How Long Will It Take for Miami Heat to Become a Real Threat Again?

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How Long Will It Take for Miami Heat to Become a Real Threat Again?
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Replacing LeBron James isn't possible.

There is no substitute for the NBA's best player, a common concept that undoubtedly reads like a broken record and has been reiterated over and over.

However, it bears repeating over and over for the Miami Heat, their fans and anyone who is under the impression that the road back to legitimate contention will not be an easy one.

Despite everything the Heat have done in the wake of James' return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, they still aren't whole. Losing James creates a gaping whole that cannot and will not be filled in a few weeks, months or even a year.

This offseason has been about survival, not necessarily preserving what are now outdated hopes. If the Heat somehow rebound in abbreviated fashion, great. If they don't, that's to be expected.

Whatever happens, they're going to need time. What remains to be seen is how much.

 

What the Heat Have

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Are they closer than we think?

Perhaps. They're most certainly closer to full-blown restoration than the Cavs were four years ago, as team president Pat Riley didn't hesitate to point out to reporters:

No doubt we lost a great player. I don't get hurt...The hurt didn't last long. We picked up the phone and went to work. Sometimes, things happen that you don't like, but you have to move on. I feel really good about where we are right now at this moment. I feel we are up to the challenge and will be as competitive as anyone in the Eastern Conference.

Indeed, Riley and the Heat went to work fast, leaving no stone unturned as they explored every option available to them. They even put a call in to free agent Carmelo Anthony, according to the Miami Herald's Barry Jackson, an obligatory and fruitless overture, but demonstrative all the same.

And what the Heat have wound up with thanks to their assertiveness isn't bad. It's good.

Better than good.

Chris Bosh returned on a massive five-year deal, Dwyane Wade stayed at a discount and the Heat convinced Luol Deng to join their cause. The returns of Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers are not to be overlooked, nor are the additions of Danny Granger and Josh McRoberts.

Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Deng was a huge get for Miami.

Waiting around was never an option. Where certain teams would have bided time and cap space, the Heat struck quickly. They didn't let Bosh go to the Houston Rockets—they paid him handsomely instead. They didn't settle on him and Wade eitherthey added a two-time All-Star.

Hope—albeit a different kind of hope—exists. 

The Heat still registered the equivalent of a top-11 defense without James last season, according to NBA.com. They still have two elite scorers in Bosh and Wade, who, in theory, can anchor an offense. 

They still have enough to avoid the draft lottery and even make the playoffs.

That's an incredible first step.

 

What the Heat Don't Have

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What the Heat still don't have is an established floor general.

Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole aren't true point guards, and Shabazz Napier is as raw as they come. Talented playmakers have become requisite assets for legitimate contenders, and without James, the Heat fall short there.

More than 80 percent of Bosh's made field goals came off assists last year, and nearly 29 percent of his made buckets were assisted by James himself.

Though he'll need to be more self-sustaining as a No. 1 option, playing him alongside someone—other than Wade—who can create scoring opportunities for him remains paramount.

Wade's scoring was more self-made than Bosh's, but James still assisted on 16.6 percent of his baskets. There's also no escaping the fact that Miami's effective field-goal percentage—which takes into account two- and three-pointers—plummeted by six points when James was off the floor.

Moreover, there's no ignoring that the Heat had the equivalent of a bottom-10 offense when he was on the bench

Not one of the players they acquired will begin to replace James' boundless impact. Not Deng, not McRoberts, not Granger.

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Wade's future production is still a question mark.

For all the Heat are capable of doing without James—especially on defense—they still need a point guard to tie everything together. Otherwise, they'll be left with Wade as their primary quarterback, all while knowing he himself presents problems of his own.

Or rather, as CBSSports.com's Zach Harper acknowledges, he presents (plenty of) questions:

What does that reinvention include and how realistic is it? Could one of the worst 3-point shooters in NBA history find a way to go the route of Jason Kidd and find greater accuracy from downtown as his hair turns grey? Will Wade come back in better shape than last season (some around the league wondered if he was a little overweight)? Or will enhancing Wade's longevity come with more games played than last season (54), but with fewer minutes per game attached in a Spurs-ian way managing health?

Flash's efficiency—for which he was lauded last season—regressed spectacularly without James on the floor:

Wade's Per-36 Minute Efficiency
FG% 3P% PTS Off. Rtg. Def. Rtg. Net Rtg.
Wade Overall 54.5 28.1 20.9 107.2 102.7 4.5
With James 56.3 30.4 18.2 109.0 102.0 7.0
Without 52.4 22.2 25.9 103.6 104.0 -0.4

NBA.com.

In addition to managing his health and availability, and adjusting his game to jive with his age- and body-related limitations, the Heat will have to hope helike Boshcan relearn how to succeed without James.

Transitions don't get any more difficult or uncertain. Not after four years of acting and performing in accordance with the world's best player.

 

Imminent Opportunity

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Incomplete as they are, the Heat have done enough to remain relevant.

The Eastern Conference structure has helped, too.

When naming teams that are, without question, better than the Heat are now, options are exhausted rather quickly. There's the Cavaliers, because, LeBron. There's the Chicago Bulls if Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol can remain healthy. Then there's the, well, there's the...um...yeah.

There is no other team, no faction that will be definitively better.

After losing Paul George to an "open tibia-fibula fracture," and having already lost Lance Stephenson to the Charlotte Hornets, the Indiana Pacers' 2014-15 campaign is ruined. Maybe they band together and scrape by, but they are not the threat they once were.

Charlotte itself figures to be much-improved after bringing in Stephenson, Marvin Williams and Noah Vonleh, but chemistry can be an issue and there's no forecasting how many wins newcomers add to a 43-win team with a dearth of shooting.

The Washington Wizards still look good, yet their progress is predicated on the development of John Wall and Bradley Beal more than anything. They replaced Trevor Ariza with Paul Pierce—a marginal upgrade at best—and are still at the mercy of Nene's health to an extent.

Kyle Lowry's return to the Toronto Raptors, coupled with DeMar DeRozan's growth and Lou Williams' arrival, keeps them dangerous, but how dangerous? More so than a team built around Wade, Bosh and Deng? 

While garnering frequent praise under Mike Budenholzer's control, the Atlanta Hawks are not elite. Improvement must come from within, and much of their fate is tethered to Al Horford's health.

Cases can be made for the New York Knicks (new system), Brooklyn Nets (new coach) and Detroit Pistons (new shooters), but again, nothing about their standing is certain.

Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

That puts Miami in the thick of it all, with three stars who provide enough firepower to hang in the parity-promoting Eastern Conference, an executive afraid of nothing and no one in Riley, and, most importantly, a wildly underrated coach in Erik Spoelstra.

Bleacher Report's Jim Cavan says he is on the cusp of unbridled sideline stardom:

Back then it was Riley—fresh off a disastrous 15-win season just two years after guiding the Heat to their first-ever championship—who was looking to pass along the baton. His choice: a 38-year-old former video coordinator and longtime assistant who’d never held a single head coaching job.

Two banners and six consecutive postseason appearances later, it’s clear that Riley saw, and very much still sees, something special in Erik Spoelstra.

Now it’s time for everyone else to follow suit.

Everything the Heat have loses luster when compared to what they had. What they have, however, is enough to put up a fight in the Eastern Conference.

How long will it be until the Heat are legitimate title contenders again?

Submit Vote vote to see results

"I think right now we have the correct infrastructure to compete for a championship," Bosh told ESPN.com's Tom Haberstroh.

An Eastern Conference championship? Maybe.

An NBA championship? Not at all. But, under the circumstances, they're not far from being that same, terrorizing threat again.

Not far at all.

 

Stats courtesy of NBA.com unless otherwise cited.


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