Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted July 6 that the Miami Heat's empire that had won two consecutive championships but looked vulnerable against the San Antonio Spurs the previous month was teetering on the edge of collapse.
Around Bosh/Wade, there's uneasiness about James' intent; uncertainty. No one's sure -- yet. Heat aren't done, but empire's teetering.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@WojYahooNBA) July 7, 2014
A few days later, July 11, James satisfied all NBA fans with the exception of one base -- that of the Miami Heat -- when he announced that he was signing with the Cleveland Cavaliers.
That Friday will always remain as one of the most bipolar days to be a Miami Heat fan. Once James' letter written by Lee Jenkins appeared on the Sports Illustrated Web site, many people thought that it was a foregone conclusion that Chris Bosh would sign with the Houston Rockets. But Pat Riley offered the oft-maligned big man a max-level contract, and he accepted. Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts soon emerged as other pieces the Heat would build around over the summer.
While Miami won't operate under the title-or-bust mentality this year, this year offers many intriguing questions. Moreover, the Heat players can't afford to coast through games with the frequency they did during the four-year run, which grew tired -- especially during the underwhelming 2013-14 season. Let's get right to it.
Last Year's Record:
LeBron James, Ray Allen, Shane Battier, Rashard Lewis, James Jones,
Michael Beasley, Greg Oden.
Luol Deng, Josh McRoberts, Danny Granger, Shannon Brown, James Ennis, Shabazz Napier, Shawne Williams.
1. What significant moves were made during the off-season?
Although players like Bosh, Wade, Chris Andersen, Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers all stayed with Miami, the Heat have a largely different team. Just a quick glance at Miami's roster reveals that the Heat have a much younger roster. Of course, Miami's lack of youthful energy may have played into James' decision to sign with a team that spent four years acquiring young assets after his initial departure in 2010. But that's ultimately irrelevant for the Heat now.
Deng and McRoberts stand as the Heat's most significant additions. Deng slots in nicely as Miami's third option offensively behind Bosh and Wade, and his defensive prowess will give Erik Spoelstra someone to bother opposing teams' best perimeter players. If Miami is going to build any semblance of an efficient offense, Deng needs to put together a good year from beyond the arc.
But the McRoberts addition may help compensate for the Heat's loss of 3-point specialists like Allen, Jones and Lewis. Spoelstra may even use lineups featuring Bosh and McRoberts to create an offense that stretches opposing defenses. In those lineups, Miami's shooting guard, Wade, will be the only player who doesn't consistently shoot 3-pointers.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
Without LeBron James and several other supporting members, it's tough to predict how Miami will play this year. But Deng and McRoberts -- as well as Ennis, Brown and Shawne Williams -- show that Riley is looking to build an athletic, energetic team. In Jenkins' excellent profile of Spoelstra last month, the SI writer revealed that Spoelstra hands his players a guidebook called The Heat Code at the start of each season. It includes the maxim: "We want to be: the hardest working, best conditioned, most professional, most unselfish, toughest, nastiest, most disliked, most prepared team in the NBA."
Unlike in previous seasons, when Miami had neither the personnel nor the motivation to strive for those achievements, Miami might do that this year. Wade said that he sees "a different, renewed focus and energy" among Heat players and coaches. Other players have voiced similar sentiments.
Like any other Riley/Spoelstra team, defense will serve as its calling card. Deng and Bosh will serve as the anchors in this regard, using their long arms and quick feet to cover pick-and-rolls and disrupt offenses. Wade cannot afford to lose opposing shooting guards on defense this year. He'll need to recommit himself to the defensive play that earned him All-Defensive Team honors in the past.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Miami's offense may take a while to fully develop. Before the 2010-11 season, Spoelstra spent the entire training camp focused almost exclusively on defense. As a result, Miami's offense at times stagnated and devolved into my-turn, your-turn isolation play from James and Wade. Now, James can no longer bail Miami out of broken offensive plays, and it remains to be seen to what extent Wade can do that. Miami's offense cannot focus on one player as much as it did on years past simply because that supremely talented player is gone.
The Heat also simply have a lot of unknowns in the deck this year. What can Miami expect from its point guard rotation of Mario Chalmers, Norris Cole and Shabazz Napier? All three of those -- but especially Napier, as an unproven rookie -- need to prove themselves beyond what they've shown in the past. Will the Heat exceed expectations? Can the Heat get something, anything out of Granger or Haslem? Miami's biggest weakness may be that it doesn't know what to expect from several players this year.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Birdman: "We're going to be contenders."— Tim Reynolds (@ByTimReynolds) September 26, 2014
While confident, Birdman may not be altogether realistic. The Heat looked dynamic at some points without James in the past. Other times -- most times -- the Heat looked stagnant and lost. Just look at Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals, when James went down with a cramp in a winnable road game.
Realistically, Miami's goal should be to win between 45-50 games and make it to the second round of the playoffs in the East. The Cavaliers' new triumvirate should propel them to the conference's top record, but beyond that the race is wide open. Will Derrick Rose stay healthy for a full season? What can playoff teams like the Wizards do now? Will the Pacers make any noise at all without Paul George?
Miami has questions too, but they should still remain a playoff team provided Wade stays (relatively) healthy. In terms of the long view, Riley has his eye on 2016, when several of the contracts he negotiated this year -- including with players like Wade and Deng -- will expire. But this year stands as a time to prove potential free agent targets that Miami's franchise can withstand the loss of the world's best player and maintain a positive culture.
5. Can Chris Bosh do it all?
Bosh sacrificed far more than James and Wade during the four-year Big Three era. He relegated himself to a safety-valve offensive option, and the Heat rarely ran offensive sets designed for him. He vastly improved his defensive game, shifted over to the center position and emerged as the anchor of the Heat’s aggressive trapping defense. And he also extended his range to the 3-point line to draw big men away from the paint. In a moment of candor, Bosh told Grantland’s Zach Lowe during last year’s playoffs that he doesn’t post up anymore because playing Miami’s style of defense is exhausting.
It remains an open question whether Bosh can become the 20 points per game scorer Miami needs him to be and chase pick-and-rolls at the 3-point line and defend opposing centers while at a weight disadvantage. Spoelstra utilized Bosh and Andersen in the same lineup more frequently last season, and that may be an option again. But with Bosh vaulted from the third option to the first option, one has to wonder whether he can also stand as the defensive anchor.