Can the Miami Heat do it again in 2014?
Even though they won a hard-fought playoffs to become back-to-back champs, the Miami Heat still entered their offseason with plenty of issues. As they get ready for training camp, many of those question marks remain.
Recharging an aging roster and figuring out how to skate on the luxury tax threshold again were at the top of the list, even as the Heat watched their NBA foes load up to attack them once more.
Amnestying Mike Miller, signing Greg Oden and drafting James Ennis have all been steps in the right direction, but what can we expect from Miami this year? What's their health situation, and just how close are their competitors getting to them?
Miami Heat beat reporter (Palm Beach Post) and B/R Featured Columnist Ethan Skolnick joined NBA assistant editors Ethan Norof and Joel C. Cordes to weigh in on the best and worst of the Heat's offseason, along with their biggest questions heading into 2014. We'll also detail Miami's keys to capturing the fabled "three-peat" while predicting its final standing.
We and the Miami Heat all want to see this from Greg Oden again.
We've heard all the "PC" answers from the Heat about how they don't expect that much from Greg Oden as he rehabs, but what do they actually need from him?
If it really was just about waiting around for a guy, they could have done that without a contract. They obviously wanted him for a reason. As a franchise insider, give us your take.
No doubt, but I don't think they're expecting much out of the first half of the season. It will be similar to how they worked in Chris Andersen, even though the injury/rust situations are very different.
That's why it made so much sense for Oden to come to Miami though. Listen to the Heat's comments, his thoughts and those of his agents. One of the huge selling points is that they just won a title without him; there won't be pressure on him right away, and you won't see him in the rotation right away.
Barring setbacks, they'll ramp it up in the second half of the season just to get him ready for the playoffs. That's the high end of the scenario, but I don't think you'll see him be a factor before the All-Star Game.
This will be a strange sight for Heat fans and a familiar one for Grizzlies backers...
Mike Miller was originally intended to be part of the Miami Heat's core, signing along with the Big Three in 2010. Injuries never let him be that, but he was key in a lot of big moments for them, especially their past two Finals wins.
Where do they go from here now that he's been amnestied and is a member of the Memphis Grizzlies?
I was in favor of them keeping Mike Miller. I thought he was important for a number of reasons. Obviously, he was beloved in that locker room, but he was a guy whom Dwyane Wade (and Erik Spoelstra) trusted to start in D-Wade's place.
He was 15-2 as a starter and allowed Wade to rest and recover at his pace instead of pushing himself because they didn't have the right pieces to replace him with. They will miss Mike and probably should have played him more during the regular season.
That they turned to him during the playoffs and he produced probably says where he was during the rest of the year.
My biggest problem with them amnestying Miller is: What happens if Wade continues to have health issues with his knees, like he has the past few seasons? What if Ray Allen isn't the Ray Allen we saw during the playoffs but is more like the one we saw in the regular season: an older, slower version of himself?
If Wade is out for an extended period of time, you have to put Ray Allen into that starting lineup, it shortens your bench and the bubble wrap has to come off James Jones. Keeping Miller would have kept Wade on the bench a little more so they could keep him on the floor more too.
Joel C. Cordes
Say what you want about Mike Miller, but he was always ready as a clutch option when they needed him the most. More often than not, he panned out. Now they're down one option, and they really have to figure out who is going to step up from the bench in those moments. It's not about numbers or minutes, but moments.
Shane Battier has been inconsistent but has ultimately stepped up. Norris Cole and Ray Allen did the same during the playoffs. Yet "great" teams that three-peated, like the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls and Kobe-Shaq LA Lakers, always had clutch bench shooters who could come in, get hot and let the stars operate freely.
Now that Miller's gone, does it become Rashard Lewis? Is it James Jones? Those guys are both capable, but we haven't seen them thrust into that role yet, and now the Miami Heat have to do so.
Erik Spoelstra and Pat Riley did a great job with what they had. But their work is still cut out for them.
Well, they couldn't do much. That's just where they are from a luxury tax standpoint. Mickey Arison has proven he will pay the tax, but only to a point. Yet look at where they are for the offseason in its totality.
Despite being in the tax situation they're in, having to cut Miller and being unable to add meaningful contracts, Ray Allen comes back without opting out for more money. Chris Andersen could have held out for the mini-mid-level exception, but he took the veteran's minimum instead. They took a low-risk signing with Greg Oden.
All in all, it was still a good offseason for Miami.
No doubt. They did as well as they could have.
Joel C. Cordes
Brooklyn Nets. Indiana Pacers. Chicago Bulls. Maybe even the New York Knicks. Any of those teams now might be as tough as the Pacers were last year, and even more so for the first three. As good as the Miami Heat were last year, that might not cut it. They have to take a step forward too.
They didn't, and really couldn't, do anything big with their roster. So it's about another developmental year for LeBron James and the younger guys, another training camp to build team chemistry, another offseason of scheming from Erik Spoelstra.
All of that is going to help. They'll need it, because the regular season will be harder this year, and the health/depth concerns are even bigger. That's not even counting what they'll see in the playoffs.
Limelight or no, LeBron and the Heat need Bosh and Wade to still be stars.
LeBron James will likely get incrementally better again this year (he always seems to), but Miami clearly has gone through some recent down cycles with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. So, where can they improve, and how badly do the Heat need them to remain star-caliber?
Let's start with Dwyane. With him, it's all about health. He needs to get his weight down a bit. Pat Riley has mentioned that (to me). That will probably be the main priority over the next six weeks now that D-Wade's back from his summer promotional stuff.
He needs to get his body right, though I don't think his knees will ever be 100 percent again. The right knee was just a bone bruise that needed a long time to heal, but the left one was over a year removed from injury and was still bothering him. It got banged in the finals and blew up on him. He's always going to have issues now.
He'll manage it. He doesn't get enough credit for his basketball IQ. He might never be a great shooter, but his efficiency and placement have gone up, even as his athleticism has gone down. By cutting away from the ball and maybe posting up a little bit more, he'll be fine.
Chris Bosh needs to better understand where he fits. Sometimes he seems to get it, and other times he's drifting. Even if they want him out there shooting three-pointers, which I don't really agree with, he still needs to occasionally put the ball on the floor, drive to the basket and get fouled. Remember, he's a good free-throw shooter.
Look at Bosh's tendency to drift beyond the three-point line. He averaged over a three-pointer per game last season, up from the previous year, but his percentages went down. He only shot 28.4 percent from there last year. Yes, he was around 40 percent during the playoffs, but it takes him away from the basket and kills their rebounding.
Then they have to play someone like Chris Andersen or Udonis Haslem alongside him, but that doesn't give the versatility that Miami likes. They're better with him and LeBron up front, but Chris Bosh needs to take easier shots and start in his comfort zone, then move out to the perimeter.
When he starts out there and struggles, then it just kinda snowballs and bad things happen. You can't have a max-level player of his size and skill standing out there so much. He fell in love with it too much.
Then, is Dwyane Wade going to be able to stay on the floor and, if he can't, what is the backup plan for the Heat? Who fills the gaps for any period of time? And then who fills the bench role for that other guy? Maybe it's Shane Battier, maybe it's Ray Allen or Norris Cole. But it's that unknown which makes me uncomfortable.
Joel C. Cordes
Part of the blame has to fall on the Heat when it comes to Chris Bosh, and hopefully they'll fix this scheme hole during the offseason. You can't ask a big guy to stand out and knock down threes, creating lanes for LeBron and Wade, then have a problem when he's not rebounding at a high rate.
Kevin Love is the only power forward in the league capable of doing both, but Miami has wanted it from Bosh too. You get one or the other.
So, how do you get him into the mid-range game even more (his strength) while upping his production, especially on the defensive glass? They need to figure that out again.
Indiana has gotten close to knocking out Miami more than once and just keeps coming back stronger.
Last year, one got the sense that finding reasons to pick against the Heat was just wishful thinking, regardless of how hard anyone tried. From the offseason onward, they just seemed to be in the driver's seat, despite some bumps in the road. I hadn't felt that way about a team since the Jordan Bulls or the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. Miami was just that good, and it was obvious.
This year? It's not that clear-cut at all. The Heat showed they weren't invincible last year, and they know that. Now, much of their prime competition, East and West, seems healthier and/or stronger than ever before. This season doesn't feel like a given that they three-peat, and that's not wishful thinking.
You have to start with the Indiana Pacers. There might be a lot of focus on the Chicago Bulls, but we don't really know what Derrick Rose is going to look like yet. Indiana's getting Granger back, but that doesn't even matter to an extent. The Pacers' two best players, Roy Hibbert and Paul George, are going to be even better anyways, and that was a top-three starting lineup by nearly all metrics last season.
Their bench was terrible last year. It was holding them back. They were the worst bench in the playoffs, including the eight-seeds. Their bench guys were a combined minus-137 against the Heat. Now, Lance Stephenson presumably goes back to the bench because Granger is back. They add Luis Scola, CJ Watson and Chris Copeland, and they're versatile everywhere on the roster.
They might not be as good defensively, but they'll pick up the slack by being better on offense. Plus, George and Hibbert are at the point where they've learned so much from playoff experience, and it's all adding up.
The Bulls are up next, though I'm not sure how close they are behind. The Brooklyn Nets did a lot, but let's see them answer the health, chemistry and age questions first. Finally, I'm just not sure about what the New York Knicks did this offseason, but they'll be around in the Eastern Conference.
It has to be the Pacers, in the East, for me as well. They pushed the Heat to seven games this year, took it to them the year before, and now they're even better.
If the Pacers had one more bounce go their way or knocked down a couple extra shots last season, maybe the Heat never even make the finals. They were that close. Despite the Knicks, Nets and Bulls, I think most of us are confident envisioning Indiana and Miami squaring off in the Eastern Conference Finals again.
In the Western Conference, there just isn't the same amount of certainty. The OKC Thunder have Russell Westbrook back. The San Antonio Spurs might have a hard time getting back to the finals, but they were oh so close against the Heat and will be in the hunt again.
The Pacers are still probably the single toughest threat for Miami, but whoever comes out of the West would really test the Heat just like San Antonio did.
Joel C. Cordes
I actually think that the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers, with the rivalry that's there, plus the fact they're now presumably at full strength and will be playing each other four times this season, I think they're going to end up cancelling each other out and wear each other down just a little bit.
That whole Central Division is going to be so tough now with the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers actually in the playoff hunt. The Milwaukee Bucks will be spoilers on some nights too. Indiana and Chicago will be stuck in a war all season long that the Southeast and Atlantic Division teams won't have to face.
I think Brooklyn gets hot by the end of the season after figuring out the chemistry, provided everyone stays healthy. With the Nets' depth and experience, especially from guys who have fought and beaten the Heat before, they're the team that will present the toughest challenge when it's all said and done.
The scariest thing for the Heat though? All three of those aforementioned teams, with the Knicks as the fourth wild card, could conceivably win a series against Miami this year. And that's not wishful thinking or hyperbole.
I think they'll be 60-22. Last year, I said 62, and they ended up a bit higher. I didn't see "The Streak" coming, and it kept them motivated for a little longer before they would have dialed down some of their guys otherwise.
But I wouldn't be surprised if the Bulls are the No. 1 seed with how hard Tom Thibodeau pushes his guys. The Pacers are the bigger threat, but if Rose is back, the Bulls are for real the whole way through.
The Heat will be more vulnerable going forward because of their tax situation. If one of their guys goes down for awhile, this team will only win in the low 50-games range. If it's injuries to their core bench guys, then they're in the mid-50s.
But I think it's 60 wins, and maybe they can hold off Chicago and Indiana in a tight race for the No. 1.
I'd say 55-60 wins. They might not be the top regular-season team in the East, though I think they still will be, but I will be shocked if their win total goes much higher than 60.
Joel C. Cordes
For their record, 58-24. Yes, they'll have the No. 1 seed still, but just by the skin of their teeth. They will be in cruise control and roster management mode for much of the year because they absolutely have to be.
It's good to be the champs.
They will cap their three-peat if LeBron James takes another step, which I think he will. There is somehow still room for growth there.
Dwyane Wade needs to make it to and through the postseason healthy. He has to be at least 90 percent of the Wade we used to know.
They will fall short if... It comes back to Wade. You need two stars in this league to carry the burden on a title contender. If Wade is anything approaching ordinary, there is too much riding on LeBron James. Even he can't carry that much.
Without Mike Miller, Ray Allen is 38, Battier is 35 and Haslem is 33. The bench has some age, and I don't know that there's another level for Bosh to reach. If Dwyane's not right, I think they could absolutely fall short against one of the teams we were just talking about.
They get their three-peat if Dwyane Wade is healthy, but they have to get something more from Chris Bosh. It can't just be for one game, a couple games or a handful of games along the way.
It has to be for the whole season. He has to approach star level again. As good as LeBron James is, he can't fight all these great "other" teams by himself for a full season.
Look, if the Heat do wind up out of the finals, it'll be because of their own injuries, whether to Wade, Bosh or even LeBron. (Although LeBron is a cyborg, so that doesn't really seem plausible, does it?) One injury to the Big Three, and this becomes a substantially weaker team.
These guys have been there before now and know how to get back. There's a real chance they regress during the regular season, but it's about whether they're right enough come playoff time.
Joel C. Cordes
Let's not forget the "good luck" the Heat have had up to this point. It's the same good fortune the Jordan Bulls and the Shaq/Kobe Lakers had in their three-peat chases.
Yes, Miami has had Dwyane Wade miss games here and there. The Heat have lost bench guys for short stretches, but like those other great teams, they have yet to face the season-ending injury to one of their superstars. They have never had a spate of injuries like what the Bulls or the Pacers faced last year.
Sometimes, the best teams are simply those who have their stars (and their bench core) still standing at the end. That's hugely undersold when understanding "dynasties." The Heat have been good, and they've been lucky. They'll need that to keep breaking their way because they're vulnerable otherwise.