Can Chris Bosh-Led Heat Still Contend with Eastern Conference Heavyweights?

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Can Chris Bosh-Led Heat Still Contend with Eastern Conference Heavyweights?
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In a move almost as surprising as LeBron James' decision to return to Cleveland, former teammate Chris Bosh has reportedly opted to remain with the Miami Heat.

According to Yahoo Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski, "Chris Bosh has reached agreement on a five-year, $118 million contract to re-sign with the Miami Heat, league sources told Yahoo Sports."

Wojnarowski notes that, "After LeBron James announced he was leaving the Heat to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Bosh strongly considered a four-year, $88 million offer to sign with the Houston Rockets."

He adds, "The Heat are pushing to keep Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem on shorter deals, sources told Yahoo Sports. Bosh, Wade and Haslem all opted out of their contracts to give the Heat cap flexibility to improve their roster after James became a free agent."

In other words, Heat president Pat Riley isn't keen on the idea of contemplating a protracted rebuild just yet. Instead, he's gunning to keep the remainder of his championship group intact—no doubt hoping that more modest retooling will obviate the need for robust rebuilding.

As Riley put it in a statement responding to James' decision, "[Owner] Micky [Arison], [head coach] Erik [Spoelstra] and I remain committed to doing whatever it takes to win and compete for championships for many years to come. We've proven that we can do it and we'll do it again."

The obvious question is whether his plan—such as it is so far—has a chance.

Bosh is certainly a start.

Though the 30-year-old adopted a reduced role while playing alongside James and Wade, there's little doubt he can—and will—become more of a focal point in the post-LeBron world. Last season, Bosh averaged just 16.2 points and 6.6 rebounds. In contrast, he put up 24 points and 10.8 rebounds during his last campaign with the Toronto Raptors in 2010.

Of course, that was four years ago, so there's no telling whether a return to form will be automatic. But Miami certainly has reason to be hopeful, especially given Bosh's evolution into a dangerous three-point shooter.

The Georgia Tech product has developed a consistent perimeter shot, cashing in on 33.9 percent of his three-point attempts last season. That figure improved during the postseason, when Bosh made 40.5 percent of his 3.7 three-point attempts per game.

That kind of versatility could yield major dividends with the inevitable increase in touches Bosh is likely to see in the wake of LeBron's departure.

Should Wade follow Bosh's lead, the Heat will at least have two stars either still in or close to their primes. Like Bosh, Wade has spent the last four seasons deferring. He's likely to see an uptick in usage as well, though it's certainly unlikely he'll once again emerge as a dominant scorer.

But even with Bosh and—potentially—Wade back in the fold, Riley has some work to do.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The good news is that he'll have some cap flexibility with which to do it.

Miami won't inherit a superstar this summer (unless Carmelo Anthony unbelievably jumps into the equation), but it could certainly land a serviceable second-tier free agent such as the in-demand Luol Deng or Trevor Ariza. It goes without saying neither would fully replace James, but either could keep Miami competitive in a soft Eastern Conference.

The organization also now has an opportunity to upgrade its point guard position at some point down the road.

What happens imminently is anyone's guess, but NBCSports.com's Kurt Helin outlines his short-term forecast for Miami:

The Heat on the court are going to be a version of what they were — small ball. They are bringing back Chris Bosh on a max deal and will play Josh McRoberts at the four. They are working on a deal to bring Dwyane Wade back and while Chicago has reached out it's hard to imagine Wade bolting Miami, too. With that the Heat should make the playoffs in the East (plus they are going hard at Luol Deng, which makes them very interesting).

Interesting, yes.

But contenders?

Miami may have to give up on that dream for now, lest it forgo the chance to contend in the long term. If nothing especially attractive materializes, Miami's best move may be to do what the Los Angeles Lakers did last season—sign guys to one-year deals, thereby preserving long-term cap space.

The worst thing Riley could do is drastically overspend on someone such as Deng, potentially forfeiting the club's ability to make a run at major superstars down the road.

Two other principles should hold true for Riley in the near future.

First, acquiring any and all assets is a must. Rather than scouring the free-agent market, the Heat's future may well depend on making the right trade. Doing so would first require the organization to position itself with young talent and draft picks—two things that are fairly scarce at the moment.

Second, Miami's standard operating procedure in terms of team building may need to adopt a new approach. There won't always be opportunities to form a star-laden Big Three, and there are certainly examples of teams that have been successful with far less star power—namely the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs.

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Riley could take a page out of the Spurs' book, looking to build a team from the inside-out with well-scouted talent and capable role players. Though some still think of the NBA as a "superstar's league," there's a strong case to be made that sustainable success without the biggest of names is still entirely possible.

Possibilities aside, it's more difficult to predict what this team can realistically do without a four-time MVP leading the way.

The good news is that the East isn't nearly as crowded as the Western Conference when it comes to upper-level clubs.

The Indiana Pacers will remain dangerous. The Cleveland Cavaliers could become an instant contender if the organization is able to acquire Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves. The Chicago Bulls could become something special with another piece, especially if that piece is Carmelo Anthony.

But outside of those three teams, you're really looking at a conference defined by up-and-comers such as the Toronto Raptors and Charlotte Hornets, teams that almost certainly remain a season or two away from making championship-caliber noise.

The Brooklyn Nets are something of a wild card, but they probably don't represent an insurmountable task for the Bosh-led Heat.

In short, there's hope.

At least when it comes to returning to the NBA Finals. Doing any damage against Western Conference powerhouses such as the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder is a different story altogether.

And in fairness to Miami, it's a story that's yet to be written. Before we make any bold proclamations about this team's ceiling, we'll have to wait for Riley's last say.

He's earned that much.

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