This was not the way the Miami Heat offseason was supposed to play out.
Each of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh were expected to sacrifice for the greater good this summer—taking substantial pay cuts so Pat Riley could add a superstar like Carmelo Anthony or a very good player like Kyle Lowry to Miami’s selfless core. More championships were forthcoming.
ESPN.com’s Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst wrote in June:
The success of the Heat's 2010 free-agent bonanza has established them as the NBA's undisputed destination franchise, with owner Micky Arison empowering big-thinking team president Pat Riley to attempt to pull off another coup in the market despite new collective bargaining agreement rules aimed at preventing it.
Of course, that’s not exactly what happened.
LeBron James, as you may have read, returned to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers this month. And just like that the Miami title window slammed shut.
James’ relocation completely alters the range of possibilities for the Miami Heat—to say nothing of changing the Eastern Conference landscape or the NBA's.
Miami, with James, Wade and Bosh—plus an occasionally stellar supporting cast—had entered the last four regular seasons with a clearly understood ceiling: 60 plus wins and a championship.
Worst-case scenario, it seemed, was what happened in 2013-14: An underwhelming regular season followed by a Finals loss. A season like that would make the decade of most franchises.
But those days are over. And they’re replaced by what the Heat face now. Modest expectations, championship talk that is more aspirational than matter-of-fact.
"I think right now we have the correct infrastructure to compete for a championship,” Bosh told ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh after re-signing with Miami. No one believed it.
Below is a look at the new best- and worst-case scenarios for the new look Heat.
Best-Case Scenario: 50 Wins
Chris Bosh doesn’t just re-establish himself as a sound No. 1. He dominates.
The stretch 4 rules the interior, picking up where he left off in 2013-14, during which he finished fourth in the league in field-goal percentage from within five feet of the basket, according to NBA.com.
Bosh’s dominance extends to the outside, where he builds on his career-best three-point shooting of a season ago (33.9 percent on 218 attempts) by running up a 37 percent average. This, coupled with his continued accuracy from mid-range, not only makes Bosh a fringe-MVP candidate, but it opens up the rest of the Miami offense. His versatility draws enough attention from the D that his teammates are able to thrive with the open looks he creates.
Dwyane Wade is one such teammate. He’s renascent in 2014-15. He plays so well and so frequently (72 games, 20 points/5 rebounds/4 assists/23 PER) that there are whispers that he’s supplementing with more than kale shakes. He continues to struggle defensively, and he has certainly lost a step, but he maintains the bonkers scoring efficiency he developed with James in town (he had a career-high 58.8 true shooting percentage in 2013-14, per Basketball-Reference).
Luol Deng fits in immediately as a shutdown defender and scrappy scorer—rumors of his problems as a shooter turn out to be greatly exaggerated as Deng develops a functional three-point game.
Josh McRoberts builds on the strong 2013-14 season during which he shot over 36 percent from three-point land and thrives alongside the similarly able Bosh.
Shabazz Napier makes worry over his summer league struggles look laughable, taking the lion's share of Miami’s minutes at the point by November and putting together a stellar season—ultimately finishing second to Nerlens Noel in Rookie of the Year voting.
And, oh man, Chris Andersen. In a moderately expanded role, the occasionally immoderate big submits his best season as a pro. He averages a career-best eight points and seven rebounds a night and shoots 65 percent—posting his third consecutive season with a win shares per 48 minutes better than .2. The stats guys notice.
The Heat become one of the NBA’s feel-good stories on the way to winning 50 regular season games and finishing with the No. 3 seed in the East. Things reach a fever pitch when, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cavs, they defeat LeBron 103-97 on a 30-point 13 rebound effort from Bosh.
Cleveland sweeps the next four games. LeBron is a gentleman about it, all things considered.
Worst-Case Scenario: 30 Wins
Dwyane Wade is done. Finished. That much becomes clear as soon as the season gets underway. Whatever spring was left in his step in 2013-14 has been extinguished by the steady encroachment of old age. He’ll still play, sure, but he’ll never be a star again. Or even much of a contributor.
He averages 13 points on 45 percent shooting, while hewing to the same generous off-day schedule he did last season. And the less that’s said about his defense, the better.
Chris Bosh finds that life without LeBron is difficult. Without James drawing the attention of defenders in the low post, Bosh doesn’t get nearly the caliber of mid-range looks he’s accustomed to. So he misses a lot more of them.
While the veteran finds some success as an interior scorer, his struggles from outside sap his efficiency and create serious spacing issues for Miami’s offense. Deng can’t shoot. Nor can Wade. Neither can Napier. The only two members of the rotation that can routinely knock down an outside shot are Mario Chalmers and McRoberts.
The days of space and pace are long gone in Miami. The No. 2 offense in the NBA in scoring efficiency in 2013-14 falls to No. 20.
The defense, likewise, struggles. The exotic, effective trap-heavy D that Erik Spoesltra instituted can’t hold up without James at its heart. The Heat become conventional. And porous. An old, uncreative unit.
Wade is shut down at midseason and Miami sputters to a 30-52 record, its worst since 2007-08.
These two scenarios represent the poles, the respective outskirts of the likely range of outcomes for the 2014-15 Miami Heat. And though there are plenty of good reasons to think Miami's record will hew closer to the pessimistic projection, it feels like the season will play out closer to the first.
Dwyane Wade is declining, sure, but not quite as rapidly as his defensive implosion in the Finals suggests. Chris Bosh has demonstrated the offensive versatility to do whatever Miami asks of him. Acting as a No. 1 scoring option shouldn't be an exception. And Napier has a collegiate track record that suggests he's in for a fine season, Chris Andersen is Chris Andersen and Luol Deng seems poised for a bounce-back campaign after what he underwent in Cleveland.
And then there's Erik Spoelstra, who's proven to be a fine and inventive head coach. In his first season at the helm of the Heat, he took a 15-67 doormat and carried them, with an MVP-caliber season from Wade, to a 43-39 record. This is a more talented group than that one, and I suspect their record will reflect it.
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