NBA Saturday: Miami HEAT Ablaze During Recent Streak

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There are currently three NBA teams that have won nine of their last 10 games: The Golden State Warriors, Washington Wizards and Miami HEAT. That’s right, the HEAT, who lost veterans like Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh (who technically is still on the roster but is unable to play), Luol Deng, Joe Johnson and Amar’e Stoudemire from last season’s team, and who lost Justise Winslow to a season-ending shoulder injury after playing in only 18 games, is one of the hottest teams in the league right now.

Miami started the season with a 5-10 record through 15 games and was 11-30 before this recent streak. It was seemingly safe to assume that Miami’s season was effectively over and that the only important issues left to determine were who would be traded and where Miami would land in the upcoming draft lottery. However, that has all changed, starting with Miami’s win against the Houston Rockets on January 17. Since that game, Miami has beaten the Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks, Golden State Warriors, Brooklyn Nets (twice), Chicago Bulls, Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks.

Miami is now three games back in the standings for the eighth seed but must overcome teams like the Bucks, New York Knicks and Charlotte Hornets to get back into the playoff picture. The good news for Miami is that these three teams, as well the eight-seed Detroit Pistons, have not played particularly well lately.

Miami is getting nice play out of guys like Dion Waiters, Goran Dragić, James Johnson, Willie Reed and Hassan Whiteside, as well as an unexpected boost from Okaro White. Waiters, in particular, has been playing at a high level, hitting big shots in late game situations, including a game-winning three-pointer against the Warriors.

Several HEAT players spoke to Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald recently and explained how they have managed to play so well individually and collectively.

“It’s not a coincidence,” Rodney McGruder said. “That’s what this organization is about – getting better. And we have a collective group of guys who really want to get better. [Coach Spoelstra] was just talking about how this organization is made up of real gym rats, guys who like to be in the gym and get better.”

Waiters, who is averaging 20.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists while shooting 47.9 percent from the field and 48.1 percent from three-point range during this ten-game stretch, credits the coaching staff with helping him to improve his jumper and ability to drive into the lane.

“I would get by my guy but I would take off too far,” Waiters said. “That would give the defender a chance to load up and block it. Now when I get in the lane, I am taking an extra dribble so he doesn’t know when the shot is coming. Or I take an extra dribble and I’m able to get my shoulder in his chest. I watch Goran [Dragić] do it all the time.”

Willie Reed also credits the coaching staff, which regularly reaches out to players to work on areas in need of improvement.

“[Assistant coach Juwan Howard] is one of the best big men to play this game; anything he says you take to heart and do exactly how he says it,” Reed said. “The way he says it is usually the way it works out in the game. That’s what I say to him when I come back to the bench.”

As a franchise, Miami goes beyond addressing issues on the court. It also emphasizes proper nutrition and fitness.

“What they did transforming James Johnson … was amazing,” Reed said. “The way James is playing, it makes the other guys want to give everything to have the same success.”

As Barry Jackson noted, Johnson shed roughly 31 pounds from the end of last season with the Toronto Raptors and reduced his body fat from 14 to 7.5 percent. And Johnson isn’t the only player who is benefitting from Miami’s emphasis on making sure its players are in great shape.

“Eating healthy has helped my game evolve,” Reed said. “Here, they like to be the best conditioned, toughest, most physical team. And they expect that from all their players.”

While just about every NBA player is already in great shape, it’s clear that Miami’s players are operating at a high level as a direct result of the emphasis on nutrition and fitness.

“I’ve never been overweight or out of shape but to be in top shape, and feel my body is in top condition, it makes a world of difference,” Wayne Ellington said. “I see a change not only in my body and my game but also my mindset.”

Miami should be lauded for its developmental work this season and recent hot streak. However, Miami is in a position where its recent success arguably conflicts with what is in its best interest long-term. Even if the HEAT make the postseason, they face a considerable uphill battle and are extremely unlikely to make it out of the first round. With several role players on either expiring or relatively small contracts playing so well, Miami could potentially trade them before the upcoming trade deadline in exchange for future assets. No single player could be traded for anything of major value, but every bite at the apple helps in a rebuild. Trading these players now and dropping in the standings could help Miami’s chances of landing a top draft pick in the upcoming draft, which obviously has more long-term significance than winning a few extra regular season games this season.

Miami has two high-end players in Dragić and Whiteside and young talent to build around, including players like Tyler Johnson, Winslow, McGruder and Josh Richardson. With Bosh’s health issues and Miami’s ability to waive him and his salary utilizing the long-term injury provision, Wayne Ellington’s nonguaranteed salary for next season and the team’s ability to stretch Josh McRoberts’ contract (assuming he exercises his player option for next season), the HEAT could potentially clear a large amount of cap space for free agency. In doing so, the HEAT could be in play for major free agents like Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin. Of course, Miami would have almost no shot of landing a top-tier free agent considering they aren’t particularly close to contention, but there are other free agents who could be intrigued by Miami’s core. Additionally, Miami’s proven system of developing players and maximizing its rosters under Spoelstra should be appealing to free agents.

It’s clear that there are a lot of issues, both in the short-term and long-term, which Miami needs to consider. Miami’s recent success is great for its fans and further reinforces Spoelstra’s position as one of the best coaches in the NBA. But it may be in Miami’s best interest to sell high on its short-term role players, clear cap space, drop in the standings to potentially get a better draft pick and go after significant free agents to add to their core of talent.