2018-19 Miami Heat
Projected Record: 41-41 (7th in East)
2016: 44-38 (6th in East)
- Rotation depth
- Defensive upside
- Lack of top-end star talent
- Financially limited
Remarkably, almost everything I wrote about the Miami Heat last season is still largely applicable this year. Seriously. This is the exact same team as last season, just with a full-season of Dwyane Wade’s retirement tour mixed in.
You know what you’re gonna get from these Heat — almost exactly what you saw from them last year, but with everybody now a year older. In a few cases, this is a good thing! Bam Adebayo looks like a potential stud and should build upon an encouraging rookie campaign, while Josh Richardson is now fully established as one of the best three-and-D role players in the ranks of NBA wings. Justice Winslow is still only 22 and quietly edging ever closer to being a truly viable rotation player, and a return to health from Rodney McGruden will be a nice lift.
Outside of the kids, though, how much growth can we reasonably expect from the Heat? Does 27-year-old Kelly Olynyk have any development left ahead of him? What about 26-year-old Tyler Johnson, or 31-year-old James Johnson? At 32 years old, Goran Dragic certainly doesn’t, even fresh off his first All-Star appearance as he is — itself a year after such an appearance might have been more deserved.
None of these players are bad. In fact, I like all of them quite a bit. The Heat are absolutely loaded on guys who could make — or, in Olynyk’s case, have made — valuable contributions to a good team in the playoffs. Everyone wants an exciting two-way wing like Richardson, or a versatile, switchy forward like Johnson, or a lights-out stretch-four like Olynyk. They all could be, like, the seventh-best player on a good playoff team.
That’s the thing, though: with only a few exceptions, this is an entire roster of “seventh-best players on a good playoff team.” Dragic would probably start over around half of the league’s point guards right now (don’t ask me to fact-check that), and Adebayo is a valued young prospect, but by and large, the Heat simply don’t have top-shelf players. Hassan Whiteside probably isn’t one, at least not while he plays an outdated brand of basketball so inattentively. Making things worse, the Heat are locked into basically all these guys, for better or for worse — their cap sheet for the next two seasons is covered in blood.
Last year’s Heat won 44 games, and if you wanted to say they’ll pick up at least that many again this season, I won’t argue with you. Erik Spoelstra is a legitimate top-five coach, and we saw him take a very similar roster on a remarkable late-season run just two seasons ago (though, as I discussed last year, that kind of performance was hardly sustainable). I wouldn’t say the Eastern Conference is wide open without LeBron James around — Boston, Toronto and Philadelphia are easily above the rest of the conference — but the mid-level playoff spots are, and the Heat could certainly find themselves around the six-seed again.
That’s all the upside the Heat really have as they’re currently constructed though, and that construction doesn’t give them much room to improve. You don’t want to trade away the future you have in youngsters like Adebayo, Winslow and Richardson, but those guys are probably part of the asking price if the Heat try to acquire a star player at some point this year. It would take a borderline miracle for them to clear enough salary to take part in next offseason’s free agent feeding frenzy.
It’s not clear where the Heat will go moving forward, but this season, the destination seems apparently enough: somewhere in the low-40s for wins, a low playoff seed and a first-round exit. That’s enough to qualify as a successful season for most franchises, but will it be enough for Pat Riley’s Miami Heat? I’m not so sure.
Most Valuable Player: Goran Dragic
Dragic is the Heat’s best player, and while it’s not quite by attrition, it’s… well, worryingly close. Last season was still one of the better seasons of his career, but also one that hinted — just a little — that he’s starting to get old. It was his worst season inside the arc (48% 2PT%) since 2010, his third-worst free throw rate (.252), and his worst season ever in steal percentage (1.3%). Factoring in his lowest minutes per game since 2011, and you start to paint the picture of a player in an athletic decline.
That’s not to say Dragic is becoming a bad player, of course, because he was still extremely good despite these things. He’s still a creative scorer and a knockdown three-point shooter (37%) who does a solid job keeping his teammates involved (25.4% assist rate) and can carry your offense for stretches at a time. These are the reasons you’re employing Goran Dragic, by and large, and that hasn’t changed.
What has changed is that Dragic arguably shouldn’t be the best player on your roster anymore. I view him more as a third piece on a great team right now, and he’s miscast as the number-one option in Miami. If the Heat look to be on the same path as their past two seasons, is it time to consider a trade? There may not be a better chance for a solid return than right now.
X Factor: Hassan Whiteside
In the span of just four seasons, Hassan Whiteside has gone from completely out of the league, to a surprising reclamation project, to a breakthrough star, to a seemingly outdated relic and finally to a legitimate headache. In four seasons!
Whiteside is the Heat’s unsolvable problem. His raw numbers are impressive enough — he blocks a lot of shots, grabs a lot of rebounds and shoots a high percentage — but the Heat are worse on both ends of the court when he plays. When healthy, he’ll siphon valuable minutes away from exciting youngster Bam Adebayo. His motor runs hot and cold — but mostly cold. I’m not sure he’s ever set a hard screen. Then there’s the $25 million price tag he’ll carry this year, and the $27 million player option he holds for next season, which will make him borderline untradeable.
Unless someone is willing to absorb Whiteside’s salary, the Heat’s best option may be to stick out the remainder of his contract and hope that they get something resembling his 2015-16 form in that span of time. Otherwise, it could be a long two years for Pat Riley.
Don’t Forget About: Josh Richardson
I reserve the right to copy-and-paste this segment over to the Timberwolves if Richardson is included in a Jimmy Butler trade before this preview gets published.
The mythos of Josh Richardson has blossomed this offseason, as he’s developed into the improbable stumbling block for a potential Butler deal. Though he effectively came into his own as an NBA player last season, casual fans probably aren’t very aware of just what Richardson does or how good he is.
Richardson probably doesn’t have star upside (he’s a late-bloomer, already 25 years old), but it’s easy to see why the Heat are reluctant to part with him — and why the Wolves want him so badly. He’s a sneaky pick for an All-Defense selection this season, one of the smartest perimeter defenders in basketball, and a freak athlete to boot. He canned 38% of his threes last year on very healthy volume, and his catch-and-shoot ability would fit in any offense in the league.
Richardson may be one of the best three-and-D players in the league right now, but he’s still exactly that — a three-and-D player. For a franchise like Miami that has few pathways towards acquiring a bona fide star like Butler, Richardson arguably shouldn’t stand in the way of getting this deal done.
Nekias Duncan, Miami Heat Beat + BBallBreakdown (@NekiasNBA)
As the saying goes in (college) football: if you have two quarterbacks, you really don’t have one. It’s an admittedly long-winded way of saying that if you have to resort to more than one option, you don’t really have an option that you’re confident in. You aren’t locked in. There’s a lack of direction present that can derail the rest of the ship.
The Miami Heat, generally one of the best run organizations in the NBA, are operating like a college football team.
Pat Riley’s bread-and-butter as a front office legend has been calculated aggression. He keeps his options open until it’s time to strike on a star, in free agency or in the trade market. Then, he slicks back the hair, drops the rings, and makes his move. It’s odd, then, that this Heat roster is a culmination of short-sighted moves and failed gambles.
The latter happens. Nobody gets the star all the time, even if the summer of 2010 may have spoiled the fan base a little. But Riley’s recent misses — the KD chase and the run at Gordon Hayward — have been compounded by the long-term signings of James Johnson and Dion Waiters, and the unfortunate contracts of Hassan Whiteside and Tyler Johnson.
None of those four players are bad. Whiteside, specifically, has All-Star talent when he’s engaged. But the uneven roster with “bleh” contracts have the Heat in the worst position possible — firmly in the middle.
In general, Miami isn’t bad. There are, conservatively, 11 rotation-level talents on this team. Erik Spoelstra is one heck of a coach, and it would take some Twilight Zone weirdness for the Heat not to make the playoffs. But what is the upside?
Miami’s lack of star talent was on full display last postseason, but they’re without the financial flexibility to go after one for at least another two years. Their few young prospects — Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, and Bam Adebayo — represent their only real trade assets, but also their only pathways to attracting another star with internal improvement.
So, sure, Miami could rack up 43 wins this season and nobody would bat an eye. It would be expected. If you squint hard enough, or if enough breaks are caught, there’s a 46-ish win team in there, built off the backs on defense, continuity, and an assembly line of capable players. But without a star, there’s no upside for contention. And until Miami picks a direction — shipping off some of the clutter to embrace their youth, or packaging some of the youth for a star (hi, Jimmy Butler), they’ll be a fine team with next to no hope for more.