What Miami Heat Absolutely Must Do to Compete with West's Best in 2014-15

Jim Cavan@@JPCavanContributor IJune 17, 2014

What Miami Heat Absolutely Must Do to Compete with West's Best in 2014-15

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    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    If not for one of the most miraculous plays in NBA history—a game-tying corner three from Ray Allen in Game 6 of the 2013 Finals—we’d be speaking of the Miami Heat in starkly different terms.

    As it stands, two titles in four seasons means Miami will at least be remembered as a generational power, if not a full-blown dynasty.

    With the summer’s free-agent frenzy set to begin, however, the Heat have perhaps more unanswered questions than any other league power.

    Foremost among them: With each having the right to opt out of his contract, where will LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh suit up next season?

    Even if the Heat bring back their Big Three, however, rounding out the roster stands to be a significant challenge indeed.

    To retain their status as the Eastern Conference’s foremost franchise, and to have any chance of beating the best of the West, Miami must address eight key questions in particular.

    If they don’t, this time next year may find fans wondering whether LeBron’s two titles were less a product of prudent planning than the random musings of Lady Luck.

Convince the Big Three to Take (Another) Pay Cut

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    As things stand today, James, Wade and Bosh would stand to make close to $62 million combined next season, assuming all three opt into the final year of their respective deals.

    When LeBron decided to take his talents to South Beach back in 2010, one of the underreported stories was how the Heat’s tantalizing troika left considerable cash on the table—enough, anyway, to fill in gaps with some semblance of serviceable depth.

    If the Big Three have any designs on furthering their Miami legacy, they’ll likely have to do it again. Luckily, as ESPN’s Brian Windhorst and Marc Stein first reported, those plans are already being put into preliminary motion:

    Getting James, Wade, Bosh, Haslem and Andersen to take pay cuts significant enough to open a significant slot for Anthony undoubtedly will be complex. It would require reductions that could stretch into the tens of millions over the next few seasons. Sources say the Heat's plan is to sell the players they wish to keep on the long-term benefits of making such a sacrifice.

    The Heat are in essence trying to emulate some of the longstanding policies employed by their current Finals opponent, as the Spurs have been able to keep Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili together for more than a decade -- while routinely strengthening the supporting cast around them -- because their three best players have been repeatedly willing to take pay cuts.

    This time around, however, the potential prize stands to be far, far more enticing than the merely marginal upgrades of seasons past.

Sign Carmelo Anthony

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    Stein and Windhorst report the Heat intend on pursuing Carmelo Anthony, whom the New York Knicks expect to opt out of his final year and test free agency.

    Back in February, Anthony told ESPN New York’s Ian Begley he’d be willing to take a financial haircut if it meant building a better Knicks roster “without a doubt.”

    Much has changed in the following few months, obviously, with Anthony looking less and less likely to re-sign with the Knicks, per Frank Isola of the New York Daily News.

    This is great news for the Heat, of course; Anthony and James in particular are known to be good friends, and if Melo is going to team up with anyone, who better than the three other headliners from the lauded 2003 draft class?

    If Miami were somehow able to ink the four All-Stars to four-year deals starting in the $15 million range—while getting Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem to scale back their own tenders a tad—the Heat would have enough room to fill out the roster.

    What’s more, with the luxury tax threshold slated to rise to $77 million, per the Miami Herald’s Barry Jackson, Miami should at least be able to minimize its obligations per the league’s repeater tax.

    Which is why Windhorst and Stein’s dispatch may have merely been the opening salvo to a rowdy rumor mill that ends with Melo in Miami black and red.

Upgrade (Slightly) at Point Guard

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    Coming off a dreadful Finals showing, Mario Chalmers may have officially secured his ticket out of South Beach.

    No one doubts that Chalmers is an NBA-quality point guard. Whether he’s the answer for these Heat—aging and with little in the way of an error’s margin—is a question with a wholly different answer.

    Quality backup though he’s become, Norris Cole isn’t the answer either. Instead, Miami should be looking to this summer’s free-agent crop for a floor general of the (very near) future.

    Two intriguing options are Ramon Sessions and Darren Collison. After a frustrating post-trade stint with the Milwaukee Bucks, Sessions will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Might the Heat be able to convince him to come to Miami at a discount?

    Collison, meanwhile, has a $1.9 million player option with the Los Angeles Clippers. The question here is whether playing backup to Chris Paul gives Collison a better shot at a title—and a future starting job—than suiting up with the Heat’s first five.

    One dark-horse candidate: Kyle Lowry, who, like Sessions, is slated to become a free agent on July 1. But after putting up the best statistical campaign of his career in 2013-14, it’s unclear whether a chance at a championship is enough to convince Lowry to bypass the big-time offers he must know are coming.

Bring Back Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis

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    If there’s one strategic tenet Miami most certainly will not be abandoning, it’s its emphasis on precise offensive spacing and—more importantly—employing deadeye shooters to exploit it.

    Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis both fit that mold, albeit to varying degrees of effectiveness and efficiency. At 38 and 34 years old, respectively, it’s unclear just how much Allen and Lewis have to give these Heat.

    Landing Melo should make it easier to convince these two longtime sharpshooters to stick around. In a reserve role, there’s little reason to believe Allen and Lewis can't cull a couple more seasons of reasonably productive play.

    Couple that with four combined years of familiarity with Erik Spoelstra’s “Pace and Space” offense, and you have a pair of useful cogs capable of making the most of their minutes, spot though they may well be.

Go After Trevor Ariza or Thabo Sefolosha

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    The San Antonio Spurs made mincemeat of Miami’s defense. And while the Heat have holes to fill across the board, perimeter D remains their biggest concern.

    As far as free-agent options go, Miami could target Thabo Sefolosha or Trevor Ariza—two prototypical “3-and-D” players tailor-made for the Heat’s style and approach.

    Each entails his own pitfall: Sefolosha in his allegiance to the Oklahoma City Thunder, for whom he’s been a reliable role player since the 2008-09 season, and Ariza with his potential price tag, fresh as he’ll be off a four-year, $32 million tender—at just 28 years old, no less.

    Beyond the obvious Carmelo coup, Heat president Pat Riley will have his work cut out for him convincing some of the summer’s free agents to sacrifice loyalty and money for the sake of joining one of the NBA’s signature franchises.

    Whether or not he can may mean the difference between another year of championship contention and a Big Three era that goes out not with a bang, but a whimper.

Bring Dwyane Wade off the Bench

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    As we noted in the Anthony slide, the Spurs serve as a tempting template for what you can achieve if your team’s best players are willing to forgo financial extremes.

    But there’s another, equally crucial San Antonio pillar the Heat would be wise to heed: Bringing their longtime starting shooting guard off the bench.

    In Manu Ginobili, the Spurs boast not only one of the league’s best, most decorated shooting guards, but one of the NBA’s premier sixth men as well. Could the Heat convince D-Wade to take on a similar role next season?

    It might take some convincing, but with Wade’s ailments continuing to pile up—the product of a career spent crashing and careening all over the court—scheduled nights off alone might not be enough to guarantee playoff effectiveness.

    By signing someone like Sefolosha or Ariza, the Heat would give themselves the positional flexibility that Danny Green gives the Spurs—a “starter” whose minutes may change depending on the match up—all while wielding a first-ballot Hall of Famer as a combination bench-sparkplug and late-game closer.

Draft an NBA-Ready Prospect

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    This one almost goes without saying.

    The Heat are not a team that’s liable to be “building for the future” any time soon. To the contrary, Riley and company have established a framework whereby every free-agent cycle will find the Heat playing the role of league Godfather.

    With one of the deepest drafts in recent memory mere weeks away, Miami—perhaps more than any other team—should be looking to draft based on need and need alone.

    What does Miami need, you ask? We’ve already touched on perimeter defense and depth, two areas that make someone like C.J. Wilcox—a 6’5” shooter out of the University of Washington with considerable defensive potential—an intriguing option.

    Miami could also use a bit of beef up front. Here, someone like Michigan State’s Adreian Payne (assuming he falls past his mid-first projection) would be an ideal play: Someone with the offensive skill set to stretch the floor and the defensive presence to make opponents second-guess their dribble-drives.

    Forget taking a first-round flier; the Heat need someone with an NBA-ready skill set capable of growing into his role through the regular season.

Get Back to Defensive Dominance

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    We heard it once during the NBA Finals broadcasts if we heard it a thousand times: Miami let their signature stifling defense slip a bit too much during the 2013-14 season, where they finished outside the top 10 for the first time in five years.

    Worse still, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, the Heat’s defensive drop-off began where you’d least expect:

    A year ago, James was upset about finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. But if he wanted to win the award this season, he didn’t show it. He had what was clearly his worst defensive season since before he was ever an MVP.

    Maybe the absence of Wade for 28 games put more of a burden on James offensively. Maybe three straight trips to The Finals had taken their toll. Or maybe he wasn’t in peak shape at the start of the season. Whatever the reason, the Heat’s defensive regression started with their best player.

    Spoelstra has proved himself a worthy offensive tactician. As such, the Heat—assuming their core remains intact—should be able to maintain their upper-echelon status.

    Defense, on the other hand, is something the Heat must address specifically. And while the play of James may well prove their biggest bellwether on this front, just as important is making sure he has the proper players—and the proper positioning thereof—behind him.