Miami Heat 'Fast 5': D-Wade Sixth Man? Pat Riley's Recruiting Challenge and More

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterJune 23, 2014

Wilfredo Lee/AP Images

Five quick-hitting Miami Heat items as the organization anxiously awaits the opt-out deadlines of its Big Three:

1. Dwyane Wade to the bench?

Wade accepted a secondary role in 2010 to accommodate LeBron James, sacrificing plenty of shots, some of the spotlight and a significant chunk of change.

That was appropriate.

Now many fans want him to explore a contract extension that would create space for additional talent.

That is understandable.

There are some, however, who are going a large leap further, suggesting that even if the Big Three all return, Wade should step aside from the starting lineup entirely, sliding to a sixth-man spot.

That is overkill.

"That's not been discussed," Pat Riley said Thursday, at his lengthy end-of-season press conference. "We'd probably have to get in a room with boxing gloves to have that discussion. Which I would not want to do. No, that has not been discussed."

The supporters of such a discussion are armed with analytics, numbers that show that James was more electricand the Heat were more effectivewhen he played without Wade than with him. 

Even so, I'm here to argue otherwise.

Even in the most optimistic scenario, the Heat won't be adding more than one offensive option superior to Wade this offseason. James' frustration this season wasn't with Wade's ineffectivenessthe 11th-year guard shot a career-best 54.5 percentbut rather, his unavailability.

So long as Wade is with the Heat (and Riley called him "a Miami Heat for life"), he'll be finishing games. So what is the point of not starting him? To manage his minutes and preserve his body? Erik Spoelstra can do that even if Wade is playing the first six. To bolster the bench? Riley needs to upgrade the reserve group regardless, but Spoelstra has routinely staggered the times that he removes James and Wade, in order to give his primary bench foursome an All-Star anchor.

Wade, as Riley stated, needs to keeps evolving in order to add effective years to his career. "You have to reinvent yourself," Riley said. "What reinventing is, is the concept: What does he have to do mentally, physically, spiritually to get to another level at that age of 32?"

That means improving his range and accuracyeven if he'll never be an elite three-point shooterwhile digging in consistently more on defense.

Dwyane Wade shot 43.8 percent while averaging only 15.2 points per game in the 2014 NBA Finals vs. the Spurs.
Dwyane Wade shot 43.8 percent while averaging only 15.2 points per game in the 2014 NBA Finals vs. the Spurs.USA TODAY Sports

"He's too smart, he's too good, he's too talented to not be able to play a major role for years to come," Riley said.

And, while recognizing Wade's NBA Finals struggles, Riley added, "I can guarantee you this, he isn't a what have you done for me lately guy? Or a Johnny do nothing. He's not that. That's an insult. That's an insult for a guy who, since 2003, has made magic for us."

You know what else would be an insult? Pushing him to come off the bench because of one poor series. 

There's little precedent for it among the all-time two guards, especially at Wade's age (32). Ray Allen chose to do it, at age 36, but that was only because that was a prerequisite for joining a championship team that already had Wade. Reggie Miller, more diminished than Wade near the end, started all 146 games he played in his final two seasons, at age 38 and 39. Clyde Drexler and George Gervin were full-time starters until they retired at ages 35 and 34, respectively. Mitch Richmond was still a starter at age 35, with little left when he jumped aboard a fourth team (the Los Angeles Lakers) to get a ring before he retired. Even Allen Iverson, clearly broken down at 34, finished his career as a Philadelphia 76ers starter, albeit after balking at serving as a Memphis Grizzlies reserve, and with the 76ers not in contention for anything.

That will be one argument of the "bench Wade" crowdthat the Heat are still contending, and therefore can't be concerned with pedigree and feelings. Others will cite the success of the San Antonio Spurs' Manu Ginobili, though Gregg Popovich was yanking him in and out of the lineup long before he was up in age.

By now, Ginobili's used to it.

Wade is not.

There are other sacrifices that Wade can make to make the Heat stronger, sacrifices that will make more of a material difference to their championship chancesallowing Riley to add enough assistance to overcome his inevitable absences.

Giving up his starting spot?

This isn't the moment to start that.

2. Shane Battier's careful calculation in the summer of 2012 is about to pay off.

Other teams, including the Toronto Raptors, offered more short-term cash. The Heat offered the opportunity for a longer-term splash, even after Battier had left the NBA waters.

"An investment in my future," Battier said last week, after his future officially arrived, with the final game of his career occurring in the Finals clincher in San Antonio.

After winning an NBA title with the Heat, Shane Battier will retire to a career as a college basketball analyst.
After winning an NBA title with the Heat, Shane Battier will retire to a career as a college basketball analyst.Reid Kelley/Getty Images

Battier knew that if he came to Miami, "people would know my name. Good reasons, bad reasons, but they would know." That turned out to be true, and now not only has he signed to serve as a college basketball (and occasional NBA) analyst for ESPN, but, as he quipped, "I can charge way more for my speeches now."

So, while Battier won't be back with the Heat, his story is relevant as Pat Riley tries to rebuild, retool and reload the roster. Thursday, the Heat president guaranteed that "there will be other guys wanting to come down here."

That is likely true, especially if James commits to stay, meaning that Miami would provide a platform no other organization can match: tropical climate, favorable tax situation, unselfish superstar. And, as Riley noted, he may have some mechanisms (a trade exception from the Joel Anthony deal and a mid-level exception of some amount, depending on other factors) that allow him to attract that talent at something near their market value.

Still, for all that's in Riley's favor, there remain two factors that may prove limiting:

First, every veteran player has a floor. While Battier and Ray Allen both signed for less than they could have received elsewhere (roughly $3.1 million per season), Battier recently acknowledged, "I wasn't coming for the minimum." Neither was Allen. Players who will usually have little other choice, because they come with baggage. Miami hit big on Chris Andersen (off-court concerns), did reasonably well with Rashard Lewis (knees) and has gotten little contribution, thus far, from Greg Oden (knees) or Michael Beasley (immaturity). So the trick is finding players with little risk, who are willing to take a little, but probably not a lot, less.

Second, while the Heat may find more players with Battier's perspectivechasing a championship for its own sake as well as the potential benefits beyondthose players are generally advanced in age. Riley conceded Thursday that he needs to "layer" the roster with some younger talent, and that "we would love to have players that are young who can grow into major roles."

But he added that the player "better be able to play." There's a corollary, due to the salary cap, especially if the Heat's Big Three don't opt out to clear a lot more room: The player better be willing to sacrifice. That may be a tough combination to find, which may have Riley turning to more thirty-somethingsguys such as Shawn Marion, Vince Carter and Caron Butlerto fill roster holes.

"The players that we decided [to add] over the last couple of years were in their prime and now they slipped out of their prime: Ray was off the charts as an athlete who was 37 years old," Riley said. "I still prefer the end-prime veteran who simply wants to move, come here, win a championship and can still have an impact on the team."

The question is how much the Heat can keep getting out of those guys who "get it."

3. Ray Allen may choose to keep playing.

But if he doesn't, he will retire at complete peace with his NBA career of 18 seasons. 

Ray Allen says that his choices of where to play in the NBA have been driven by a lot more than location.
Ray Allen says that his choices of where to play in the NBA have been driven by a lot more than location.Joe Murphy/Getty Images

"I was before I got to Boston, to be truthful," Allen said. "I never let whether I was going to win a championship affect how I was going to feel about how my career had gone. I wanted to be a winner. But if it never happened, I was content that I had championship habits and a work ethic that I could be happy with, and at peace with."

Allen won one championship after Seattle traded him to Boston, and another after he left Boston for Miami as a free agent. The latter experience gave him greater perspective about all the factors that go into such a decision, and how the pubic will perceive it.

"Really, you're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't," Allen said. "Because when you take less money, they still criticize you. And you go for money, they criticize you."

So what are the factors?

"You have to make a decision that is going to allow you to be happy after you sign that contract," Allen said. "Because once you sign a contract, you never think about how much money is coming into your checking account or your savings account every single month. You just ask yourself, are you happy with the team that you signed with, are you happy with the city that you live in? Those are decisions that you have to live in, long-term. And more important, the guys you play with, do you like them, and are you happy with them? So it's a very calculated decision. If you leave one situation and go into another one, what exactly are you dealing with?"

And while Allen has clearly enjoyed his time in Miami—recently deciding to buy the house that he'd been rentinghe downplayed the importance of a franchise's location.

"It's great because we get to live in great weather and this is an awesome city to live in, but for the most part, we don't partake in living in Miami the majority of the year because you are traveling and you're trying to stay off your feet," Allen said. "I played in Milwaukee, you know; it was cold, you didn't go outside. I played in Seattle; it rained a lot. So most of the cities in the NBA, at the end of the day, you do the same things consistently throughout. We do have the opportunity to go out and eat at night and be able to enjoy it on off days, but there are so many other things to consider."

For others, sure.

For Allen, there's one morewhether to continue playing anywhere at all.

4. Pat Riley began to make basketball matter in Miami in the 1990s.

Pat Riley's moves in the front office, and Miami's success on the court, has made the Heat the NBA's most polarizing team.
Pat Riley's moves in the front office, and Miami's success on the court, has made the Heat the NBA's most polarizing team.Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Then, in the past decade, he has made Miami basketball matter nationally and internationallyto the point where it seems like, sometimes, no other team matters as much to the media.

The downside to that is that many would welcome the Heat's downfall.

When Riley was asked about Wade on Thursday, he veered off into a riff about how no one on the Spurs faced the same heat for falling short in the 2013 NBA Finals as the stars on the Heat did after the '14 NBA Finals.

"They weren’t perceived in any one way," Riley said. "Were [Manu] Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard perceived as chokers when they missed the free throws? No, they weren’t. Was [Gregg] Popovich taken to task when his best rebounder wasn’t on the court when Chris Bosh found it and gave it to Ray Allen? No. Was Tony Parker on the court at the end of Game 7? No, he was on the bench, because there was a substitution pattern. They weren’t taken to task. It just sort slipped through their fingers. That's not how we're judged in Miami, I'm sorry. For some reason, we're judged a lot more harsher than that."

But big, bold and brash are part of what have made the Heat what they are. With outsized ambition comes outsized attention, and with that comes occasionally unfair assessment. Even so, as Riley well knows, it sure beats the alternativenot matteringno matter what.

5. LeBron James blamed himself more than others blamed him.

The Heat's collapse was so complete, with the complementary pieces contributing so inconsistently and inadequately, that even James' harshest critics eventually put the Game 1 cramping aside, and excused the Heat forward for his third NBA Finals defeat in five appearances.

Still, that cramp controversy again reminded everyone, including some of the game's greats, of the overwhelming scrutiny that James faces compared to those who came before. And before we leave the Finals behind entirely, it's worth relating what two of Michael Jordan's contemporaries, Grant Hill and Gary Payton, told Bleacher Report as they covered the series for their respective outlets, NBA TV and Fox Sports One.

The rise of social media and the expansion of sports coverage in every medium has put LeBron James under a level of scrutiny few great players before him have faced.
The rise of social media and the expansion of sports coverage in every medium has put LeBron James under a level of scrutiny few great players before him have faced.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

"We were just talking about that," Hill said before Game 3. "Obviously, Jordan got some criticism around year five or six, and he couldn't win. But once he won, he had such tremendous goodwill from the fans and everybody associated with the league. Once LeBron got over the hump, he's gotten some goodwill, too, but he's still such a polarizing presence. I don't know if it's just the part of the world that we live in, a sign of the times, but he can't do anything: He can't fall, he can't miss a shot, he can't have cramps. It's amazing."

As someone who has been in the spotlight, Hill added, "I'm impressed with how he handles it."

How would Hill?

"I'm not sure," he said. "I really don't know. Just get away from it, the chat rooms and all that. Try to keep a close circle, family and friends. The season is so long and taxing, even when you win, so you've just got to have some balance in your life, not take everything personally. But it's not easy."

Especially now.

"In our day, we didn't have this social media, we didn't have this Twitter, we didn't have this Instagram," Payton said. "And he's a marketable person, where he's in a lot of commercials, he's out in the limelight, so he's the target. And that's the target they want. They want him to be that guy. When he was in Cleveland, he couldn't win, he wasn't a big-time pressure player. And now he comes [to Miami], he wins championships, and everything that happens is still [his fault]."

Payton was especially irritated with the way James' cramping was widely portrayed.

"You play with a cramp and see what happens; you couldn't play with a cramp," Payton said. "And I hate it because, we look at Tony Parker when he got hurt and he didn't come back in the game against Oklahoma City (in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals), there wasn't anybody saying anything about it, because he's a superstar, but he's not a target like LeBron. Everyone says, 'Oh, he's hurt, we'll see what happens next week.' We didn't have T-shirts saying, 'Well, you play through it like Michael Jordan.' That's the way life is. He's that chosen one. They want to see him fail. That's all it is. They want to see him fail."

That is something Payton doesn't entirely understand, especially because "you never see this kid in any trouble. It's just not right...Michael Jordan didn't have to deal with it like this. I think this kid is dealing with too much. And I think he takes it in a good way. If anybody says, 'you're not human,' they're lying. He is human. And I know it does get to him at points, but he comes back and plays hard. He comes back and responds the way he should."

He responded well enough in the Finals.

The problem was that his teammates didn't.

Ethan Skolnick covers the Miami Heat for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @EthanJSkolnick.


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