Miami Heat: We answer 5 important questions at season’s halfway point

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside sits on the court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016, in Miami. The Spurs defeated the Heat 106-99. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside sits on the court during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the San Antonio Spurs, Sunday, Oct. 30, 2016, in Miami. The Spurs defeated the Heat 106-99. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

At the season’s halfway point, it’s time to take a step back.

A step back from a season that’s not going so well for the Heat. Miami is 11-30 — the second-worst record in the NBA — through the first 41 games of the season.

With 41 more games remaining, we look back at the first half of the season and look forward to what will be an interesting few months for the Heat.

Here are our answers to five important questions …

1. How have injuries hurt the Heat this season?

Anthony: Um … how haven’t injuries hurt the Heat this season? That’s the real question. 14 Heat players (including Chris Bosh) have already combined to miss 169 games due to injuries over the first half of the season. Miami leads the NBA in most games lost to injury. And because of that, we’ll never truly know what this Heat team could be. Justise Winslow’s season-ending shoulder injury is the most painful loss. The 20-year-old played just 18 games in his second NBA season before suffering a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He averaged 10.9 points on 35.4 percent shooting, 5.2 rebounds and 3.7 assists before the injury. With the Heat’s season spiraling toward the draft lottery, developing the young core is one of the biggest goals left this year.  With Winslow considered an important part of that young core, his injury is especially painful.

Tom: This season has been unlike any in recent Heat history. Already, more than two full seasons of games have been lost to injury with three players Bosh, Josh McRoberts and Winslow – likely done for the season. But it’s not the record that is important, not in a season where the Heat are rebuilding and on pace to add at least a top 5 pick in a very strong draft. Where injuries have been felt the most is the ones to those players Miami wanted to see develop this season.  Winslow has played just 18 games. A lot of questions still have to be answered about the second-year forward, specifically on the offensive end. Guard Josh Richardson has missed 14 games (and training camp) with three different injuries. Not a huge amount, but because they have been spaced the second-year guard has been unable to get into a groove. Both players were looking at this as a year to develop and both have set back by injuries.

2. Has Hassan Whiteside proven to be a leading man?

Anthony: Not yet. The Heat’s $98 million center is putting up big numbers, but a lot those numbers are coming in losses. Leading men in the NBA put up big numbers in wins. But Hassan Whiteside’s statistics are impressive. The 7-footer is averaging 17.5 points and a league-leading 14.3 rebounds per game this season. It’s just that those numbers are coming on a losing team at the bottom of the standings.  The Heat hold a 2-3 record in the five games Whiteside has finished with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds over his NBA career. In the 19 games Whiteside has finished with at least 20 points and 15 rebounds, the Heat are 6-13. Still, it’s important to remember this is Whiteside’s first season in this role. And with Whiteside’s current max contract paying him an average of $24.5 million per year over this season and the next three seasons, you could argue that the 27-year-old is a bargain in today’s NBA economic landscape even if he ends up as Miami’s second or third option down the road.

Tom: Whiteside is a terrific talent. He’s a 7-foot rebounding and shot blocking machine who still can evolve offensively. But, Whiteside is not a leading man, not with one very important element to his game lacking: Maturity. Whiteside too often checks out of games. He continues to have lapses where he seems disengaged, distracted by a perceived bad calls. Coach Erik Spoelstra has acknowledged this in his actions and his answers when asked about the center. Spoelstra’s most overt move was benching Whiteside in a game in Cleveland. This is not to say Whiteside cannot be a very important piece to a championship caliber team and an All-Star. Even with these lapses he leads the NBA in rebounding and is sixth in double-doubles. He’s already had three games this season of at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. But if the Heat want to contend for a title they need to surround Whiteside with stars. He needs to be the second or third best player (think Chris Bosh next to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade), not the leading man.

3. Should the Heat trade Goran Dragic?

Anthony: Not unless Miami gets a first-round pick or a star in return. If cap space is the only thing the Heat get for trading away Goran Dragic, I don’t think it’s a wise move.  Dragic is a bargain in today’s NBA. He’s earning the eighth-highest salary in the league among point guards at $15.9 million this season. And he’s worth that money, as he’s been Miami’s most reliable player this season. Dragic is averaging a team-high 19.0 points on 45.4 percent shooting to go with 6.4 assists. Mike Conley ($26.5 million), James Harden ($26.5 million), Russell Westbrook ($26.5 million), Damian Lillard ($24.3 million), Chris Paul ($22.8 million), Derrick Rose ($21.3 million) and Kyrie Irving ($17.6 million) all make more than Dragic. And the Heat have Dragic for the next three seasons under his current contract (the last year is a player option). He’s set to make $17 million next season, $18.1 million in 2018-19 and $19.2 in 2019-20 (player option). Plus, Miami should have plenty of money to spend in free agency this summer even without trading Dragic. The Heat could have about $40 million in cap space if they are able to clear Chris Bosh’s contract off its salary cap, and Dion Waiters and Willie Reed opt out of their contracts as expected with more money likely available in free agency. So why is everybody in a rush to trade Dragic?

Tom: Many would like to see Dragic moved to free up the $17 million he’s scheduled to make next season. But the question is: If not Dragic at the point, then who? Dragic has been the Heat’s best player this season leading the team in scoring and assists. He’s 30, a steady veteran presence and sets an example by playing hard every night. Every contending team is set at the point and no team will trade a lottery pick for Dragic. So, would you rather have the 25th pick or Goran Dragic? The Heat are hoping to add a couple of solid players through free agency and that $17 million would help, but unless it leads to Miami being able to sign an All-Pro, it would be better spent on Dragic. As for the draft, there are several solid point guards, but most them are combo guards that could be paired with Dragic and then perhaps one day replace him at the point. Unless he’s part of a blockbuster deal that results in Miami receiving a star player in return, keeping Dragic and having his leadership on a team that should remain relatively young would be more beneficial.

4. How different will the Heat look next season?

Anthony: Very different. If I had to guess, Whiteside, Winslow, Richardson, Tyler Johnson and Rodney McGruder are the most likely to be back in Heat uniforms next season. After that, who knows. As we mentioned before, Dragic could be traded. Willie Reed and Dion Waiters are expected to opt out of their contracts with more money likely available in free agency. Impending free agent James Johnson could end up being out of Miami’s price range with the type of season he’s having. It’s still uncertain whether the Heat will pick up Wayne Ellington’s $6.3 million team option for next season. Josh McRoberts could be back just because he will almost certainly opt in to his $6 million player option for next season — the final year on his contract with the Heat. And Derrick Williams, Luke Babbitt and Udonis Haslem will be unrestricted free agents this summer. In other words, expect a lot of changes. That’s not surprising when you consider the Heat’s current record.

Tom: That depends on how you define different. Unless the Heat make a blockbuster trade, the core four of Whiteside, Winslow, Richardson and Tyler Johnson will return and the Heat see McGruder as a role player in their future. The Heat have some bench players they believe can be assets, especially James Johnson, but Johnson is having a solid season as as a free agent this summer he may command more money than Miami is willing to spend on him. If Dragic returns that would mean the Heat could  have at least six players return and who knows if Miami tries to bring back someone like Willie Reed as a role player off the bench or Wayne Ellington shows the second half of the season he’s worth bringing back or the ageless Haslem continues in his role as a mentor.  The biggest makeover, though, could be at the top. Miami is looking at adding at least three top of the rotation players, a high draft pick and possibly two in free agency. Either way, look for Miami to add at least two starters – one impact perimeter player and one impact frontcourt player – along with a third player who may or may not become a starter but surely one that is in the rotation.

5. What’s the best way to improve the Heat’s roster in the offseason?

Anthony: This is a tough question. I’ll take the easy way out and say through a combination of the draft and free agency. With the season going the way it’s going, the Heat are going to have a high draft pick. And with a loaded draft class, that’s a good thing. Some of the top prospects to keep an eye on include Kansas’ Josh Jackson, N.C. State’s Dennis Smith, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, Washington’s Markelle Fultz, Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, and Duke’s Jayson Tatum. So getting any of those guys could be the first big step in improving the roster quickly. On top of that, the Heat are expected to have enough cap space to sign a max free agent this summer. Some of the top names expected to be part of the 2017 free agent class include Stephen Curry, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and Gordon Hayward. Although it seems unlikely the Heat would be able to lure Curry or Paul to Miami right now, never count Pat Riley out. With money to spend and a high draft pick, that’s the combination Miami will use to rebuild this thing fast.

Tom: The only sure thing is the Heat are going to have a high draft pick and with one of the best drafts in recent years Miami should have a chance at an impact player and adding any kind of rotation player will improve this roster.  But unless Miami convinces one of the top-end free agents like Curry, Kevin Durant, Griffin or Paul to take $76 million less than they could get from their existing teams, the quickest fix would come through a trade. The Heat’s options here also are limited for two reasons: Miami is not exactly overflowing with players that could fetch a star and not many teams are willing to part with a player that can turn lottery team into a contender. Still, this is Riley we are talking about and if anybody has a track record of pulling off franchise altering deals, it’s the Heat’s president. Remember, this is a man who turned a dormant franchise into a winner by trading for Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway in separate deals three months apart and brought the Heat their first title by dealing for Shaquille O’Neal. Can he do it again? Maybe. Maybe not. But you know he is always in search of that next ‘whale.’

[Coach Erik Spoelstra keeping spirits buoyed as losses mount for Heat]

[Pat Riley is starting to take inventory on who can help the Miami Heat moving forward, we breakdown his options]

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