X

Miami Heat Will Be Biggest Wild Card of 2015-16 NBA Season

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistJuly 10, 2015

WASHINGTON,DC - December 1: Chris Bosh #1 and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat stand on the court before the national anthem before the game against the Washington Wizards on December 1, 2014 at Verizon Center in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2014 NBAE (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Ned Dishman/Getty Images

No team will carry more question marks into the 2015-16 NBA season than the Miami Heat.

If enough of those inquiries are answered in the affirmative, the Heat could have an Eastern Conference heavyweight contender on their hands. But if the puzzle pieces don't fit as well as they do on paper—or are denied an opportunity to come together by the injury bug again—this club could struggle to make substantial movement in the standings.

Nothing about volatility is comfortable. There is no such thing as security when the floor can collapse without a moment's notice.

Yet there's also an undeniable excitement about Miami's cavernous split between its best- and worst-case scenarios. It doesn't take measuring tape to notice that the Heat have a skyscraper's ceiling.

Their roster is, at the very least, intriguing. It's not only the number of notable names but the top-shelf production those players have proved they can provide.

Miami's projected starting five for next season—Goran Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and Hassan Whiteside—piled up some absurd individual statistics the last time around. Collectively, that quintet tallied 84.7 points per game in 2014-15, a shade below what the entire New York Knicks team posted on a nightly basis (91.9).

Four of those five players had a player efficiency rating of at least 17.4, which ranked inside the top 70 of those who averaged at least 20 minutes a night. The lone exception, Deng, still had an above-average mark of 15.5.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

If the two-time All-Star is the weak link in Miami's opening lineup, then this pairing potentially has no discernible holes.

"With a complete roster, we can contend in the East," Heat president of basketball operations Pat Riley said, via the Sun Sentinel's Ira Winderman, "and I mean contend high. We're going to go for it."

MIAMI, FL - MARCH 16: Goran Dragic #7 and Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat talk during a game against the Cleveland Cavaliers at American Airlines Arena on March 16, 2015 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by dow
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

As the architect of this roster, Riley obviously has a vested interest in its success. So his words about this team's potential are probably best digested with a generous serving of salt.

The only thing is, he's not the only one who feels that way.

"This Heat group will still have plenty to prove, in terms of fitness and compatibility," wrote Bleacher Report's Josh Martin. "On paper, though, Miami could be right back in the thick of things in the East after tumbling into the lottery last season."

Just think about what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra now has at his disposal.

Dragic has the energy of a spark plug and the efficiency of a star (50-plus percent shooting in each of the last two seasons). Wade is a tactician in the half-court who has a knack for coming through in the clutch (third-highest fourth-quarter scoring average in 2014-15 at 6.9 per game). Bosh can score in the post, shoot from long range and defend all over. Whiteside is an animal above the rim, and Deng is the ultimate glue guy.

There aren't many weaknesses to be found between those five, and the ones that do exist might be covered up by Miami's bolstered bench.

Need a shot of youthful athleticism? Rookie Justise Winslow, an apparent steal as the No. 10 pick, can provide that. Need more perimeter shooting? A healthy Josh McRoberts (36.5 three-point percentage the past two seasons) and the newly acquired Gerald Green (career 36.8 percent) should scratch that itch.

When the bigs need a breather, a certain six-time All-Star could soon arrive in South Beach to provide instant interior offense off the bench, according to Bleacher Report's Jared Zwerling:

Pretty impressive collection, right?

And it all seems to be coming together at precisely the right time.

As Michael Lee of the Washington Post explained, the Eastern Conference contenders that don't employ LeBron James all have their vulnerabilities:

The Cavaliers are a prohibitive favorite to win the East, which would allow James to make a sixth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals. But the rest of the conference is wide open, with the Atlanta Hawks losing DeMarre Carroll, the Chicago Bulls leaning on a rookie coach from college, the Toronto Raptors re-shuffling their roster and the Washington Wizards watching a veteran leader leave for a warmer locale. The Milwaukee Bucks remain young and relatively inexperienced even after the addition of Greg Monroe.

Scaling the East's ladder hasn't seemed too daunting in recent years, and the challenge could be easier next time around. But Miami's path to a possible showdown with James and Co. on the 2016 conference ladder is littered with its own potential pitfalls.

Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

As promising as this starting five looks, it's still anyone's guess how the group will perform together. The quintet never once shared the floor during the 2014-15 campaign.

No sooner had Dragic arrived from the Phoenix Suns at the trade deadline than the Heat lost Bosh for the year to blood clots on his lung. Injuries ravaged the entire rotation, and Miami never got a good look at what it had. Spoelstra rolled out a franchise-record 31 different starting lineups. Only three five-man units even logged 100-plus minutes together, and none cleared 180 minutes (less than four full games).

Not even an offseason of rest can erase the health concerns around this group.

Three of their starters are on the wrong side of 30 (Wade, Bosh and Deng). Wade is an injury waiting to happen, having missed an average of 19.5 games over the past four seasons. Bosh's next NBA game will be his first since early February. And Deng has a ton of mileage on his 30-year-old body, along with double-digit games missed in three of the last four years.

Looking beyond the medical concerns, does anyone have a clue what to expect from Whiteside? The 26-year-old has 67 games and 32 starts under his belt. He only became a full-time starter in late January. He clearly showed promise (14.2 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks over his final 30 outings), but his track record is nearly nonexistent.

Even Dragic is a bit of an enigma. He's a terror in the open court, but the Heat aren't a running team. They played at the second-slowest pace last season and still had bottom-third speed after his arrival.

It's entirely possible these pieces won't fit as well in practice as they do on paper. While Bosh missed the second half of the campaign, the other likely starters all saw a decent amount of time together.

And the results were far from encouraging: During the 329 minutes that Wade, Dragic, Deng and Whiteside shared the floor, the Heat were outscored by 5.8 points per 100 possessions.

"They look great on paper, but Whiteside is a wild card, and they played some dispiriting basketball last season," wrote Grantland's Zach Lowe. "Bosh's combination of spacing and defense can fill a lot of holes, but I'm more cautious about these guys than a lot of people seem to be."

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

The Heat could have more shuffling to do yet this summer.

Veterans Mario Chalmers and Chris Andersen are reportedly "available for nothing," sources told Lowe, and Miami even has "feelers" out for 2014 first-round pick Shabazz Napier. As Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald observed, there are major financial incentives for dumping Chalmers and Andersen without bringing anything back:

But none of these concerns are necessarily bad for Miami.

Past injury problems don't guarantee future ones. There's enough experience in the starting lineup and on the sidelines to blend everyone's talents together. The Heat, even without Chalmers and Birdman, now have the depth to field a formidable bench and provide insurance against injury. 

This franchise isn't aiming high off blind optimism alone. The hope is simple: really good players producing a really good outcome. 

"The vision is clear: try to battle for the top spot in the NBA," Dragic said, via Joseph Goodman of the Miami Herald. "With this team, I think it's going to be unbelievable. ... Every player on this team is smart, and every player is really locked into one goal, and that's to win a championship."

That sounds ambitious, but definitely not outlandish. Then again, neither does the prospect of another injury-riddled season that's high on frustration and short on results.

No team has a higher split between basement and ceiling than Miami, the biggest wild card of the 2015-16 campaign.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.