2016-17 record: 41-41. 9th in the Eastern Conference.
Transactions: It was a heart-breaking end for the Miami Heat last season after a Cinderella run that saw them turn an 11-30 into a 30-11 finish and come up just short of making the NBA playoffs.
It was a run that in my mind solidified Erik Spoelstra as one of the premiere coaches in the NBA as much as the Heat’s two titles did as nobody expected the team to come anywhere near the playoffs after losing Dwyane Wade in free agency, striking out on any big name signings and reeling from the official end of Chris Bosh’s career due to a continual blood clot issue.
Yet Spoelstra got the most out of cast-offs Dion Waiters and James Johnson, along with great seasons from Hassan Whiteside and Goran Dragic to come within a tie-breaker of making the NBA playoffs. If not for a late season injury to Waiters, Miami probably would have made the post-season and Spoelstra would have likely won coach of the year. As it happens he was still nominated and deserved to be recognized for such a great accomplishment.
It’s largely because of the Heat’s team culture which places emphasis on a team first mentality, peak fitness, proper nutrition and a commitment to competing as never before. All of which are hallmarks of team president Pat Riley’s personal philosophy which he passed down to his former assistant, Spoelstra and preaches to every player he recruits to Miami.
Buying into that philosophy accounted for the incredible leap that Dion Waiters was able to make in his fifth NBA season. After falling out of favour in both Cleveland and Oklahoma City, Waiters came to Miami, got into the best shape of his career and found a whole new lease on his NBA life. Although he only appeared in 46 games, he became one of the most clutch players in the entire NBA from January on while the Heat went on their improbable run, he averaged 16 points on a 53% true shooting percentage and a 27.4% usage rate.
Waiters has been back in the gym all summer and looking to silence critics who claim that he can’t sustain last season’s excellent performance. With him fully committed to the Miami mindset and working hard with the necessary chip on his shoulder to really push him to great heights, I think he’ll prove that he’s worth every penny of the four year, $52 million deal that the Heat have rewarded him with after last season.
If there was any doubt about Waiters commitment level, read his excellent Players’ Tribune article – and the best piece of sports writing I have read all year – beautifully titled “The NBA Is Lucky I’m Home Doing Damn Articles” and tell me that isn’t a guy who’s ready to break out and that you’re ready to cheer for. He’s still only 25 and the best is yet to come.
Miami lost out on the Gordon Hayward sweepstakes to the Boston Celtics, but gained a nice consolation prize in former Celtics’ big man Kelly Olynyk as Boston had to renounce his rights to afford Hayward and the Heat were able to get him on a four year, $50 million deal.
Olynyk is poised to make a big break-out with the Heat. He’s already established himself as a excellent stretch 5 in Boston and punctuated that with a 26 point performance in Boston’s game seven win over the Washington Wizards in the second round of the playoffs that saw him score 12 of those points in a three-and-a-half minute stretch in the fourth quarter.
He’s a very modern front-court presence in the age of position-less basketball and can stretch the floor with his range (a career 36.8% three point shooter) and is also a capable and somewhat underrated defender. He particularly shines against pick-and-roll ball handlers and he used that skill to provide the Celtics with arguably the best pick-and-roll defense in the league and will really boost the Heat’s ability in that area especially when sharing the court with Justise Winslow who is exceptional against roll men.
With a minutes increase and a bigger role in Miami, the 26 year old could be poised for a big fifth NBA season. He is a huge asset off the bench but could also see time alongside Hassan Whiteside in some sets which will add size and spacing around the Heat’s big man. Either way he’s going to get a major jump from his career average 20.7 minutes per game and his numbers should resemble or exceed his per 36 minutes line of 15.9 points and 8.4 boards last season.
The Heat were then able to re-sign James Johnson – who like Dion Waiters has finally found an NBA home in Miami – to a 4 year, $60 million deal. Johnson was one of the most consistent players on the team during their horrendous start to the season and his improved play became a focal point of the team’s turnaround. The 30 year old responded very well to Miami’s rigorous strength and conditioning program and was in the best shape of his life last season.
Last year was by far his best season in the NBA as Johnson put up 12.8 points, 4.9 boards and 3.6 assists in 76 games and was seen by many as a pretty big snub when the Sixth Man of the Year nominees were announced.
The challenge for Johnson now is to build on a career-altering monumental season as a key piece of a Heat team that will be looking to break through to the NBA playoffs. Given that Miami was really the first stop on his journeyman tour in a long time where he was given such a big role, I think he can push his performance even further next season.
Udonis Haslem is also returning to the Miami Heat for his 15th NBA season. While the 37 year old doesn’t have much to offer on the court anymore, he’s a vital veteran presence and a key to helping his teammates carry out the intense training program and commitment to a team first mentality that are hallmarks of the organization.
Miami pulled off a big move when they were able to dump Josh McRoberts inflated contract to Dallas as they included a second round pick to sweeten the deal and received second year big man A.J Hammons in return. McRoberts tenure with Miami was completely derailed by injuries to the point that he only appeared in 81 games over three seasons and getting the final year of his deal off the books was key for them to be able to bring back Waiters and Johnson and bring in Olynyk. Hammons will likely spend most of next season in the G-League.
Jordan Mickey, a former Celtics prospect who spent his two seasons with the team on the G-League affiliate Maine Red Claws, was a nice value add by Miami as the 23 year old once factored into Boston’s plans but had to be let go in order to facilitate the Hayward signing. Mickey was brought in on an minimum deal and could be positioned to earn a depth spot in the rotation this season.
The team also extended swingman Josh Richardson who is coming off a huge leap in his second NBA season. Richardson played in 53 games, started 35 and put up 10.3 points, 2.6 assists and 3.2 rebounds. The 24 year old should be a major piece of the Heat’s rotation going forward and offers shooting range and solid ball handling skills offensively and used his 6’10” wingspan to effectively pressure opposing players on the back-end. Richardson could challenge for a starting spot on the wing this season.
2017 NBA Draft: With the 14th pick in the NBA Draft, the Heat drafted Kentucky big man Bam Adebayo.
At 6’10” with a 7’3” reach, the 20 year old is an intriguing prospect that Miami can take their time in developing behind a solid compliment of big men. He’s got a raw and unrefined offensive game at this point and it showed in his rather inconsistent one-and-done year at Kentucky, but he is a force on the offensive glass and is extremely strong down low.
Defensively, he is an active and energetic defender who is able to guard the post really well and also has the speed and agility to switch on screens and stay in front of smaller guards. This versatility will serve him well at the NBA level which values big men who can guard multiple positions.
Adebayo had a great Summer League where he averaged 17.5 points, 8.3 boards and 2.3 blocks per game and stood out as one of the most impressive rookies in the tournament. It’s always prudent not to put a ton of stock in Summer League numbers but the Heat had to really feel good about his energy level, drive and overall performance.
Bam is a solid pick for Miami as they have the depth to bring him along slowly and focus on proper development and expanding his offense game.
Outlook: Miami came within a tie-breaker of making the playoffs last season and brought all the key pieces of that run back to go for it again. In an Eastern Conference where most the teams at the bottom are defined more by what they lost than what they gained, Miami is poised to make a run to the playoffs this season.
I’d expect another great season from point guard Goran Dragic. The Dragon has to be riding high after leading the Slovenian national team to the championship at EuroBasket with an excellent 22.6 point, 5.1 assist and 4.2 rebound performance throughout the tournament which was punctuated by a 35 point break-out in the championship game against Slovenia and saw him named tournament MVP.
I read a comment on social media that summed up Dragic’s EuroBasket “NBA Dragic is a very good player, national team Dragic is a deity.”
Coming off that high plus a very good season last year that saw him average 20.3 points on 47.5% shooting including 40.5% from three point range and adding 5.8 dimes, 3.8 rebounds and 1.2 steals on a career high 27.1% usage rate, Dragic seems poised to equal or better that performance on a Heat team that will be largely the same as last season and hopefully be operating without the injury issues that defined last season.
The Heat saw Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, Dion Waiters and Wayne Ellington to injuries at different points last season with Winslow appearing in only 18 games. Add to that the habitually injured McRoberts and you had a squad that was never really operating at full capacity. The injury bug can’t be as persistent this season.
A healthy Ellington will let it fly from deep. A career 37.7% three point shooter, Ellington was dubbed “The Man With The Golden Arm” by the Miami’s commentary team. In the modern space and pace, game Ellington can perform an important function in opening up the Heat’s offensive attack and letting it fly from deep. Last season he was 19th in the NBA in three point attempts with 6.4 attempts per game. I would expect that number to increase as the journeyman finds more confidence and a bigger role in a team that’s committed to him through the long-term.
21 year old Justise Winslow is entering his third NBA season hopefully recovered from a torn labrum that limited him to just 18 games last year. If he’s back at full strength, he’ll return to his status as one of the best young defenders in the league. Winslow is incredible on pick-and-roll defense and is able to push through screens with ease and is a top level closer on opposing shooters. His footwork, agility and 6’10” wingspan give him all the tools to be a top level defender. His work ethic and ability to disrupt shooters and lock down opposing players one-on-one take it to another level. Having Winslow back will bolster the team’s defense.
But things aren’t so good on the other side of the ball. Winslow’s offensive touch has really fallen off since his star shone brightly at Duke. In his pro career, he’s only a 40% shooter including a pretty poor 25.8% from three point range. The former Blue Devil has been working on his shot mechanics and offensive game throughout the off-season but needs to capture that stroke he showed at the collegiate level.
A potential solution could be to use Winslow as more of a combo forward. At 6’7” he can be used as a stretch 4 and has the defensive ability and tenacity to guard that position. It might help him open up his offensive game as he was used at the 4 most frequently in college and could really form a nice combo with Kelly Olynyk in some sets.
Josh Richardson can be inserted into the starting line-up if Spoelstra chooses to use Winslow as more of a stretch 4 and with a new contract and a healthy campaign can break out huge for Miami. Richardson will give the Heat a nice look on the offensive end with his shooting and ball movement which can really open up the pace and space type offense that the Heat embraced to great success last season.
Tyler Johnson was the fourth highest scorer on the team last season despite coming off the bench all year and remains the offensive anchor of Miami’s second units. The 25 year old swingman remains one of the most underappreciated sixth men in the NBA and with James Johnson likely headed to the starting line-up and Kelly Olynyk’s role being unclear at this point, the fourth year player could really see an even bigger role in second unit production. After a huge jump last season, he’s another player who seems primed for a big year with the Heat.
Hassan Whiteside will likely once again be one of the NBA’s best interior presences after leading the league in rebounds per game last season (14.1) and averaging a career high 17.0 points per game to go along with an impressive 2.1 blocks per game. The Heat’s big man also lead the league in touches in the post with 602 and is an absolute monster down low who demands double teams from opposing defenses. If Whiteside can work on moving the ball out to the perimeter in those situations, it will be hard for him not to receive some all-star consideration in the East next season.
Whiteside and Dragic are still the most important players on the team. If they can continue to perform at the high level they did last season, Olynyk, Johnson, Waiters and Winslow provide a nice and versatile line-up around them that Erik Spoelstra can utilize for a nice modern space and pace attack. In that sense, I’d expect this team to look a lot more like the one in the second half of last season than the one that had an abysmal start.
Health will play a huge role, but I see Waiters and James Johnson picking up where they left off in terms of playing the best basketball of their careers and Kelly Olynyk taking his career to the next level with a bigger role in Miami to put the Heat over the top and into the play-off picture. They came up just short last season, but with a weaker East and all the major players returning and healthy, Miami is poised to be even better this season.
I don’t see a deep play-off run, especially if they end up matched with Cleveland or Boston, but they are a tenacious line-up with enough flexibility to cause problems for a team like Washington or Milwaukee or knock off the perennial playoff underachievers, the Toronto Raptors.
The Heat will be a fun team to watch this season and Dion Waiters won’t have to write another article in the Players’ Tribune come playoff time.
Prediction: 43-39. 7th in the Eastern Conference.