NBA AM: Don’t Sleep on the Miami HEAT

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A few weeks ago, I created a poll on Twitter asking which team would finish last in the Southeast Division. Out of the five teams in the division – the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets, Miami HEAT, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards – the HEAT, Magic and Wizards were possible options to choose from.

The results seemed a bit surprising at the time, as the HEAT received 56 percent of the vote. The poll was inspired by some news that was released that day since it was reported that Chris Bosh’s stint with the organization is over. Bosh said he didn’t receive a call or a text about the news.

It’s no secret by now that the HEAT didn’t have the best of offseasons. The team lost several key free agents, including Luol Deng, Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire among others. The biggest surprise came when Dwyane Wade opted to leave the HEAT organization after 13 years to sign with the Chicago Bulls, believing he was mistreated by the front office.

Since the team lost so many players in free agency, they were forced to add a number of different players. The team signed players like Wayne Ellington, Derrick Williams, James Johnson, Dion Waiters, Luke Babbitt, Willie Reed and Beno Udrih. With so much turnover on the roster and questions being pointed at the front office, it’s easy to see how the team has been pretty much written off before the season has even started.  

With so many teams in the Eastern Conference improving over the summer, the HEAT were seemingly the odd team out in a lot of playoff predictions from various media outlets. Basketball Insiders’ own Joel Brigham ran his annual 50 predictions for the season and opened up some of the predictions to other writers on the site. My prediction: The Miami HEAT will finish above .500 and will make the playoffs.

While some may not be as optimistic as others when it comes to the team’s postseason chances, I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that the HEAT will miss the playoffs. If the HEAT can replicate their preseason results thus far during the regular season, it would indicate that they may surprise some people this season.

Through six games so far, the HEAT are 4-2 with two games still left to play. The team is posting improvements in several key areas and getting contributions from all over the court. Perhaps the most impressive feat during the preseason was holding the San Antonio Spurs (including Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker) to 39 percent shooting through the first three quarters last Friday.

So far, the HEAT have the fourth-best offensive rating in the league, scoring 105.7 points per 100 possessions. On the other side of the ball, they have earned the eighth-best defensive rating, giving up just 95.7 points per 100 possessions. To put that into perspective, only five teams finished last season inside the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency – and each of those teams made the playoffs.

It’s hard to talk about the HEAT’s preseason and not talk about how dominant Hassan Whiteside has been. In four games, he’s averaging 17.5 points, 12 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. His points rank 10th among all players this preseason, while he’s second in rebounds and first in blocks. He’ll be a crucial piece for the team on defense and if he can keep up that pace during the regular season, the HEAT could be in great shape.

Of course, even head coach Erik Spoelstra will tell you not to read too much into preseason results. However, it must be encouraging that his team has been able to perform well on both sides of the ball given all of the tinkering with lineups that goes on during the preseason. Teams are trying to figure out which lineups work well and which ones don’t. The HEAT have used a different starting lineup in each game so far.

One of the biggest improvements for the HEAT has come in shooting. The team has been among the worst teams in three-point percentage for quite some time now but has improved drastically this preseason. They ranked 27th in percentage last season and were 28th in total three-pointers made at 498. They’ve improved to third in the league in percentage and are fifth in three-pointers made per game. Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the improved shooting is they’re doing it without arguably their best shooter in Josh Richardson. Players like Tyler Johnson, Ellington, Babbitt and Waiters are all shooting above 40 percent and figure to play a large role in the offense this season.

It also seems as though there is legitimate competition for the team’s 15th and final roster spot. There are currently 15 guaranteed contracts for next season so the team could decide between Udrih, Rodney McGruder and Briante Weber for the final spot.

The team is stacked in the backcourt, with each of those three players vying for the last roster spot all capable of playing both guard positions if necessary. With Goran Dragic, Johnson, Richardson, Ellington and Waiters all seemingly locked in for plenty of minutes this season, which of those bubble players will the team want to keep? Surely having such competition is a good thing for the team.

Another area that points to the HEAT potentially having success this season is the coaching staff. Spoelstra is among the best coaches in the league and has proven to keep his teams competitive despite having key players missing. When Bosh went down with his blood clotting issue for the first time two years ago, the team just narrowly missed the playoffs by one game. Last season, they advanced to the second round without Bosh.

Spoelstra has always proven to be great at mixing and matching his lineups based on which players he has available. In this year’s NBA general manager’s survey, Spoelstra received votes for the head coach that makes the best in-game adjustments. He’s also been able to get the most out of his players while having to rely on several individuals plucked out of the D-League.

Just as Spoelstra has told reporters already, it’s hard to take what happens in preseason seriously. Teams often experiment with different lineups and some star players play sparingly throughout the exhibition games. While it’s hard to take everything the HEAT have done and apply it to the regular season, they have shown improvements as a team and that can be something they build on.

It’s clear that the HEAT have several players on the roster that are still looking to prove themselves in the league and that should be something they can benefit from. With Spoelstra running the show, they’ll be as prepared as they can be, but it’ll be on the players to perform on the court. As they look to prove themselves in the Eastern Conference, don’t overlook this group this season.