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That was then, this is now, and a Paradise Lost: The Post-LeBron Years

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Third season after James has produced one of most dramatic turnarounds in NBA history.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Miami Heat Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Starting the 2014-15 season, the Miami Heat, featuring Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh as All-Star headliners, determined to stay relevant despite the shocking departure of its prize jewel, LeBron James. The adventure turned out to be a ride through a minefield of injuries and disappointments. Due to unforeseen health issues, on March 18, 2015 that Heat squad sported a mediocre record of 31-36, or one victory less than this year’s team (32-35).

The only team members to play more than half the schedule that season were Mario Chambers (80), Luol Deng (72), Dwyane Wade (62), James Ennis (62), Udonis Haslem (62), Chris Andersen (60), Shabazz Napier (51), Hassan Whiteside (48), Norris Cole (47), Chris Bosh (44), Shawne Williams (44). Only a single starter remains from that list of just two seasons ago. Seems like so long ago.

Eventually they missed the playoffs with a record of 37-45, but captured the 10th and 40th picks of that year’s lottery in Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson. The return of Wade, Bosh, Whiteside and recently acquired Goran Dragic, along with an infusion of promising rookies raised expectations for the 2015-16 season.

Last season the Heat came out strong with a 22-14 record. Eventually an injury to Bosh dampened expectations, but Miami managed to grab the third seed in the Eastern Conference and get within one game of the Conference Finals. That satisfying accomplishment came to a bittersweet ending during the summer as the Heat lost their last ties to the ‘Big Three’ era, with the departure of Wade and Bosh’s health concerns.

That was then, this is now

Listed initially as a lottery team, the Miami Heat have became a storybook team this season by defying the odds after a horrendous start of 11-30. Josh McRoberts was lost again for the year. An injury to Winslow knocked him out for the season.

Richardson’s partial MCL tear and other issues (10/24/2016 sore knee, 11/7/2016 sore ankle, 12/1/2016 sore wrist, 1/7/2017 sore left foot) has hampered the development in repeating his 53% accuracy from beyond the arc after the All-Star game last season. Since he may not have the lift in his jumper or wrist strength to make 3-point shots (2 of 18 since the All-Star break), a change in tactics may exploit his ability to draw and convert personal fouls (5 points from the free-throw line vs. Pacers).

As an aside, to balance that 7 other players have averages of 39% or better. Perhaps changing his role to a rim-rocker and facilitator could what head coach Erik Spoelstra recently hinted at.

Spoelstra said the greater concern is getting a more aggressive bent from Richardson.

"He does already organize you, where he gets people to the spots," Spoelstra said. "He can run offense. But now the next step is becoming more aggressive in looking for his opportunities to help us by him being an offensive weapon."

Per NBA stats Richardson is last in eFG% for the Heat at 32%, due to a sharp drop-off in catch-and-shoot situations, yet he’s converting at a 50% rate in drives to the basket. Spo wants to see more of what works for Josh. Draft.net had these astute quotes about Richardson while in college.

Was very good working out of the pick and roll.

Read the defense well and often found the open teammate.

Tends to shy away from contact on both ends of the floor.

Has to become a more consistent finisher at the rim.

With only 15 games remaining in the regular season, a “new” and aggressive Richardson could become the difference maker, by reinventing his skill set this season. As John Wooden said about talent years ago,

"I'd rather have a lot of talent and a little experience than a lot of experience and a little talent."

By a lot of experience he meant players who repeat the same skills over and over again, without getting better. Players can create a lot of talent by expanding and realizing their full potential. Spoelstra challenges the Heat players to increase their talent level far beyond what they had as teenagers. That’s what James Johnson and Dion Waiters accomplished this season when they had the opportunity develop their untapped resources under the Heat coaching staff.

This season’s Miami Heat team has been fun to watch, because fans have witnessed a lot of talent blossom before their very eyes. As long as Heat players are not satisfied with staying at their ordinary talent level from last October, Miami might redefine the assumption that basketball talent stops at the limits of physical ability, but can include the ability to mastering a craft at elite levels. Stephen Curry and James Harden proved it can be done.