MIAMI – The Miami Heat returned virtually their entire roster in 2017-18 with a couple of additions during the summer and a big boost from Dwyane Wade in February.
Yet, the Heat won just three more games than the previous season, made the playoffs for the first time in two seasons and were bounced in five games by Philadelphia.
Now, many believe this roster has reached its peak and president Pat Riley and General Manager Andy Elisburg must find a way to get out from a couple of cap-busting contracts like those belonging to Hassan Whiteside and Tyler Johnson along with other moves for the Heat not to become the Dolphins and trapped in middle-of-the-league purgatory each season.
But not the Heat.
Coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday the Heat believe they have enough to improve internally to continue their growth. He cited the progress made since mid-season of 2016-17 in which the Heat have gone 74-49, and the belief this organization has in its ability to improve internally.
“I love this team,” Spoelstra said Friday, the day players met for their exit interviews. “I love the journey this team has been on for the last 20 months. But it’s been well documented since our 11-30 start two years ago that we’ve basically been playing .600 basketball.”
But is it realistic to believe this team, whose record over the last 15 months was boosted by a stunning 30-11 run over a three-month period last season, can contend?
“Do you know who you’re talking to?” Spoelstra said when asked that question. “I haven’t even talked about it with Pat, but I’m sure he’ll say the same thing.
“C’mon, that’s just how we are wired. We see progress, we see growth. Expectations do not scare us. What the opinion on the outside – how rational or irrational you may think we are – we don’t care. We think we have a group that can contend.”
Spoelstra must have known what was coming considering the reaction from the fan base. Even being just six games over .500 and wilting in the second half of all five playoff games – hanging on in Game 2 for its only win – against a team that many believe to be the future of the Eastern Conference, the thinking is the Heat overachieved.
If not for Goran Dragic being added as an injury replacement this season, this roster would not have had one All-Star appearance from its players until Wade arrived.
And it could be argued that without the 36-year-old Wade returning to play 21 regular season games, the record would not have been any better than last season’s 41-41.
The NBA is a star driven league and the Heat just do not have one.
But Miami did get into the postseason and even grabbed the sixth-seed on a wild final night of the regular season in which it went down to the final minutes of its game against Toronto with the possibility of finishing anywhere from sixth to eighth.
“The most important thing for this group was to have this experience and that’s why we wanted it so much to have that last year,” Spoelstra said about the playoffs. “But it was so important for our guys to go through all the experiences we went to to get in, to fight for it, to earn it and then to experience how difficult and challenging it is in the playoffs.”
If nothing else, facing the Sixers should show the Heat how far they have to go. Philadelphia has everything – budding super stars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, a potential high draft pick (likely the Lakers No. 1, which now is 10th overall) and cap space.
The Heat have none of that.
Granted, the Sixers have done nothing yet but get out the first round of the playoffs and for a team that tanked for four years and averaged fewer than 22 wins they should be even further along than they are. And Miami is not going to tell its fan base we are not interested in winning for the next half decade as the Sixers did.
That is not how this franchise operates.
Spoelstra, though, did recognize improvement is needed. And perhaps all he was doing Friday was preparing for the possibility Riley and Elisburg find out these contracts are unmovable and nothing can be done, at least this summer, to improve this team.
Then the Heat have no choice but to put on a good face and forge ahead with the current cast, hoping they can find another upgrade at the trade deadline next season and at least take another step.
“We know that we have to improve and we think we handle internal improvement as well as anybody,” Spoelstra said. “We are very committed to our process and what we do in terms of internal player development, giving players a chance to transform to become somebody different to be able to help the group grow. We believe as much as anything, you grow through continuity. It’s hard to start over. You see teams that get a little sick at sea when it gets a little uncomfortable. Our group doesn’t.
“But we’re also well aware of where we’re trying to get to and (the) improvement we need to get to. Whether that’s all from inside, that’s the only thing I’m focused on right now. We won’t even talk about anything personnel-wise for months. That’s going to be Pat and Andy’s responsibility. It’s not the first time they’ve been able to build a championship contending team. So, we have great confidence and faith in the full holistic plan.”