December 8, 2007.
Miami Heat was 5-14, had lost four out of their last five, lost point guard Jason Williams to an ankle injury, and they were on a downward spiral that would eventually become an injury-riddled 15-67 season.
Now, exactly a year later, the 2008-2009 Miami Heat squad is completely different.
They are 12-9, have won four straight games (their first four-game winning streak in nearly two years), and have won five out of their last six games. As you can see, this team has clearly turned around from last year's disaster and are just three wins away from reaching last year's win total.
This reemergence begins and ends with their savior and superstar, Dwyane 'Flash' Wade. The 2006 Finals MVP is playing at an unreal level. He is leading the league in scoring, with an impressive 28.9 points per game, over the likes of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.
He is also averaging 7.7 assists per game, which is seventh-best in the NBA, to go along with five rebounds, 2.4 steals, and 1.8 blocks per game. He completely fills up a stat sheet, and is the prime reason the Heat have a winning record and are in the thick of the Eastern Conference race.
In addition to Wade's stellar play, the Heat are receiving strong play from their entire starting lineup and enjoying a potent offense. They are 13th in the league in scoring, with 99.1 points per game, which is a monumental improvement from last year's 91.4 PPG that was good enough for last in the NBA. They also have improved from 23rd in the league in assists to 13th.
They are receiving very solid play from Shawn Marion, Udonis Haslem, and Mario Chalmers, who represent three-fifths of the starting lineup.
Marion has stepped up recently, boosting his averages to 12.6 PPG, 9.4 boards, and 1.5 blocks per game. After a slow start, he has posted two double-doubles in his last three games.
Haslem has been the Heat's most consistent rebounder this year. He posts averages of 12.4 PPG and 9.2 rebounds per game. He has had three straight double-doubles and is playing at a high level.
Chalmers, the rookie from Kansas, is really panning out to be a great pick up for Miami. He has emerged as the starting point guard by posting nine points per game to go along with 4.5 assists and 2.1 steals. His defensive presence has been huge in this early season.
As much as the defense has been criticized this season, it really hasn't been terrible. Miami is averaging 6.1 blocks per game, which is sixth-best in the NBA, and a huge improvement from their 4.2 blocks per game last year.
They are also averaging 8.9 steals per game, which is fourth-best in the league, and up from last year's 7.7. In addition to that, they are allowing 97.6 points per game, compared to last year's 100 points a game.
Another thing that has been highly criticized is their inability to rebound, due to their lack of size. But, while last year they were the worst-rebounding team in the NBA, this year they have improved by over two rebounds per game.
Although they have moved up in the rankings, they are still in the bottom half of the league, and still need to get much better in that department.
So with all these improvements, what separates the Heat from being an elite team rather than just a good team? After watching their games, it is clear that the lack of size (aka rebounding), lack of bench depth, and inexperience are contributing to their mediocrity.
Hopefully these things will be able to change sooner rather than later. Jamaal Magloire has returned from his injury, which will provide depth at the center position and give that needed size. In addition, Joel Anthony has recently been inserted in the starting lineup as center, which has helped the rebounding.
As for the lack of depth on the bench, both Dorrell Wright and James Jones are slated to return from injuries some time in January. This will give the Heat a huge boost off the bench, with Wright grabbing rebounds and Jones knocking down three-pointers on a consistent basis.
As for experience, that will just come with time and going through what Wade calls 'growing pains.'
The Miami Heat is starting to look very good as they ride this four-game victory streak. They are looking to erase last year's memories and focus on having a successful 2008 campaign. According to Udonis Haslem, this shouldn't be a problem.
''Our team was never really as bad as last year's record,'' Haslem said. "It's good to see that we've put last year behind us and moved on. Last year doesn't really even cross my mind. It's a season I'd rather forget.''
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