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NBA PM: HEAT Should Be Among East’s Best Next Season

After retaining their veterans and adding several key pieces, the HEAT look like a contender.

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New York Knicks guard Arron Afflalo talks about joining the team, his expectations for the upcoming season and much more in this interview with Basketball Insiders.

HEAT Should Be Among East’s Best Next Season

The Miami HEAT entered the 2015 offseason with perhaps the most to lose out of any team in the Eastern Conference. The team was faced with pending roster decisions from Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic and Luol Deng, which ultimately ended with all three players staying put in Miami.

This could have played out like the Portland Trail Blazers’ offseason, with numerous veterans leaving as free agents. Instead, returning those three players to the team next season will immediately make the HEAT a contender. Had it not been for Chris Bosh missing a significant portion of the 2014-15 campaign due to blood clots in one of his lungs, the team likely would have made the playoffs. Without Bosh, they finished just one game behind the eighth-placed Brooklyn Nets for the final playoff spot in the East.

The HEAT faced several questions heading into last season given LeBron James’ decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Serious questions were posed about how the team would respond and how head coach Erik Spoelstra and his staff would make all of the pieces fit.

The team received unexpected contributions from Hassan Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, Henry Walker and eventually Dragic after acquiring him from the Phoenix Suns at the trade deadline. Now that there is an identity with the HEAT in the post-LeBron era, the team is full steam ahead to the playoffs and fully believe they’re ready to compete.

“[We’ll] easily be a playoff team,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “[We want to be] finishing top one, two or three in the East. I mean, you hear a lot of players say that, but think about the pieces that went down last year, they were some of the main parts of our offense. Goran [Dragic] was just coming in and trying to get adjusted. Hassan [Whiteside] had a couple of injuries down the stretch where he missed a couple of key games. Obviously, there was the freak situation with Chris Bosh and the blood clot.

“When you put everything together [and add in Justise Winslow], plus Goran getting the chance to go through training camp with everybody, the chemistry with our team can only get better.”

With Bosh expected to be healthy in time for next season, the HEAT will have their starting five ready to go with Dragic, Wade, Deng, Bosh and Whiteside penciled in as their starters. They’re expected to have Josh McRoberts back healthy next season and he’ll join Winslow, Mario Chalmers, Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem, Shabazz Napier, Johnson, Walker and James Ennis as bench players should the roster remain as is.

Retaining their free agents will come at a cost, however. With Wade, Dragic and Deng all returning, the team’s payroll will skyrocket into the repeater tax bracket.

Some teams will elect to go deep into the tax if it means having a great chance to compete for a championship. Having all of their core players back, the HEAT certainly have an opportunity now to seriously compete in the playoffs next season. They figure to join the Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls as the top three teams in the East.

The addition of Winslow should also help with their championship quest. Many were shocked that Winslow fell to the HEAT with the 10th pick in last month’s draft. With Deng opting to return next season, Winslow can learn the position from one of the league’s better two-way small forwards. Playing behind Deng will also put Winslow in a position where he won’t be forced to do too much in his rookie season.

Winslow has already started to flash signs of what he’ll bring to the HEAT next season. He’s played in five games in the Summer League between Orlando and Las Vegas and averaged 15.8 points per game in his first three games in Orlando when he played significant minutes. He also added three rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.3 steals per game.

“He’s going to be good,” Johnson said. “He’s going to be real good. He’s still real young, only 19 years old so he’s got a lot of things that he’s going to be able to get better at. For the most part, coming in at 19 [and] where he’s at right now, I’m very impressed.

“He fits perfectly [into the system]. He’s a defensive-minded player who can get into the paint and make plays. He can also step outside and knock down a shot so that’s exactly what Coach looks for – guys that are hard-nosed, going to guard and then can mix it up in the paint.”

Since the team locked in their starters in free agency, they’ve also added free agents Amar’e Stoudemire and Gerald Green. Adding Stoudemire means the team will have some versatility in the front court. Stoudemire can back up either Bosh or Whiteside, and will give Spoelstra options if he wants to have a big lineup or if he wants to run and have a smaller lineup. While Stoudemire is nowhere near the player he once was, he can still provide 15-20 minutes a game in a reserved role like he did with the Dallas Mavericks last season.

Green’s arrival gives the team another wing, which it needed. Green is a career 37 percent shooter from three-point range and finished last season in Phoenix averaging just under 12 points per game in a reserve role. Finding a solid backup behind Wade seemed to be a priority for the team and they may have found that now with Green.

Johnson filled in at times during the second-half of the season, but didn’t play consistent minutes. The team has showed an interest in seeing him play point guard behind Dragic and he saw minutes running the offense toward the end of the season. He also played point guard in the Orlando Summer League before suffering a broken jaw that will leave him out of game action for up to six weeks. Johnson playing at point guard will give Spoelstra options behind Dragic and is a great option for running an up-tempo offense.

The team showed flashes last season of what they can do when at 100 percent. With everyone back under contract and healthy, they should be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference next year. The idea of the HEAT matching up with LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the playoffs is now a real possibility.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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