LeBron James is with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
This is the salient fact about the 2014-15 Miami Heat. Like a tofu burger, they’re defined by what’s absent. But this doesn’t mean the Heat are necessarily doomed this season, or that their quest for a fifth straight Eastern Conference title is a non-starter.
The Heat are a long shot to win, sure. But it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario where a proud old Miami team manages to sneak out of the East.
It starts with Chris Bosh, who will be Miami’s No. 1 offensive option in 2014-15. It’s counterintuitive, but the concern with this arrangement stems from the very thing that made him so great as a supporting player in Miami these last four seasons: his terrific mid-range game.
But fortunately for Bosh, he’s nearly as adept from other areas of the floor. Last season, the former Toronto Raptor finished fourth in the NBA in field-goal percentage from within five feet of the basket, per NBA.com, and hit 33.9 percent of his career-high 218 three-point attempts.
He will, of course, have to deal with more defensive attention with LeBron gone, but if Bosh can manage to build on these successes, especially the triple—a recent, and welcome, addition to his game—Miami will have a highly efficient, versatile offensive threat at the center of its attack. Sound familiar?
Dwyane Wade, likewise, could have a highly productive season for Miami in 2014-15. One of the quiet triumphs of the 2013-14 Heat was the production they coaxed out of a declining Wade through savvy minute management. Miami held the 32-year-old out of 28 games and played him a career-low 32.9 minutes a night when he did suit up. He responded.
Wade enjoyed a career-best 58.8 true shooting percentage, per Basketball-Reference, finished second among all league guards in player efficiency rating and—despite ebbing athleticism—posted per-100-possession averages that were, nearly across the board, on par with his career norms.
Then there’s Miami’s supporting cast, which looks strong and potentially elite.
Luol Deng is a much more conventional talent than LeBron James, but he’s an aces perimeter defender who—despite a middling perimeter game—manages to score at a reasonably efficient rate. Though he’s played 26,000 career minutes in the regular season and the playoffs, Deng is just 29 and was in the All-Star game as recently as 2012-13.
Shabazz Napier, according to Sports-Reference, led the nation in win shares during the 2013-14 college season. Given his polish, production, winning experience and relatively advanced age (he’s 23), he could be an immediate contributor for Miami, offering the Heat some shot creation and scoring punch out of the point guard spot that they’ve long gone without.
Josh McRoberts, the offseason addition from the Charlotte Bobcats who turned 27 in February, could also prove to be a potent weapon. The super-stretchy stretch 4 attempted a career-best 3.7 triples per game last season and made good on 36.1 percent of them. If he can maintain, or improve on, these numbers, the Heat will have another dynamic offensive threat to round out the roster.
This team could be especially feisty in what should, again, be a wholly unimpressive Eastern Conference.
The Indiana Pacers suffered a huge loss when Lance Stephenson decamped for the Charlotte Bobcats. Indy took a crippling blow when Paul George went down, (for what will surely be the entirety of the coming season), with a gruesome injury during a FIBA scrimmage on Friday night.
The Chicago Bulls rode their typically suffocating defense and an MVP-caliber season from Joakim Noah to 48 wins, and they’ll benefit from arguably the second-most consequential addition in the conference when Derrick Rose returns to action. They’re interesting, but given questions about Rose’s health and rustiness and Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau’s tendency to wear his teams out during the regular season with his relentless style, the Bulls might not be there in the end.
The Washington Wizards are ascendant, as John Wall and Bradley Beal both appear to be on the cusp of stardom, but the Wiz lost Trevor Ariza in the offseason. The veteran quietly led Washington in wins produced, according to Boxscore Geeks, and finished second on the team in wins shares, per Basketball-Reference. This is a significant loss for a 44-win team to withstand. The team did add Paul Pierce, a helpful if aging player, and the underrated Dejuan Blair to offset Ariza's departure, but this tinkering hardly definitively places the Wizards above Miami in the conference hierarchy.
Can the Miami Heat win the Eastern Conference in 2014-15?
The Toronto Raptors should be a very strong team. And, of course, the Cleveland Cavaliers are poised to have a monster season if and when the Kevin Love trade, which ESPN's Brian Windhorst told ESPN New York radio show hosts Stephen A. Smith and Ryan Ruocco is already done, goes through some time after August 23. But an injury or two could easily disrupt the championship aspirations of these teams. And, in the case of the Cavs, as the Heat know full well, title teams aren’t usually built overnight. It takes some time for the parts to gel, to come together, to learn how to complement and enhance the abilities of their teammates.
If everything breaks right for this iteration of the Heat, 50 wins seems possible. Couple this 95th percentile season with a few of their Eastern Conference competitors hitting speed bumps along the way, and it doesn’t strain credulity to imagine the Heat representing the conference in the 2015 NBA Finals. They're not the favorite by a long shot, but Miami could certainly be in the hunt.
"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 in the wake of LeBron’s departure.
It would take some doing for Miami’s depleted infrastructure to get there, but Bosh might be right.