As of January 17, 2008 the Miami Heat had just 8 wins and 30 disappointing losses. Shaquille O'Neal was in the starting line-up on South Beach and Shawn Marion was finishing alley-oops from Steve Nash in Phoenix. Heat fans are collectively urging me to change the subject.
Luckily for the South Beach faithful, in just one year the Heat have completely reversed their fortunes and appear to be once again playoff bound. In fact, if the playoffs began today the Heat would be the 6th seed in the East with a 21-17 record, already besting their win total from the entirety of last season.
With the season to forget last year, a couple players have elevated their games to new levels and they are a huge reason why the Heat are back above .500 and playing playoff basketball.
Dwyane Wade SG
The most valuable, most important, best, any superlative you want this guy is it for the Heat and if not for Lebron James, maybe the NBA. Flash makes this team go. He leads the league in scoring at 28.8 points per game, 9th in assists with 7.3 per contest, 3rd in steals thieving 2.26 per, and 19th in blocks with 1.58 rejections per ballgame bar FAR the most of any guard in the league.
The other night in Milwaukee he scored only 17 points on 5-20 shooting but dished out 13 assits in a 102-99 win at the Bradley Center. Two weeks ago he sealed a victory against the Nets by blocking 7 footer Brook Lopez in the closing moments and subsequently taking over offensively in the OT.
No matter what he has to do to win, he will do and has been doing so far. He is the reason this team is playing so well on both ends. Without him this team is right where it was last year.
Most Improved Player
Daequan Cook SG
Part of the reason the 07-08 Heat struggled was lack of depth. This year the Heat have shooters to bring off the bench and supplement the scoring of Dwyane Wade. Second year swing-man Daequan Cook is the biggest part of that turnaround.
THe 6-5 guard has been a revelation defensively, often matching up with the opponents best perimeter scorers, even in crunch time. As a rookie Cook shot just 32.3% from distance, but this season shoots a blazing 43.3% on threes.
When Wade's shooting was off in Milwaukee, Cook set a career high with 24 points after going perfect in the first half from range. His shooting, and solid defense off the bench has helped keep Wade fresh and brought energy to this Miami team.
Mario Chalmers PG
This one might be debatable with the unexpectedly solid play of bigs Joel Anthony and Jamaal Magloire of late. However, both fall short because neither played enough minutes early on to contribute much of anything.
Chalmers on the other hand is a rookie point guard who has been the starter essentially from Day One as a second round pick. The former Jayhawk's defense has been a constant while his shooting and decision making continue to improve. Chalmers and Wade form the league's top back court in terms of picking the opposition's pocket. He has the length to defense both guard positions defensively.
Offensively, he uses his strength and body control to get in the lane and finish or create for his teammates.
Least Valuable Player
Mark Blount C
Whether it is the terrible shots, no rebounding or defense, the horrible contract, or the overall lack of hustle from Blount, he has been nothing short of atrocious for the Miami Heat.
Luckily for the wins category, this 7-footer has logged just 8 minutes since late November. Unfortunately, that is unacceptable for 33 year old center owed more than $8 million this season. The Heat are dreadfully thing in the front court in terms of big bodies who can bang. However, Blount is just a big body and prefers to play on the perimeter, even hoisting 12 three-pointers this year (he made 4).
Blount is likely to be part of any deal Pat Riley wants to get done before February's trade deadline.
Shawn Marion SF
Unlike Blount, Marion has not played terribly for the Heat. He has done what was asked of him, defending multiple positions, getting hustle points, rebounding, and throwing down the occasional hammer on a dunk.
But you trade Shaq for a game-changer. You pay a guy $17 million to be a game-changer.
Bill Simmons on ESPN.com says that the value of a player can be determined by predicting the effect replacing that player in the line-up with a marginally talented player. If Dorrell Wright were playing the small forward position for the Heat, I'm not sure their season would look much different.
The bottom line is 12 and 9 is great for a second-year center, but not from a multiple All-Star whom you're paying to be dynamic. With his contract up, his days in Miami may be numbered as the trade deadline looms.
With a rookie head coach, rookie point guard, and no true center, the Heat have certainly exceeded expectations. Dwyane Wade is officially back and dominating the league. As this team grows, it will continue to develop continuity and if Wade can stay healthy, ought to remain in the hunt for the post-season.
Don't be surprised to see the Heat try and move Shawn Marion to get a true big for the playoffs, particularly with Pat Riley's affinity for trades. Even without an upgrade inside, the Heat have enough firepower to get it done in the playoffs and have already shown they can beat the best teams in the league, having beaten the Lakers, Cavs, and the Spurs twice.
I can't imagine a team wanting to see the Heat in May and June.