and the league says it never received any official complaint about tampering. Dragic may have liked the Heat from the outside, but things can always go haywire once a player actually arrives on a team. Miami wagered on its culture and the lure of the five-year contract only it could offer.
There is some risk in signing a 29-year-old to a five-year, $85 million deal, but without any realistic path to the kind of major cap space so many teams have now, Riley effectively used the trade market to nab an All-Star-level free agent before the cap likely skyrockets.
The Heat are betting on themselves — again. Sign Dragic, keep Dwyane Wade and Bosh, hit on Winslow, use that nucleus to entice just one big-name free agent during the cap boom, and, voilà: Phoenix can enjoy picks in the high 20s that return almost nothing on average. Hell, even if the Heat disappoint this season, they can still dangle that nucleus, South Beach, a winning tradition, and Riley’s hair in front of future free agents.
“How many teams, if you lose the best player in the game, can have a compelling team 13 months later?” asks Erik Spoelstra, the Heat’s head coach.
The Heat are compelling, with a glittery starting five that hasn’t logged a single minute yet, but they are also fraught with downside. “It’s not the kind of lineup where you can just throw it out there, and you know it will work,” Spoelstra says. “It’s going to take practice.”
Miami defended at a league-worst level when Dragic and Wade shared the court last season, per NBA.com, though none of those minutes included Bosh. Wade is a 50- or 60-game player with bad knees, and no one knows if he can hold up through late May — if the Heat last that long. Bosh is 31 and coming off a traumatic health issue, and Josh McRoberts is rebuilding his knee. Luol Deng is 30, with Tom Thibodeau miles in the rearview. Amar’e Stoudemire hasn’t been able to move on defense in five years. The Heat have tried to trade Chris Andersen and Mario Chalmers to anyone who would have them, per sources around the league, but if they deal them now to trim their repeater tax bill, they’d also thin their bench to red-alert levels. Gerald Green and Tyler Johnson will help, but it’s too early to count on them.
Most of all, Hassan Whiteside has to prove he can grind through 82 games, year after year. And if he repeats last season’s stunning success, the Heat may not have the space to re-sign him, keep Wade on yet another new contract, and lure the next star they probably need to really compete with LeBron.
The Heat think they can compete with Cleveland now, but a lot of things need to go right for them to get there. Maybe too many things.
At first glance, the starting five of Dragic, Wade, Deng, Bosh, and Whiteside looks like a perfect fit on offense. Whiteside is a killer diving to the rim on pick-and-rolls, leaving Bosh and Deng with acres of space to spot up:
Bosh hit half of his midrange jumpers with Whiteside on the floor last season, can slide back for open 3s if he’s wide open — he struggles on even mildly contested triples, per SportVU data — and can dribble by defenders who chase him off his jumper. Bosh earned 6.3 free throws per 36 minutes while playing alongside Whiteside, well above his average, mostly by pumping-and-driving. Getting all the way there is tough with Whiteside clogging the lane, but he and Bosh found ways to spring each other open off the ball.1
Wade and Dragic are dynamic, unpredictable ball handlers who can slice you up if they get into the lane with a head of steam. Dragic is a one-man fast break who should speed up a languid offense that needs a jolt of crazy. Whiteside sucks in help defenders just by approaching dunk range, and he single-handedly turned a miserable offensive rebounding team into a very good one.
And then you remember: The Heat, beyond Bosh, can’t really shoot. Deng has hit just 33 percent for his career from deep. Wade has basically punted on the entire concept of 3-pointers. And Dragic has been a below-average 3-point shooter outside his All-NBA campaign in 2013-14. A Dragic-Whiteside pick-and-roll can’t really go anywhere if defenses swarm the middle.2
Smart teams will glue their second big man on Bosh during Whiteside pick-and-rolls and help instead off either Wade or Deng; look at how Kevin Durant abandons Wade to help on Andersen so Serge Ibaka can stick closer to Bosh.
Defenders who do leave Bosh to bump Whiteside can veer back in a flash, confident that a helper has ditched Wade or Deng to slide into the paint.
Bosh’s pick-and-pop jumper is a deadly weapon, but teams have realized they can smother it by crashing off one of Miami’s non-shooters.
Miami plunged to an unthinkable 22nd in points per possession last season, and it only punched up to about a league-average rate when Bosh and Wade played together. This is before you consider Miami may have to unclutter the left side of the floor. Dragic is left-handed and has a slight preference for driving that way,3 but Wade has always owned the left side of the floor — on both post-ups and drives, per Synergy Sports. A full 41 percent of Miami’s drives last season started from the left side, an unusually high number, per SportVU data provided to Grantland. The more people loitering on that side, the tougher it is to find a path to pay dirt.
Poor shooting teams can’t bank on the first option producing an open look. They have to bend and stretch the defense to its breaking point, swing the ball, maybe swing it again, and then go in for the kill.
The Heat have the goods to pull that off. Dragic and Wade can conjure space, like magic, with herky-jerky dribble moves that catch defenses by surprise. They both love to reject picks, wrong-footing defenders who had been prepared for something else. Every starter but Whiteside is a plus passer, capable of attacking a scrambled defense off the catch. Wade and Deng are smart about sneaking into open spaces when their defenders ignore them. If they don’t do much good spotting up, like “normal” NBA wing players, expect Spoelstra to put them elsewhere.
“Dwayne and Lu on the move — that’s not the easiest thing to prepare for,” Spoelstra says.
When the Heat are humming, it will look like this:
Holy crap, is that nice. It starts with Deng slamming Whiteside’s guy, Jonas Valanciunas, with a pick before Whiteside scrambles up for the real thing. The Heat love that wrinkle, since it can leave Whiteside’s guy way behind the play — providing Dragic with more space to gear up once he slithers around Whiteside’s pick.
After that, it’s all smart cuts and passes. It won’t always be so pretty. Look at how much work it takes Miami to generate a clean shot after Milwaukee clogs up a Wade/Whiteside pick-and-roll:
That’s the kind of Spurs-ian grinding it will take for Miami to get good looks against the best defenses. “We’re gonna have to be great at all those kinds of details,” Spoelstra says. “That’s what this team will require.”
Miami whipped the ball around during the LeBron era, and it ranked seventh in drives per game last season — when Chalmers, Shabazz Napier, Michael Beasley, Henry Walker, James Ennis, Norris Cole, Udonis Haslem, and other end-of-the-bench types were playing big minutes. High-level talent finds a path around structural issues. The offense took off when Wade and Dragic played together, even sans Bosh, and the Heat destroyed opponents in the paltry 80 minutes Wade, Bosh, and Whiteside logged together. The ingredients for a good two-way team are here, and Spoelstra is a good enough coach to sort them out.
If defenses switch, the Heat have enough accomplished post-up threats to punish mismatches. Green can provide some spacing in a pinch, though a Dragic-Wade-Green trio might be suicide on defense.
Miami can juice up the passing and shooting by playing McRoberts and Bosh together, and on some nights, the Heat will be able to play small ball with Deng at power forward. Those groups will also test how Miami survives without Whiteside to clean the glass and protect the rim.
The offense is the fun part, but the Heat despaired last season as their vaunted, frenzied defense sunk to 19th in points allowed per possession. Miami knows it will go nowhere without a top-10 defense; the Heat just aren’t sure yet how they are going to build one.
“Defense was a big focus all summer,” Spoelstra says. “But the question still is: How can we get back to a championship-level defense?”
The Heat won titles with blitzing traps all over the floor. Bosh had the speed to chase opposing point guards toward midcourt, and both LeBron and Wade could barricade the rim behind him. Those two were always lurking for steals if some poor ball handler lofted a soft prayer over Bosh’s trap. And even when those passes found their targets, they were usually big men. Miami was fine with guys like Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough, and Tiago Splitter making plays at the foul line.
But the Hibberts and Splitters morphed into Draymond Greens and Boris Diaws, and suddenly teams were carving up Miami’s helter-skelter defense with touch passes and killer shooting. “The league continues to evolve and present new challenges,” Spoelstra says.
Miami has slowly dialed back its defense since winning the 2013 Finals, and that process reached its logical end point with the discovery of Whiteside. He’ll sit back on pick-and-rolls, patrolling the rim and daring opponents into low-efficiency midrange jumpers. Miami will even do the same now with Bosh, though he has the freedom to scamper out an extra few steps and toss in an occasional championship-era trap.
Whiteside is a legit deterrent at the basket, though he’s a little overeager leaping to block shots, and he doesn’t bring the same ferocity to his second and third efforts:
Still: He and Bosh provide the backbone of a workable defense.
The interesting questions surround Bosh guarding power forwards after spending years at center, and whether the Dragic-Wade combination can hold its integrity against attacking guards. If he’s healthy, Bosh has the wheels to deal with playmaking 4s. If he’s not 100 percent, or if age begins to take its toll, those assignments could get dicey.
Bosh’s speed could also unlock a lot more switching. Dragic, Wade, and Deng will be able to switch among themselves, on and off the ball, in some matchups, and peak Bosh can keep guards in front of him late in the shot clock. Winslow is ready to defend multiple positions, and if opponents post up smaller Heat players after switches, Miami can dip back into its frenzy gear by sending double-teams — and rotating like madmen behind the play.
There will be nights when switching isn’t tenable, and both Dragic and Wade just need to be better. Dragic competes, but he’ll bump into screens, and his speed doesn’t translate as well on defense; waterbug point guards can blow by him.
For years, Wade has played defense only when he feels like it. Both he and Dragic ranked among the bottom third of rotation perimeter players at keeping ball handlers in front of them, per data provided by the tracking service Vantage Sports, and Wade became especially lazy last season monitoring backdoor cuts.
Smart teams will drag Whiteside away from the hoop or engage him in post-ups, challenging the other Heat defenders to chase cutters around the floor. Wade is perhaps the league’s premier lollygagger in transition defense, and that just won’t fly given how often Dragic ends up on his ass after a mad dash to the rim on offense.
Rebounding will be an issue if Whiteside gets hurt or reaches himself into foul trouble. Miami grabbed just 72 percent of opponent misses when Whiteside was on the bench, a mark that would have ranked 29th, per NBA.com.
There are still so many questions — so many things that need to go right, and so many variables that could torpedo Miami’s season. Assume normal luck, and this looks and feels like a 47-win team — good enough to make noise but not to contend for a title. Being in the East obviously makes it easier, and the Heat know how to pace themselves for the playoffs. Coast into the no. 4 seed, stay healthy, rejoice in the absence of back-to-backs, and the Heat could be one Kyrie Irving ankle sprain from the Finals.
Winning on that level in Season 2 of the post-LeBron era would be an achievement, even if signing three stars at once bakes in an insurance policy against one of them leaving. You can only sink so low, especially in the East, with Bosh and Wade on your roster.
But winning 47 games behind an aging core, with three future first-round picks already out the window,4 feels less like a victory. It feels almost … reckless. The Heat could end up a better and smarter version of the Lakers, begging stars to take their money in a world in which everyone is going to have cap space over the next two or three years. That’s the downside, and it could be borderline catastrophic.
One star changes everything, and Riley gets stars. Next summer, Miami could open up nearly $40 million in cap room, and as much as $45 million if it moves McRoberts for extra cap space. That’s a ton, but if Whiteside has even a solid season, it’s not enough to bring back both Whiteside and Wade while signing an outside star; the Heat will not have full Bird rights on Whiteside, meaning they will have to dip into cap space to re-sign him.
Consider one example: Durant’s max salary for 2016-17 will be about $25 million, leaving $15 million or $20 million to split between Wade and Whiteside. That won’t do it, unless Wade takes a massive hometown discount. (By the way: Rail against the Durant rumor mill if you want, but you’re kidding yourselves if you don’t think Riley will set Miami up to make a run at him.)
Whiteside looms as a mammoth sign-and-trade chip if another star wants to strong-arm his way into Miami, though that requires some cap gymnastics and the cooperation of teams that could just sign Whiteside outright. The Heat can’t trade a first-round pick next summer, according to cap experts. If a player demands to be in City X, he generally gets there, but Miami has forfeited a lot of the stuff that greases the wheels.
There is a huge space between contending for titles and living out the worst-case scenario, and the most likely outcome is that Miami exists in that space. Even if the Heat end up in that ho-hum end point, the journey there will be exciting. Here’s to the entertainment value of Riley going all in. Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert wrote the infamous letter vowing to win a title before LeBron got one in Miami. The Heat are actually pursuing that goal in a way the Cavs never did.