MIAMI — The Heat’s current 19-man roster has combined to make zero All-Star game appearances. But Miami is still widely expected to end up as one of the Eastern Conference’s eight playoff teams this season.
That may be tough for some to figure out, but the Heat feel those expectations are justified.
“There were only 12 All-Stars in the Eastern Conference last year, correct?,” Heat president Pat Riley said Friday morning in a press conference at AmericanAirlines Arena. “So we feel like we had players last year who had All-Star years, they just weren’t selected. We do have some stars on our team, but they’re not considered that [by others].”
With media day set for Monday and the start of training camp at Florida Atlantic University set for Tuesday, Riley is intrigued by this All-Star-less team that brings back 11 players from last year’s season-ending roster. And so is coach Erik Spoelstra, who made a T-shirt to set the theme for the upcoming season.
“Spo is wearing a T-shirt around with ‘True Competitor’ on it, so he’s letting people know from the beginning what he’s thinking about. I said, ‘Where did you get the T-shirt?’ He said, ‘I had it made.’ I said, ‘Why didn’t you get one for me?’ The competitiveness, I think, will be highlighted in this training camp.”
That competitiveness was born last season, when the Heat bounced back from an 11-30 start to record a 30-11 record over the second half of the season to finish 41-41. Miami became the first team in league history to go from 19 under to finish the season at .500.
“What I’m excited about more than anything, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been this excited, is the competitiveness that we’re going to see in this training camp,” Riley said. “Players, all of them, want to play. They want to start, they want minutes. That can be good and that can be bad. But it’s going to be fun to see it. Perimeters and bigs, it’s going to be fun to see the competitiveness.”
Nine players — including the core of center Hassan Whiteside, forwards James Johnson and Justise Winslow, and guards Goran Dragic, Josh Richardson, Dion Waiters and Tyler Johnson — who played more than 20 minutes per game last season return. And the offseason additions of Kelly Olynyk and first-round pick Bam Adebayo will make Spoelstra’s decisions regarding playing time even tougher.
Most of the preseason predictions have the Heat as the sixth-best team in the East behind the Bucks, Raptors, Wizards, Celtics and Cavaliers. But Riley believes there is an opportunity to compete for one of the top four seeds in the conference.
“I think we’re a very competitive team,” Riley said when asked where he feels the Heat stand in the East. “I do see Cleveland and Boston at the top. There’s some question marks a little bit with the Celtics, not from a talent standpoint, but they lost 10 out of their 14 or 15 players last year that had the best record in the East. And you’re not going to know how that’s going to really play out. Cleveland lost who I thought, next to Steph [Curry], was probably the best point guard, true point guard, both ways in the league in Kyrie [Irving], but got a great one back. But there are questions there.
“So I think everybody sees an opportunity. I know we see an opportunity, because there isn’t a Golden State in our conference, or a San Antonio or maybe a Houston or whoever might be more consistent. There are opportunities for us. And we’re going to take advantage of that.”
As you can tell, there is optimism within the Heat organization. Optimism that — like the playoffs expectations — Miami feels is justified.
“I think we’re way ahead of a rebuilding cycle and I think we’re one step away from being a very good team,” Riley said. “One step away could be the collective effort of an ensemble cast of very gifted players or one step away could be a move that could bring a player here. I do think we have the assets for that but I do think we have the inner strength of a team to take a step forward.”
And the competitiveness.