It wasn’t that long ago that I wrote in this space that the Miami HEAT shouldn’t be overlooked in the Eastern Conference. Well, that was back in October and it’s become quite clear now that the HEAT won’t become the team we once thought could make some noise this season.
It was easy to see that Miami was heading in a different direction. Last season, they were just one postseason win away from meeting the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Conference Finals. But entering the year, most pundits had the HEAT missing the playoffs altogether. The HEAT were coming off of arguably one of their worst offseasons in franchise history and there seemed to be more questions than answers. Many wrote off the HEAT before the team even finalized their roster.
Despite all of the turnover the team saw over the summer, the roster had some promise that indicated they may not have a big drop-off from last season as many predicted. They re-signed Hassan Whiteside to a four-year, $98 million deal. Goran Dragic was expected to really flourish this season with Dwyane Wade now a member of the Chicago Bulls. The team also has several young prospects in Justise Winslow, Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson.
But as we settle into the new year, it’s become quite evident the 2016-17 season for the HEAT has become a rebuilding effort. While it’s a word that most players don’t like to throw around, Pat Riley and the front office have clearly started looking ahead and will be using this season to help rebuild the team. By nature of where the team currently stands, it’s a move they must embrace.
Yesterday’s loss to the Los Angeles Clippers dropped the HEAT to an 11-28 record on the season and brought them down to 14th in the standings. The Philadelphia 76ers even passed the HEAT in the standings after their win last night. The HEAT are now tied with the Brooklyn Nets for most losses in the league and have lost eight out of their last 10 games, with a matchup against the Golden State Warriors looming tomorrow night.
While players and coaches rarely use injuries as an excuse for poor play, it’s true the HEAT have experienced a lot of injuries this season. In fact, the HEAT have lost players due to injury for a combined 120 games this season to lead the league, according to mangameslost.com.
Of course, Chris Bosh’s health issues have been well publicized this season, but other players on the roster have missed substantial time as well. Richardson missed the beginning of the season due to a knee injury and is now expected to miss an extended period of time with a left foot injury. Whiteside just returned last night after missing four games due to an eye injury, and a groin injury sidelined Dion Waiters for 20 games recently. Josh McRoberts has a stress fracture in his left foot and may not return this season. Of course, big news came last week when the team announced Winslow would miss the rest of the season after undergoing shoulder surgery.
The injuries have forced head coach Erik Spoelstra to rely more on players like Luke Babbitt, Rodney McGruder, Willie Reed, Derrick Williams and others. The HEAT have used 16 different starting lineups this season, which is tied for the most in the NBA. The team had just eight players available last week against the Phoenix Suns. The different starting lineups have caused the team to go through inconsistent stretches during games.
With the team struggling to win games, it appears as though the front office will look to be active in trade talks. Multiple reports have surfaced this season that the team will look to move Dragic at some point in order to create more cap space this summer. Dragic signed a five-year, $90 million contract with the HEAT nearly two years ago. The team is also expected to medically waive Bosh at some point after February 9 (making him ineligible for the playoffs should he sign with another team). If they’re able to clear the contracts of Dragic and Bosh off of the books, they’ll have just three players guaranteed on the roster for next season (Whiteside, Johnson and Winslow) and will have a ton of cap space to work with.
The HEAT continuing to fall in the standings may prove to be beneficial come draft time. As things stand today, the team currently owns its first-round draft pick and it seems likely they’ll be drafting in the top five. Players like Markelle Fultz (Washington), Lonzo Ball (UCLA), Dennis Smith Jr. (N.C. State), Josh Jackson (Kansas) and Jayson Tatum (Duke) are all projected to be taken in the top five. It’s been said that this year’s draft class is projected to be among the best in years, so the HEAT could come out of the draft with a great player.
The team has a great track record of finding and developing talent. In recent years, the team has found Whiteside, Winslow, Johnson and Richardson among others. The organization has utilized their D-League affiliate in Sioux Falls quite well, as many of the team’s younger players have spent some time developing there before joining the “varsity” squad. It seems reasonable to think the team will land another player who could have a bright future and become a difference-maker for the HEAT down the line.
Despite the struggles the team has gone through this season, the players have not given up. They remain upbeat and continue to show fight each game. They have made the best of the situation so far and it’s beginning to show throughout the league. Spoelstra has proven to be able to get the most out of his players over the years and it’s clear that his teams always show up well prepared each game. They could have easily thrown in the towel this season, but they remain engaged each game and are still fighting. (The fact that so many players are free agents after this year contributes to this too, but still.)
While going through a rebuild isn’t something the HEAT have had to do in quite some time, it could turn out to be a relatively quick turnaround for the team. With a high draft pick and what projects to be ample cap space to work with this summer, they could be right back in the playoff race next season.
Of course, we’re not even at the halfway point of this season so things can change rather quickly, but the future appears to look up for the HEAT even if this year hasn’t turned out the way they hoped.
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