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NBA Sunday: In Miami, the HEAT is on

Slowly, but surely, the Miami HEAT are once again looking like Eastern Conference contenders.

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In Miami, the HEAT is on

As we enter play on November 22, the defending Eastern and Western Conference champions sit atop their respective conferences. The Golden State Warriors (14-0) officially have people wondering if they can win 70 games, while the Cleveland Cavaliers (10-3) seemed destined to make a return trip to the NBA Finals.

Obviously, though, there is a lot of basketball to be played between now and the spring, and there are many teams dreaming of foiling LeBron James and his attempt to reach his sixth consecutive NBA Finals. One such team, coincidentally, is the Miami HEAT. And they may actually have a better shot than you think.

With Hassan Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Goran Dragic, Amar’e Stoudemire, Chris Bosh, Erik Spoelstra and, of course, Dwyane Wade, the HEAT seem to have everything they need to make a run at the conference crown. It really now seems to be just a matter of time (and health).

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Entering play on November 22, the HEAT have won eight of their first 12 games and are doing it, mostly, with defense. Aside from allowing just 92.9 points per game—third best in the league—the HEAT happen to have Whiteside manning the interior for them. Whiteside enters play on November 22 averaging 4.8 blocks in 28.8 minutes per game, which tracks to an unreal six blocks per 36 minutes. He has a rare combination of size, speed, strength, agility and timing, and that combination of attributes is not often found among the NBA’s big men. The Shaquille O’Neals and Dwight Howards come along once in a blue moon, and although Karl-Anthony Towns is already looking to be among that class, Whiteside can be argued as being a truly special big man, as well. At just 26 years old, and after having essentially not played during the first two years of his career, Whiteside has scary potential, and if I’m a member of the front office in Miami, there is no coach I would rather have in his ear than Erik Spoelstra.

The much-needed infusion of youth down in Miami also features rookie Winslow, a player whom many believed slipped out of his rightful place in the top five of last June’s draft. Although Winslow is playing behind and splitting minutes with veteran Luol Deng, he has still had several flashes over the course of his rookie season, impacting games on both ends of the floor. Defensively, he has been quite impressive. He moves exceptionally well laterally and has a keen nose for the ball. As an on-ball defender, many this season, he has been charged with guarding bigger perimeter players and has more than held his own. From a number’s perspective, Winslow hasn’t done anything this season that would impress someone examining a box score, but after just 12 games, for anyone that has watched the HEAT this season, there is no question that the 19-year-old rookie is a true gem and someone who will make a difference as a two-way player.

In Dragic, the HEAT have a veteran point guard who has made some rounds in the NBA and has GoranDragicInsideOnly1proven to be an astute floor general. Of all players on the HEAT, it is perhaps Dragic who will have to make the biggest adjustment. When he was acquired in February, the HEAT, shortly thereafter, ruled Bosh out for the remainder of the season. With Bosh back in the fold, the hierarchy for shot distribution has changed in Miami, and abiding by it is the responsibility of the point guard. Still, Dragic sees the floor exceptionally well, particularly when rolling off of high screens. With his mid-range shooting ability, he is always a dual-threat to roll off of Bosh screens and scoring himself, or finding an open teammate. He is adept at moving off of the basketball and is a capable spot-shooter, as well, as offensively, he will have no issues with playing with and off of Bosh and Wade. In theory, Dragic should be able to form a special partnership with Stoudemire, as both have spent the majority of their careers as pick-and-roll threats, one with the ball and the other without.

At this point in his career, Stoudemire is no longer going to be playing a lion’s share of minutes in the frontcourt, but if the HEAT can keep him healthy and engaged, he is exactly the type of player that you would want to have, even if as an insurance policy. Though aging, and not necessarily a plus-defender, Stoudemire is still a team player who values winning above all else and he still has some of his athleticism and most of his timing and ability to read defenses.

With the newer faces in Miami, the HEAT are poised for a bit of a renaissance, but of course, it is the familiar faces that will determine just how successful they are able to be this season.

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During the early-goings of his first season coaching LeBron James, Wade and Bosh, Spoelstra admitted that there were times when he wondered if the partnership would truly work. James and Wade admitted the same. Publicly, though, Spoelstra has always seemed confident and certain. A player who was a member of the HEAT’s championship teams once told me that Spoelstra was the glue that kept the entire team together. It was he who, day after day, preached messages of unity and fighting for a common goal to his players. Bosh was the first to fully buy in, with Wade and James falling in line thereafter.

During the HEAT’s championship run in 2014, I spoke with Spoelstra and Wade about their relationship and about how the relatively young coach has managed to achieve so much, going from the video editing room to the championship podium.

One thing Spoelstra has done consistently is coach with logic and smarts. He simply makes decisions that make sense always has a simple explanation for what he does.

As he welcomed the duo of Wade and Bosh back into his lineup this season, understanding that the days WadeInside1of each being able to play 38-40 minutes per night are done, Spoelstra has been pitch counting each of the two. Through 11 games this season, Wade is averaging a career-low 29.9 minutes per game, while Bosh is averaging just 32.2—the second lowest output of his career.

Thus far, Spoelstra has been incorporating some of the newer pieces that he has at his disposal and, in the early going, having his team believe that they are just as good as the rest of the contenders in the conference. Early in the season, the HEAT have had a relatively weak strength of schedule, but the things that have led to the early season wins for the club—ball sharing, selflessness and defense—are things that are fully sustainable.

By the time the HEAT begin their inevitable playoff run in April 2016, Spoelstra will have celebrated his eighth anniversary as the head coach of the HEAT. He is the second longest tenured coach in the league behind only Gregg Popovich and, along the way, has earned the respect of everyone that has played for him and coached against him.

As the HEAT look to make their 2014-15 season ancient history, the front office has done an admirable job of assembling a talented nucleus in Miami. With Whiteside progressing, Winslow learning the NBA game, Dragic having re-signed and the usual suspects of Wade and Bosh back on the floor, the team has a ton of potential.

And being led by Spoelstra, one of the smartest game planners around, their improbable rise back toward the top of the conference, like the 2015-16 season, has only just begun.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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