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2014-15 Miami HEAT Season Preview

Can the new-look HEAT contend without LeBron James?

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This was obviously a tough offseason for the Miami HEAT, with LeBron James deciding to leave as a free agent and return to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

But as bad as this summer was for Miami, it could’ve been far worse had they also lost Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. Had those two left, the HEAT would’ve likely had to rebuild rather than just retool. Instead, by bringing those stars back and adding players like Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger and Shabazz Napier, Miami should remain a contender in the relatively weak Eastern Conference.

Miami will look very different in 2014-15 and we’re going to find out how important James was to this team, but by no means should anyone count the HEAT out just yet. This is still a very talented team that seems like a lock to make the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 Miami HEAT.

Five Guys Think

While Miami enjoyed their rental of LeBron James for four years, his return to Cleveland this summer brings the HEAT crashing back to reality. Even though Luol Deng is about as good a replacement at small forward as Miami could have found in free agency, they’re no longer in the conversation for the Finals, despite returning a pretty similar team (minus LeBron) as the one that got there a year ago. They could still ultimately end up with homecourt advantage in the first round of the playoffs this year, but it will be more difficult than it has been in the recent past. Don’t count them out, but don’t necessarily count them in, either.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

After losing LeBron James, the HEAT are no longer the clear-cut favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Still, anyone who thinks that Pat Riley would simply pull the plug and begin rebuilding was sadly mistaken. Most believe that Chris Bosh’s new contract is a bit too rich, but the HEAT simply could not afford to lose him and sentence Dwyane Wade to wallowing in mediocrity during the twilight of his career. Now, after adding Luol Deng on what amounts to an incredible value, the HEAT certainly have enough to challenge for the Southeast Division title if Wade can remain healthy. Newcomer Shabazz Napier will attempt to mimic the trajectory of his fellow UConn Huskie, teammate and new division rival, Kemba Walker. With Shawne Williams, Shannon Brown and Reggie Williams, Riley hopes that Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger can provide the HEAT with the depth necessary to compete in the new Eastern Conference. They just might, but their health is a major concern.

3rd place – Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

Four straight appearances in the NBA Finals. Two titles in that span. The Miami HEAT have run roughshod over the league but their reign as top dog effectively ended when four-time MVP LeBron James decided to bolt in free agency. But if you’re expecting the HEAT to drop into the draft lottery, you may have to reevaluate your position. Miami still boasts All-Stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, while adding former All-Star forward Luol Deng in free agency. The HEAT were also able to add forwards Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts. The HEAT are no longer the team to beat but this is still a playoff team with plenty of experience at the top of the rotation.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

After losing LeBron James, the HEAT could have blown up their roster and went into rebuilding mode. That was a possibility with so many of their players also testing free agency. However, Pat Riley and his staff decided to retool and bring back many of the same players, re-signing Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem and then bringing in some new additions like Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger and Shabazz Napier among others. This should keep Miami in contention in the weak East, although they’ll likely be a notch below the conference’s top-tier teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls. Still, there’s a lot to like about this roster despite James’ exit and it’ll be interesting to see how far the HEAT can advance without him. Look for Bosh to step up and be the No. 1 option on offense, similar to his role with the Toronto Raptors prior to his departure.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

If you ask the San Antonio Spurs about their keys to success, they’ll make no secret about it: It’s the presence of Tim Duncan. LeBron James was responsible for the HEAT’s success in a similar manner, yet didn’t seem to get the same kind of praise or respect from within the organization that Duncan did with the Spurs. Maybe it was because he came as a free agent and they already had Dwyane Wade who led them to a championship before his arrival, but the HEAT are about to receive a stiff reality check over just how important he was to them. They did do a fine job reloading and still have a team that will win 50+ games, but James made them a championship contender, and those days are now gone with him back in Cleveland.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top of the List

Top Offensive Player: Chris Bosh. Expect to see much more of Bosh on the offensive end this year. With James no longer around to lead the team in scoring and attempts, Miami will need Bosh to step up and remind everyone that he averaged 22.3 points or better in his last five seasons with the Toronto Raptors. He had to sacrifice more than any other HEAT player in the last four years, changing positions and getting significantly less touches than he was accustomed to. However, that should change this year. Dwyane Wade and Luol Deng should also help pick up the slack on the offensive end, but both players are coming off of down years statistically in which they missed significant time with injuries. That’s why Bosh seems like the most likely go-to scorer entering the season.

Top Defensive Player: Chris Andersen. The veteran big man was brought to Miami to be a rim protector and provide energy off of the bench. Over the last two seasons, he has done exactly that and re-signing him over the summer was an important move for Miami. Even though Andersen is 36 years old, he’s still a very talented interior defender and that shouldn’t change during the 2014-15 campaign. Last season, he led Miami in defensive rating (102) and block percentage (6.1 percent). Statistically, he was the team’s best defender in the postseason as well. Losing James will certainly hurt Miami on the defensive end, but bringing back Andersen on a two-year deal was a solid move that will pay off on defense and the boards.

Top Playmaker: Dwyane Wade. It’s possible that Shabazz Napier could eventually become Miami’s best playmaker, but it’s hard to put him here since he hasn’t played a minute of NBA basketball yet. Wade will likely have the ball in his hands much more this season and should emerge as the HEAT’s best playmaker. Last season, Miami’s point guards struggled to create for their teammates, as Mario Chalmers averaged just 4.9 assists and Norris Cole averaged 3.0. In the playoffs, they were awful, with Chalmers averaging 3.6 assists and Cole averaging 1.8. James actually led Miami in assists per game in the regular season (6.3) and playoffs (4.8), and his passing was perhaps his biggest strength. Now, expect Wade to be the one creating for himself and others as Miami’s floor general (unless Napier is able to make an immediate impact and take over those duties).

Top Clutch Player: Chris Bosh. Of the remaining players on the roster, Bosh put up the best numbers in clutch situations last year. He averaged the most points and tied with Chris Andersen for most blocks. His shooting percentages in these situations were also fantastic, as he shot 53.7 percent from the field, 51.6 percent from three-point range and 91.7 percent from the field. It’s possible that Wade could return to form and become the HEAT’s go-to player in the clutch this season, but he struggled in those situations last year (shooting just 36.4 percent from the field and 65 percent from the free-throw line).

The Unheralded Player: Josh McRoberts. The HEAT will be McRoberts’ sixth NBA team in eight seasons and most casual fans couldn’t pick him out of a lineup. However, even though McRoberts had his struggles earlier in his career, he played very well with Charlotte over the last two seasons. He filled the stat sheet and contributed on both ends of the floor, which is why the HEAT rewarded him with a four-year, $23 million contract. The question is, will McRoberts be able to pick up right where he left off in Miami or will he regress to the mediocre player he seemed to be earlier in his career? That’s something worth watching throughout this season.

Best New Addition: Luol Deng. It’s hard to replace someone like LeBron James, because he’s the best player on the planet and brings so much to a team. But Miami deserves credit for being able to sign Deng to fill the void at small forward shortly after losing James. At his best, Deng is an All-Star who is able to contribute on both ends of the court. He’s also a terrific person, who will provide veteran leadership and a strong locker room presence in Miami. Last season was pretty brutal for Deng, as he was traded for the first time in his career and landed on a Cleveland Cavaliers team that (at the time) had a lot of issues on and off the court. Deng’s numbers slipped significantly, which likely hurt him in free agency, but Miami signed him to a reasonable two-year, $20 million deal and is hoping that he can return to form this year with a more positive change of scenery.

– Alex Kennedy

Who We Like

1. Erik Spoelstra: Spoelstra doesn’t get enough credit for the job he has done in Miami. Some fans act like anyone could have won with the rosters that Spoelstra has had, but that’s simply not true. Spoelstra is just the third head coach in NBA history to lead his team to four straight Finals, and he’s the eighth coach in history to lead his team to two straight championships. He got the most out of his players and helped them evolve. Before landing in Miami, James wasn’t a power forward and Bosh wasn’t a center, but Spoelstra changed that and was very successful with his “positionless basketball.” He also did a good job managing the team’s egos in recent years, and utilizing the many weapons on his roster. This year, if Spoelstra can keep Miami near the top of the Eastern Conference standings without James, perhaps his excellent coaching will get more recognition, which he certainly deserves.

2. Dwyane Wade: Last season was obviously a rough year for Wade, as he played in just 54 games and was basically a part-time player since the HEAT wanted to ensure he was healthy for the postseason. With that said, when Wade was able to get on the court, he was still pretty impressive. He averaged 19 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals. Not to mention, he shot a career-high 54.5 percent from the field. Wade’s efficiency rating was 22.06, which ranked 18th in the NBA. For most players, that would be a career-year, but Wade is so talented that it was actually considered a down year. Wade’s health is certainly a big question entering this season, because he needs to be on the court to be effective. But it’s very possible that Wade could have an increased role and post even better numbers this season to fill the void left by James. At 32 years old, he may not be the highflyer who filled highlight reels and once averaged over 30 points per game, but he’s still one of the most productive two-guards in the game when he’s at full strength.

3. Danny Granger: One of the first moves that Miami made this summer was signing Granger to a two-year, $4.25 million contract. It’s going to be strange to see Granger in a HEAT jersey after his many battles with Miami earlier in his career as a member of the Indiana Pacers, but this could turn out to be a good move for the HEAT. Injuries have derailed Granger’s career and he was relegated to a reserve role last year, with the Pacers and then the L.A. Clippers, but he could have a bigger role in Miami. In Los Angeles, he played just 16.2 minutes per game since the Clippers were loaded with talented veterans, but his per-36 numbers from last year were actually pretty good (17.8 points and 5.2 rebounds). Nobody is expecting Granger to be an All-Star again (hence the $2.1 million salary), but he could be a significant contributor once again.

4. James Ennis: Last year, one of Miami’s biggest issues was that they had a ton of relatively old veterans who were on the decline. They really didn’t have many young players who could provide some much-needed energy. That’s exactly what Ennis could do for Miami this year. He was terrific last season during his stint with the Perth Wildcats of the Australian Basketball League, averaging 21.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists and 1.42 steals while leading the team to the championship. Then, Ennis turned heads during the Orlando Summer League, averaging 15.5 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.33 steals while shooting 51.7 percent from the field, 48.1 percent from three-point range and 80 percent from the foul line. In one game, he had 29 points in 25 minutes, hitting 10-of-12 from the field, 7-of-8 from three-point range and 2-of-2 from the free-throw line. Keep an eye on the 24-year-old this season.

– Alex Kennedy

Strengths

Even without James, Miami still has star power with Bosh, Wade and Deng as well as one of the best head coaches in the NBA in Spoelstra. Last year’s stats may no longer be as relevant since James is gone, but it’s worth noting that the HEAT were one of the best teams on both ends of the court last season. On offense, they averaged 102.2 points per game (12th in the NBA) and shot 50.1 percent from the field (first in the NBA). On defense, they allowed just 97.4 points per game (fifth in the NBA) and forced 15.6 turnovers per game (third in the NBA). Losing James will hurt on both ends, but this is still a talented team with top-notch coaching, so don’t expect a huge drop off like we’ve from some teams that lost their best player.

– Alex Kennedy

Weaknesses

In recent years, Miami played a number of veterans who were clearly in the twilight of their career such as Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Chris Andersen, Rashard Lewis, Mike Miller and James Jones among others. This year, a number of those players are gone, but Miami is still a pretty old team. Some of their key players – Wade (32), Bosh (30), Deng (29), Granger (31), Andersen (36), Udonis Haslem (34) – are getting up there and have already started to show signs of decline. With so many veterans, health is also a concern for Miami. On paper, this team looks pretty good. But Wade, Bosh, Deng and Granger have all had some injuries, which could keep this team from playing at full strength. On the court, Miami’s defense and three-point shooting could regress this season due to roster changes.

– Alex Kennedy

The Salary Cap

After the HEAT fell below the cap this summer, losing LeBron James to free agency (Cleveland Cavaliers), they’ve looked to fill the void with a number of quality signings.  In addition to re-signing Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Chris Andersen, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem, the team also added Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger and Shawne Williams.  Haslem was brought back via the team’s $2.7 million Room Exception.  McRoberts agreed to a deal worth the $5.3 million Mid-Level Exception, and Granger did the same at the $2.1 Bi-Annual Exception amount – but with Miami going under the cap, those exceptions were renounced.  Instead, the pair signed at similar amounts via Miami’s cap space.  The HEAT are fully invested in 11 players.  Half of Justin Hamilton’s $816k contract is guaranteed while James Ennis will make at least $200k of his rookie salary.  Tyler Johnson has a $75k guarantee while Shannon Brown and Reggie Williams have nothing promised.  Norris Cole is eligible for a contract extension until Halloween, otherwise he’ll become a restricted free agent next summer.

– Eric Pincus

The Burning Question

Is Miami still a contender without LeBron James?

Entering the 2014-15 season, this is the big question that HEAT fans are asking. James is one of the most talented players we’ve seen in years and he was a huge part of this team’s success in recent years, but can they continue to be an elite squad in the East without him? Bringing back fellow unrestricted free agents Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Chris Andersen, Mario Chalmers and Udonis Haslem was huge because it means most of their core will be back and they’ll have some chemistry entering the year. The Luol Deng signing was big as well since it prevents them from having a hole at the small forward position in the starting lineup. Adding players like Josh McRoberts, Shabazz Napier and Danny Granger among others should help the team’s depth and give them some more weapons. Not to mention, Miami still has Erik Spoelstra, who is one of the better coaches in the league. The Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls seem like the top-tier teams in the Eastern Conference and then there is a significant drop off. Miami is in that next group along with teams like the Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards among others. The HEAT have the talent to remain a contender in the East, but getting past the Cavaliers or Bulls will be tough if they reach their full potential and remain healthy.

– Alex Kennedy

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