5 Long-Term Questions Miami Heat Are Currently Facing

Tom Sunnergren@@tsunnergrenContributor IMarch 4, 2014

5 Long-Term Questions Miami Heat Are Currently Facing

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    The Miami Heat aren’t so much approaching a crossroads as hurtling toward one with the locomotive momentum of a LeBron James-led fast break. A collision is coming.

    The two-time defending champions are staring down a handful of large questions, and the consequences of them will reverberate around the NBA.

    Is the team getting too old? How will it handle the cap? Is Dwyane Wade the player he once was? Is the rest of the competition getting too good?

    And, most importantly, will LeBron consider leaving Miami?

    Of course, these are problems that nearly all of the other 29 teams in the NBA would happily assume. They’re born from success. Great basketball teams are fleeting, transient things. Dynasties are rare. It’s difficult, yes, but a privilege to get a chance to keep one together.

    These are the five factors that will go the farthest toward determining Miami’s ability to do so.

Will the King's Reign Continue?

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    At this point, LeBron James seems unlikely to leave the Heat. 

    They have won, are winning, and—especially in these last few weeks—are winning big.

    The franchise that seemed the most serious threat to poach him from South Beach—or at least the one that made the most narrative sense, the Cleveland Cavaliers—has collapsed under the weight of its own incompetence. Cleveland is out, and no other organization seems like an obvious fit.

    Furthermore, would LeBron, after the debacle that was “The Decision,” really want to make himself a pariah again by leaving another fanbase that had grown to love him? Would he expose himself to such rancor? 

    After his first—and, if the prayers of the Heat faithful are answered, last—professional move, James was aware of the criticism. After his first trying season in Miami, he said the criticism stung in a way he seems reluctant to revisit, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst:

    I play the game fun, joyful...That's what I lost last year. Going through my first seven years in the NBA I was always the ‘liked one’ and to be on the other side—they call it the dark side or the villain or whatever they call it—it was definitely challenging for myself. It was a situation I had never been in before, and it took awhile...it took a long time to adjust to it.

    And yet James has equivocated a bit on this point. He told NBATV’s Steve Smith that he can’t imagine leaving the Heat if Miami wins a third consecutive title this June, which begs the question: What if the team falls short?

    In a much-discussed and well-reported piece on ESPN, Windhorst and Ramona Shelbourne gamed out a few scenarios that could lead to James’ departure from Miami.

    "This time is going to be different," a source with ties to James’ camp told the pair. "If LeBron decides to look at other options, it won't just be teams with cap space. He has 30 options if he wants them."

    The reporters identified the Los Angeles Clippers as a team that, despite a dearth of cap room, could swoop in and land a willing James via a sign and trade.

    Again, it seems unlikely at this juncture that he would leave all he has—all he’s built—in Miami to start from scratch elsewhere with a pair of new superstar teammates. Sounds familiar, huh?

So Many Stars...So Little Cap Space

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    LeBron James, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are great basketball players. But they’re also expensive ones. And this expense may soon become prohibitive for the champs. 

    According to Pro Basketball Talk, if the Big Three each refrain from opting out on their deals this summer, they will make a combined $61.3 million in 2014-15. The salary cap is projected to be at $62.9 million. 

    Considering that much of Miami’s success has been a function of not just its superstars but the role players who surround and support them—is there any chance the Heat would be in hot pursuit of a third straight title without the critical contributions of Mike Miller, Ray Allen, Chris Andersen and others?—that’s a squeeze that might prove too tight for the Heat.

    While many Heat well-wishers are concerned about the possibility of Wade and/or Bosh opting out this summer and testing the free-agent waters, the team might be in bigger trouble if both return at the salaries they’re slated to make. 

    That said, this seems unlikely. Wade, for one, has signaled interest in re-signing with Miami for something of a hometown discount. While LeBron told Windhorst his teammate is “getting that Kobe deal,” the longest-tenured member of the Heat seems more interested in working out a contract that would give the team the requisite financial flexibility to keep winning.

    “When I get into that position, it’s something I’ll think about,” Wade told Windhorst. “You have to sit down at the time and see what is best for you and for your team.”

    A flexible Wade—not to mention James and Bosh—could go a long way toward prolonging the Miami dynasty.

Wade on the Wane?

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    Alas, even if the Heat manage to keep the Big Three in South Beach for the foreseeable future and at a reasonable rate, there’s still the matter of how they’ll perform. 

    Each player battles age in his own way, and many succeed in fighting back Father Time for a period, but the old man, in the end, is undefeated and untied. Time is a patient and ruthless assassin.

    At 32, Wade looks like he’ll succumb sooner rather than later.

    While his 59.6 true shooting percentage in 2013-14 will be the highest mark of his career if it holds up, the guard has declined in steal percentage, assist percentage and turnovers and is turning the ball over at a higher clip than he has in any season since 2007-08, per Basketball-Reference

    Meanwhile, his win shares per 48 minutes and player efficiency rating have declined in each of the last two seasons, and if current trends hold, 2013-14 will mark a third.

    The Heat seem to be taking steps to mitigate this descent, including minutes limitations and a slight pumping of the brakes with respect to the guard’s breakneck offensive style. Wade is playing fewer minutes and attempting fewer free throws than at any point in his career.

    This is smart—the team, at this point, isn’t quite as dependent on D-Wade as it once was, but it's obviously much better for having him around—but it’s only a temporary fix. 

    Given his age, decline and increasingly rich injury history, it's doubtful he'll be a major contributor in Miami for much longer. 

Age Isn't Just a Number

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    Wade isn’t the only player on the team who's aging fast. The NBA is a young man’s league, and the Heat are anything but at the moment.

    The team has the oldest roster in the NBA with an average age of 30.7 years. Wade is 32. Shane Battier is 35. Ray Allen checks in at 38. Chris Andersen’s next birthday will be his 36th.

    These guys are Last Vegas old. 

    And this matters. It’s one thing to swap out a piece or two—that’s the way the league works; it’s not the NFL, but there’s always churn at the bottom of a roster—but Miami has a rather large number of contributors to replace.

    Even if the Heat figure out a way to keep the Big Three at a reasonable price, it will be difficult for the team to construct a supporting cast as capable, and diversely talented, as what they have right now. It’s a challenge that Pat Riley and company have met in the past, but as always, past performance is no guarantee of future results. 

Keeping Up with the Joneses

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    While a few of the thornier issues that the Heat will have to navigate in the next few years are internal, some of the most menacing threats exist outside American Airlines Arena. There are 29 other teams in the NBA, and a few of them are getting good.

    Consider the Indiana Pacers. Paul George is 23 years old and has blossomed into a legitimate superstar. Roy Hibbert is 27, and if the title doesn’t belong to his aforementioned teammate, he is the best defensive player in basketball. 

    Lance Stephenson sits 10th in NBA wins produced, per BoxScoreGeeks.com, and second in win shares, according to Basketball-Reference. He handles the ball, defends with lunatic intensity and might be the third-best player on the team. Oh, and he’s 23. 

    With this core, a pragmatic front office and a coaching staff that has a knack for player development, the Pacers have a chance to be very good for a very long time. 

    Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder are improving each season. A Feb. 20 shellacking at the hands of the Heat notwithstanding, they look to be a serious threat to Miami for the foreseeable future. 

    The Houston Rockets, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Blazers and Golden State Warriors are likewise ascendant. 

    To hold these teams off, the Heat won’t merely have to consolidate their gains, successfully clinging to what they have, but must actually find a way to improve. The rest of the league certainly is. 

    To borrow an expression: “If you’re green, you’re growing. If you’re ripe, you’re rotting.” To win a third straight title, and maybe one or two more, the Heat have to figure out a way to stay on the vine.