The Miami Heat are in a freefall, with a record among the worst in the league. With the playoffs impossibly far away, what can Miami do this season to prepare for next year?
Barring a big turnaround in the second half of the season, the Heat are a lottery-bound squad. Where does Miami go from here?
Death came quickly for the Miami Heat.
Less than four seasons ago this team was hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy, the third for the franchise in the last decade and the second consecutive trophy for the league’s latest and best superteam. Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra, and the entire organization were on the top of the basketball world.
Even just 2.5 years ago the Big Three was just finishing their fourth straight Finals run. A pending free agency was poised to add uncertainty, but the pieces to make another Finals run were in place.
Instead LeBron James took his talents away from South Beach, beginning a slide to the bottom that the Heat fought every step of the way. Chris Bosh’s health issues, Dwyane Wade’s aging knees, and the spurning of every marquee free agent doomed the Heat to their current fate: a team that needs to give up the ghost and tank for the bottom of the league standings.
It’s a shocking development for one of the league’s marquee organizations. With unprotected picks owed in the near future, this team needs to pull off a one-year trip to the bottom before leaping back into contention. How can they accomplish this task as every team around them wants to be a contender next season?
Know What You Need
The first step to this plan is acceptance. If the Miami Heat are clinging to the belief that they can recover to make a run to the playoffs, they are hindering their ability to prepare for the future.
Their recent run of ineptitude has pushed them far enough out to make that pipe dream untenable, as they sit nine games out of the eighth seed in the East. The only team in the entire NBA with more losses than their 30 is the Brooklyn Nets. The Philadelphia 76ers have passed them in the standings. When Philly is ahead of you, it’s time to let go.
Miami has seemingly begun that process, acknowledging publicly that they need to rebuild. “We’re dealing with that word that you hate to use – that we have to rebuild. But we will rebuild quick. I’m not going to hang around here for three or four years selling this kind of song to people in Miami. We have great, great fans. They’re frustrated. They’ve been used to something great over the last 10 years and so right now we’re taking a hit. I think we can turn this thing around.”
The Heat have also showed caution with their injured players, including shutting down sophomore forward Justice Winslow for the season. Winslow is a defensive force with sky-high upside if he can put his offensive game together and develop an outside shot. His absence will mean increased minutes for less-qualified players.
But moving forward the Heat can take yet more significant moves to prepare themselves for this offseason. There is no hope of significant success, and therefore maximum flexibility needs to be pursued. A high draft pick paired with significant cap space is now Miami’s best shot at a fast rebuild.
Goodbye to Goran
The Miami Heat need to start by trading point guard Goran Dragic. He has been solid for the team, averaging 19 points and 6.5 assists per game for the season. He has shown chemistry with Hassan Whiteside in the pick and roll, and for the most part has stayed healthy this year after battling recurring minor injuries over the past few years.
Trading Dragic accomplishes three things. First, it maximizes his value ahead of the summer, when top-name point guards will fill both the draft and the free agency ledgers. By trading Dragic now, the Heat place themselves as perhaps the only option to upgrade at point guard for a team looking to improve its standing.
Secondly, it helps the downward trajectory for this season. Tyler Johnson is a swing guard newly re-signed this past offseason, and he has some playmaking ability. But his role is not handling the ball and beginning the play 80 times per game, and he would share ball-handling duties with Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters, and Rodney (MacGruber) McGruder.
There is no true point guard among the bunch, and the Heat’s offense will struggle, and badly, because of it. That means fewer wins for a Miami team already struggling to pull out the win in close games, and they will slip closer towards the bottom and a top-flight draft pick.
Finally, trading Dragic opens up flexibility for the future. After this year, the Slovenian has $54 million remaining on his contract, and at 30 years old he will soon be on the downswing of his prime, if he is not there already. Whatever hopes Miami has for reloading quickly depends on the space his departure will free up, and in the event they fail to reload then they will be on a slower trajectory that Dragic has aged out of.
A move involving Goran Dragic could net picks or young players, but the key will be conserving the cap space. The Heat will almost certainly see Chris Bosh’s contract cleared from their books, and the more space they can free up, the more fiercely they can attack in July. Pat Riley wants to add another championship banner to the American Airlines Arena rafters, and he isn’t patient enough to wait through a rebuild in order to accomplish that.
After Dragic is gone, Miami should do what every tanking team does: play the young guns heavy minutes and rest the veterans early and often. The teams currently underneath them in the standings – Brooklyn and Dallas – are both going to play hard over the course of the season. Miami could conceivably finish the season with the worst record in the league and be guaranteed a top-3 pick.
Tyler Johnson may not be ready to successfully run an offense, but granting him minutes and reps as the lead ball-handler will help him grow as a playmaker and floor-reader, all while contributing to the tanking effort. Can Josh Richardson increase his scoring load? Is Dion Waiters worth a major contract from the team? These questions can be answered over the second half of the season.
Finally, Miami needs to keep what it does have, and that is head coach Erik Spoelstra. No coach in the league has had to deal with such a moving landscape of stars as Spoelstra, as each season the game board has changed on him. He has continued to provide excellent in-game coaching paired with the development of later picks in the draft into rotation players.
If Everything Goes Right
What does a best-case scenario for the Miami Heat look like? It involves savvy by the Miami front office at the trade deadline and in the summer, combined with some ping-pong ball luck.
First the Heat get guard-needy Sacramento on the phone, offering to take the unhappy Rudy Gay off their hands in exchange for a former All-NBA point guard in Goran Dragic. Gay is on an expiring contract, allowing that salary slot to come off of the Heat’s books. Sacramento would get a real asset in return for Gay’s expiring, and they could send a couple of smaller assets – perhaps Skal Labissiere and a pick – that would make it worth Miami’s while and still afford the Heat future cap space.
Miami would also look around for a team to take Josh McRoberts. The former Charlotte fan-favorite forward has value as a stretch-4 who can pass well, and the Heat could add a draft pick in addition to clearing his contract off of next year’s books.
Step two is the tank job, accomplished through the major minutes given to their youngest players. The spacing of Gay and Whiteside should continue to strangle their offense, and coach Spoelstra can ease off the defensive pressure as the season wears down. The worst record in the league is attainable.
With the first pick the Heat select Markelle Fultz, a point guard out of Washington. Fultz is an athletic marvel with size, speed, and strength. He is a dynamic passer and scorer who has the tools to be a difference-maker on defense as well. Miami would be set with their point guard of the future and what should be a surefire star.
Free agency brings the pleasures of South Beach and the pedigree of playing for this Miami organization to the forefront of the discussion. With Dragic and Bosh both off the books, and a few other minor dominoes falling into place, the Heat step forward with enough room for two max-level players.
A failed title run in Oakland leads to strife among its stars, and the league’s latest super team fractures. Durant leaves to join Miami’s winning culture, and he is joined by Paul Millsap. The Heat can then add ring-chasing veterans and/or trade a few young pieces for the more established stars their title quest needs, such as Cleveland did with Andrew Wiggins a few years ago.
Is there any guarantee the Heat can pull off a one-year rebuild? Of course not, and no one inside or outside of South Beach thinks so. But in a season where so few teams are attempting to drop to the bottom, the Heat are provided with the opportunity to get into the top of the lottery, draft a star, and then get out.