The Miami Heat offseason of 2016 was bleak. After an exceptional playoff run where the Heat took the Raptors to seven games in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals things did not go as planned. In an effort to woo free agent Kevin Durant the Heat isolated and ultimately lost franchise icon, Dwyane Wade.
Other key members of the 2016 playoff run also left including Joe Johnson and Luol Deng. The Heat brass went to work right away to field a competitive team acquiring Dion Waiters, James Johnson, and Wayne Ellington. On paper, this did not look like a competitive team, and truthfully for the first half of the NBA season, they didn’t play like one.
But some players would emerge and become key pieces on a special team that would go on a 30-11 run to end the season. Diego and I take a look back on this unforgettable season and the players that made it great.
What were your thoughts on the first half of this season?
DQ: The first half of the season was frustrating, no doubt. The season was supposed to be a reset, with then second-year players Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson having the room to make mistakes. But a lot of growing pains ensued, including with some inefficient Dion Waiters shooting nights.
Aside from a career night from Winslow against the Los Angeles Lakers just before the holidays — a night that included Shaquille O’Neal’s jersey retirement — the first half of the season looked about as bleak as the 15-win season in 2006-07.
BD: I was concerned. Dwyane Wade had been on the Miami Heat for most of my life and it felt like a piece was missing. To start a season 11-30 after a great postseason run was definitely disheartening. I remember covering a game against the Thunder during Russell Westbrook’s MVP run and I think I described it as what it felt like to get dunked on. I won’t lie, I thought this would be a lottery season. But there were flashes. Goran Dragic looked fantastic out there, Josh Richardson was really developing and James Johnson really started to show flashes and a nice rapport with Tyler Johnson. It’s easy to forget that “The Brothers Johnson” was a real thing and on many t-shirts in the Heat store. However, even with a few bright moments, I didn’t expect what was coming in the second half of the season.
How did you feel about the second half of the season?
BD: It felt surreal. This team was dead in the water and almost out of nowhere they were a real threat. I remember watching the game against Houston on January 17th, and seeing something click. Just like that the Heat would go ahead and string together 13 wins in a row. It was impressive but seemed like a flash in the pan of a forgotten season. Then in March, Miami beat Cleveland twice in a row and playoffs seemed like they could actually be in sight. The hunt for the final seed was exhilarating, especially when Josh Richardson returned. When Brooklyn didn’t start their starters in their final game and sealed Miami’s fate, it stung. Dwyane Wade was in the playoffs, but in a Bulls uniform and one of the hottest teams in the NBA was at home finishing the season 41-41. Still, though to some, it remains a lost and forgotten team, this band of misfits made for an incredibly fun season.
DQ: As it happened, I was excited to follow the Heat turn their season around. The band of castoffs who gelled together in the second half of the season — Waiters, James Johnson, Hassan Whiteside, Wayne Ellington— reminded me of the late-season 2009-10 run. Only this time, Miami didn’t have a peak Wade to steer the ship.
During the Big Three era, the Heat got comfortable and lost several games they shouldn’t have dropped. Throughout the second half of the 2016-17 season, Miami consistently played above their level of talent and beat the best teams in the league because they played together.
What was your favorite part of the season?
DQ: My favorite part of the season was seeing Waiters hit the game-winning 3 over the Golden State Warriors one night, and 48 hours later hitting another clutch 3 over the Brooklyn Nets. At that time, Miami was still 16-30 on the season but had won five straight games. It looked like the start of something special, and it was.
BD: To me, it was the playoff race. Even when Dion Waiters went down, it seemed like Miami had a real chance to slip in. They won four of the last five games and James Johnson, Goran Dragic, and Hassan Whiteside all played at an elite level. The Heat’s slow start ultimately cost them a playoff berth, but that’s not to say that they didn’t fight. The resilience they showed put Heat Culture on full display and it was a pleasure to watch.
Which players surprised you the most?
BD: I’d have to say Goran Dragic. Goran really became Miami’s key offensive cog in that season averaging 20.3 points, 5.8 assists and 3.8 rebounds. Goran was the Heat’s clear leader on the floor every game and he was largely durable starting 73 games. This was a huge leap for Goran after playing a second option to Dwyane Wade his first year and a half in Miami he really filled the scoring void for Miami. Goran would be named an All-Star in 2017-2018, but if not for Miami’s atrocious record prior to the All-Star break I’d argue he should been one in 2016-2017.
DQ: Dragic willed the Heat to so many victories throughout the 30-11 run, forming the “7/11” duo with Waiters that was all too fleeting. James Johnson went from being a journeyman into a dynamic point forward who showed flashes of Lamar Odom’s and LeBron James’ times with the Heat.
I lived in Washington, DC at the time, and I went to an April Miami game at the Wizards that saw Johnson make the go-ahead basket with seconds left to keep the Heat’s playoff chances alive.
Are there players you miss?
DQ: Without a doubt, James Johnson. I was sad at how Johnson’s tenure ended with Miami — his dismissal from training camp in 2019, hardly ever playing before getting traded in February 2020. His first year with the Heat is one of my favorite seasons of any Miami player — a guy who played tough defense, served as the enforcer and motored Miami’s offense.
BD: Like Diego I also miss James Johnson. He always played with a ton of heart and really renewed his career in Miami. His exit from the Heat was upsetting, as I still think he could have contributed in 2019. I’m always hoping for a JJ reunion every deadline, it’s easy to forget that he was considered a captain on these Heat squads and for a long time he bled Heat Culture. I’ll always remember his play down the stretch as the Heat competed for a playoff berth.
Where does this season rank in Heat history?
BD: It’s tough to say where this Heat season ranks as Miami didn’t actually make the playoffs. While they did the season after, it still wasn’t as good as this season in my eyes. I’d say it ranks as the second best of the post Big-3 era behind last season’s Finals run from a pure fun perspective. I really believed this Heat team could beat anybody down the stretch, that’s how I felt in the Bubble Playoffs as well those feelings don’t come along that often, but they do feel great as a fan.
DQ: Because it didn’t end in a playoff berth, it doesn’t rank up there with the 2003-04 season (Wade and Udonis Haslem’s rookie year, with Lamar Odom and Eddie Jones as veterans) or the 2008-09 season (Wade’s MVP-caliber season). But it’s definitely in the top half of Heat seasons, and ahead of the most recent two playoff sweeps — last season and the 2006-07 year.
And as a side note, although the Heat supposedly “missed out on a golden opportunity to tank,” Miami’s trip to the lottery because of a tiebreaker ultimately ended in drafting Bam Adebayo. That counts for something.