Counting Out Miami Heat in Wide-Open Eastern Conference Is a Major Mistake

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Counting Out Miami Heat in Wide-Open Eastern Conference Is a Major Mistake
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Life after LeBron James won't be easy for the Miami Heat, but his exit shouldn't be considered a harbinger of the franchise's decline.

Thanks to Pat Riley's rapid response to what might otherwise have been a broader crisis, the organization quickly re-signed stars Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. It also added 10-year veteran Luol Deng to ensure some stability on a wing that will nevertheless miss LBJ dearly.

Around the periphery, Miami surrounded its core with proven commodities Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger and Mario Chalmers, and they'll be hoping that rookie point guard Shabazz Napier infuses new life into the squad sooner rather than later.

Riley will no doubt remain vigilant in his attempts to improve the team.

"I don’t like to get beat at anything," Riley said during a conference call after James' departure, according to The Miami Herald's Barry Jackson. "I want this team to be as competitive as it has ever been. I want our fans to know they will see a great team every night."

As The Miami Herald's Joseph Goodman reported in July, "In the moments before LeBron James announced his decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Heat president Pat Riley was already scrambling to throw together his contingency plan."

And in the weeks following James' return home, that plan has been executed as well as could be expected.

So now what?

The good news is that Bosh and Wade are probably better than we've been led to believe over the last four seasons. Their accomplishments were regularly overshadowed by James, and their abilities to make a more significant impact were curtailed in the interest of deferring to the league's best all-around player.

Miami's epic loss will create opportunities for the remaining stars to prove they're still firmly in the primes of their respective careers.

That doesn't necessarily mean that we'll witness a return to Wade's pre-LeBron form.

"I ain’t trying to go back five years," Wade said, according to The Miami Herald's Barry Jackson. "If we all could, we would, but that’s not likely… I’m used to something from the last four years. Until we get into training camp and the preseason games, you really don’t know how it’s going to be yet."

But cautionary caveats aside, the 32-year-old will be tasked with far more ball-handling and playmaking duties. There's little doubt the still-efficient guard can also be more productive. There was simply little reason for him to dominate the ball so long as James was around.

Increased responsibility will change all that.

Already, Wade should be in better shape than he was a season ago. Jackson notes that, "He hopes coming to camp lighter will reduce some of the load on his knees. While declining to divulge details, he said his weight is lower than at the start of training camp last season and he will continue to lose more.”

A healthier and more highly utilized version of Wade could yield serious dividends. 

He averaged a super-efficient 19 points per contest last season, posting a career-high 54.5 percent field-goal percentage in the process. With a few more shots each game, it seems unwise to bet against Wade leading the way for Miami and keeping the team in the title hunt.

Then there's Chris Bosh.

The 11-year veteran has watched his scoring and rebounding decline in each of the last four seasons, understandably giving rise to fears that he may never replicate the play that became commonplace prior to joining the Heat.

The 30-year-old averaged a career-high 24 points and 10.8 rebounds in his final season with the Toronto Raptors. He tallied at least 22.3 points per game in each of the four seasons before that.

Those days are probably over.

But like Wade, Bosh's recent numbers have had more to do with accommodating James than declining ability. If anything, the big man has radically expanded his game to include a dangerous three-point stroke. Bosh made 33.9 percent of 2.8 three-point attempts per game last season.

He attempted 3.7 three-pointers per game in the postseason, converting on 40.5 percent of them in the process.

Going forward, Bosh is likely to see more touches, and he's likely to see them in a greater variety of situations—sometimes playing with his back to the basket, sometimes facing up from mid-range. 

With increased use, Bosh should be a very capable sidekick for Wade, perhaps raising his game to levels not seen since 2010-11 when he averaged 18.7 points in his first campaign with the Heat.

More than any internal developments, it's the rest of the Eastern Conference that should give Miami its greatest hope. The would-be contender Indiana Pacers are reeling after Paul George's broken leg and Lance Stephenson's defection to the Charlotte Hornets. The Brooklyn Nets' hopes of entering the title conversation appear to be waning with Paul Pierce's departure.

And while the Cleveland Cavaliers have a bright future ahead of them, they're likely to face something of an adjustment period early on—even with the increasingly expected acquisition of Minnesota Timberwolves star Kevin Love.

The only threat in the East that's taken a decisive step forward is the Chicago Bulls. Should former MVP Derrick Rose remain healthy and in top form, Chicago would seemingly stand the best chance of replacing Miami in the NBA Finals—especially with Pau Gasol now on board in lieu of Carlos Boozer.

To be sure, upstarts like the Hornets, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards could assert themselves in what's become a conference-wide power vacuum. 

But the big difference is that Miami's actually been there and done that. Even without James, the Heat retain valuable institutional knowledge and one of the very best coaches in the business in Erik Spoelstra. That chemistry and experience at the highest levels could mean that Miami is still the team to beat out East.

New additions like Deng and McRoberts will certainly help, but Miami's biggest advantage is the fact that most of its core has remained intact. 

It hasn't been an ideal summer for the organization, but it could have been much worse. The Eastern Conference is there to be taken, and the Miami Heat have everything they need to take it.

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