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Miami Heat Facing Identity Crisis in Post-Big 3 Era

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistNovember 9, 2016

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 30: Head coach Erik Spoelstra of the Miami Heat looks on during the game against the San Antonio Spurs at American Airlines Arena on October 30, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images)
Rob Foldy/Getty Images

MIAMI — The Miami Heat will see a familiar face when former franchise centerpiece Dwyane Wade pays a visit Thursday night.

It will be the first guest appearance at AmericanAirlines Arena for the 14-year veteran, who joined his hometown Chicago Bulls in free agency. The three-time champion returns as Miami's all-time leader in a slew of statistical categories, including games, points, assists and steals.

"There will be a special moment," Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Dwyane means a lot to all of us, including myself, so we know how to compartmentalize."

But Wade is more than an old friend. He's a living reminder of life before his exit, back when the Heat were a destination franchise, the best show on the NBA hardwood and annual contenders. When Miami's roster read like a who's who of hoops royalty—Wade, LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Ray Allen.

Prior, during and after the Big Three era, Miami also saw the likes of Alonzo Mourning, Shaquille O'Neal, Gary Payton, Antoine Walker, Jason Williams, Eddie Jones Luol Deng, Amar'e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson suit up alongside Wade.

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 29: Dwyane Wade #3, LeBron James #6 and Chris Bosh #1 of the Miami Heat holds up their rings during the ceremony before the game against the Chicago Bulls on October 29, 2013 at American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER:
Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

The Big Three Heat had the reliability of sunrise. During their four seasons together, they never won fewer than 65 percent of their games and always represented the Eastern Conference in the championship round. They played at a methodical pace, dominated crunch time with a wealth of closers and routinely held top-10 efficiency ranks at both ends of the floor.

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"Without D Wade and without Chris Bosh, even going back for a couple years with guys like LeBron, when you have those guys on the court, it makes the game so much easier," Derrick Williams told Bleacher Report. "With the players that we did lose...it took a toll. Those were cornerstones for this franchise."

Left unsaid by Williams—or anyone around the Heat—is that without those linchpins, Miami has struggled to construct its next foundation. The post-Big Three Heat are an anonymous ball of clay still waiting to be sculpted.

The next franchise face is to be determined.

Hassan Whiteside is the highest-paid active player, but foul trouble and an overcrowded paint have prevented him from becoming a go-to scorer. Goran Dragic is a former All-NBA selection, but he's spent most of his career in a supporting role. Justise Winslow has voiced ambitions "to be a star and have my own team," but his anemic 31.1 field-goal percentage puts that goal far in the future. 

Miami's offensive challenges used to be scrambling for scraps behind the star-studded top of the pecking order. With this group, it's a mad dash from top to bottom.

"You really don't know from day to day who's going to be the scorer, the facilitator, the player of the game," Whiteside said.

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 30:  Hassan Whiteside #21 and Justise Winslow #20 of the Miami Heat in action during a NBA game against he San Antonio Spurs at American Airlines Arena on October 30, 2016 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges an
Ron Elkman/Sports Imagery/Getty Images

The Heat have tried to positively spin this. Dragic called their depth "the beauty of this group,"a commonly held position in the locker room that defenses can't overload on any individual player.

But to an outside observer, this grades as a net negative.

When Miami is desperate for a basket—whether to snap out of a funk or come through in the clutch—it doesn't know where to turn. Since opening the season with 108 points against the Orlando Magic (and their 29th-ranked defense), the Heat haven't reached triple digits in regulation again.

They sit 28th in both points per game (96.3) and field-goal percentage (41.8). They only have four players shooting above 36 percent—Dragic, two centers (Hassan Whiteside and reserve Willie Reed) and their sixth man (Tyler Johnson). Their sixth-ranked defense is giving them a puncher's chance, but a minus-11.9 fourth-quarter net rating (25th) highlights how little success they've had in delivering a knockout blow.

"We're sticking around with teams and then we go through stretches where they pull away," Winslow said. "We've got to do a better job of keeping it close."

For the most part, Miami has kept it close. Three of its four losses were decided by single digits, and the exception—a 12-point loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder—was a four-point game in the second half.

But close contests become crushing collapses without a good closer. And these Heat haven't found anyone capable of shutting the door.

Darren Abate/Associated Press

It's possible none emerges this season. Spoelstra has said his late-game opportunities won't necessarily "go to one guy," so it's closer-by-committee until further notice. Best-case scenario, someone like Winslow, Johnson or Josh Richardson develops into the dynamic wing scorer who can single-handedly secure victories.

But there's a long, winding road between now and then.

"Those things, you have to go through it," Spoelstra said. "You can plan and you can talk...as much as you do behind the scenes, you have to go through it, and the team will let you know."

His team has already made one message clear—the game has changed. Despite Spoelstra's insistence that "expectations don't change," the Heat won't be graded by the championship-or-bust scale used to assess their previous incarnation.

That team surrounded superstars with overqualified, ring-chasing role players. This team needs its first star to shine bright enough to lead the pack.

"We got a lot to figure out compared to last year, where we had an established core and we knew certain guys' roles," Winslow said. "Everything is pretty much open."

Heat Insider's Notebook

Waiters Needs Whistles

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- NOVEMBER 7:  Dion Waiters #11 of the Miami Heat shoots the ball against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game on November 7, 2016 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and a
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Back at Heat Media Day, Dion Waiters described himself as a "man on a mission." As a former top-five pick on his third team in five seasons, the mission seemed clear: building his identity and establishing a long-term home.

But a more immediate mission has taken a greater hold on him and the Heat: He's been on a nightly quest for foul calls, and his production has underwhelmed without them.

Only once—in Miami's 108-96 win over the Sacramento Kings—he earned more than two foul shots. That game, he fired up seven, hit five and finished with 20 points on 50 percent shooting. He got just two freebies each in his first three games, averaging only 10.3 points on 31.6 percent shooting. He hasn't been to the line his last two times out, torpedoing his numbers to 3.0 points on 17.6 percent shooting.

"I'm being aggressive, and I'm just not getting any calls," Waiters said. "...You've got guys out here going to the line 12, 14 times a game. I guess I've just got to continue to earn respect. I don't know what else to do, because you can't tell me when I'm going to the hole I'm not getting fouled."

Josh Richardson Could Surprise Again

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK- NOVEMBER 7:  Josh Richardson #0 of the Miami Heat drives to the basket against the Oklahoma City Thunder during the game on November 7, 2016 at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledge
Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

Injuries pressed Josh Richardson into the rotation last season, and the second-rounder maximized every ounce of opportunity. He transformed from a bystander to a building block while racing his long 6'6" frame around the defensive end and shooting a league-best 53.3 percent from deep after the All-Star break.

This time around, Richardson was slowed by his own injury. A partial MCL tear sidelined him for two months, costing all of the preseason and Miami's first four regular-season contests. But he's put two games under his belt now and already made an impact. The Heat have allowed just 83.3 points per 100 possessions in his 37 minutes, a mark that would easily pace the NBA.

That's a miniature sample and not at all sustainable, but Miami did defend better with him than without last season. And he's already been a positive floor presence despite not having found his shooting touch yet (3-of-12 overall, 1-of-6 outside).

He looks like a lock for the Heat starting unit once his body is all the way back; His three-and-D arsenal is the best two-way weapon on the wing. And with possessions no longer running through Bosh and Wade, Richardson can further hone the on-ball skills he showcased at summer league where he averaged 16.7 points and 4.7 assists.

"He put in a tremendous amount of work," Spoelstra said. "And I thought he was one of the most improved players in the Orlando Summer League. He's gotten so confident and expanded his versatility to what we wanted."


            

All quotes obtained firsthand. Statistics used courtesy of Basketball Reference.com and NBA.com.

Zach Buckley covers the Miami Heat for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @ZachBuckleyNBA.

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