Are Miami Heat a Playoff Lock or a Fringe Team Next Season?

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Are Miami Heat a Playoff Lock or a Fringe Team Next Season?
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The Miami Heat will have their work cut out for them next season.

LeBron James’ free-agency departure for the Cleveland Cavaliers has left the team weakened, which means the Eastern Conference is no longer the cakewalk it once was for the Heat. Miami made four consecutive trips to the Finals during James’ four seasons with the franchise.

The four years prior?

Three first-round exits and a 15-win campaign.

The Heat won’t be as bad as they were leading up to acquiring James, but they certainly won’t match the level of success enjoyed during the LeBron years.

 

Gauging the Heat

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

The death of Miami’s Big Three will make it a little tough to accurately surmise what kind of team the Heat will be during the 2014-15 campaign.

Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are still members of the Heat, and that should give head coach Erik Spoelstra a fighting chance at fielding a very competitive team.

It should be noted that Wade was talented enough in his younger years to carry Miami to the postseason without much help (he also won Finals MVP when Miami won the 2006 title), while Bosh managed a similar feat during the 2006-08 period as a member of the Toronto Raptors.

He’s evolved as a player and will likely become the focal point of the Heat offense.

“I played with the best player in the world. I didn't have to be the alpha,” Bosh said to ESPN.com’s Tom Haberstroh in July. “But now, I get to see if I have it in me, and not many people are going to believe I have what's necessary. But that's what makes it exciting.”

Bosh became a spot-up shooter to complement the skills of Wade and James over the last four years, and it’s added an additional layer to his game.

He drilled 74 treys last year, which was more than his six previous seasons combined, according to Basketball-Reference.com. With James no longer occupying the low-post area, it’s safe to say Miami will utilize Bosh in that spot, among many others.

Sam Forencich/Getty Images

During his years in Toronto, he did a great job of scoring with his back to the basket and from the high post, and I doubt those skills have vanished. The addition of the three-point stroke will make him a matchup nightmare that most might not be prepared to handle. Think LaMarcus Aldridge with added range.

The one area where Bosh will suffer is in the efficiency department. LeBron was always the primary option in Miami, which meant defenders often converged on him. In turn, that opened up the floor for Bosh to make open jumpers.

NBA.com tells us James assisted on nearly a third of Bosh’s field goals last season, which speaks to the importance of LeBron as it pertains to Bosh's offense.

Miami will replace some of that lost playmaking with the addition of former Charlotte Hornet Josh McRoberts (acquired during free agency). He’s not a great passer, but he’s good enough to hit players in stride if a defender falls asleep or is a split-second late on a rotation.

Wade should also make things easier for Bosh because of his ability to get into the paint via post-ups and drives. He’s one of the better playmaking 2-guards in the league, and defenses will throw a bit of help Wade’s way in an effort to slow him down. The extra attention will benefit Bosh and the rest of his teammates.

With that said, Wade is a huge wild card. He missed 28 games during the 2013-14 season because of knee trouble, and it’s certainly possible this will be an issue again.

According to The Palm Beach Post’s Steve Dorfman, Wade has changed his diet in an effort to lose weight and reduce the wear and tear on his body, but one must consider the possibility that this will only do so much.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

In the event he sits out contests or compromises his game to better cope with his physical shortcomings, the Heat will need the rest of the roster to raise its level of play.

That’s hardly a given.

The veteran newcomers were all rotation players last year with their former teams, which essentially means they rated somewhere between mediocre and decent.

McRoberts averaged 30.3 minutes, 8.5 points and 4.8 rebounds while converting 43.6 percent of his shots, per Basketball-Reference.

Luol Deng, who will likely replace LeBron in the starting unit, produced 16 points and 5.7 rebounds in his 35.1 minutes per game with the Chicago Bulls and Cleveland Cavaliers. He made 43.1 percent of his field goals.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Now might be a good time to point out that team president Pat Riley sold Deng as a savior after obtaining his commitment. “Signing Luol Deng is one of the most important free agent signings that we have ever had in the history of the franchise,” Riley said in July, per Miami Herald’s Joseph Goodman.

I realize that Deng’s contract fits perfectly within the grand scheme of the Heat’s cap situation, but Riley may have exaggerated a bit.

Miami positioned itself to have a boatload of cap space in the summer of 2016, when the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Durant becomes a free agent. That’s great long-term planning, but it does very little in the immediate future.

What’s more, Danny Granger will back up Deng next season, and that’s not exactly a great proposition. Granger only appeared in 41 games last year due to knee issues (great, another wing player with those) and gave his teams very little in a second-unit role.

He averaged 20.7 minutes, 8.2 points and 3.2 rebounds on 37.8 percent shooting from the field.

These players simply won’t come close to reproducing the offense the Heat had while James was in a Miami uniform. Perhaps improved point guard play could help offset some of the creativity lost with LeBron’s exodus, but the Heat brought back the erratic Mario Chalmers.

They also drafted Shabazz Napier, and I’m not yet sold on him being a superior player to Chalmers or Norris Cole for that matter. Until I see him consistently create quality shots against NBA players, I'll be inclined to believe it will be a problem area considering he's a scoring guard.

The Heat will take a big step back, and it might actually look huge with the way the East is shaping up.

 

Beasts in the East

The Eastern Conference will field some very good teams next season, and that will complicate Miami’s playoff push.

Cleveland added LeBron and will acquire Kevin Love from the Minnesota Timberwolves, according to Yahoo Sports’ Adrian Wojnarowski.

David Sherman/Getty Images

The tandem of Love and James will join Kyrie Irving and give the Cavs the best trio in the East. Based on ESPN’s Summer Forecast, the Cavs are now projected to finish with the best record in the conference.

Not too far behind them are the Chicago Bulls. An argument could be made that Chicago has made the second-biggest acquisition of any team in the East by welcoming back Derrick Rose.

He’s been sidelined for most of the last two years because of  knee injuries, but his Team USA showings would indicate that he hasn’t lost a step.

The Bulls have looked formidable in recent years with a healthy Rose, and there is little reason to believe that will change. The additions of Pau Gasol, Doug McDermott and Nikola Mirotic certainly reinforce that.

Chicago and Cleveland will be the power teams in the conference, while a couple of other one will challenge Miami’s march to the playoffs.

The Toronto Raptors mostly stood pat this offseason, and they could certainly afford to do that after winning 48 games last season. Interesting enough, they might actually be better this time around.

Last year, the team was 7-12 prior to the Rudy Gay trade and rebounded with a 41-22 record after sending him away to the Sacramento Kings.

Gay wasn’t necessarily everything that was wrong with the Raptors in those 19 games, but he was certainly part of the problem. Gay held onto the ball far too long in an effort to set himself up, and it bogged down the offense. One can forgive that on some level for a player in the caliber of Carmelo Anthony, but Gay is nowhere near that.

He was an inefficient scorer in Toronto (38.8 percent from the field with Raps), struggled to create high-percentage looks and gave the Raptors next to nothing defensively despite his impressive athleticism.

Toronto took off once he was jettisoned, and it might do better next season with Gay away from the team for the entire 82-game stretch.

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Also, don’t sleep on the acquisition of Lou Williams via trade. Basketball-Reference tells us he averaged 15.6 points and 5.2 assists per 36 minutes for the Atlanta Hawks during the 2013-14 season.

He’s a shifty ball-handler who creates shots in one-on-one situations. Williams plays both guard spots and should fortify Toronto’s bench.

The Raptors might very well win the Atlantic Division again, but the No. 3 seed might now be out of reach. The Washington Wizards are bringing back mostly the same core, and one could argue they’ve upgraded the small forward spot with Paul Pierce.

Trevor Ariza was the starter last year, but he signed with the Houston Rockets this offseason, his second stint with the team.

Pierce is a superior individual scorer and will contribute in the long-range shooting department as well.

Head-to-Head 2013-14 per 36-minute stats
Player Pts per 36 mins Rbs per 36 mins FG% 3PT FG%
Trevor Ariza 14.6 6.3 .456 .407
Paul Pierce 17.3 6.0 .451 .373

Basketball-Reference.com

The one area where I believe Pierce will elevate the Wizards is in late-game situations. He’s been great throughout his career in this setting because of his ability to get separation and shoot in the face of defenders. As his former coach Doc Rivers loved to say, Pierce is a “professional scorer.”

Granted, we have to take into consideration that he will be 37 years old by the time training camp starts. Thus, Pierce might be a step slower when compared with last year, and he could even sit out games to preserve his body for the playoffs.

If such is the case, Washington could slip out of the race for the third seed and watch the Hawks swoop in.

Atlanta made the playoffs last year despite the fact its best player (Al Horford) only appeared in 29 games due to a torn pectoral.

Horford’s return coupled with the stellar play of Paul Millsap and the impeccable shooting of Kyle Korver make the Hawks a playoff lock.

The three remaining Eastern Conference playoff spots are up for grabs.

The Charlotte Hornets, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Detroit Pistons, Indiana Pacers and Miami will have to battle it out for a playoff berth.

Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Brooklyn’s core of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett is really interesting and can compete for one of the top records in the East.

However, Williams’ ankles haven’t consistently held up, and Lopez has two seasons in which he played under 20 games. Also, Garnett, age 38, apparently is considering retirement.

New head coach Lionel Hollins shared some thoughts on the matter with Bleacher Report’s Jared Zwerling.

“It's his right to make that decision or change his mind if he has decided to come back or not come back,” Hollins said. “I'm not worried about that. That's out of my control. That's a decision that KG and his family have to make, and I'll leave it with him.”

The Nets are a bit of a question mark, but I suspect they’ll get into the playoffs.

We’re down to two spots.

Charlotte added Lance Stephenson via free agency but lost Josh McRoberts. The Hornets were seeded seventh in last year’s playoffs and could jump up to sixth with the improved perimeter production Stephenson will provide.

One spot left.

After losing Stephenson to Charlotte and Paul George to a broken leg, Indiana is likely out of the playoff picture, but it could still make a run and win 40 games. The Pistons look like a long shot, but new head coach Stan Van Gundy has a track record of getting his teams into the playoffs, which should make fringe units sweat just a bit.

New York is the great unknown here. It could win anywhere between 35 and 45 games, and I wouldn’t be surprised. There are some decent pieces on the team, but until we see how new Knicks head coach Derek Fisher integrates the talent, it’s tough to really gauge what their ceiling is.

All of which brings us back to Miami and where it'll end up in the playoff race.

 

Miami Gets in…Barely

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The Heat will make the playoffs next season, but it certainly won’t be an easy task.

Miami will have an elite power forward with Bosh, but the jury is still out on what Wade will be able to contribute.

I’m just not convinced that the Wade of old will resurface and plug up holes the way he did pre-LeBron. He’s no longer a rim-protector, perimeter nuisance (defensively) or explosive finisher. Miami got by in spite of that because the other Heatles could mask some of his deficiencies, but those days are gone.

Furthermore, some of the Eastern Conference teams have improved, which means the Heat will have to fight for the first time in four years just to get into the playoffs.

I believe Miami will ultimately make it because Spoelstra will get his troops to buy in on the defensive end. The Heat slipped last season on this front with LeBron on the roster, but it was probably a product of the team going to four consecutive Finals. Miami played with an on and off switch, which was mostly evident in its defensive intensity.

That will likely change considering the change in team dynamics. The offense will take a bit of a dive without No. 6, and the best way to mitigate that is by limiting the opposition’s scoring.

The 2014-15 Heat will forge a strong defensive identity with a cast of characters who will embrace the challenge of rebounding in the aftermath of James’ departure.

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