High Hopes: Just How Far Can the Miami Heat Go This Season?
When you think of the three major American professional sports, basketball, football, and baseball, there are franchises that come to mind that are considered 21st century dynasties. Obviously in football, you think of the New England Patriots, who have made the playoffs in 12 out of the past 15 years, winning 4 Super Bowls in the process. In baseball, it’s hard not to look at the San Francisco Giants as a dynasty, who’ve won 3 out of 5 World Series spanning from 2010 to 2014. In basketball, there is the completely obvious answer as well as the one that many don’t realize. If you haven’t guessed, the obvious answer is the San Antonio Spurs, who haven’t missed the playoffs in 18 years. They have also won 5 championships in this span. The other current NBA dynasty that few people think about is the Miami Heat.
They’ve been in the playoffs 10 out of the past 12 years and have accumulated 3 championships during this time period. It is safe to say that the Heat have been one of the most underrated franchises over the past two decades.
It seems like the Heat are just destined to make the playoffs every year. They missed the playoffs last season by one game, but this was somewhat expected because of the departure of LeBron James. Obviously they still had all-star talents like Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade, but everyone who follows the NBA knew that the Heat were going to drop dramatically after losing arguably the best player in the game.
This season has been a different story for the Heat. Wade and Bosh have gotten accustomed to playing without LeBron, and GM Pat Riley has made sure to surround them with plenty of new weapons. Hassan Whiteside is an absolute diamond in the rough, who was called up from the Developmental League last season and is now averaging 12.5 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 4.0 blocks per game. He is also in contention for becoming an Eastern Conference All-Star, which hasn’t been done by a Heat player not named Wade, Bosh, or James since 2007 when a relative unknown named Shaquille O’Neal was elected as an All-Star.
Another core member of this Heat team is Goran Dragic, who was acquired from the Suns before last season’s trade deadline. I strongly feel that Dragic is Miami’s x-factor. When he plays well, the team tends to excel but when he struggles, so does the team. You know what Bosh, Wade, and even Whiteside should produce on a nightly basis, but Dragic has been extremely inconsistent, with the exception of the past month. He struggled mightily to start the season, but has caught fire as of late. He has scored double digits in 11 out of his past 17 games and has recorded 5+ assists in 14 of these. During this time, the Heat have gone 11-6, proving that Dragic’s performance definitely impacts how the team plays.
Outside the core four of Wade, Bosh, Whiteside, and Dragic, they have either very reliable players with minimal upside or inconsistent players with boatloads of upside.
One of these players that is very reliable but has little upside is 30 year old Luol Deng. He’s third on the team in minutes per game and has started every game but one. The South Sudan native hits his three-pointers and foul shots at a very solid mark. He is also a very solid rebounder and most importantly hustles. By no means does he load up the stat sheets or make the big time plays, but he is a very functional side kick next to the other four starters.
The most valuable members off the bench are Justise Winslow, Gerald Green, and Tyler Johnson. All three of these players are insanely gifted athletes with tons of upside.
Green is undoubtedly the best bench player for the Heat. Even though he isn’t as dominant as he was with the Suns, the former slam-dunk champion is still a nightly contributor. Although there is the occasional night when his shot is off and he only scores in single-digits, his defense has vastly improved, making him a must-play option for veteran coach Erik Spoelstra.
Like I discussed in an article last week, Rookie Justise Winslow has the most potential out of anyone on the roster and has become an integral part of the rotation. Winslow’s effectiveness was on full display when the Heat battled the Pacers Monday night. The Pacers were up by 18 at one point, but Winslow covered Paul George when it mattered and forced him to miss 10 out of his last 15 shots. The Heat erased this deficit and ultimately won the game by three points in overtime. Paul went far enough to compare the ex-Duke star to himself and Kawhi Leonard, two of the best two-way players in the Association. Obviously Winslow has a long way to go on offense, but he is already in the upper echelon of defenders in the league.
Tyler Johnson is taking the Hassan Whiteside path. He went undrafted in 2014 and has never been able to consistently stay on a big league roster. He is incredibly athletic and a knock-down three-point shooter. The 6’4 Fresno State product has taken on a larger role as the season has progressed, and I expect his role to continue to grow as Wade wears down.
Miami is currently ranked 3rd in the Eastern Conference at 21-13, and are merely percentage points behind the second place Chicago Bulls. The Heat now own the 3rd best defensive efficiency rating and 11th best offensive efficiency rating in the league.
They clearly need to be as high of a seed as possible for the playoffs because they are incredible at home with a 15-7 record and simply average on the road with a 6-6 record. This disparity between play at home and on the road is inexcusable for one of the true, legitimate playoff contenders in the Eastern Conference.
Something else that is extremely concerning is Miami’s record against each conference. They are 10-2 against the West, but 11-11 against the East. This only concerns me because the Heat have to first get through three 7-game series in the East before getting a shot at the West in the Playoffs. They clearly need to perform much better against teams from the East in order to keep moving up the standings and potentially have a game 7 in Miami.
January is going to be the toughest test the Heat have had to face all season. They play 14 of their next 16 games on the road, including a grueling 6-game Western Conference road trip followed by a tough 5-game Eastern Conference trip. This challenging 11 game sojourn is going to show what the Heat are truly made of, considering the 6-6 record they own outside of the American Airlines Arena.
I expect the Heat to keep improving as the season goes on and ultimately differentiate themselves from the other solid teams in the East. I made a prediction at the beginning of the year that they would be the 2-seed, only behind the Cavaliers, and I plan on sticking by this prediction. They are one of two teams in the East that I truly believe can give the Cavs a run for their money.