The Heat Season is Searching For a Reason
Commentary // 10 months ago
By: Ethan Skolnick
MIAMI — This is who the Heat were once, and not all that long ago. Their coach, peppered with questions prior to a game like Brett Brown was about the horrible quandary of needing to integrate additional star-level talent. Their players, getting every borderline call, and some phantom ones, because the referees respected them more. One of their stars, after a 35-point, 18-rebound evisceration of an opponent’s frontcourt, being asked afterwards as Joel Embiid was Monday if the game was starting to come too easy, and if he required more of a challenge.
But the Heat are not that team anymore, not even close. They are the other team. The one with the empty seats and the emptier locker room during media availability. That was evident again in a 124-114 home loss to the Philadelphia 76ers, a third-straight loss on this Vice-centric homestand, a fourth time in nine games they’ve given up at least 122 points, a defeat that came with the indignity of coming against the franchise that just stole long-time trade target Jimmy Butler from Minnesota — on a night neither Butler nor the three pieces Philadelphia traded were on the floor.
The roles are reversed from the 2011 playoffs, when it was then-Sixers coach Doug Collins, with a star-less but scrappy squad, who was bemoaning what Erik Spoelstra was Monday about the foul discrepancy, that “a handful of those, they were good, hard defensive possessions with technique, but it just disrupted the rhythm of the game.”
Spoelstra knows why this is, even if he can’t say so. His team won’t get 50-50 calls because his players don’t get to postseason awards shows. These players the organization — to its credit — maximized on the court before foolishly maximizing their salaries.
So here we are, in this season searching for a reason.
It’s a season in which the Heat — like other teams in South Florida — appear hopelessly stuck, and everything seems endlessly pointless. Very few seasons since Pat Riley arrived in 1995 have felt quite this empty. From 1995 through 2000, there was an introduction of competence, a build from scratch around a new, compelling core — and even if there was failure, three times against the Knicks, there was theater that warranted attention.
Then, after Alonzo Mourning got sick, there was a quick lull (anyone remember Kendall Gill and Travis Best and Cedric Ceballos) before the drafting of Caron Butler (2002) and Dwyane Wade (2003), the signing of Lamar Odom (2003), and the formation of something fresh and fun.
Then, Shaq arrived, and so the Heat were suddenly internationally relevant, whether chasing a title or lethargically defending one, before the 2007-08 bottoming out that at least promised a shot at a top prospect. Then, Wade at his best for two seasons, before two more transcendent talents joined for a Big Three. And even 2014-15 (could they recover from the loss of LeBron), 2015-16 (after a solid offseason) and 2016-17 (could they repeat 30-11) had some kind of a hook.
This season has nothing.
“We need a trade,” one Heat official said. “Badly.”
They do, but that’s the rub. There isn’t a great trade out there. Not now. Not yet. Dealing for Butler probably wouldn’t have been, by the way. Not if Miami had to give up two core players. Not when he would have been making $42 million at age 33, after years of toiling for Tom Thibodeau, who broke Joakim Noah and Luol Deng. Not when considering how his attitude has alienated teammates in two organizations.
But it’s understood why fans wanted it. They want something. A trade of some kind (the suggestion here to try to acquire a distressed asset, and sending Wayne Ellington home to Philadelphia, along with Rodney McGruder or Derrick Jones Jr., to try to fix Markelle Fultz might be that kind of move.)
They want hope.
They want direction, even if that direction is down.
And that’s part of the problem here, too. Some fans are calling for a full tank but, even if that were the Heat way — and not doing so at 11-30 two seasons back showed again that it’s not — it may not even be doable. There’s simply too much incompetence elsewhere. How can you outtank Dan Gilbert when he doesn’t have LeBron James? How can you outtank James Dolan when his best player may be shelved for the season? How do you outtank Orlando, unless you play them every night, and turn Nikola Vucevic and Evan Fournier into Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West? How do you outtank Atlanta, which has two players — one a rookie — anyone can name?
So that’s four right there, meaning Miami finishes no worse than 11th, and that’s just the East. Throw in Chicago, which remains a mess, even with some talent. No worse than 10th. And surprising Brooklyn lost its best player, Caris Levert, on Monday for what may be the season — and the Nets finally have their draft pick this season, incentivized to improve its position. So, no worse than ninth, which means fewer lottery balls than six teams.
And yet, no better than sixth, not when Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston, Milwaukee and Indiana have 12 to 14 players more dynamic than anyone on the Heat roster. Don’t believe that? Last names only here: Leonard, Lowry, Butler, Embiid, Simmons, Irving, Tatum (he’ll figure it out), Horford (for all-around play), Hayward (once healthier), Giannis (OK, one first name), Middleton (what the Heat want Josh Richardson to be) and Oladipo. That’s not even including Jaylen Brown or Myles Turner, two players that most scouts would take over their comps on the Heat roster.
So it’s between the sixth and ninth seeds, and the three other teams in that mix (Charlotte, Detroit and Washington) have five players between them who are better than on the Heat roster, at least as long as the Wizards keep their backcourt together, one of which (John Wall) torched Miami the other night, in a way no Heat player can do to anyone else.
This is purgatory personified. This is where the Heat put themselves in the 2016 and 2017 offseasons, with four mistake contracts, and one so-so one (Kelly Olynyk). We know now that those contracts are not as tradeable as they promised, and it’s hard to see any being especially attractive until they’re expiring, which won’t be this season. The result is a mess of a roster, too small in some spots, too big in others, with duplication the rule rather than the exception. This is a 35-to-37-win team on paper, which is where it’s trending, and the only cause for higher projection was Spoelstra’s ability to get the most out of just about any group.
But how do you get the more out of a group you’ve already maximized, that has been hearing you say the same stuff for more than two years? Rodney McGruder is making the jump now from “just a guy” to a “guy who’s good” — the jump that Tyler Johnson, Hassan Whiteside and James Johnson made — but very few players make a jump beyond that. Especially after their bank balances jump. So what carried the Heat to 30-11, their rare connection and chemistry, appears absent now, and it probably isn’t coming back. The Heat chose to put two players who had nothing or little to do with that run, Dwyane Wade and Udonis Haslem, on their media guide. Haslem has played four minutes. Wade was leading the team in usage at age 36, which is a credit to him but speaks to a damning structural problem, before taking paternity leave for a week after the surrogate birth of his daughter.
He’s entitled to that, especially when he’s earning 15 percent of what Tyler Johnson does, but the reality is that it probably doesn’t happen if he, and this team, are in a different place. Wade is featured in Heat commercials saying that “there’s never been a better time to be a Heat fan than now,” but that’s only true for the fans who had model cigarette boats, pastel sports coats and Phil Collins on the CD player as kids. The basketball part? Wade played on one of the most interesting teams in NBA history.
This ain’t that.
He knows it. They all know it. That’s why you’re likely to see more players sit with nagging injuries than they have the past couple of years. That’s why this team will continue to crater though, again, not quite enough to set itself up for a top-10 pick.
Pat Riley, who made the dichotomy of winning and misery his guiding creed, is happy with average? Seriously? Naturally not. But he and the organization are lost in a corn maze now; there’s no clear way out, not until 2020, and even there their timing has been uncharacteristically off; the organization that set itself up perfectly for the shopping spree summers of 2000 and 2010 has somehow positioned itself for the potentially fruitless free-agent class of 2020. This is as frustrating as the Dolphins choosing not to trade up to take a quarterback in 2018, when four went in the first 10 picks, and instead wait for a 2019 NFL Draft when no more than four are expected to go in the first four rounds.
What do the Heat sell now, after Vice Nights? Wade? Sure, when he returns. The last month will be nostalgic, provided he’s still playing at a reasonably high level by then, made more challenging by how much the team has been leaning on him lately. Dion Waiters? Where does he play? He can’t play with Wade. He shouldn’t displace McGruder, the one bright spot — other than Hassan Whiteside’s resurgence — so far. James Johnson? Can he recapture his 2016-17 impact? The odds are, at best, even.
And will any of that get fans excited?
The Heat spent the past quarter-century surpassing the Dolphins, making their Davie-based neighbors so self-conscious that Steve Ross’s annual tradition was making some silly comment about how the Heat wouldn’t matter as much now.
But now, oddly, the Heat — with their experienced, intelligent front office — have become the Dolphins.
The games blend together, sound and fury signifying next to nothing. There was a single flash Monday, a Bam Adebayo explosion above the rim, captured in the photo in this piece. It stuck out because it was a moment where so much seemed possible, that the Heat had someone who could make you watch, make this a season with a reason.
But it didn’t lead to a lead, and currently the best franchise in South Florida sports, the one that always leads the others out of the darkness, is being led nowhere.
Ethan J. Skolnick can be found at @ethanjskolnick and @5ReasonsSports
Photo by Alejandro Villegas of Cinco Razones and ESPN Deportes, can be found @Alejandrovg32